Sacre Bleu! Belgian Comics Are Zooming To The Top

Editions Dupuis is set to export its spruced-up classics

The comic-book hero, a bellhop named Spirou, chases a mouse into an absent-minded scientist's laboratory. Zap! The town drunk stumbles along and flicks the wrong electrical switch, thus igniting a chemical reaction that transforms the red-haired Spirou into a black African ready to teach his readers about the dangers of racism. Using such humorous--and didactic--adventures, publisher Editions Dupuis is breathing new life into Belgium's faltering comic-book industry. It's also showing how a French-language media company is able to build an international franchise.

Taking a cue from Walt Disney Co., the 99-year-old publisher is reviving classic cartoon characters such as Spirou through big spending on promotion and merchandising. And it's moving into multimedia and television. The character Spirou dates from 1938, when the legendary Belgian cartoonist Franquin created it for Dupuis's traditional hard-cover comic books. Now, Spirou has gained a new life and has become a fresh money earner, capitalizing on sales of stuffed animals, pins, new comic adventures, and a TV series. As a result, Dupuis is the leader, with a 25% share, in the $400 million market for French-language comics in Europe and Canada. This year, on sales of $61 million, the company expects to earn pretax profits of $5 million.

GROWN-UP TASTES. For Dupuis, it has been a long road back. The company was drowning in red ink when financier Albert Frere bought it from the Dupuis family a decade ago. Frere, who also owns stakes in television stations in Germany and France, hired Jean Deneumostier, a former Mars Inc. marketing manager, to turn the company around. Deneumostier sold off Dupuis's loss-making printing plants and brought in a new generation of comic authors. "We had to refocus on comics," he says.

The new authors spruced up Spirou and had him take a franker approach to sex as well as tackle issues such as drug-running in America and racism at home. In addition, Dupuis created a "Petit Spirou" that would appeal to younger audiences. And it launched police heroes such as Largo Winch and Jessica Blandy, whose stories mix sex and politics, to attract more adult readers. Meanwhile, Deneumostier has improved distribution and marketing to boost sales.

Now, Dupuis sells its wares in hypermarkets and toy stores as well as its traditional bookstore outlets. The company is spending $8.4 million a year on promotion--10 times as much as it was spending a decade ago. A new Spirou Club offers a free gift to subscribers every other month. In addition, it gives them a foretaste of any upcoming adventures. The company also bombards readers with offers from mail-order companies and stores for Spirou key chains, dolls, and other tie-in paraphernalia. In the past decade, the revenues from licensing and direct marketing activities have doubled, to $8.4 million, and are expected to double again in five years.

Dupuis admits that it has made some mistakes--especially in its forays last year into multimedia. "We thought comics would be the perfect vehicle for CD-ROMs," explains Patrick Pinchart, the multimedia development manager. But at a price of $36, the Spirou CD-ROM was costing four times as much as a regular comic book and could not be distributed in the same outlets. As a result, the company has abandoned the production of CD-ROMs and is now moving cautiously on plans to create an Internet site, which costs less--yet could help the company move into foreign markets. "We'll take our time to make sure everything is ready this time," Pinchart says.

EYEING THE U.S. For the future, the company has its hopes set on expanding in television. Its first move into that medium was an $8 million series consisting of 26 animated Spirou cartoons. Released in 1993 on French TV, the series was aired on Wednesdays, when French schools are traditionally closed, and it captured 40% audience ratings. The company now sells a new 25-part series of Spirou shows throughout much of Europe, from Sweden to Britain, and in Canada.

Dupuis is even starting to eye the hard-to-crack American market. "Our cartoons are produced in both French and English, so we should have a chance," says Leon Perahia, Dupuis's audiovisual and development director. His planned strategy is to get American viewers acquainted with Spirou by selling television shows, and to build up a market for comic books at the same time. If his plan works, Spirou the bellhop could soon be making tracks in Mickey Mouse's home turf.