If it seems like European graphic literature is having a moment in the U.S. market right now, it’s not your imagination. Among North American comics publishers releasing a growing number of translations are Comixology Originals, Fantagraphics, First Second, IDW, Insight Comics, Lerner Graphic Universe, Lion Forge, NBM, and Uncivilized Books, as well as U.K. and Canadian houses that market their titles heavily in the U.S., such as Drawn & Quarterly, Nobrow, SelfMadeHero, and Titan.
More U.S. trade book publishers than ever are licensing Franco-Belgian, Italian, Spanish, and Northern European comics—works generally considered to be literary or art comics as well as genre works and nonfiction—and offering new frontlist titles and archival collections in English translations. This boost in foreign licensing is credited to increased efforts by licensors, content owners, and governments in Europe to get work in front of American editors.
Ivanka Hahnenberger, head of VIP Brands—a foreign rights management firm that represents French publishers including Carlsen, Glénat, and several smaller presses—said she has seen interest increase exponentially since she started working in the field in 2011. “Every U.S. publisher wants to do comics now,” she added. “They know it’s silly not to. People wouldn’t answer my emails before. Now everyone wants a meeting.”
As the U.S. comics market transitions to the book format—favoring graphic novels rather than traditional comic books—and a new generation of American fans demands more than superhero comics, the market for diverse graphic works has evolved and grown among readers, academic institutions, and libraries. Hahnenberger said U.S. publishers recognize the depth and variety of graphic work developed in the Franco-Belgian market. That region alone produced more than 5,000 titles in 2018, according to Stéphane Beaujean, artistic director of the Angoulême International Comics Festival, one of the largest comics celebrations in the world.
“It’s very exciting to see how many now are embracing publishing all the wonderful material originating from Europe and that we’re no longer the only ones,” said NBM publisher Terry Nantier. NBM is a pioneering American graphic novel house that has been publishing European graphic novels in translation since the 1970s. “There’s so many good GNs published across the pond, there’s room for everyone," he said.
Formed in 2015, Europe Comics, a consortium of 13 European publishers organized by European foreign rights agent Mediatoon (which also owns major French comics publishers Dargaud and Dupuis) makes foreign-language works available digitally in English translations so that American readers (and editors) can sample the hottest Franco-Belgian comics without waiting for print editions. By Europe Comics’ estimates, the U.S. market for licensed European works has grown at least twofold over the past decade.
“Midsize publishers in the U.S. are really eager [to buy European comics],” said Europe Comics editorial and marketing representative Nazeli Kyuregyan-Baron. “The U.S. market is saturated with genre and superhero material. European comics offer quality, diversity, and a variety of styles and storytelling.”
U.S. publishers have also noticed the sheer size of comics sales—especially sales of book-format graphic novels—in the European market. In some European countries, comics constitute as much as 15% of the total book market, attracting readers across economic, demographic, and educational spectra. In the Franco-Belgian region, the comics market has been estimated to be €510 million annually: smaller than the estimated $1 billion comics publishing business in the U.S., but far higher on a per capita basis. European comics are also becoming a key cultural export.
“Of all French-language books sold overseas, comics were 26% of the total in 2017, second only to children’s books, which of course we know are very popular,” Kyuregyan-Baron said. “Last year, they were 29%, or 4000 titles total—almost the same as children’s books. This year, they may overtake them.”
One reason for the boom is the convergence of interest between U.S. publishers—who are looking for high-quality, ready-made content—and European suppliers, who are investing heavily to make their material more accessible to editors and readers by subsidizing translation and working to simplify licensing deals.
Publisher Gary Groth of indie comics publisher Fantagraphics, which has brought quality contemporary and archival European comics to the U.S. for decades, said that over the past five years, foreign ministries have stepped up to “grease the wheels of commerce,” often holding comics-related events in their embassies. “Fantagraphics and our European counterparts have been devoting more time and resources to announcing new titles and staying in touch with each other about titles that we both think could do well in other countries,” he added.
In addition, foreign governments and trade agencies often subsidize creators’ travels to the U.S. for promotional appearances. “Americans like authors to travel and sign books, but that’s been an issue, especially since some of them don’t speak English,” Hahnenberger said. Now, she emphasized, resources are available to make international connections both ways, with funds being allocated to hire translators as well as to bring U.S. publishers and journalists to visit Europe and see what’s going on firsthand.
Dean Mullaney, who runs the EuroComics imprint of IDW Publishing, said it’s become much easier to access talent and content from Europe. “You can share PDFs with European publishers and preview the entire book,” he added. Mullaney mostly publishes material from Italy and Spain and brands his list as European; he has released Hugo Pratt’s Corto Maltese, a classic Italian adventure series.
On the other hand, Mike Kennedy, publisher of Magnetic Press, which is owned by Polarity and specializes in Eurocomics, downplays the import label and focuses on genre and authors. “If you’re unsure about a foreign title, it might scare you away,” Kennedy said. “With Magnetic, we don’t put that forward.”
New York Review Comics, the graphic novel imprint of New York Review Books, offers a list that mixes contemporary and classic European graphic novels with literary-oriented American comics. NYRC publicist Nicholas During said, “What’s great about French or Euro works is you can find titles that are considered masterpieces in France that haven’t come to the U.S.”
Groth echoed During: “One of our problems—and it’s a good problem to have—is that there is so much good, worthwhile, ambitious, masterful work being done in Europe at this time that there’s literally too much to publish here,” he said.
“There’s an endless amount,” Hahnenberger noted. “There’s something for everyone. I think the American generation that grew up reading manga are open to this material, and librarians are behind it.”
Nevertheless, Kennedy cautions that there are important differences between the European and U.S. comics markets. “In France, they have fixed pricing—retailers can’t undercut each other,” he said. “Here in the U.S., Amazon can discount a book 30% before it’s even on shelves. We’ve become conditioned to devaluing consumer products, including books. It’s a challenging thing for us to sell a $20 or $30 graphic novel.”
Despite that, Kennedy noted, the business factors pushing U.S. and European markets together are compelling. “For newer, smaller publishing companies, it’s cheaper to license than to create something from scratch,” he said. “That helps on the financial side. It’s an easier way to get into the market fast.”
“We’ll know we’ve really broken through when we can get Americans buying French westerns,” Kyuregyan-Baron joked. “Regardless, market trends are heading in the right direction.”
Corrections: Additional information has been added to this story and several misspellings in an earlier version of the story have been corrected.