In the nearly 30 years since Guy Delcourt started publishing comics, his Paris-based imprint (also named Delcourt) has become a major comic publisher in France, a country with 1/5th the population of the United States’ but more than half the comic sales. The publisher mainly produces works created in its native language (or bande dessinée, as Franco-Belgian comics are commonly referred to), but it’s also expanded its catalog to include American comics like The Walking Dead and Hellboy, as well as Japanese manga like Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure.
Though the publisher previously declined expansion into the English-language market, Delcourt recently inked a deal with digital comics distributor comiXology to bring its works to a brand new audience, starting today. The publisher is currently offering such titles as Iron Squad by Jean-Luc Sala and Ronan Toulhoat, The Curse of the Wendigo by Mathieu Missoffe and Charlie Adlard, Spin Angels by Jean-Luc Sala and Pierre-Mony Chan, Promethee by Christophe Bec, Come Prima by Alfred and Josephine by Pénélope Bagieu in its initial release, with more to come. Guy Delcourt sat down with Paste via Skype to discuss the company’s history and its move into the American market.
This interview features exclusive preview art from Come Prima. Written and illustrated by Alfred with a translation from Studio Charon, Come Prima revolves around two brothers and the tension looming between them as they embark on an extensive road trip after their father’s death.
Paste: Delcourt is coming into the U.S. market with comiXology. Why is now the right time to make that move?
Guy Delcourt: Well, it’s a combination of things. First of all, we have signs that the U.S. market is opening up to more diverse books. We’ve seen that book shops—beyond comic shops—are carrying graphic novels. I have friends like First Second publishing doing really different things, and certainly that corresponds with part of what we are doing. So it’s encouraging to see that outside of the mainstream of comics, the public is responsive to different kinds of books.
Come Prima Cover by Alfred
Second thing: we’re doing it because of the way we work with comiXology. They’ve started with us in France and they’ve always wanted to expand the comics culture worldwide, and they’ve been so helpful in putting this venture together. They’ve been very supportive, and David Steinberger and his team really encourage us.
Paste: Does Delcourt then have plans for print editions of its books? Or is it really just focused on the digital?
Delcourt: We’re starting with digital because it’s more accessible to us. Doing print right away would be very difficult—if only because of distribution problems. Again, with comiXology’s support, it’s relatively easy—relatively, I’m saying—to produce U.S. translations, lettering, to editorialize the books and to make them available. It’s certainly a great shortcut to doing print. And there is a great dynamic for digital comics in the U.S. Now, my hope is that somewhere along the line, some of these books will be in print, depending on the success of the digital forms. We’re doing things upside down. I’m used to doing the opposite: print first and digital second. [laughs] It is, to me, quite refreshing actually.
Paste: Obviously, you wouldn’t be moving into the American market if you didn’t think there was something that Delcourt could benefit from, but what exactly do you think that is?
Delcourt: I think there is a wealth of comics in French that Americans don’t know anything about. Only a small number of French comics have been published in the English language. And I believe that quite a few French comics have what it takes to please the American public. Some of them are in genres that are familiar to the U.S. audience—it’s thrillers, horror, sci-fi, etc., and we have a lot of those. I believe the way they’re done, with detailed and powerful artwork, with strong stories—they should work in the U.S. and they should be appreciated for these qualities.
Come Prima Interior Art by Alfred
Delcourt has graphic novels that are both personal and accessible, such as the first book we’re doing, Come Prima, which is sort of a road movie about two brothers traveling from France to Italy. It has a great sensitivity; the storytelling is beautiful. I think these books should be more widely read than they are now, so I hope for this. And I hope that the English versions of these books will be read by people in film, TV and the games industry, which could open doors for adaptations.
Paste: I agree that that there’s a much broader range of content in France than is available here, and I think that it would be great if French comics had a bigger presence. But in the past, people have tried to translate them and there hasn’t been a big response. Why do you think that is, and what is Delcourt going to do to overcome whatever those barriers might be?
Delcourt: You’re right! I was with Dargaud in the early ‘80s and they tried that. They even opened an office in New York. But they failed—completely. Because I think they were kind of arrogant. They thought, “Hey, French comics are the best, so now we’re coming.” Kind of a Lafayette of comics. And that didn’t work.
Also, French comics in print have met with major difficulty in comic book shops. Our books, because of their format, don’t fit into the racks, so they were always put into some corner—a “foreign corner”—and that’s doomsday. It’s like with films; foreign films you can only see in one or two theaters in New York. So I think there were major difficulties because of the format. Maybe not only because of that, but I think it was a major hindrance. But digital makes us all equal; you don’t notice it as much. What you see is beautiful, appealing artwork, eye-catching stories. I think digital gives us a better chance. We’re not saying we’re going to sell huge numbers. Our business place certainly is not built on that. But I believe it’s more feasible now than it was before because of digital.
Come Prima Interior Art by Alfred
Paste: You want to do well, but you don’t think you’ll be this raging success right off the bat…
Delcourt: No. We have a two-year plan and we know we have to be persistent. David Steinberger warned us about that. He said, “Don’t expect it to catch immediately. You have to stay in the market for two or three years before reaping any success,” which still may not come. But it certainly will not come before that. And I understand that. That’s why we chose long series—series with 20 books in France, which will be 40 issues in the U.S.—hoping to catch readers down the line and making them follow us loyally.
Paste: You mentioned digital making the playing field more equal, and a lot of what manga publishers do now is make an English-language edition available the same day as the Japanese edition is available. Do you have any plans to do anything like that?
