Friday, 24 July 2015

An interview with Dargaud editor, Thomas Ragon: 'I’m the first reader, and the first publicist'

However you view Twitter (and by extension, social media), two of its foremost purposes for me is it's ability to share my writing and thoughts on comics, and to likewise gain information from others doing so. In that regard, Thomas Ragon, editor of French comics publisher Dargaud, does a superb job as ambassador and imparter of salient comics knowledge. As someone who (lazily) only speaks a 2 and a half languages and none of them French, the accessibility of his account is very much appreciated, and always useful in keeping up with the both the classic and new in Franco-Belgian comics. It may seem an obvious -although certainly not incumbent- facet for an editor to utilise, but Ragon is actually one of the very few to do so. I know, too, he is open and generous with his time for any enquiries -not just from me, but many others, too, and I find this position he's carved himself a little unique.  I thought he would make a worthwhile and interesting interview subject, and the results are produced below for you perusal and enjoyment.

You can follow his excellent Twitter here.

A rather standard, boring question, but it's one I like to ask as an entry-point, and because I think answers can vary depending on where you live, circumstances etc. How and when did you become interested in comics, as a reader, and then as a field to work in?
As a reader, I never became interested in comics, I was born with them. My father was a reader of Spirou and Tintin magazines as a child, and he subscribed to both, again, for my brother and I, when I was, 4, 5 years old ? And like in most French homes, we had some Asterix, Tintin, Spirou books. Actually, there were maybe more comics than in the average French home. I used to read the old Spirou magazines from my father’s childhood, from the 50’s, and he also had some Gotlib, Druillet, Blueberry books as well… I was a huge fan of Tintin, and Les Tuniques Bleues (The Bluecoats), and Alix, too. So, it’s always been natural to me, reading comics. And I would read a lot of them until my 10th year when I completely stopped. I started to be into history, a lot, from that time on. I started reading 'serious' books only, literature, science... And music.

In my college (lycée) in Grenoble, a friend was into comics, and he made me looking at them again. It was 1986/1987. I really dove into it. And I've never stopped ever since. I even decided to write my Politics School master dissertation on comics. Which was not really… hum, expected, nor encouraged by the professors… That’s where I thought I could work 'in comics.' Even though I didn’t really know what kind of jobs there were in publishing -actually I didn’t know anyhing about publishing. I was more like "I don’t want to wear a suit and a tie, I don’t want to have a pressure from money, let’s try music or comics," ha ha ! No pressure from money… I became friend with a comics bookshop in Grenoble around my 18, I would spend a lot of time – and money – with them, then I started to work in another comics bookshop on vacations, Christmas period, replacement, etc. And I joined the organization of a festival in Grenoble, too. And I eventually became a trainee in Paris, for a small publisher, then for Delcourt, where I stayed six months. After this, I worked one full year in a comics bookshop in Paris (a difficult year  – I had made long studies, my parents were supportive, but very anxious I think, when I was leaving on the minimum wage in Paris with nothing coming and looking like a real job, i.e. well paid). Then Guy Delcourt hired me, and some few years later I realized I was an editor.

So, it’s not a real decision I made, it all came naturally if not easily. I mean, there are no schools for becoming an editor, and if there would, those schools would probably not propose anything related with comics – I’m talking of the early 1990’s here.

What is your official position at Dargaud?
The official words are 'directeur de collection.' Something between editor and publisher – I never really quite understood the difference in English. I chose projects, I negotiate the conditions and terms of the contract, but I don’t sign the contract.

What do your duties/responsibilities involve?
They involve a lot of things, I guess. First off, it’s deciding – after discussions with my colleagues editors – what books the company will publish. Here, it’s a mix of discussing with authors already published by Dargaud about their next projects, looking for newcomers, and considering submissions. After that, I think about, talk, propose, decide different things about the story, art, how many pages/books, production settings, etc. of the books. Then, negotiating the contracts. Once the contracts are signed, begins the road to the releasing of the book, and I can intervene in a lot of different fields. I’m the one everybody in the company is asking "what do you think?" and "yes/no." Marketing, diffusion, production, layout, PR, etc. I’m supposed to be the first, main interlocutor with the artists.

Being in that position in a big company like Dargaud is comfortable. It’s reasonably understaffed, it’s serious business, there is a long history behind, hence a lot of savoir-faire. My job really is, too, to explain the projects, inside the company, to the different departments, and outside the company. I can talk to journalists, to bookshops, to institutions, to festivals, to other publishers. I’m the first reader, and the first publicist. My job it to try to make the best books possible, and to promote them as much as possible.

