Lawmakers and artists are looking to make the country the capital of the speech-bubble industry again.
During the recent annual Belgian Comic Book Festival, enormous balloon characters paraded down the main streets of Brussels. Roadrunner sauntered along, followed by a bouncy SpongeBob SquarePants. And yet something was missing. None of the gigantic, parading balloons were of a Belgian cartoon character.
That fact might come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Belgium's reputation as the "home of the comic book." The title has its roots in the 1920s, when Belgian artists started to blaze a trail of innovation in comic-book art. They invented the speech bubble, for example, as well as the drawing technique called "Ligne Claire" (or "clear line"), which moved comic books from cartoonish blobs of color to a sharper kind of realism. Belgians also debuted the weekly comic-strip-magazine format with titles like Spirou and Tintin selling, at one point, as many as 250,000 copies each a week. Today, though, those achievements are a fading memory, even as the country's comic-book creators eye a comeback.
Tintin, which still sells more than a million comic books a year worldwide, was the industry leader between the '20s and the '70s. It helped position Belgium as No. 1 in comic books, producing about 80 percent of all comics in Europe by the 1970s. But by the 1980s, Belgium had become a victim of its own initial successes.
"Tintin and other big Belgian comics couldn't reinvent themselves because they had developed a very clear, loyal fan base, and they were also trapped in a very Catholic Belgium at the time," says Thierry Bellefroid, a comic book critic and historian. "This is how Belgium got its market share eaten up, initially by new, edgier French comics."
It was not only French comic-strip magazines like Pilote that began to nudge Belgium aside. American publishing giants like DC and Marvel also began to impinge on Belgium's European sales. More recently, new centers of comic art innovation, like Japan and Argentina, have emerged. And as Western economies globalized, most of the Belgian publishing houses were bought up by multinationals, so that today, the business-side of the comic-book industry is mainly controlled from Paris or London.
Sales among these comic-book publishing majors have been on the decline for the past five to 10 years, accentuated by the Eurocrisis. Most of the erstwhile Belgian leaders in the weekly comic-magazine format have folded, with just Spirou remaining, and even its sales have dropped from 280,000 a week in the early 1990s to just 150,000 today.
In order to bolster their bottom line, many of the publishers have adopted the policy of simply creating more and more titles a year to slow the decline of overall sales. Some publishers, like Casterman (a Belgian imprint of French publishing giant Flammarion), have refocused on their core titles, like Tintin.
"Our strategy is to open new revenue streams and generate new readers by working with other industries, such as Hollywood," says Jean-Philippe Thivet, Casterman's head of marketing. While Steven Spielberg 2011 Tintin movie didn't bring direct revenues to Casterman, it served as a valuable opportunity to reinvigorate the franchise's market appeal. "The film repositioned Tintin as No. 1 in sales," Thivet says. "We managed to convince Tintin fans to complete their collections of the books, but we also managed, through the film, to gain a new readership, and to put Tintin back in the hands of kids again."