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Why Do Americans Shun European Comics?

Tin Tin is one of relatively few BD widely known, but not necessarily read, in the United States.

Tintin is one of relatively few BD widely known, but not necessarily read, in the United States.

Japanese manga has proven popular in America, but Franco-Belgian bande dessinée, which has a long a tradition and are just as appealing, remain ignored. Why?

By Samuel Sattin

American comic books, and American entertainment in general, can be looked at as historically insular, a byproduct, perhaps, of policies relating to the cultural isolation that took place in this country after the Second World War as it strived to retighten ‘loose morals’ and send Rosie the Riveter back to the coffee maker. While cross-pollination in cartooning in particular was already proliferating between Japan and Europe over the 20th century, the United States, while occasionally borrowing inspiration from elsewhere, did so only passively, preferring instead to keep its own creative industry sequestered from foreign intervention.

Only recently has our culture been exposed to comic books and animation from the East on a noticeable scale. At the beginning of this exchange, back in the late 70’s and early 80’s, an imperative redressing appeared to take place upon acceptable items in order to render them appealing to an American audience. But now, authentic Japanese products in particular have been introduced on their own, without tampering, into our comic book hubs, book stores, and online markets. When it comes to manga and anime in particular the United States has turned a corner in its willingness to embrace foreign influences and, if not emulate them directly, incorporate them into our national aesthetics, much in the same way they have done with us—Disney, for instance, had an earthquake-like impact on the development of Japanese comic books.

Though manga may be becoming more ubiquitous in the United States, however, European comics, originating for the most part from the Franco-Belgian BD — bande dessinée (translation: drawn strips) — tradition, still remain fairly ignored. Franco-Belgian comics culture is considered to be one of the world’s largest and most vibrant. Tintin, for example, originates from that tradition, along with the Smurfs, Heavy Metal, and—even though it’s a well-kept secret—Star Wars.

It’s hard to pinpoint why the American industry shuns its European cousins so thoroughly. It could be because of the fact that American comics are, like American cultural sensibilities in general, still fairly put off by the ostensibly intellectual (read: pretentious) styling of European culture, preferring instead a neoteric, if sometimes impractical, New World mindset.

American comic books still remain stubbornly uniform, anyway, a strict 6.625 x 10.25 inches in dimension, differing immensely from European comics, which run the gamut in terms of size and design.

This funny book barrier could also be a long lasting effect of the now-dead Comics Code Authority, and the lasting effect 1950’s censorship had on American comics. But then again, Japanese manga might simply appeal more to an American creative palate because they, too, share that desire for uniformity in manufacturing structure, producing, for the most part, single sized books. Also, it’s worth acknowledging that Manga is simply more genre-centered in its approach. American comic books have always leaned towards science fiction, horror, romance and fantasy in the mainstream. Japanese manga, while more willing to push the envelope en masse than American comics when it comes to depictions of adult themes, is still widely comprised of speculative hero narratives.

Though this country still continues to export, as opposed to export, creativity, it’s safe to say that whatever we do take in only enriches the structure. Why European comics have yet to meld with its American cousins is subject to speculation, but hopefully with time the barrier will break down.

Agree? Disagree? Let us know what you think in the comments.

Samuel Sattin is the author of “League of Somebodies,” a debut novel about one family’s efforts to create the world’s first superhero. (Spoiler: It doesn’t go so well.) Imagine The Doom Patrol cross-pollinated with Philip Roth and then remixed by Mel Brooks. The novel is currently available in paperback from Dark Coast Press; Audible released the audiobook performed by John Keating earlier this month. Sattin is 31 years-old and lives in Oakland with his wife. His work has appeared in Salon, io9, Kotaku, The Good Men Project and he’s currently a contributing editor at The Weeklings, and lives in Oakland, California, with his wife, beagle, and tuxedo cat. 

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5 Comments

  1. LewisM
    Posted December 19, 2013 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

    The better question is “Why are American editions of European comics so damn expensive?” The classic L’INCAL NOIRE is 14.50 Euros in France, but in the United States, the English translation BLACK INCAL is $80. Even if they’re in different bindings, the French publishers clearly have no interest in creating a broad English-reading audience.

    There have been “intellectual” American comic books since Will Eisner invented the graphic novel. North American publishers like Fantagraphics and Archaia have never limited their size format. The responsibility for a lack of European comics in America is clearly not an American responsibility.

  2. Posted December 21, 2013 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    A great idea for a discussion, but I think the economics involved need a more in-depth exploration.

    Taking a card from the hand of LewisM, the Japanese and now the Koreans, on both an individual business and governmental level, have heavily subsidized the translation and export of manga/manwha to the US and Europe. Starting in the 1990s in Japan, companies and the government fueled the idea of a “cool Japan” in the American consciousness, selling us manga, Pokeman, Gundam, and so on. In fact, selling this “cool Japan” culture was a major economic initiative for the Japanese government in the 1990s and now the South Korean government is angling for dominance in “cool Asia” branding.

    The French and other European governments, however, have not subsidized the export and advertising of their comic books the United States. We don’t see TinTin cartoons every morning on a major broadcast channel at right about the time when kids are eating breakfast before school. Thus, it falls on the French publishers to commit the resources to sell to the Americans. And, we all know how publishers are doing right now.

    So, I don’t know that I would go so far as to say that European publishers have no interest in creating a broader American reading audience. I simply think that they don’t have the resources to break into the American marketplace in a big way. They have probably weighed the pros and the cons and decided that the monetary potential of taking over the American market is not worth the risk involved in this uncertain time in publishing.

    In sum, I think it boils down to economics and the business end of the FrancoBelgian comics industry. They don’t think the American audience is worth courting financially, so they just publish expensive editions for collectors.

  3. Pepe
    Posted April 4, 2014 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

    It´s only because americans unknown our comics…

    There are many comics in Europe than Tin Tin or Asterix.

    In Marvel or D.C. comics today are a lot of ilustrators from Spain, Italy, France, Germany, England. And they are great artist!, sometimes better than americans.

    PAOLO SERPIERI, LOPEZ ESPI, CRISSE DIDIER, ESTEBAN MAROTO, JUAN EZQUERRA…

  4. jason caraballo
    Posted May 21, 2014 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    why are they not embraced here is very simple. We look at that style as good for childrens illustration. But when it come to a seriouse comic book or anyhting in that genre you will have to do more artistically then just making a circle for a head and adding 2 dots for eyes. Its as if the european artist dont care about their work and our love for comics is more for the art and then the story line. We want awsome graphics in composition and character creation. That euro style is what is classified as the cacaillou look. And their seems to be no effort in perspective nor composition. But i love the european comic style that you speak of. I do not take it serious as a comic but i do put it under doodle art. God bless peace.

    • jason caraballo
      Posted May 21, 2014 at 10:08 am | Permalink

      We do embrace every artist as long as they are good . Its about quality not where you are from. Just that style is not loved here like that. But there are lots of european artist we love cause theyare good. :)

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