Thomas' office at Darguad

How would you describe a typical day at the office (if you go to one)?
Yes, I go to an office everyday. Being physically present is important, I think. I’m an 'in-house' editor, being a freelancer probably is interesting, but I don’t think you have the same weight on the company’s decisions or absence of decisions. Anyway…

I would say my typical day is being interrupted in what I’m doing every minute by requests. Or two minutes when it’s quiet. This is awesome, and it’s unbearable at the same time ! Being able to read something that needs more than 10 minutes can be very difficult. Arriving in the morning, I guess like everybody in this western service world, I read emails. I may have a meeting – marketing, sales, graphic studio, author – in the morning or afternoon. I get my 5/10 new submissions that I swear to myself I’ll read very soon ; then phone calls with artists ; reading proof or different steps of a book ; reading one submission because the author just sent an email again saying it’s already four/five/six weeks he sent it ; another meeting ; maybe a lunch with an author talking about the book in the process or about a project ; more time with the graphic designers trying things, deciding about a cover, any layout issues ; approving corrections on a text ; writing promotional texts for sales meetings ; reading a comic book or reading things on the internet ; travelling to a remote place for a big sales meeting with all the representatives of the company… And thinking about what you haven’t done yesterday that you should do today.

I've always been curious: as an editor selecting work for publication -often new work- how do your tastes and a notion of objectivity interact? Are there situations when a work may not be to your personal taste, but you recognise its good, or think it will do well?

There definitely are situations when a work is not really my personal taste, but where I recognise at least one or two qualities, ha ha ! It has to be a minimum of my taste. A big minimum… It can be an intention, a subject, only art, only story, but – and maybe I'm fooling myself – I tend to think it doesn't occur that much. It's not my company, my name is not printed on the cover, I owe a salary to my employer, so there's a kind of a tacit agreement at the very beginning. They hired me because of what I had done before, a certain kind of books, and I'm supposed to let them make some money at some point. As I've been lucky enough to be working for serious companies in publishing, they don't expect every title to be profitable. They would prefer to, of course. There's a balance to be found… And it's all the game we play, there's this tension between 'art' and 'business,' always. It's difficult to be certain on that subject. Let's suppose I get a submission from someone whom art is not my taste, my 'job' is to recognise if it's good, lame, incredible, weak, unique and either fit to a 'market' or is strong enough in absolute terms to exist. And we're rarely totally sure about this. Sometimes, yes, we immediately know that this one project might be unique and important. At the end there's the question of who you are publishing for? For yourself and the artist, or for the audience? My position today is halfway. Really. Or, more exactly, I do both. And mostly of the former. I want, and sometimes I can do it, to publish books that are a Proposition, where I'm not sure there is an audience for it, but I'm sure that this book must exist because it's good or new... And sometimes I select a book because I know there's an audience for it. But it's never that clear. In general, I'm really convinced by what I publish, at least when it's only me who selected it.

Now, my personal tastes are large. The editor in me is like the reader I am. I can read a quite simple crime novel and reread Karl Kraus the week after. I can enjoy a good sci-fi comics, and enjoy right after the most graphic zine… As long as it's… good ? And here, I guess my job is also to be, at the same time, very sure of my taste, and always doubting it. I have to be able to change or at least to accept new things… This sounds grandiloquent, I could as well say I don't know, that I just follow my feelings, project after project… Because sometimes you don't know why you like a project. And you construct arguments afterwards…

You seem to really love comics -correct me if I'm wrong!- and it's also your job. Does that ever become too much- having the thing you enjoy become routine? Do you have periods where you're sick of everything comics?
I do love comics, yes ! I breathe comics. And the job never became a routine, really. I mean, my worst feelings about it, mainly, is the frustration that I can’t publish everything I’d like to. Or one problem here, one failure there. It’s a very exciting job, a stressful one, too. But no, I’m able to read comics at home after a day work. I kind of established a process to take care of my brain : I don’t read projects/submissions at home, I need to separate professional readings and personal readings. I’m a big reader, anyway, so it’s more like "this is for my pleasure, and this is for work." And sometimes pleasure and work meet. I may have periods where I can’t read comics out of the office, but so far it’s always been quite short periods of time. Three days? Ha. Now, it’s true that being constantly under a flow of requests of all types and sources is exhausting and I need to be unreachable, but it’s because of the job, not because of comics.

