"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."
The Belgian government is also fighting back by attempting to position the country as a center of innovation and excellence for the rest of the industry. In 2007, it set up the Comic Book Commission, a department in the Ministry of Culture with an annual budget of $170,000. The commission funds 30 to 40 new projects a year with the aim of advancing technical and aesthetic aspects of comic-book publishing in Belgium. The goals of the initiative go beyond mere paper and ink.
"The symbolic element of all this is that it helps the comic strip emerge from the category of subculture or subgenre," says Commission Director Bruno Merckx. "A comic-book author is a literary author in his own right."
After five years of such state support, signs of success are beginning to show. GrandPapier.org, a small Belgian comic-book publishing house that receives grant money from the commission, is trying to capitalize on the next frontier in comics publishing: the Internet.