By Daniel Kalder
The idea of comics for adults exploded in the US in the mid 1980s, via the pioneering work of creators such as Alan Moore, Frank Miller and Art Spiegelman. Their use of the medium to explore adult themes (or in Miller’s case, adolescent themes) seemed revolutionary at the time, and comics like Watchmen, The Dark Knight and Maus are still held in high regard 25 years later. Moore and Miller have seen their work transformed into Hollywood blockbusters; Umberto Eco sang the praises of Maus.
But this change had been brewing for a long time, in part due to a similar cultural shift that had occurred in Europe ten years earlier, when a quartet of Frenchmen — among them the artists Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud and Philippe Druillet — formed Les Humanoides Associes to publish Metal Hurlant, a science fiction comic magazine aimed at mature audiences. Many of the strips in Metal Hurlant were dark and psychedelic, as best exemplified by Moebius’ Arzach, the wordless tale of a pterodactyl-riding warrior whose main interest was peering through windows at naked ladies. In the late 70s much of this material was licensed for republication in National Lampoon’s Heavy Metal magazine, which became a cultural phenomenon. Moebius went on to design for such famous films as Alien, Tron and The Fifth Element; Druillet adapted Flaubert’s Salammbo; while other artists such as Enki Bilal even worked with Duran Duran. Heavy Metal inspired a cult animated film, which is still occasionally broadcast on VH1.
In 1998, after years of licensing properties to different American companies, Humanoids publisher Fabrice Giger opened a branch of the firm in the US. According to Humanoids America’s editor-in-chief Bob Silva, Giger “. . . saw the influence European creators had had on the culture, and especially films like Blade Runner, and the work of Ridley Scott or James Cameron. A lot of their style was coming directly from the Humanoids line. Fabrice was interested in various mediums- comics, animation and live action. His idea was to take the artists directly to US, and explore new opportunities . . .”
Armed with a massive portfolio of properties by some of Europe’s most celebrated writers and artists, Humanoids published its first books in English in 1998. According to Silva it was an exciting time to open shop in the US, as famous creators such as Grant Morrison and Warren Ellis were experimenting with ideas outside the conventions of super heroics which dominated the US market. Sales were also beginning to shift from the standard monthly comic format to graphic novels. Both trends were good for Humanoids, as they did not publish superhero stories and specialized in high quality, hardback graphic albums.
On the other hand, the American comics market had suffered a collapse in the mid 90s. A collector’s bubble, fueled by gimmicky storylines like the “Death of Superman” (he didn’t stay dead long) or sales tricks, such as restarting famous titles like Spider Man at issue 1 and then publishing the same content with five different covers, had briefly seen sales rise into the millions. But a comic with a seven figure print run was never going to be scarce enough to be worth anything and soon the speculators left the market. In the resultant bloodbath, multiple publishers and comic stores folded and all distributors bar one closed down.
According to Silva however the main problem Humanoids faced in cracking the US market revolved around the simple issue of formatting. Humanoids published some titles as traditional size monthly comics, but the goal was to lead buyers to invest in their luxurious graphic novels. “But there were problems — we published in the European format, which is a tall hard cover album with 48 pages. High production values meant that it retailed at, say, $14.95, which was the same as a 150 page softcover US format graphic novel. Retailers praised our books, they said they loved them, they admitted they were really high quality, but they complained that they had nowhere to stock them. They were so tall they literally didn’t fit store shelves. As a result, they ended up at the back of shops where nobody could see them.’
In an effort to strengthen their position in the market, Humanoids entered into partnership with DC comics, the venerable publisher of Superman and Batman. According to Silva, the team-up seemed ideal. “They let Humanoids keep our own internal team, and prepare the books. They handled the marketing and publicity. They seemed to have a clear idea of what they wanted to do. Humanoids’ titles were reformatted in a smaller size, yet still slightly broader than the standard American format, allowing the artwork to shine,” says Silva. “Humanoids were very happy with how the titles looked.” But the collaboration lasted just over a year.