When I’m on vacation, one of the first thing I do is checking where are the bookshops, and go see books… Please call the nurse…

What's your favourite part of the job and one not-so-favourite part?
My favourite part is obviously the discussions we can have with an author about his/her work. When simply by talking, we help each other to clarify things, or decide that this direction is better than the other, or why drawing this is difficult, or how this image was built up, etc. A real in-depth discussion about the work, that’s the best. And it’s rare, because of what I said about my typical day above. And because of our different positions, it can never occur. It’s all about subjectivity, and a relationship, it’s not depending on liking or not a person, but sometimes things dont’ get right. There are some many different factors.

I would say my not-so-favourite part is dealing with the endless frustration on the long term. Our job implies a lot of frustrations, and I’m OK with that, I know it can’t be different: I never have enough time - the perfect book does not exist, it always could have been better - sales are never good enough - critics are out of the point or too rare - the author is too slow, too quick - etc.

No, let’s say my not-so-favourite part is that too many people – in the business - think that publishing a book is easy. That you just have to push on a button, and that’s it.

By Alexandre Clérisse

When I asked you if you'd be interested in doing this interview, I said I found your placement as a comics figure interesting. I'd guess that for many people, like me, you're one of the few accessible people/points into Franco/Belgian comics on social media. You tweet in English and interact with people, and share work- what's the impetuous behind that (if there is a deliberate one)?

At the very beginning, I thought Twitter would allow me to be in touch with my English-speaking comics friends on a more regular basis and a less engaging one. I mean, when it comes to informal, short news about what we’re doing, what we’ve seen and liked, that’s perfect. I wouldn’t write an email for saying "Hi, look at what’s new and interesting." Plus, I’ve always been interested in American comics, it’s been a big part of my activity as an editor, from the beginning, and I thought that it could be interesting to try to send information the other way. Later, I realized there were some people from all around the world, not only the UK and the USA, who were interested in getting images/information about bande dessinée… And I can’t hide the fact that I believe our future will consist in more international interactions between publishers and authors, and it’s a way to contact, be informed about works, books, authors, and a soft promotion tool (I try not to use it too much for that). As for interaction with people, I try my best, but I don’t have too much time, but I really like talking with people…

If you could improve 3 areas/issues in comics, what would they be?
Here in France, it would be the manner of relationships with the universities. Compared to Belgium, USA or Italy, it’s a shame that French academics are ignoring comics. There only are a very few exceptions to that landscape.

Second point : socially speaking, the artists were, in the 60/70’s, mainly from the working class or lower middle class. And we’re kind of losing that, and that’s a pity. I’d like to allow young artists from what we call 'the suburbs' to express and tell things that the country needs to hear or at least be exposed to.

Third: That may sound weird coming from a 'mainstream' editor, but I’m kind of scared how difficult it is to get people interested in non-strictly scenario-driven books. Like a lot of people, I loved the Golden Age of TV shows, HBO thing, but added to Hollywood’s marketed and over script-doctored movies, there’s no room for poetry, for evocation, for stories where the reader has to fill himself some unresolved parts anymore. I call that the 'dictatorship of scenario.' It’s interesting to see a lot of people saying « what does he mean ? I didn’t understand everything », we’re supposed to have crystal clear scripts, as linear as possible stories, every time, for everything. That’s embarrassing, it’s the twenty first century, after all… And I’m not talking of super cryptic things. Just having the choice between different possibilities to understand a story, to make it ours, to have room, to get loose… I guess 2015 is not about being loose…

About not having more 'open to interpretation' work, I find that quite a bit of that exists in self-published, art/alt, or what is termed 'indie' comics, particular in Canada and North America, which I think has historically been the case. Is there anything similar in scene in France, currently? Or are you expressing a desire for more of a chance to be taken on such works by publishers?

Yes, you're right, that was not clear enough. I was thinking of 'large audience' or publications by, let's call them 'mainstream' publishers. If we look at Dargaud's history only, Druillet was not exactly the typical Hollywoodian storyteller, Fred with Philémon and other titles was into poetry, etc. What I said was expressing a desire for more of such works by 'big' publishers. Actually, we try. In fact, I'm tired of hearing "Blutch is a great artist, but I don't understand anything of his story". What I hear here is "I don't want to interpret what he says by myself, he should take me by the hand and explain every tiny bit". That's not possible. We're going to suffocate, to dry ourselves out, we need air, we need to use our imagination.

There is a similar scene in France of art/alt comics, of course. And a strong and lively one. And there are a lot of very good books there. You see that I'm in a position, we say in French "having the butt between two chairs". And it's good. Uncomfortable but really good. And I'm not looking for very difficult books necessarily, very difficult, it's for alt/art publishers. I was thinking of something a bit difficult, or demanding, aimed to a large audience, if not 'everybody.'

