Thompson Talks Fantagraphics' All-Ages Eurocomics Line

Judging from the success of "Amulet" and other books in Schoastic's comics line, it seems safe to say that kids' comics are making a resurgence. Likewise, solid sales for European comics creators like Jacques Tardi ("It Was the War of the Trenches") and Lewis Trondheim ("Dungeon," "Little Nothings") suggest that the U.S. market for Eurocomics is finally starting to make some headway.

So why not combine the two? That's the thinking behind Fantagraphics' newest -- and as of now unnamed -- imprint, a collection of specially designed graphic novels featuring both new and "classic" kid-friendly material designed to appeal to both older fans and young readers.

The line debuted in stores last month with the release of "The Littlest Pirate King" by David B. and "Toys in the Basement" by Stephane Blanquet. The publisher plans to release two additional books in the same format next year: "Sybil-Anne vs. Ratticus" by R. Macherot and "Gil Jordan: Murder at High Tide" by Maurice Tillieux.

CBR News spoke with Fantagraphics co-publisher and translator Kim Thompson, responsible for spearheading the line, about the initiative, his hopes for its future and why the company should hold a naming contest.

CBR News: First of all, how did the concept for this all-ages line come to be? Was it something you had been considering for a long time or did it more or less come about spontaneously (or as spontaneous as comics publishing can be)?

Kim Thompson: Both. I'd wanted to do it for a very long time because European kids' comics are among my very favorites and the two books dropped in my lap more or less at the same time -- I had to grab the David B. one before NBM did -- so I figured, why not?

Does the line have an official name? I feel kind of funny having to constantly refer to it as "Fantagraphics' new, all-ages Eurocomics imprint."

I couldn't think up a good name, so I decided not to force it. They're visually recognizable; I figure that's good enough. Maybe I should have a contest.

Can you talk a little about the design and format of these books? How will they stand out from the other books Fantagraphics publishes? How will they tie together visually?

They will be published in the classic skinny (less than 100 pages, usually 48 to 64) 8 1/2" x 11 1/2" European hardcover "album" format, which is not used very often in the U.S. -- not even when reprinting this kind of material. (NBM and First Second tend to shrink the books, for instance, in deference to the American market's perceived dislike of the format.) That alone will make them stand out. [Fantagraphics designer] Jacob Covey came up with a consistent spine look and the "frame" effect on the cover. I think once there are four or five of them the sense of a "collection" will be very strong. And if people buy one and like it, they'll be inclined to be attracted to others with these same distinguishing characteristics. At least that's the plan!

You mentioned needing to grab the rights to "Pirate King" before NBM did. Is that a constant problem with U.S. publishers? Are you, NBM, First Second and other translators frequently battling it out for the rights to various Eurocomics?

Surprisingly, no. For one thing there is so much material out there that it's like the three of us being the only three settlers in Texas wandering around trying to stake claims. For another, our tastes are pretty different. The David B. collision is one of very few we've had. I also wanted to do the Smurfs, but NBM did a great job on it -- they even hired one of our designers [Adam Grano] to design it -- so I'm pleased with that.

The first two books in the series are notable because both are by creators not usually known for creating all-ages material. In fact, it's usually quite the opposite. Did you have any concerns that the material might be too scary for kids?

Well, to be honest, I'm not sure how many kids will actually be reading this. It's hard to get kids interested in comics, and foreign comics are even tougher. I'd welcome kids reading it but I'm assuming 98% of the audience will be grown-ups who dig this particular material. That said, I'm always a little baffled by how sensitive grown-ups are about kids' material. I remember when the great movie "Babe: Pig in the City" was a disastrous flop because all the critics said it was too dark for kids, but if I was a nine-year-old -- sure it would have scared me and made me sad at points -- but I'd have loved it. "Toys in the Basement" is pure kid fun. It's basically a plotline from "Toy Story." I don't know if "The Littlest Pirate King" is any scarier than "Peter Pan," although it does have a bummer of an ending.

Similarly, are you at all concerned that these more modern works might jar with the more "classic" material you'll be coming out with next year?

I think it's all part of enough of a continuum. Even though they're from the same era and even magazine, there's a big difference between "Gil Jordan" and "Sibyl-Anne," arguably as big as between those and the David B. and Blanquet material.

Are you hoping to release more recent all-ages work from European creators or will you be mainly focusing on classic books from here on out?

