European comics have always been a tough sell in the American comic book market. Oh, sure, you’ll see Asterix and Tintin in bookstores—in comic book stores, not nearly as often. But if you're looking for non—art house European comics that aren’t primarily marketed to a younger audience? That’s been a little harder to find. NBM’s been putting these out for years, although you don’t frequently see its books unless you’re in a larger comic shop, and those efforts don’t frequently hit the Diamond Top 100 Graphic Novels charts. If you count British comics as European, your odds are a bit better. Eagle published a lot of 2000AD material in the 1980s, and you can find a reasonable number of their current works in the States. Still, the only place I know you can pick up one of the 2000AD equivalents of Marvel Essentials or DC Showcase (500 pages of reprints) is Isotope in San Francisco. Ever read the best of Hugo Pratt or Enki Bilal? If you haven’t, it may not be your fault. The work of most famous cartoonists in Europe can be hard to track down in America.
In 2004—2005, DC Comics attempted to remedy this problem with two deals. DC partnered with French publisher Les Humanoides, which had been trying its hand at publishing on its own in the U.S. market, and DC also acquired the license for the 2000AD characters. Alas, neither experiment lasted long.
The comics market is in better shape now than it was in 2005, and the Eurocomics are suddenly back. 2000AD has a new U.S. home with Dynamite Entertainment. Les Humanoides has just signed a deal with Devil’s Due. Marvel was the first out the door of this new wave, licensing titles from the French publisher Soliel.
Les Humanoides is a big name in Europe and was the originator of Metal Hurlant, the magazine the came to the United States as Heavy Metal (which is no longer associated with Humanoids, having been acquired by Kevin Eastman). Some of Les Humanoides’ catalogue was reprinted by Marvel’s Epic line in the '80s and '90s, prior to the French company’s direct entry into the American market as Humanoids and the subsequent licensing arrangement with DC. In the U.S., its best known property is probably Metabarons, a science fiction cycle that includes the Incal series drawn by Moebius.
I recently had occasion to speak with Stephen Christy, manager of IP development for Devil’s Due about its plans for publishing Les Humanoides titles in the U.S. and he gave me some insights into their approach.
When Christy originally approached Les Humanoides, he “brought [interest] from a fan’s perspective,” believing that its material wasn’t correctly marketed or presented to the American audience.
“You can’t introduce new creators in a graphic novel format,” Christy explains, citing the higher price point as an additional barrier to entry, especially when you combine unfamiliar creators with unfamiliar characters, as is frequently the case when U.S. readers encounter a European’s series.
“[Giving] the people an artist or writer they recognize in a format they recognize” is the formula that will connect the material with the general audience, Christy says. The books will be serialized in the standard 32-page comic format. Devil’s Due will issue paperback collections after the serialization is complete. Introduction of titles with all-European creators would wait until later in the first or second quarter of 2009.
Devil's Due plans to lead off with material from established American creators. DC started to print I Am Legion by American art favorite John Cassaday, but never finished the series. That will be the lead-off title for Devil’s Due in December, followed by The Zombies That Ate the World with art by Guy Davis in January.
This does bring up some questions of expectations, if you choose to look at things historically. Graphic novels were not as hot a category when Les Humanoides last ventured into the U.S. market, but it isn’t easy finding sales data on the graphic novels it offered then, although a cursory glance at ICv2 suggests sales of around 2,000 copies, outside of the first volume of The Technopriests (a Metabarons spin-off). Metabarons was the bestselling title and initial orders topped out around 1,500 copies. Interestingly enough, DC’s partnership didn’t seem to matter a great deal for the Metabarons numbers. However, Olympus by Geoff Johns/Butch Guice did better, with estimated orders at a little over 3,000. Keep in mind that initial orders don’t tell the whole story with graphic novels, but 1,500 initial orders is midlist at best. Three thousand copies is probably upper midlist, though Johns is a much bigger name these days.
There’s a little more data on Humanoids material in a comic book format. Before the DC license, Humanoids was publishing Metabarons as a regular comic serial. ICv2 estimates place that in roughly the range of 4,000-5,000 copies per issue. Later, Humanoids started a Metal Hurlant anthology, which sold around 2,600 copies per issue and jumped up to the 4,500-5,000 copies per issue range after partnering with DC.
