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Comics for kids and young readers: let's meet Sarbacane

An interview with Max de Radiguès,comic book author and editor at Sarbacane

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Max de Radiguès is a Belgian comic book author specialized in graphic novels for young readers. He is also editor at Sarbacane and at the independent publisher L’employé du Moi. In this interview, we explore his point of view both as author and editor on the present and future of comics for kids and young readers. 

Children’s comic books are the rising stars of the comic book industry, whereas most of the world seemed to be in the past years more focused on comics and graphic novels for adults. But the French-speaking market is always been the most prosperous in Europe and the most diverse one.

What’s the state of children’s comic books in France? And has it change in the past years?

For a long time, comics were considered to be for kids. Even if grownups would read them, Asterix, Spirou, Tintin and the others were considered kids comics. That all changed in the Nineties. It took a long time here in Belgium because of the very big history we got with Franquin, Hergé, Peyo, Morris… But we’re there now. Strangely, since comics were accepted as culturally valuable, good for grownups and an “art” and to be taken seriously, the kids comics became (in my eyes) pretty poor and dumb: “It’s only for kids”. In the early 2000s, you had good patrimonial comics for kid and manga for teenager, but nothing in between except some stupid gag comics that were stereotypical and questionable on topics like race, gender, sexuality, family… That’s what drove me to YA comics. I noticed that you had a very rich offer of movies for young teenager, a lot of books too. In the YA literature you could find things about drugs, prostitution, poverty, racism, LGBT… But in comics you only had jokes on how dumb blond girls were. Since then, it has changed a lot. I feel today there is a new interest from authors, editors, readers and parents (who are usually buying the books) in making something interesting, open and without so many taboos. So we’re slowly getting there and it’s an exciting time to work in kids, teens, YA comics.

This year the Bologna Children’s Book Fair decided to establish a Comics Corner, confirming the importance of this market on the grandest scale of children’s literature tout-court. What do you think of this decision? And what do you think the impact of comic books and graphic novels for children and young readers will be on the literature market?

Wow, a big question… Well, I think there is a lot of links between children books, kids literature and comics. A lot of authors collaborate or move from one field to the others. I’m very happy to see that comics earned its nobility in the children literature. I think everybody also sees it as a business value, kids and parents are more and more looking for quality and depth. That market will grow and a lot of publisher will start to realise that they want a part of it.

You do currently work at Sarbacane as chief editor of a publishing division dedicated to comics for young readers. Can you tell us about the decision of starting this division? How did it impact Sarbacane whole production and identity? Did it change its positioning on the market?

I’ve been publishing with Frédéric Lavabre and Sarbacane for nearly ten years. We have a really good work relationship where we trust each other a lot. We’re also friends. For all these years I was almost the only YA cartoonist in his catalogue: he had graphic novels for adults and kids comics for ages from 7 to 10. He’s really excited by his graphic novels and grew a bit tired of his kids comics; he couldn’t really relate to them as Sarbacane books anymore. But he was still very excited to work on my books and so he wanted to develop the YA genre more, so he asked me to step in to give him a hand. I’ve been a publisher at L’employé du Moi since 2006 where we do indie comics, the most well-known is probably The End of The Fucking World by Charles Forsman. So now I’m in both. L’employé du Moi is more personal because we are five friends, we handle everything, we work for free… And Sarbacane is an opportunity to see another aspect of publishing in a professional company.

To answer your question, Sarbacane is shifting its kids catalogue to a teen catalogue and I’m working hand in hand with Frédéric and all the team there on doing that.

As you said, beside Sarbacane, you work at the independent press L’employé du moi, which is less focused on children’s comics but publish them nonetheless. Does the process of selecting what to publish differ in the two cases? How do you address the “forming a new readership issue” in the two cases?