Delcourt: We’re not there yet. I hope for it, but we’re not there yet. It’s not possible at this time. But I guess manga is more advanced than us because it’s so successful in the U.S. Our concern now is not yet of facing too much success [laughs], it’s getting a good start.
Paste: Delcourt has been around for about 30 years, but that’s pretty new in terms of publishing. What do you attribute to the incredible growth that Delcourt has seen over that time?
Delcourt: Probably for two reasons. First, I created my company because—I’m sorry it’s very simple—I was a comics fan. So I think I started the company for the right reasons. And also I had business school training, which helped. But I wanted to expand comics. So: publishing a wider range of comics than before.
Come Prima Interior Art by Alfred
When I started, 30 years ago, it was mainly a boys’ club. Humor and adventure, basically. But I love the ability of comics to tell any kind of story. I wanted to go beyond that, to find some female readership, to have non-fiction comics, to cross comics with songs. For instance, we did a comic based on Bob Dylan songs, which was great for me; it was one of the highlights of my career. And growing up I liked all kinds of comics, so I started doing French and U.S. comics, and then I branched out to manga. I didn’t know anything about manga, but I was curious. So I think the curiosity factor was a great drive in expanding our company and in helping comics expand in general.
Paste: You mention translating a lot of U.S. comics into French, and I know that Delcourt is well-known as being the French publisher of titles that are published by Image and Dark Horse. Where did that interest in American comics come from? Were you a fan of the work or did you just see that there was a market for it?
Delcourt: I was a fan. I bought the first issues in the ‘60s of the French editions of the Marvel comics. I was a big fan. At the start, I even did some Marvel books in French, like Elektra: Assassin and then there were Watchmen and V for Vendetta. We lost those licenses because these publishers wanted to have global licenses, but we have an excellent relationship with Skybound and we are their French licensee and we do The Walking Dead.
Paste: Is there any interest in Delcourt producing work specifically for the English market?
Delcourt: Oh, no, it’s still too soon for that. We have to go through the French editions first. But, you know, it’s funny because we are publishing The Curse of the Wendigo, which is a book whose artist is Charlie Adlard. So it’s a European production, published by our subsidiary Soleil, and Charlie, of course, is the artist of The Walking Dead. So we have some connecting dots already.
Paste: And that’s a project that appears originally in French?
Delcourt: Yes. Artists themselves tend to be more international. For instance, we have Josephine by Pénélope Bagieu, who is our foremost female comic book artist, and she lives in New York.
Come Prima Interior Art by Alfred
Paste: So is there one French cartoonist or series that you’re most excited about being able to introduce to English audiences?
Delcourt: Wow. It’s always difficult to pick one in particular… Jesus… [laughs] Let me think… I mentioned Come Prima by Alfred, who won the Best Comic Book award at Angoulême a year ago, and I’m pretty excited about that because it’s a great, sensitive story. It’s not a thriller or superhero story or whatever, but I think it’s very moving and very easy to read. It’s not something that’s…intellectual, shall we say. I’m very curious to see if this kind of story can reach people.
Paste: To switch gears a little bit, I’ve heard that you have a reputation for being a very sociable publisher; you like to engage with people. How important is your public perception?
Delcourt: It is a big deal. Being able to connect with people is something I value very much. Connecting with the comiXology people in Angoulême was—it was having drinks very late, and it was certainly something I like very much. But that’s not the only way to connect with people. For instance, when I started doing manga I felt there was something missing in my ability to talk with Japanese publishers, so I learned Japanese for three years. I’m always trying to find a way to work closely with people. But I guess that’s what a publisher has to do.
I’m very happy to go back to San Diego. I was there in the early ‘80s when it was at the El Cortez hotel, and I made great friends with people like Geof Darrow and Mike Mignola. And I’m glad that these relationships tend to be long-term. It’s very rewarding.
Paste: Do you think that the way you engage people is different from the way other publishers conduct themselves—in France or what you’ve noticed in the United States? I’ve noticed that publishers here are more straightforwardly business-oriented, or at least they don’t have the sort of reputation that you have.
Delcourt: [Laughs] That reputation might be a little overblown. But…the French tend to be more uptight, and I like the way American people behave. They’re more forthcoming. And my 18 months in L.A. probably taught me to be more forthcoming and to try to establish a friendly atmosphere. I think we are probably all in this field because we love it, because it’s a pleasure to be doing this work. Although it is, of course, sometimes a headache.
And, in France, I’m one of the few comic publishers who created his own company and still runs it. So it’s something I enjoy and I try to convey my passion about comics. It’s what I live for.
But I was very interested in learning how to behave with Japanese publishers, for instance. It’s not the same! It’s much more formal. But when you get to know them, they’re very humorous. So there’s always a way to engage.
Come Prima Interior Art by Alfred
Paste: You mention that you’re one of the few people to start their own company and to still be running it—it’s been, like I mentioned, almost 30 years—and like you said, that’s uncommon. What do you think has allowed you to remain in your position? What drives you and motivates you to put up with whatever headaches you might have to deal with?
Delcourt: It’s a privilege to do something you like. So much. I was fortunate to not have any roadblocks. Usually when you start your own company you fail within a few years. Statistically, that’s what happens. But in my case, things went well. So I cannot tell you. We did some things right [laughs]. So… what else can I say?
It’s a personal adventure, and that’s why I enjoy it so much. I enjoy trying to push comics beyond our borders. Frankly, moving into the U.S. market is something I hesitated a long time before doing, because I know a lot of European businesspeople have tried doing business in the U.S. and it’s not as easy as it seems. The U.S. market seems very accessible, but along the line you find that it’s a tougher market than you think. But I feel that the time is right.