On October 8-11, 2015, the Javits Center hosted the tenth edition of the New York Comic Con, gathering a crowd of 170,000 fans, many in costume, eager to meet creators and characters. Among so many masks, tights, and capes, there was also space for international comics, discussed on two panels during the event.
Different is Cool: Gabriel Bá & Fábio Moon
The 39-year-old twins from Brazil who write and draw graphic novels—sometimes in collaboration, other times by themselves or with other writers—are known in the US for Daytripper, a ten-volume comic book series originally published by Vertigo in 2010. Avid readers of comics since they were young, they always wanted to write and draw, but when they were getting their start in the nineties, there were no Brazilian publishers interested in publishing graphic novels aimed at adults in a market dominated by children's comics. At the time, some Brazilian artists were finding their way into the US comic book market by drawing superheroes for DC and Marvel, but that was not what Bá and Moon wanted to do: they wanted to tell their own stories.
“We are from Brazil, this is different and cool,” says Gabriel Bá. “What people know about Brazil in the US is Rio de Janeiro, samba, and soccer. In Brazil, we know New York, Hollywood, and Disneyland from the US. These ideas that are sold to us are a poor portion of what reality is—lots of amazing things do not cross the ocean.” The same is true with comics, and they discovered there was much more than superheroes when they first start coming to San Diego Comic Con—the largest event in the field—in the late nineties and found a whole world of independent comics they had no idea existed. That’s when they realized they could do whatever they wanted.
Their latest project is Two Brothers (Dark Horse, 2015), based on the contemporary Brazilian classic The Brothers, a novel by Milton Hatoum (translated by John Gledson, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002). They took four years to accomplish the task of bringing this 250-page novel into graphic novel form: the story follows a family from Manaus, in northern Brazil, with two twin brothers who hate each other driving the story along.
Much of the text in the Portuguese-language graphic novel comes directly from Hatoum's novel, and they say that when they looked at the English translation of the book, it seemed stiff, missing the enchantment of the original. So, for the publication in the US, they decided to translate the work themselves.
“We always do our own stuff in English,” said Bá.
“We have good mastery of the language, we studied it for nine years,” Moon added. “I think about the sound of the language, and want to keep it, to choose each word carefully so the rhythm is not lost. It's like concrete poetry, you have to choose your words well.”
Moon added that they used the English translation almost as a dictionary, to see how the translator of the English text handled names of local trees and fish, for instance—ultimately, however, the American edition of the graphic novel left most regional names in the original, and strange words like “caçula” (the Portuguese word for a youngest sibling) and “matrinxã” (a kind of fish) are sprinkled throughout the book. Even the signs, like names of bars and stores, were kept in Portuguese, in contrast to the translations into French and Italian, which were done by the same translators who had worked on the Hatoum’s original novel in their countries.
It was hard work, though. Bá says that it took them three months to complete the translation into English, and it was the first time they had performed this task.
“Daytripper was written in English, because it was created for the US market, there was no sense in writing it in Portuguese and then translating into English,” said Bá. “Later, when the book was published in Brazil, someone else translated it into Portuguese because we did not have time to do so and we edited, changing some phrasings and expressions so they would sound more like we would have put it.”
Euro-Comics: Spotlight on the French Invasion
From left to right: Elsa Charettier, Pénélope Bagieu, J.D. Morvan
In another event, the spotlight turned to French graphic novels in translation. According to Heidi MacDonald of Publishers Weekly and comicsbeat.com, this is a great year for French comics in America, with more titles published than ever before—particularly with digital initiatives such as the collaboration between Comixology/Delcourt and Europe Comics. Joining her were three graphic novelists from starkly different backgrounds.
MacDonald was joined by J.D. Morvan, a veteran comic book writer who had his first work published in the US in 1993 and, from there—“step by step,” as he says—had more and more works published in America. While recognizing that the US is an important market—he is thankful for the fans who translate his works and make them available on the Internet, saying, “Piracy is very good for me; my comics were never translated, so I can send the fan translations to American publishers. I steal my own work”—his goal is not to work for the US. Rather, he says, the biggest challenge is to create comics that are international, not aimed at one specific market.
