Comic books – bandes desinnées (BDs, or bédés) – are big business in France. French people spend around 350 million euros on more than 35 million comic books per year. This represents a significant chunk of the publishing industry.

At the moment the huge annual BD festival is going on in Angoulême.

It runs for four days and is expected to see a quarter of a million visitors, probably parting with anything up to 50 euros each. The big draw is that authors are there to sign books and to talk to, and all the major BD publishers of Europe will be there under one roof.

BDs began in Switzerland in the 1830s when Rodolphe Töpffer released his first albums. The idea gradually spread round the world, mainly via comic strips in satirical magazines. Then comic books began to be directed mainly at young children, but by the 1930s there were BDs for every age group. In the 1950s Japan entered the fray, although the term ‘manga’ had been around since the early nineteenth century. Today there are BDs on every subject and for every market. They’re more popular than ever. My youngest son loves them, especially the Schtroumpfs (Smurfs). Anything that gets kids reading can’t be bad.

lenty of people knock BDs though, saying that they’re mindless and shallow and have no literary merit. There are reports of grammatical errors in some, quelle horreur! However, BDs are classified as the neuvième art in French culture and thus have ‘official’ artistic status.

Here’s a quick look at 2010’s best selling BDs in  France:

1. Christophe Arleston (46): Lanfeust and Trolls de Troy series – 1,5 million copies sold. Teen/adult fantasy. This author/artist has sold more than 12 million books altogether so far.

2. Jean Van Hamme (72): Blake & Mortimer, Largo Winch, Thorgal and XIII series – 1,05 million d’exemplaires. Thriller, spies generally.

3. René Goscinny et Albert Uderzo – Astérix – 1 million sold, despite this being a ‘bad’ year for Asterix in that no new books came out.

4. Hergé – Tintin – 900,000 copies sold. The release of the film late in the year has given Tintin books a nice boost.

5. Henri Jeanfaivre (42) aka Jenfèvre : Joe Bar Team, Tuning Maniacs, Les Gendarmes – 654,000 books sold. His are mainly humorous.

Simpsons came in 6th, Cédric 7th (a particular favourite with girls aged 6-11 apparently) and Titeuf 9th. A Titeuf film comes out htis year so he’s likely to shoot even higher up the BD ranks as a result.

Piracy is an increasing problem in the BD market, with expert teams scanning books and making electronic copies available illegally. They’re also selling paper copies. BDs tend to be quite dear, usually around €15 or so, so the sale of slightly cheaper illegal copies can be extremely lucrative. This is obviously a problem publishers need to address, and soon.

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