L’employé du Moi is very different. As I said, none of us get paid for the work we do there. We pay the cartoonists that publish with us of course… All of us are able to do the follow up, the book design, talk with the printer, the press… We do that on top of our day job, our cartooning, our families… So even if we try to be as professional as we can, there is a pleasure aspect that’s really important. We mostly publish friends or people we feel close to, we don’t want to get stuck in something and try not to repeat ourselves. We are able to do projects that we know are risky and that we’ll probably only sell a few hundred copies, but that deserve to exist. With Sarbacane I have to be more careful. Even if Frédéric is really open, I have to find project that will meet an audience, hopefully YA. It’s a really different way to approach a book.

Your work as a publisher, specialized in young readers or not, is mainly (entirely?) inside the comic book industry. Recently, in Italy in a very prominent way, children’s literature publishers gained a significant interest in comics, and many of them started brand new young reader’s comics division. Is it so in France also?

Are children’s comics more a part of the comic book market or more a part of the YA bookmarket?

Children comics are definitively more part of the comics market. We don’t have yet in France the enthusiasm you can find in the US for what you could call YA graphic novel. Kids comics is still thought as hardback, 48 pages, coloured book. That’s a heritage of the old golden days of comics and now it’s very hard to get away from that standard. But all of us at Sarbacane, and other publishers as well, are trying to change that set of mind. For instance, manga has proven for decades that kids can read a lot pages and/or in black and white. I hope that, one day, we’ll have the same freedom with kids comics that we manage to have in the adults comics.

But you’re not only a publisher, you’re also an author and most of your books are for a young/young adult audience, with their honest and charming representation. You publish both in the French market and in the American one.

Does the way you approach your work as an author differ when you publish in Europe first or in the US/Canada first? Are the two markets different?

No, I always work in the same way, no matter who I work with or the target audience. I try to challenge myself and take pleasure in what I do. Hopefully what I enjoy doing will be enjoyable to read…

My publisher always encourage me to say whatever I want and to go to the end of my ideas. The difference, in recent times, might be that the books find their reader more easily. But, is that because of a market change or because I’ve been doing that for ten years and people finally took notice? I don’t really know…

Part of the charm of your comics is that they depict a specific age without the intention of “sending a message” or of “making a statement”. Meanwhile, a large portion of the comic’s production for children and young readers, but also a large portion of their literature in general, seems to be focused on “thematic books”. “The book that helps you with this or that emotion”, “the book that teaches you this or that”, “the book that can be used to tackle this or that issue”. This seems to me to promote a utilitarian idea of reading, where the book is a tool toward a goal and has little to no value per se.

What do you think about this? 

What I like to read in comics, or novels, is fiction: telling a good story is what matter the most to me. I don’t think starting a story knowing what you want people to get out of it is the good way. I usually start mine on an idea and see where it takes me, it’s usually when I have more than half of the book written that I start to know where I’m going and what the story is about. I don’t want the reader to be taken by the hand, I want them to be able to fill gabs that I purposely leave in the story: I don’t what to say “this is good and that is bad”, but “look what’s happening here, does that make you feel anything?”. I think the problem is that books for kids often think that kids are stupid and so they try to say and explain everything with message and caricatural character. But I think that kids are as smart as us and that they are able to understand and think… So I write, for them, the same way I would write for an adult. 

Both from an authorial point of view and a publishing one, what future do you envision for children’s and young reader’s comic books?

Hah! I don’t know… hopefully that a lot of cartoonist that are good and smart will try it. It would be great if big masters of comics would tackle the YA genre. Also, that the media will take an interest in it. And that school will continue developing their use in comics in classroom. Finally my hope is that kids will be into comics as much as they are into books, video games and movies…

For more information on Sarbacane’s graphic novels and internatinal rights, please contact Sylvain Coissard at sylcoissard2@orange.fr

For more information on L’employe du moi’s graphic novels and internatinal rights, please contact Sarah Lapalu at sarah@eddy-agency.com

This post is part of a series of interviews to some of the most interesting international publishers specialized in comic books and graphic novel for children and young readers, made in collaboration with BilBOlbul, International Comic Book Festival (curated by Hamelin Associazione Culturale). 

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