According to Morvan, “the golden age of comics in France is now, because today you can read anything from any country. There is space for everything, nothing is underground any more: science fiction, Western, biography. People can tell their own stories and comics, too, but they must have something to say: you can’t tell an empty story.” His most recent work published in the US is Omaha Beach on D-Day a collaboration with Séverine Tréfouël and illustrations by Dominique Bertail (First Second, 2015). Starting from Robert Capa's world-famous shot of the Allies’ landing in 1944, the authors have gathered interviews, testimonials, and images of photographic archives from the Magnum Photos agency to fill in the history behind a single moment, using a combination of traditional comics [graphic] narrative, photography, and nonfiction texts.
The spotlight then turned to Elsa Charettier. Charettier decided to start drawing three years ago when her friend Pierrick Colinet invited her to work on the project of Infinite Loop, a six-volume comic book series (which IDW will make available in a single volume in December). Their aim was to publish in the US, not in France where, according to her, they would not be able to retain the rights of the work. About two years ago, they decided to launch a crowdfunding campaign to enable the production of the series the way they wanted it, without anyone else’s opinion, an effort that met with success. With the work in hand, they came to New York Comic Con last year, intent to sell it to an American publisher, and secured a deal with IDW (which published the series from April to September this year). Their time-travel-science-fiction-LGBT-tale about love was originally written in English, which was crucial to its publication in the US, since “IDW would not have spent money to translate it,” according to Charettier. After being published in the US, the series is now being launched in France. And Charretier landed a dream job for many a cartoonist in the US: she’s current working on the forthcoming graphic novel adaptation of Windhaven, originally co-written by Lisa Tuttle and George R. R. Martin.
After Charretier, the spotlight turned to Pénélope Bagieu. Bagieu studied animation in college but later discovered that the best way to tell stories was through comics. After being very unhappy as an illustrator in advertising (“You only work on briefs and [client] feedback, your opinion is not valuable, they don’t even let you choose your own color,” she told the audience), she decided she wanted to tell her own stories and created her own personal biographical blog with drawings where “no one else would have an opinion but me.” Such blogs are very popular in France, Bagieu explained.
“There are more blogs than people doing them, because the same person will have several,” she says.
She got her start with Josephine, a single cartoon on the very last page of a magazine; from there, she was pushed to write something longer, resulting in Exquisite Corpse (First Second, 2015), a story about a girl who gets involved with a famous writer who faked his own death. About being published both in France (where she is a bestselling author) and in the US, she says that “we need to overcome the clichés about each other’s comics; the US are not only superheroes, France is not only big noses.” She says that her American publisher in the US, who grew up in France, made it his mission to bring more French comics to America. The publisher’s brother is a translator at the UN, so he gives a great deal of attention to that part of the work.
“Translating is a job, I would not dare to do it [myself],” said Bagieu in her perfect English. “The level of language must be the same [as the original], so that the details do not get lost.”
Recently, she just launched in France California Dreamin’, a 280-page biography of the Mamas and the Papas’ Mama Cass, forthcoming in the US from First Second in 2017.
It Takes Some Courage
The comic book and graphic novel market may be dominated by (and mostly known for) superheroes, but there is more and more space for other kinds of stories told through sequential art—and as the readers discover this, space opens for international works that bring new perspectives to the US.
Elsa Charettier, for instance, at the beginning felt that “publishers were scared of having a French author, culturally it is too different.”
Gabriel Bá sums up the situation quite well by saying that “it is easy to keep reading about the same character,” he said. “There must be courage—both from the creators and the readers to try something different.” He gives as an example Vertigo, the DC imprint that launched Daytripper, which got to be the number one on The New York Times best-seller list for paperback graphic books in February 2011. Because the publication was nested within one of the two companies that dominate the superhero market, fans of the genre were willing to read something they were not used to. “Readers need a little push, something like a brand they trust so they dare to try something different,” he concluded.
Morvan is optimistic about the future, too: “People can tell their own stories outside Marvel and DC, it is great that there are independent publishers like Image,” he said. “Today, there are comics for people who never read comics, there is a larger audience getting to the medium.”