Alt-comics is a notoriously precarious industry for publishers, susceptible to passing trends and financial crises; in recessions, the first luxuries to be dispensed with are experimental works of sequential fiction (no surprises there). Since the 2008 financial crisis we’ve seen some of the trailblazers of alt-comics suffer, with Fantagraphics turning to crowdfunding to stay afloat, and Picturebox closing its doors for good in 2014—these are not small players, but some of the best-loved outfits in the independent field. So how is it that the downward trend is being bucked by two Swiss publishers you’ve almost certainly never heard of, and whose fierce independence has been maintained for over 20 years?
B.ü.L.b comix was founded in the mid ’90s by two friends fresh out of school, keen to innovate in a world they felt was saturated with predictable storytelling. They established themselves among the surprisingly prolific squatting scene in Geneva, making the most of affordable studio space and a vibrant avant-garde of new comics talent, producing short-run, cheaply printed miniature editions in unusual formats. Back in the ’90s nobody could have predicted a Swiss enterprise like this could have such longevity, but Nicolas Robel and Mathieu Christe believe their recipe for success was right from the start, as Robel explains below.
What was the reason for starting Bulb?
Back in 1997 there was a huge trend towards computer-generated projects for museums and events, but I decided to do quite the opposite and produce a minimal, raw, low-budget silkscreened illustration and comics publishing venture. We tested the idea of B.ü.L.b comix with the release of Sûre by Alex Baladi in 1996—which sold out the entire print run of 100 copies in one evening—and founded for real a year later. The initial reason was the will to connect with and publish other people’s work. Our activity among the local scene, as well as my own interest in the North American one (being a Canadian), played a crucial editorial role. B.ü.L.b comix pioneered the translation of works from John Porcellino, Ron Regé Jr., and Tom Gauld into languages other than English. As published authors in our own right, the experience of being on the other side also brought a reflective and welcome perspective.
You publish a lot of American comics in French. Is that because there was huge demand for them in other languages, or did you create the demand?
Nothing in B.ü.L.b comix is connected to a demand. When we were publishing John Porcellino back in 1998, there was not much of a demand. I was a long-time subscriber to his self-published King-Cat series, and the idea to publish a selection of his naïve and touching graphic poetry was an obvious choice. At that time, the conservative audience here were thinking, “What? This guy doesn’t even know how to draw!” Things have changed since then and a lot of European comic artists embraced the black-and-white graphic novel. The market is now a bit oversaturated.
Originally we wanted to publish books. We were motivated by drawings and stories, so it made sense to publish illustrators and graphic novelists, but pretty fast we realized we wanted to design, publish, and distribute timeless books that were separate from any trends. Now 18 years later, the experience is very positive, and we’ve managed to remain a part of contemporary art books collections without producing any excessively crafted comics-related content. So far we’ve published 126 authors so far from many countries, including Japan, France, Portugal, Canada, the United States, Finland, and many more.
Switzerland is known more for its design than illustration. Does it have a rich comics heritage outsiders may not be aware of?
Switzerland is a small and yet complex country with four languages—the majority speaking Swiss German. One of the founders of the bande dessinée was a Swiss artist named Rodolphe Töpffer. He was born in 1799, studied in Paris, and was influenced by contemporary Romanticism. He drew graphic stories very early on in his career. My grandfather used to read me Töpffer’s books when I was a child. We tend to forget that graphic designers back in the 1920s and earlier were connected to photography and illustration as well as typography. There were no computers, and they took a hand-made approach to making work.
We take a similar approach. B.ü.L.b comix is part of the bulbfactory, the main portal of all our interconnected activities. Graphic design is a big part of it, both economically and as a vector for all our other specialties. Mathieu is a master of typography [at La Police type foundry] and I’m expressing other parts of my personal creative visions through illustrations, installations, and stories.
How much does Switzerland look up to France and Belgium’s traditions of bande dessinée?
The contemporary tradition is quite small compared to France and Belgium because of the four languages and the fact the French is a minority. Some commercial comic artists are having great success in France and abroad, but I’m not fond of what they do. It’s very mainstream.
How would you distinguish the comics scenes in Europe and the USA?
Since the late ’60s the alternative and independent scene was like a back and forth between the old continent and the New World. I was born in Québec with a father from the west coast of Canada, and I grew up with both cultures; the old continent, with L’histoire de Babar and Tintin with my mother, and the New World with Mad Magazine and Richard Scarry with my father.
What’s the secret to lasting 20 years?
Choose each book project wisely. Check your wallet. Don’t spend money you don’t have. Stay small. Say no to credit. Keep the faith in doing things sustainably. We were surprised by our success, but it has worked so far. We don’t have much money but we’ve not suffered too many bruises either. We get tired sometimes, for sure, but we’re rich in all of our experiences with our authors and readers.
And what about the next 20 years?
The shelf life of this adventure was also decided in advance, and we ended it all when we reached the letter “Z” of our most iconic collection, the 2[w]. We wrote all these constraints as part of a Manifesto to guide us, because we wanted to ensure it was impossible to hit bankruptcy. We’ve always been proud to fulfill our mission on our own terms.
We’ll be publishing more books with bülbooks, a new publishing house offering practical guides with more text and theory. After 18 years publishing sequential art, we felt the need to reflect on our practice and explore new avenues. Nicolas is the guide. Secondly, La Police published the first issue of Footnotes, a yearly bulletin. Mathieu is the commissaire. We are currently developing new editorial visions individually, but always in dialogue.