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French connections: how Canadian comics publishers are seeking out international talents

Beautiful Darkness

Beautiful Darkness

When the 42nd annual Angoulême International Comics Festival took over the namesake hilltop town this past January, attendees included France’s former prime minister Alain Juppé and current minister of culture, Fleur Pellerin. Their presence was a reaction to the Charlie Hebdo massacre, which happened in Paris only weeks earlier. But politicians are not an unusual sight at the comics fair, which is larger and more deeply entrenched in the culture than any similar event in North America. During the four-day fair – the second largest in Europe, after Italy’s Lucca Comics & Games – Angoulême vendors bulged from three enormous tents, with several dozen parallel exhibits displaying comics of every variety throughout the town.

Enticed by a country where comics comprise mass culture, Canadian publishers translate more bandes dessinées and sell foreign rights to their own books more than ever before. Angoulême runs a program to connect North American publishers with European houses; Arsenal Pulp Press attended the fair for the first time this year.

The Vancouver publisher had already experienced major success with its translations. At the 2012 Frankfurt Book Fair, Arsenal Pulp acquired world English-language rights to Julie Maroh’s Blue Is the Warmest Color. The graphic novel, about a tumultuous lesbian relationship, became a media sensation after the film adaptation won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. According to publisher Brian Lam, the agent for Maroh’s French publisher, Glénat, initially got in touch because of Arsenal Pulp’s lengthy LGBT backlist.

This fall, Arsenal Pulp is expanding its graphica list to three foreign titles, including Reinhard Kleist’s Castro (Germany) and Beldan Sezen’s coming-out story Snapshots of a Girl (Italy). Lam says that funding programs in originating countries – such as the office of the Consulat général de France à Toronto, which has supported many Arsenal Pulp transations – often help defray production costs, which can be high for graphic novels.

Montreal’s Drawn & Quarterly attends Angoulême in hopes of finding foreign talent. Out of D&Q’s central triumvirate – founder Chris Oliveros, associate publisher Peggy Burns, and creative director Tom Devlin – only Oliveros speaks French fluently, so they often begin to consider an English translation based on the art alone.

Devlin discovered Beautiful Darkness by Kerascoët and Fabien Vehlmann at Angoulême on the recommendation of a German publisher. “I liked how it looked and I asked around about it,” he says. “Sometimes we’ll commission someone to write a synopsis and a review or do a brief translation so we can get a feel.”