The visiting American writer pieces together how the French culture of comics (bandes dessinées) mixes with their deepening love of Japanese anime'.
PARIS — When I was in sixth grade, Cartoon Network aired episodes of the TV show Code Lyoko almost every day around 3 p.m. I was a loyal fan — watching practically every day when I got home from school.
In the show, a group of teenagers wage virtual battle against a virus-like artificial intelligence force that threatens to wreak havoc on the physical world. If I had to categorize it, I would place it loosely into the "anime-influenced Western animated series" box. Uninformed as I was, I had simply assumed the show was a real Japanese anime, when in actuality it was a French animated television series. Fast forward a decade: I had just moved to the Paris region and begun work as a middle school English teacher. About halfway through the day, it was time for free reading. As I told my students to take out their reading materials, I was struck as, one by one, virtually all pulled out the same thing: Manga.
This mainstream status in France surprised me after my experience in a U.S. middle school, where being a manga (or anime) fan was typically frowned upon. If you were looking to secure popularity, your book of choice might be the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, or the Uglies series. Manga was more of a niche interest, and as such, frequently viewed as "weird," indicative perhaps of some latent xenophobia. And yet, here were my French students — those aspiring to coolness and the wallflowers alike — flipping eagerly through their copies of Demon Slayer or One Piece.
Of course, in recent years anime and manga have entered more of the mainstream in the United States. Celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Michael B Jordan are open fans, to the chagrin of those who detest the thought of the genre being overtaken by "normies." But in France, the story is different altogether. Anime and manga are extremely popular, and have held a special place here for a long time, as noted in a recent article in Le Monde.
"All you have to do is look up and you'll see it all around the school," Solal, a 16-year-old highschooler in Brittany, told the French daily. "Tons of people wear anime-inspired t-shirts or sweaters. Some people even have phone cases with characters from their favorite series on them, while others might be a bit more discreet and just have anime on their computer screen."
Manga actually overtook the traditional BD style, becoming the most popular comic sold in France.
France is ranked, in fact, as the second largest consumer of manga outside of Japan. And it's a love affair that goes back decades, to 1978 to be precise, when it appeared on public television as after-school series.
Young viewers tuned into the public television channel of a production group called Club Dorothée to watch series such as Goldorak or Maya the Bee. These lower budget shows would pave the way for well-known shows like Dragon Balland Sailor Moon. Interestingly, anime as a genre was originally met with backlash, as naysayers decried the genre's tendency to oversexualize characters and portray too much gore and violence. And yet in some ways, the bad press served to make anime more popular, and as anime took off, so did manga.
France was already fertile ground for the manga market given its rich history of graphic novels, or as they are known in French: bandes dessinées (BDs for short). Cultural phenomena like The Adventures of Tintin (1929) and Astérix (1959) have marked generations of French people, with some in France even referring to BDs as the "9th Art." Every year, France hosts the Angoulême International Comics Festival, the second largest comic festival in Europe and the third largest in the world, after Japan's Comiket Festival. Several French government officials attend the event each year, and in 2019, Franck Riester, a former culture minister, even gave a speech where he likened the import of the comic festival to that of the Cannes Film Festival in cinema.
France was already fertile ground for the manga market given its rich history of graphic novels — Photo: Visual/ZUMA Wire
Thus, converting to manga was not that big of an ask for an already comic-loving culture. But by 2005, manga actually overtook the traditional BD style, becoming the most popular comic sold in France. And as manga and anime have taken hold of France, the French have started to create their own comics and series — à la française. Publishers that have sought to create "French-style" manga, or Manfras, tend to feature art inspired by Japanese manga while sometimes offering left-to-right reading styles or incorporating a bande dessinée-style hardcover. Their popularity is growing too, both in France and even in Japan, as evidenced by the success of Radiant, a French comic written and illustrated by Tony Valente, and published by Ankama, the French entertainment company.
Satoko Inaba, editorial director at the publishing house, Glénat told Le Monde that publishing houses have been overwhelmed by requests for publication in this style. "We have piles of projects coming in," he said.
This is where Code Lyoko, the show that grabbed my attention so much as an 11-year-old, fits in. Created by French animators Thomas Romain and Tania Palumbo, the illustration style in the show is an homage to manga iconography and drawing style, even though it is presented through 3D CGI animation. But the imagery is simultaneously inspired by scenes from the Paris area, from a Renault production plant in Boulogne-Billancourt to a high school in Sceaux.
Code Lyoko represents the way that manga and anime, adapted with a few French twists, has triumphed in France — to the point even of being beamed into living rooms in the United States, where the show dazzled at least one curious (and unsuspecting) middle-schooler, who could hardly have imagined she'd one day call Paris home.