I'm going to follow my whim. I'd love to release the Joost Swarte kids' comics (we serialized one episode in "Measles" under the title "Hector and Dexter") but they're out of print in Europe and I don't think digital files are available.

Can you talk a little bit about the next few books you have planned for 2011, namely "Gil Jordan" and "Sybil-Anne vs. Ratticus?" What are these books about and why are they significant?

Sure. The two greatest Belgian cartoonists who ever lived are Herge ("Tintin") and [Andre] Franquin ("Spirou" and "Gaston Lagaffe"). As opinions go, those are as close to unassailable fact as you can get. It's on the "well, duh" level of whether Jack Kirby is the greatest super-hero artist ever. I would argue that Tillieux and Macherot are tied at #3.

Tillieux, who worked in a cartoony style that sort of split the difference between Herge's clear-line semi-realism and Franquin's rubbery cartooniness, created several series but his best was "Gil Jordan," a private-eye series that debuted the week I was born. Literally, the day I popped out, that was the issue of "Spirou" magazine on the stands. Among its many qualities are the flawlessly moody drawings, Tillieux's amazing gift for action set pieces -- there's a dockside chase in the book we're doing that's just breathtaking -- and he was the best smart-ass dialogue writer of his generation. It's basically like Howard Hawks does "Tintin."

Macherot is one of the few Belgian funny-animal cartoonists and "Sibyl-Anne" was his last great series. He draws like a dream, his writing is top-notch and even though it looks innocent there's a bracing wit and sometimes snarkiness to it. (The irony is that even though among the "Spirou" magazine artists Macherot's work looks the most childish, it's actually in some ways the most knowingly adult, in the same way that Barks's "Donald Duck" is more adult than any "realistic" comic.)

I actually only got into Macherot a few years ago myself for various reasons, but I've gotten really obsessed with his work -- which is expensive because it's all out of print even in Europe and I've spent hundreds of dollars getting the books.

Why do you think it's been so difficult to introduce U.S. readers to artists like Tilleux and Macherot (and Franquin) in the past?

I think European comics have mostly been successfully sold in terms of their more adult content, which in some ways is more universal. The cartoony work is somehow more... idiosyncratic. In a weird way, except for Tintin, Americans seems to be a little leery of the European cartooning style. And there was always a lot of resistance to the European "album" format, which I think reminded Americans too much of a children's book.

How has that changed now?

It may not have. I'm just obstinate. I do think at this point Fantagraphics has enough of a rep for its European work, for its work in general, that I'm hoping that our name alone will nudge potential readers toward it. I mean, I'm pretty sure the Tardi books are as successful as they are in part because of the Fantagraphics name, and if another publisher had tried it they might not have worked as well.

Are the Blanquet and David B. books representative of a larger movement in Eurocomics these days? In other words, are there other artists from that generation interested in doing all-ages (or kids) comics, and if so, why?

Sure, Lewis Trondheim and Joann Sfar [who recently adapted "The Little Prince"], for instance. Emile Bravo has done superb work in that field with his "Jules" series. I think cartoonists just think it's fun, it links them to their childhood, and they maybe have kids of their own and want to entertain them. I think it's a natural inclination. Look at how Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez ("Measles"), and Peter Bagge ("Yeah!") tried to go for that audience too. Tony Millionaire with the "Billy Hazelnuts" books. And independent cartoonists like Johnny Ryan, Kim Deitch and Sam Henderson didn't just contribute to the late, lamented "Nickelodeon Magazine" because the money was so good, I don't think.

What do you make of the resurgent interest in kids' comics in the U.S. these days? For example we're seeing a number of titles from Scholastic, Toon Books, Boom's stuff and more.

Man, I hope it works. If we don't have kids' comics a generation is going to grow up not primed to read comics at all, and that wouldn't be good.

Can you tell me a little bit about the marketing/promotional aspect of this imprint? Are you treating these books any different than you are the rest of the Fantagraphics catalog, i.e. reaching out to children's librarians, etc.?

Not really at this point, but I'm sure we will.

After the aforementioned Joost Swarte, are there any other books you're planning or hoping to release for this line?

Yeah, but I'd rather keep my mulling on the subject private for now. Obviously if the Macherot and Tillieux books succeed I'd want to crank out more books by them. And it goes without saying that Franquin is on the wishlist.

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