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La Grève, C’est Grave (Striking is a Serious Business)

By Edward Gauvin

Shortly after celebrating its twentieth anniversary in May, French indie comics powerhouse L’Association now finds itself at a stalemate with its employees, who’ve gone on strike to protest a recent round of holiday layoffs that reduced the salaried staff by half.

Indie comics remains a small, struggling business in any country, so let’s put that in perspective: from seven regular employees to “three or four.” However, the seven have vowed to “occupy the premises” for an “indeterminate period of time.” A formal declaration of discontent has made the rounds of the comics community, turning up at parties and on bulletin boards, and is currently the company’s e-mail autoreply. The strikers (who include rights manager Carmela Chergui) are reaching out to the artists and authors they’ve published with the question: “How can we guarantee the same quality with a reduced staff?

L’Association is widely credited with founding the contemporary indie comics boom in France, even arguably defining and formalizing a place for indie comics in the French marketplace. Which is not to say French indie comics didn’t exist before L’Asso, but that L’Asso unified into something like an aesthetic movement what had formerly been scattered and underground. Best known internationally for publishing Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, L’Asso was founded by a roster of artists who could, at the time, find no outlet for their work, including names since acknowledged as the leading lights of contemporary French comics: David B., Lewis Trondheim (both published in Words Without Borders), Jean-Christophe Menu. L’Asso plays an important role in the comics ecosystem, fostering new and important talent (Joann Sfar, for instance), and often paying tribute to their indie cartoonist influences and forebears by collecting or reprinting now-forgotten work—something almost unheard of in any form of mainstream publishing.

Discord struck in 2005, when founding member Menu published Plates-bandes, a diatribe against the co-optation and wholesale copycatting of the indie, avant-garde, experimental, or alternative comics aesthetic by mainstream publishers looking to corner what had suddenly become a lucrative market. Literally “flowerbeds,” the title was a complex pun involving part of the word for comics (“bandes-déssinées,” or “drawn strips”), a j’accuse that indie comics were headed for blandness and platitude (“plat,” literally flat or insipid), and a gauntlet thrown down to mainstream publishers for encroaching on indie territory (the colloquial expression “trampling someone’s flowerbeds” means to step on someone’s toes).

But in 2005 comics were booming. According to a 2010 report from the Ministry of Culture, the sector saw a 375% rise in unit sales between 1990 and 2005. Many saw it as healthy that the indie aesthetic had influenced the market, causing major publishers to open indie imprints. In fact, with the new work pouring in, founding members of L’Asso actually left, citing differences of principle: David B. in 2005, Lewis Trondheim, Stanislas, and Killoffer the following fall. Joann Sfar vowed henceforth not to publish with L’Asso. Fueled by Menu backlash, speculation was rife that the death knell had rung for the influential collective now deprived of many major talents.

In fact the dissolution of the editorial board was to have a direct bearing on the recent strike. As laid out in the open letter of January 10, 2011, to “authors, subscribers, booksellers, editors, reporters, and friends,” one thing the strikers are protesting is a lack of transparency on the management’s part. To quote the letter:

“The layoffs were announced by an outside agency whose authority hasn’t been renewed for several years, and an editorial director not himself a salaried employee, whose duties within the company remain unclear. The situation today now seems serious enough that the democratic process which has not been a part of L’Association for more than five years now be reinstituted.”

The strikers are demanding that the company’s activities and finances be reported in full at an immediate general meeting, and that elections for a new board of directors be held in light of these reports.

The strike comes on the heels of the closure of indie comics distributor Le Comptoir des Indépendants in December, a blow to the indie comics community in general, and specifically to L’Asso, a founding partner. Les Belles Lettres, many of the employees in whose new “images” division migrated from Le Comptoir, will now distribute L’Asso and other indie publishers like Groinge, Alain Beaulet, and the French-Belgian Frémok.

Le Comptoir’s closure is partly due to the fact that L’Asso, its major client, significantly cut its planned projects (by a third) after a major drop in sales volume. It’s also been pointed out that L’Association, which refuses to take part in “marketplace” activities like barcoding its books, also failed to notice the world changing around it. Its website has been “Coming Soon” for twenty years. Shortly after the anniversary of L’Asso, Jean-Christophe Menu admitted in an interview for ActuaBD that the crisis in comics sales was “very real.” This drop in sales has been cited as a reason for the layoffs, but in the open letter, the strikers claim that “an analysis of the accounting documents at our disposal” proves that the company is “in good financial health.” But “even if L’Association proves to be suffering financially,” the letter continues, “other solutions besides layoffs must exist. We ask that we be given the opportunity to discuss them. We have been bringing possible cost-cutting methods to the management’s attention for 2 or 3 three years now, but these have not been implemented.”

Menu, a brilliant comics theorist and polemicist, remains a polarizing figure. Nor is the divide clear. Some indie publishers join mainstream editors in claiming he has exaggerated the importance of L’Asso by downplaying the contributions of others. Fans have jibed that the author, known for his autobiographical comics, will now be able to write one about the strike. As comics blogger Matthias Wivel notes, after 2005 Menu changed the direction of L’Asso

“somewhat toward more uncompromising avant-garde publication (the remaining partner, Mattt Konture stayed, but hasn’t played much of an editorial or administrative role)…  Menu remains, however, one of the great editors and publishers of comics of the past decades and the company he so crucially helped build remains an important presence. Let’s hope that whatever problems they’re having will be resolved to the satisfaction of everyone involved, so l’Asso can stay afloat.”

I wholeheartedly echo this last sentiment, and it seems the strikers do too:

“Apart from the personal concerns inevitably provoked by this brutal layoff announcement, we want nothing more than for this organization dear to us to last, an organization that should not, in our opinion, disdain a dialogue with its employees, authors, subscribers, and honorary members.”

No doubt there’ll be some buzz on this at Angoulême. I’ll be live blogging for WWB from the International Comics Festival in a week.

Published Jan 19, 2011   Copyright 2011 Edward Gauvin

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