Silva explains: “There was some confusion with DC over how the line should be released. They wanted to publish a lot on a monthly basis, which I think overwhelmed the consumer.” (In a 2008 interview, Fabrice Giger denied that sales were low: “I don’t see the venture with DC as a failure, but rather as a first step in a slow transformation within the US market.”)
When the partnership disintegrated in 2003, Humanoids shut up shop, leaving many series incomplete in the US. Giger returned to France and then spent some time in India. Earlier this year, however, Humanoids established itself in the US for the third time. Initially the firm is only selling its titles through comic shops as, according to Silva, “we want to build up the core audience first.” (There is another advantage: unlike regular bookstores, comic shops do not return unsold items. A book therefore has a longer shelf life and can take time to find its audience). According to Silva, big changes have occurred in the five years Humanoids has been absent from market.
“The transition that was underway in the late 90s has gone farther and now graphic novels often sell better than comic books,” he says. “At Humanoids, our core audience has always focused on graphic novels, but there is still a market for both formats, which appeal to different readerships. Meanwhile we are seeing an expansion of the digital market, and this is another avenue to explore. Currently we have two of our titles, Bouncer: The One Armed Gunslinger and Unfabulous Five: The Greasers from the Black Lagoon online, where anyone can read them for free. We’re using the technology as a showcase, so that people can see how beautiful our books are. Hopefully that way we’ll build a following and readers will buy the books when they’re collected as graphic novels.” The company is also at work on an iPad/iPhone app.
Humanoids’ top sellers include the works of deranged octogenarian film-maker Alejandro Jodorowsky, the man responsible for such trippy, taboo-busting classics as El Topo and the Holy Mountain. Says Silva: “Readers are blown away by Jodorowsky’s creativity and the quality of the artists he works with. A lot of people familiar with his film work seek him out, and when they find his stuff, they want everything he does.” Silva’s future plans include returning to print and/or completing much of Jodorowsky’s work, such as the metaphysical-science fiction epics The Metabarons and The Incal and his erotic-religious-metaphysical collaboration with Moebius, Madwoman of the Sacred Heart.
Silva is also completing publication of the work Humanoids commissioned from popular American creators in the first part of the decade. These include X-Men artist John Cassaday’s Nazi-horror tale I Am Legion. And yet even here, there are hidden complexities. Humanoids USA does not publish its American-created material until it has been published in France first. I Am Legion was a collaboration between Cassaday and French screenwriter Fabien Nury — the scripts were written in French, translated into English, drawn in the US, then published in France, before finally being retranslated and published in the US. According to Silva this kind of patience is necessary when working with French titles: “The production schedules are very different in Europe. Maybe a new 48 page album in a series comes out once every three months, once a year, or even once every couple of years. In the States, readers aren’t willing to wait that long. For example right now, the Mexican artist Ladronn is working with Jodorowsky on Final Incal. The first album is already out in France, and he’s finishing the second. But we won’t publish it until the whole series is done.”
Film options are another exciting possibility for Humanoids. In 2004, Superman producer Pierre Spengler came on board as co-owner of the firm, and optioned the rights to twelve titles, including I Am Legion, which, it was reported Cassaday would direct. A character from the Humanoids title Lucha Libre briefly appeared onscreen with Jessica Alba in Robert Rodriguez’s Machete. According to Silva a script is at this moment being written for another title called Flywires. “However Hollywood is another world,” he says. “And I’m not as involved with that side of operations.”
With an army of cult creators in their stable, a high quality product, and a strong catalogue, will it be third time lucky for Humanoids US? “We’re in it for the long game,” says Silva. “It’s a different market now, not as focused on superheroes, and graphic novels can sell well. That’s a blessing and a curse for us, because whereas in the 90s there was, say, maybe one crime comic in America, now you’re competing against 20, 30, 40 of them. How do you make your work stand out? But it can be done: look at Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead [currently being broadcast in a AMC television adaptation]. That’s been one of the most successful releases in recent years. It’s a no frills zombie comic, without any hint of superheroics. Probably the first issue had a print run of just a few thousand. But now, in the different collections and all its various iterations that first issue has probably sold well over 100 000 copies. The key for the graphic novel is to capture that momentum. You may not sell well initially, but you can over time.’