From Asia to Latin America: Independent Comics Publishers in Frankfurt

In News by Olivia Snaije

On Frankfurt’s International Stage, independent comics publishers from Asia and Latin America talked about their markets and work.

From left are Felicia Low Jimenez, Singapore; Mariela Nagle, Germany; Pablo Guerra, Colombia; Paolo Alessandro Herras, the Philippines; Babel Abreu, Brazil. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Olivia Snaije

By Olivia Snaije | @OliviaSnaije

‘Words and Illustrations’
A well-attended panel about publishing comics in Latin America and Asia brought together independent comics publishers from Colombia, Brazil, the Philippines, and Singapore on Frankfurter Buchmesse ’s International Stage as part of the Frankfurt Invitation Program.

Mariela Nagle, the Buchmesse consultant who runs the international children’s bookstore Mundo Azul in Berlin, moderated the event and began by asking the panelists what makes comics different in the publishing industry and what their experience has been?

Bebel Books founder Bebel Abreu of Brazil said that comics are special because they reach some area of our minds that words alone or images alone do not. “This combination is what makes it work—words and illustrations. You can talk about difficult topics with lightness,” she said, showing a book, Boy Dodói, on “toxic masculinity” as an example.

The project was collective from the start, she said. “We put out an open call [to writers and illustrators for a comic] to understand toxic masculinity, it’s a hot topic in Brazil.” Out of 300 stories, 11 were selected and 11 artists were chosen to illustrate these stories. The initial print run was 7,000 copies. “We were talking about pain but hoping to open a dialogue,” Abreu said.

Paolo Alessandro Herras, co-founding president of the Filipino comics collective Komiket recounted how comics used to be a popular industry in the Philippines, but many illustrators were picked up by American publishers and ended up moving to the United States. In the 1990s and early 2000s, a group of comics illustrators created a nonprofit association to support a Filipino system that would produce affordable comics.

“We had to take the lead, and lead by example, because there are hardly any comics publishers in the Philippines,” Herras said. Because there was no space available in bookshops for comics, “We created a bookstore. To elevate the perception of comics in our country, we wanted to produce quality books. We created a Philippines comics festival. We taught comic books workshops annually.”

He added that they built their bookshop from “zero to 8,000 readers.” Then the international connections became real, he said, when the Filipino National Book Development Board brought their books to the London and Frankfurt book fairs and when they were able to participate in the international comics festival in Angoulême.

“We visualized it and claimed it and it happened,” Herras said.

‘Comics Allow Us To Have a Conversation’

Felicia Low-Jimenez, the co-founding publisher of Difference Engine in Singapore, said comics are art and literature combined, and that much goes into thinking about where the reader’s eye will go on the page. In Singapore, the comics readership is very focused on manga, and parents tend to think of comics in a derogatory way, she said, adding that Difference Engine wants to be an East Asian publisher, giving a platform to voices from all over the region.

An example of an East Asian collaborative anthology was a comic put together during the pandemic called Sound. “What was interesting was that every artist had a different interpretation of what sound can mean—protest, or inner peace, for example,” Low-Jimenez said.

Working with creators who are “on the margins” and including them is important, she said, as is writing about subjects that are taboo, such as issues around pregnancy. The book Work Life Balance: Malevolent Managers and Folkloric Freelancers about the cruelty and mundanity of corporate life had much resonance in Singapore, winning the country’s 2022 Literary Work award from the Singapore Book Publishers Association.

Pablo Guerra of Cohete Cómics in Colombia said that what he finds magical about comics is that each page “is like a journey for the eye. Every reader has a different way of following and making the story a personal experience. Comics allow us to have a conversation.”

One of his company’s key missions, Guerra said, is to get readers to be able to interpret images more critically.

His publishing house is a bridge between communities in Colombia, said Herrero, adding that it grew out of a community of underground creators. The book industry has changed in a positive way, he said, but there is still much to be done in order to support the community. Last month Cohete Cómics held an exhibit with more than 80 comics artists, and a manifesto was created with a declaration stating that comics creators should be able to make a living from what they do. “Traditionally in Colombia illustrators are not considered authors. There is still a lot of prejudice around comics, people think comics are for simple-minded readers or are a simplified way to approach issues.”

Cohete Cómics is working to find “a better place in the industry. Colombia is a very unequal society and comics must do the work of bringing new voices to a new platform.”

One of the Guerra’s “passion projects” also won the 11th International Manga Award. Dos Aldos portrays a futuristic world and describes how humans relate to each other. “It was really exciting that after many years of reading international comics we tapped into an international language,” Guerra said.

Bebel Books’ Abreu said that in Brazil the market is increasing exponentially with 1,500 projects being funded collectively and 150 publishers producing comics. There are major comics festivals held in some of the country’s cities, and she said she’s pleased to report that in an industry that’s traditionally male, the comics sector is becoming increasingly female.

The sense of being in a global community is palpable, said Singapore’s Low-Jimenez, and the Philippines’ Herras said, “It’s the only literary genre that’s considered visual arts. What I love about comics is that it’s an act of creation and manifestation.”

More from Publishing Perspectives on comics is here, more on graphic novels and narratives is here, more on publishing in Asia is here, more on the Latin American markets is here, and more on Frankfurter Buchmesse is here.

Now available here for your free download, our 2023 Publishing Perspectives Frankfurt Book Fair magazine

Our 75th Frankfurt coverage from our Frankfurt Book Fair Magazine, which has been available throughout the trade show in print, is also available for your free download.

The magazine has more interviews with fellows and grant-program recipients from international publishing markets, as well as previews of programming from our Publishing Perspectives Forum at Frankfurt including our Executive Talks with Penguin Random House worldwide CEO Nihar Malaviya and Nanmeebooks’ Kim Chongsatitwana; highlights of key events at the 75th Frankfurter Buchmesse; and coverage of Frankfurt’s upcoming guest of honor programs (Italy, the Philippines, the Czech Republic) and this year’s Guest of Honor Slovenia.

There’s also news of literary agents and agencies; award-winning books from guest of honor markets; focus articles on artificial intelligence, sustainability; and a forthcoming effort to get more Korean literature into world markets; as well as 75th-anniversary “Frankfurt Moments.”

About the Author

Olivia Snaije

Olivia Snaije is a journalist and editor based in Paris who writes about translation, literature, graphic novels, the Middle East, and multiculturalism. She is the author of three books and has contributed to newspapers and magazines including The Guardian, The Global Post, and The New York Times.