Serious Times For The Funnies

Magali Dion is taking her students from the strict Catholic high school Institut Notre-Dame in southern Belgium on an art tour of Brussels. In the morning they visit the Musee d'Art Ancien, where they gaze at priceless canvasses by Breughel and Rubens and the work of Expressionist James Ensor. After lunch, Dion leads the kids to another big artistic center, the Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinee. Zounds! That translates into the Belgian Comic Book Museum. "This is also real art," insists Dion.

Indeed, here in Belgium, French-language comic books, which bring in some $400 million annually from around the world, are no Mickey Mouse affair. An American, Richard Outcault, is credited with creating the comics in 1896 with the Yellow Kid strip for William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal. But it was the Belgians who turned the funny papers into an art form. Their works--some for kids, some for adults--are published not in the back pages of newspapers but in hardcover books selling for up to $10.

The Comic Book Museum is a tribute to more than 600 Belgian artists who have given enthusiastic readers characters from Lucky Luke, an intrepid cowboy, to the wildly popular Tintin, a plucky boy reporter whose adventures have sold 280 million books in 58 languages. These popular characters have turned Belgium into Europe's leading comic-strip producer, and the center is one of the most popular museums in Belgium, attracting 250,000 visitors a year.

But--whump! Belgian funnies have fallen on hard times in recent years. Classic characters grew stale, along with family management at the country's two largest comics publishing houses, Editions Casterman and Editions Dupuis, which control nearly half the market. In November, Casterman was sold to Paris-based Flammarion for $20 million. Belgians were outraged at the foreign intervention. "The French buy Tintin," one headline in Brussels roared. "Belgians don't want it to be dominated by foreigners," says Patrick Pinchart, multimedia director of Dupuis, the country's largest comic-book publisher.

But there's no question that Casterman, which publishes Tintin, needs help. Brussels artist George Remi, who signed his work "Herge," created the strip in 1929. He died in 1983, and like Peanuts' Charles Schulz, who died on Feb. 13, he stipulated that no new strips be created after his death. "When Tintin goes to New York, you see the skyline from decades ago," says Laurent Duvault, a comic-book editor at Editions Dupuis. Even worse than that, Tintin is locked in a time warp, still fighting against communist terror in the Soviet Union, while French comic heroes have graduated to more contemporary themes featuring graphic sex and sharply developed political plots. Sales of French-language Tintin albums have dropped a third since 1990.

Casterman lost $1.25 million in 1998 and 1999. Publicly owned Flammarion promises to fund a marketing strategy begun by Casterman General Manager Jacques Simon, hired in 1998, to ready the company for a sale. He can't update the strips, so he's repackaging them. Last year, Casterman published a special edition of Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, which had been out of print for 40 years, and sold 512,000 copies, 10 times the typical annual sales of a Tintin title. There's a glossy 23-book collector's edition at $130. And original Tintin drawings sell for up to $225,000. "We want to appeal to the very real group of Tintinologues and raise the product's profile," Simon says. With such successes, he hopes to break even this year.

Casterman's comeback follows the success of Brussels financier Albert Frere, who purchased Dupuis a decade ago. Dupuis produces Spirou, about an adventurous bellhop. It had been losing $1 million a year, mostly because it failed to produce new strips and was saddled with a money-losing printing plant. "People thought Frere bought us just for emotional reasons," says Jean Deneumostier, general manager of Dupuis. "But he wanted to turn this into a serious business." And he has. Under Frere, Dupuis sold the plant and found an outside printer. More important, it turned Spirou into a genuine modern-day hero who tackles such topical subjects as racism and drug-running.

BEATING DISNEY. Dupuis has launched more adult heroes, too, including Largo Winch, a sexy private eye. And the comics are now sold in supermarkets and toy stores as well as traditional bookstores. Dupuis merchandises its characters, and it has turned Spirou into a TV star. During the 1990s, a series of 26 television episodes that cost just $8 million to make turned out to be a megahit. In France, the series earned a 40% audience share--easily topping The Disney Show's 30% French share. Since 1988, Dupuis has almost doubled revenues--to $57 million last year, with a net income of $2.2 million.

Dupuis expects earnings to go higher if Spirou conquers the U.S. market, starting with the Internet. Dupuis' English-language site, opened in 1998, gets 30,000 hits a month, the same as the French-language site.

Of course, not everyone likes the Disney-like expansion. "Dupuis has become much too commercial," complains David Libbens, an aspiring Brussels-based comic-book artist. "They aren't at the artistic cutting edge." And the move into supermarkets angers traditional distributors on Chaussee de Wavre, whose shops enliven an otherwise dreary and impoverished neighborhood. At La Bande des Six Nez (The Group of the Six Noses), crammed with original drawings and rare books, owner Jean-Louis Carette fears Dupuis' mass-market strategy will depress prices of old collector comics, as happened with Marvel Comics' large-print runs of Spiderman in the U.S.

At the Comic Book Museum, researchers pore over some 60,000 comic books and 3,000 serious academic studies on comics. But most are here for fun. Children run their hands over a model of Tintin's space rocket. Their parents laugh at favorite strips hung on the walls. One even brings a smile to the serious Dion. She peers at Tintin and his dog, Snowy, examining strange mummies in Egypt. Suddenly the two are drugged and sent out to sea in a coffin. But--pow! bam!--they escape, capture the criminals, and bag a big reward.

Tintin wins again. And here, at least, so do Belgium's comics.

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