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Conversational Euro-Comics: Bart Beaty On The Death Of L’Asso
posted April 7, 2011

imageBy Bart Beaty

"Someday," a well-known French cartoonist told me in the bar of Angouleme's Hotel Mercure a few years ago, "these guys are going to wake up to the fact that they were in The Beatles. Then they threw it all away to make Ringo Starr's solo albums."

We were speaking, as so many were at that Festival, about the decision made by Lewis Trondheim, Killoffer, and Stanislas to leave L'Association, the author-driven publishing house that they had co-founded 15 years prior. The previous year David B., another co-founder, had departed, and now the whole enterprise seemed on shaky ground.

In the years since, L'Association has had its ups and its downs. Lapin, its flagship anthology, has been relaunched and focuses on a new generation of talents. It has published astoundingly great books by Dominique Goblet, Caroline Sury, Nine Antico, Ruppert & Mulot, Emmanuel Guibert and far too many others to mention. If L'Association has had a falling off in the past few years in terms of quality publications it has been slight, and attributable to the fact that superstar talents like David B., Trondheim and Joann Sfar have ceased publishing there, and to Marjane Satrapi's turn to filmmaking. Judging solely from the quality of the work that they publish, it would be hard to argue that L'Association is in trouble.

The departed founders haven't exactly slipped into a Paul McCartney and Wings period either. David B. has produced excellent work for Futuropolis and other publishers, while Lewis Trondheim, having scaled back the sheer scope of his production, is as important a cartoonist as he ever was. Trondheim has moved the editorial duties he once held at L'Association to Delcourt, where he directs their "Shampooing" line. That has been somewhat hit and miss for me personally, but Guy Delisle's Burma Chronicles, Cyril Pedrosa's Three Shadows and the diary comics of Sfar, Boulet and Trondheim himself are all significant accomplishments. Additionally, Sfar, an important presence at L'Association though never on the editorial team, is responsible for the Bayou collection at Gallimard, whose highlight is certainly Aya of Yopougon by Abouet and Oubrerie, but which has a handful of really strong books. In sum, I think we'd say that everyone has been doing quite well for themselves, pursuing their own interests and muses.

So what's the problem? In a nutshell, L'Association, faced with declining revenues in a post-Persepolis publishing context, decided to lay off several employees this year. This plan was met with a strike of the publisher's salaried employees in January that was a major story through the Angouleme Festival and beyond. The situation is exacerbated by L'Association's unusual status as a non-profit organization, with operating rules and procedures that are difficult for outsiders like me to fully comprehend. One of the outcomes of recent negotiations is that a "General Assembly" of members of the L'Association will be held in Paris on Monday, and new elections will be held for key editorial and administrative positions.

imageThe coming showdown -- and this is very much how it is being presented by multiple players in the dispute(s) -- has ratcheted up the rhetoric around the publisher. In recent days Lewis Trondheim posted on his web site pages from a forthcoming tell-all book about L'Association (to be published by Delcourt). Notably, none of these pages cast a positive light on L'Association co-founder and public face, Jean-Christophe Menu. On Monday, David B., heretofore silent on the challenges facing L'Association, posted a lengthy communique on the web site supporting the striking employees. His open letter, which is extremely critical of Menu, is itself a response to Menu's recent open letters clarifying his position and outlining some of the ground rules of Monday's meeting. The comments following David B.'s letter, from Trondheim, Editions Cornelius publisher Jean-Louis Gauthey, and from David B. himself are suggestive of how highly personalized this dispute has become.

Writing from the outsider's perspective, I have felt through much of this frustratingly unqualified to offer comment. Charges and counter-charges are flying. Some I have heard before. Some I have heard different versions of. Some I have heard the complete opposite of. I'm in a poor position to ascertain the truth of the claims. When facts and figures are marshaled, as they are by both sides, I don't know how to read them in the absence of complete financial data. Frankly, I am not close enough to any of the principals in this dispute to know exactly what to believe, so I sit and watch the ongoing crisis as one watches an inevitable car crash -- through gritted teeth, with the hope that all survive.

Monday may well be an important turning point in the history of French comics. The outcomes that I can imagine are not generally positive. Indeed, I can imagine many scenarios in which L'Association ceases to exist in the future. As a journalist -- and as a scholar who wrote extensively on L'Association in my book Unpopular Culture -- I wish I could be at Monday's meeting, which will likely be decisive in one way or another. As someone who just wants to read great comics, I wish that this situation had never arisen.


Bart Beaty on the Killoffer art re-employed here: "The six-headed hydra is L'Asso's emblem, so Killo has it now with only the Menu head -- and wearing Menu's trademark horizontal striped sweater." The Trondheim art is from the selections from the L'Asso history he recently posted.


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