By André Franquin

I'm a big fan of various French and European comics and authors, and as someone who prefers print while I'm grateful for what does get translated, it makes me a little sad that historically they haven't done well in North America/Canada and the UK. Why do you think this is?

There certainly is a various number of reasons. And let me be clear that I don't want to denigrate or lecture or anything, we all have our own priorities, weaknesses, lacks, and as far as I know, I might be completely wrong - but you are asking! Comics business is around 12% of the publishing industry in France when it's only 3% in the US. If you take the Big Two out, what's left? And obviously, although those Big Two tried something at some point, European comics do not really fit with super hero comics. It's completely different. This is of course very important, because the structures of the business, commercialization, promotion, etc. everything is shaped by the dominant trends, which were not, for decades, author-driven, or non-super heroic. So we, Europeans, had to deal with smaller companies, less powerful, with a more fragile economy, and, furthermore, with slightly different lines than ours. And you have the fact that North America doesn't really have the culture of translating anything. It's the same for cinema, it's the same – and even worse – with literature. But you also have the problem of our formats that can sometimes be very difficult to reduce to the usual US formats. And you have the fact – and it's a very important one – that very few people in comics industry in North America can read French, or Italian. The late Kim Thompson was maybe the only one for too long. Mark Siegel is in charge now, and we could see that it makes a real difference. We're guilty too, maybe we didn't pay enough attention to letting our books be accessible in English (but, you know, we sell rights all over the world without having to translate for each country, so…). And because the big properties like Tintin or Asterix were sold to publishers that didn't have any interest in comics as an art form, or didn't want to develop a line… And if we compare our situation to Manga, we never had the power that Japanese have with the animation, broadcast on TV for years. Which, here at least, helped them a hell of a lot.

At the end, it's also a question of us all staying in our comfort zone. Publishers, journalists, readers, retailers, etc. We have to build bridges across the pond or the Channel, more bridges of all kinds, not only commercial ways.  And obviously, the Internet has helped to build some.

I feel like things are changing, maybe not so slowly. "Blacksad" is a success, it's been rewarded several times to the Eisners or Harveys, "Persepolis" was a hit, "Beautiful Darkness" was quite noticed, and hopefully, other books could succeed, which always helps a lot when you try to convince publishers… And we try to break into these markets, with other, new tools… This leading us to your next question…

Dargaud and others have recently announced the Europe Comics digital initiative, launching later this year. Can you tell us a bit more about what it will involve- is the focus on making existing catalogues available in English; producing new work specifically tailored to the digital format; and there is also mention of developing animated series and live events!
There will be a new specific announcement with titles and names in the next 3/4 weeks, so I can't give any now. But, it's a been a long process and a first time on at least two levels. First: the European Union is funding an ambitious program concerning comics only. Second: 13 European companies are joining into this "coalition" to have a digital comics publishing AND information platform. You'll have works published in English on the same day than in their first language. There should be exclusive content for the digital releases, such as covers, illustrations… For the moment, it doesn't seem like there is any specifically digital native comics, but who knows what the publishers involved would like to do here in the future…

One of the thing considered, is having readers propose themselves what titles they would like to read, to create a dialogue with them. As for the catalogue, if I can't give any details yet, it will be a selection of mainstream action/adventure series, graphic novel and children's comics. Being funded by the European Union allows to be able to organize some events around comics and the catalogue: there is an extensive programme of author tours, both across Europe and the US, so as to bring European authors closer to the European and American audiences. And it's also aimed to be a digital venue where one could find informations about European comics – events calendar, academic studies, history, etc. It's intended as an "export" device but also as a emulating tool within the European borders. It could be used as a market test for English-speaking publishers. Translations and files would be existing, it could become a real facilitator as to print publishing.

As for the animated side, they plan to develop three animated series in the next four years, based on characters from its more successful titles. That's why you have among the partners the first European animation producer: Ellipsanime.

Name 3 of your favourite cartoonists/artist/comic writers.
Well, that’s the dangerous question. I’ll pick people I’m not working with, or dead, even better, it’s too difficult, otherwise. Alberto Breccia. André Franquin. Winsor McCay. Of course, ask me tomorrow, and it’ll be different.

Which young comic creators are you impressed by?
Roman Muradov really impresses me. Alexandre Clérisse. Jon McNaught. Simon Roussin. Victor Hussenot. Probably more, that’s the names that come up right now. We’re living an incredible period of time, I think, in terms of creativity. I hope the infrastructures will be able to help them all making their way.

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