Christy says that while they’re shooting for higher sales than that, 4,000-5,000 copies wouldn’t be a disaster for Devil Due, particularly if a few titles sold better, to even out the line. Christy has reason to be optimistic given the original sales on some of Humanoids books. I Am Legion, the Cassaday book, wasn’t released as a graphic novel, but as a 64-page prestige-format book with a slightly higher than usual $6.95 cover price in 2004. ICv2 estimates the sales for I Am Legion at slightly over 11,000 copies, so the lead-off Humanoides book for Devil’s Due could get similar or better numbers by putting Cassaday in a 32-page, $3.50 format and marketing the dickens out of it. Will that idea hold in practice and will being in the back of the Diamond catalogue dampen the DC numbers? We will see.
On the other hand, Marvel jumped out of the gate surprisingly strongly with its Soleil books. Marvel’s doing a double-sized format for $5.99 and releasing its translations under the Max imprint, which usually means lower sales. However, Sky Doll #1 sold an estimated 15,628 copies after a healthy reorder, according to ICv2 numbers. Sky Doll #2 sold an estimated 11,208 copies and #3 about 11,317 copies. That’s a slight uptick on the third issue, a sign of series popularity that's extremely rare these days, especially considering that Sky Doll was the subject of a Heavy Metal reprint in 2006. Marvel’s blown the Metabarons single-issue numbers out of the water with what was the second translation of Sky Doll. (I’m told Marvel’s translation is infinitely superior to Heavy Metal’s—much like the Dark Horse translations of Lone Wolf and Cub were infinitely superior to the First Comics translations.) The second Soleil title, Universal War One, sold an estimated 15,032 copies of its first issue when you add in the variant cover, more than Sky Doll’s first issue before reorders. With three months of sales figures for Marvel’s European experiment available, it seems to be finding an audience more quickly than previous attempts.
That question of material that has been previously printed in the U.S. does linger a bit over the Devil’s Due offerings. The DC translations were a little better than those from Heavy Metal, so the desire for a fresh translation may not burn as hotly for those titles. Christy is upfront about it and says if you bought the DC edition of I Am Legion and don’t feel like repurchasing the material in it, you can skip the first two issues of the Devil’s Due version. Previously untranslated story starts in issue three, and the graphic novel will follow the series.
What else will Devil’s Due be bringing over from Les Humanoides? That’s still up in the air. Devil’s Due has a two-year contract for 15 titles, Christy said. One goal is to finish reprinting the Metabarons saga, although whether to start from the beginning or start with previously untranslated material is yet to be decided. Past I Am Legion and The Zombies That Ate the World, here are titles that Devil’s Due is considering (active U.S.-market creators in parentheses):
Songes (Terry Dodson)
Olympus (Geoff Johns, Butch Guice)
Final Incal (Jose Ladronn)
Metabarons Omnibus (some Moebius)
Metal (Butch Guice)
Messiah Complex (Alex De Campi)
Sebastian X (Stuart Immonen)
Infinity (Chuck Austen)
Redhand (Kurt Busiek)
Trigs (James Hudnall)
Mandalay (Butch Guice, Mike Perkins)
A notable name not on that list is Chris Claremont, who is working on a series called Rascals for Les Humanoids.
If you look at that list and think, “That’s almost all U.S./European hybrid except for Metabarons,” you’d be noticing Christy’s favorite part of the Les Humanoides catalogue. “I would love to do a Metabarons omnibus,” he says. Given that some of the material has already been reprinted and some of it would be new to the U.S. market, the exact format or installments of any Metabarons work has not been finalized, but that’s a project Christy refers to as “my dream.”
Marvel’s Soleil sales are definitely establishing an upward trend for European “mainstream” comics. DC’s previous experience with Les Humanoides showed that adding a creator currently operating in the U.S. market does help with sales. Christy is touting a philosophy of “quality sells,” and while that didn’t work for DC in 2005, combining Marvel’s current performance in a monthly format with DC’s lessons learned on the positive influence of familiar names gives Devil’s Due a basis for its expectations.
As he waits for the first titles to launch, Christy seems very open to suggestions from fans of the Humanoids material. If there’s a Humanoids property you’d like to see translated, contact Devil’s Due. The slate isn’t locked down and the publisher’s not going to turn away opinions. You could also weigh in on what format you favor for graphic novels. While Devil’s Due is leaning toward standard U.S. dimensions, based on previous sales number for European format, the editors could still change their mind and keep the European dimensions.
Todd Allen is a technology consultant and adjunct professor with Columbia College Chicago's Arts, Entertainment & Media Management department. Allen's book, The Economics of Web Comics, is taught at the college level. His further comics industry commentary is available at Indignant Online. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of PW Comics Week.