European comics were originally inspired from American comic books but quickly evolved into their own genres, and visual styles such as Belgium's Ligne claire. Today, the main European comic book market is in France, which publishes works by most European creators. Although most European comic books, known as bandes dessinées, are published in French, many are making their way to North America.
Unlike American comics, European comics do not come from the comics trips. Sure, the early European comics were published in magazines, but these were not tabloid nor broadsheet newspapers. They did, however come from the old political cartoon and etched broadsheet illustrations. The press in Europe, unlike its American cousin, had a political tradition. Newspapers and magazines supported an ideology, and often a political party or a political union. Comics included in early European comics were meant to support an ideology as opposed to sell more stuff, like American comic strips. For example, Tintin was published in a Conservative Catholic magazine. His adventures reflect the colonial and paternalistic ideology of the Belgian Catholic Church. Quickly, unlike American comic strips, popular comics were reprinted as collected edition,. The French-language calls a collected edition an album. In the United States, popular comic strips were reprinted as magazines in the form of the comic book.
This tradition of collected edition of a popular serial series into one major volume, owes much to the literary practices of the novel which was a featured of both continental Europe, British and American publishing. From this, we can observe that the European comic quickly borrowed from the literary traditions of books and novels, unlike the American comic strips, whose chief function was to sell advertising and entertain the masses.
Popular centers of publishing quickly evolved in France, the United Kingdom, Belgium the Netherlands, and Germany. But of those centers, France and Belgium’s output quickly surpassed the artistry and sales of other European nations. One must understand also, that in the United Kingdom, as with many other aspect of that nation’s history, the classic publishing model of the European continent was not applied. With the availability of cheap American reprint, much of the United Kingdom’s comic production emulated and recreated the style and format of the American continent, while keeping some of neighbouring European nation’s formats.
The two World Wars shaped the contents of the European comics. More than in the United States, stories in interwar European comics reflected the changing world order and the diminishing influence of European powers in the world. These comics had a sense of romance about the past and an undecided outlook on the future of the world. But the collected format succeed as the main publishing format and soon studios and artistic schools developed around a core of creators employed to sell Spirou and Tintin. Publishers were now more independent from the political newspapers that harboured them a generation ago. Competition between publishers shaped the industry and a need for new product to entertain children. More so than in the United States, European comics were at first a product for children.
Older collected editions were refreshed and creative teams spent lifetimes contributing to one project or two. More than in American comics, the author and the illustrator were recognized early on for their work. It meant, ironically, that the evolution of characters was stuck. Audiences refused Hergé’s attempts to modernize Tintin’s look. Predictability was the course of action. Soon these comic heroes, standardized for mass media and mass consumption, appeared as toys, cartoon characters and more. The European comic publishers were quick to translate their libraries of contents and manage it as a rich intellectual property that could outlast initial creators. But readers could tell when the stories were not the same. Some Astérix are good. Some are not, even with the same cartoonist.
This period of consolidation gave way to smaller publishers who would allow experimentation in their comics. For example, Métal Hurlant (Heavy Metal) allowed artists to create new stories for an audience that had grown with comics. Sex was rampant in these 1968 comics! Draftsmanship became once again one of the major distinguishing factor of European comics. The author had finally arrived.
The current output in European comics stems from this tradition of publishing one or two albums per year. Each adds to a large library of stories reprinted continually for newer generations. While classics like the Smurfs and Lucky Luke anchor sales in bookstores, publishers are allowed to test the water with new classics and new projects. Not having a periodical publishing system with weekly distribution, like the American direct market means that publishers take much more risks and destroy many returned copies of printed books who have endured past their short shelf life. Unlike the North American publishing industry, creators will create less comics per year. Prices and sales must make up for the comfortable craft that hires so many creators.
To sustain this publishing industry, European publishers have adopted mangas from Japan, translated them, and coloured them. The problem with this new output is that it does not allow younger readers to discover comics created by Europeans as easily. I suppose for a kid, that Cédric looks lame compared to Dragon Ball. Yet, sales of European comics probably dwarf those of American publishers.
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