A House Divided: The Crisis at L’Association (Part 1 of 2)

Mattt Konture, Killoffer, Stanislas, Lewis Trondheim, Jean-Christophe Menu, David B., Philippe Dupuy and Charles Berberian in Angoulême in 1991

Followers of European comic book publishing and alternative-comics aficionados will be aware that the seminal French independent comics publisher, L’Association, which has helped rewrite the rules of comics over the last twenty years, has been in an existential crisis over the last year, a crisis that went from a widely publicized strike by the employees and the election of a new editorial board consisting of six of the seven original co-founders—most of whom had been estranged from the publisher for years—to the departure of Jean-Christophe Menu, the controversial sole and de facto director of L’Association since 2006.

It was a crisis born in part of the declining state of the book industry and the imperative to adapt to new times, but perhaps more crucially caused by the clash of ambitions of its founders, a group of artists who had created the publisher in 1990 in order to change the direction of comics, but who have found themselves increasingly at odds with each other over the intervening two decades, during which time many of their aspirations realized and several of them have been consolidated as key creators in French-language comics.

Central to the conflict was Menu, the talented and conflicted artist and editor who brought the group together in the first place, and for better or worse became the driving force at L’Association. Crucial as his reflection and judgment was to L’Association’s artistic success, his partners increasingly came to take issue with his choices as head of the publisher and, as one observer put it, his refusal to share in what was essentially a collaborative endeavor.

“The real problem in all of this was very human,” says co-founder and newly-elected treasurer of L’Association, Lewis Trondheim, identifying Menu as the locus of the publisher’s woes over the years. “Menu was the driving force in the creation of L’Association, along with us, but he also ended up a threat to its existence because of his lack of social intelligence and ineptness as a boss and as a manager, and because his alcoholism and paranoia got out of hand.”

L’Association was founded as a non-profit organization in 1990 by David B., Patrice Killoffer, Mattt Konture, Jean-Christophe Menu, Stanislas Barthélemy, Lewis Trondheim, and Frédéric van Linden a.k.a. Mokeït (though the latter soon left to pursue a career in fine art, returning in 2009 as an employee). It was conceived as a platform to publish work that did not fit into the strictly circumscribed formats and genres represented by the mainstream publishers.

This was a time when the comics avant-garde of the seventies had essentially dissipated, with the comics industry dominated by a number of big publishers specializing largely in humor and adventure material. In a parallel to the North American "alternatives" of the time, L’Association focused on reality-based work published exclusively in black-and-white. Initially they released primarily the founders’ own books, but they quickly found that there was a market for this kind of comics and expanded their portfolio to include many of the best and brightest of European and North American cartoonists.

Their first major and defining hit was Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (1999-2004), which made L’Association a robust commercial actor in European comics and helped secure its positioning in bookstores. Concurrently they produced some of the signature works of the new wave of European comics by such authors as David B., Julie Doucet, Dupuy and Berberian, Lewis Trondheim, Joann Sfar, Blutch, Anke Feuchtenberger, Emmanuel Guibert, François Ayroles, Jochen Gerner, Guy Delisle, and others.

Run as L’Association was by a group of strong creative personalities, it was perhaps inevitable that disagreements and eventually fissures would occur. However, specific decisions made early on in the life of the publisher contributed crucially to the rift between Menu and his colleagues. As early as the mid-nineties, several of the founders—most notably Trondheim and David B., but also significant Asso creators such as Sfar—were courted by bigger publishers offering better payment for their work and went on to successful mainstream careers, helping to rejuvenate such creatively faltering mainstream houses as Dargaud—through the influential Poisson Pilote imprint—and assisting the emergence of new ones, such as Delcourt.

Trondheim remembers L'Asso's first booth at Angoulême. From the forthcoming book on L'Association.

While they continued publishing more personal work at L’Association—David B. for example released his autobiographical masterwork Epileptic (1996-2003) there—this was not where they made their living, which at least in part explains why they gradually had less time to spend running L’Association. Menu, who had initially brought the team together in 1990 for the Futuropolis-published anthology Labo (the direct forerunner of L’Association), was the most interested in editorial work and had always had difficulty producing his own comics. Compounding matters, an acrimonious divorce netted him a legal injunction against representing his wife and children in his comics—something that had previously been central to his work, as is memorably demonstrated by the now out-of-print autobiographical Livret de phamille (1995). All this meant that he found himself increasingly tending to the day-to-day operations at L’Association, and eventually it was agreed that he would assume this work in an official capacity and—uniquely among the founders—draw a salary.

This decision proved fatal for the operational dynamics of the group. A conflict emerged through this formal division of responsibility and the connotations of power that it entailed. Menu’s colleagues found him increasingly to assume L’Association as his project primarily, and theirs only secondarily, and his position as salaried editorial director only reinforced this tension.

Menu does not dispute this interpretation: “L’Association is my project, OK? I can assure it,” he says now. “I started it with other projects such as Labo. I asked people to join me, but it was my project: I did all the reflection, all the texts, all the graphic design; I formulated our political position. All this. But I needed to have people to talk with me and this became a problem when some people began talking about power. I never wanted power, power was always a problem…”

David B., in public the most openly critical of Menu, strongly disagrees with this. “This is a line that he has been perpetuating for years: Menu is the incarnation of L’Asso because he formulated the discourse around it," David B. responds when asked to comment. "When I did my books for L’Association, I didn’t draw them under the dictate of some Menu-esque 'philosophy' or 'political position,' and in any case such a thing didn’t even exist when I did Le Cheval blême [‘The Pale Horse’ (1991), David B.’s design of which became an early model for the entire line] or Epileptic. Menu developed his 'philosophy' on the basis of our work and began to assume for it precedence, even though our books found their audience independently of whatever esoteric notions he was cooking up.”

David B. also refers to the crucial role he played in inspiring Satrapi to create her first comic and in having it published at L’Association. “When I was helping Marjane conceive Persepolis, I was helping her in practical terms," he remembers. "I provided criticism and guidance and Menu wasn’t around. Menu asked me to write an introduction for the first volume and what happened to it? It probably didn’t square with his haughty discourse, his foundational 'philosophy.' If you look for it now, you won’t find it—it is only included in the German-Swiss edition. This is the issue I have with his discourse: the appropriation it makes of the work of others.”

For Menu, however, it was not a question of discourse, but of the tension his job created between his ambitions and responsibilities as publisher and his creative impulse. “It was always very paradoxical, because it was my project and also collective," Menu says. "My problem is that I’m very sure of what I want, but at the same time I want to work with other people. I like this dialectic, but it’s really hard. So the collective aspect was very important, but this is also where we disagree. They think we were equivalents and I don’t think so, because I was the only one who was there, working all day. They were at home drawing, and I also wanted to draw. And this was a problem between us. I have talked about the sacrifice I made, and although it was my choice, it was a never-ending problem.”

In 2005, the situation had gotten so bad that David B. quit. His immediate reason was Menu’s publication without his knowledge of the critical tract Plates-Bandes, in which Menu mounted a strongly stated critique of the mainstream comics industry and its practice of cherry-picking and bowdlerizing the innovations of the alternative publishers. But this was only the final straw for David B., who had long objected to Menu’s behavior and felt that what made L’Association special was no longer there for him.

When I interviewed him back then (for TCJ #275), David B. summed up his feelings like this: “[It’s] a common trajectory for groups… there is always a moment when it blows apart because the members of the group who’ve learned things together leave to put into practice what they learned within the group.”

In my interview with Menu that same year (for TCJ # 277), he described it in similar terms: “It’s like we couldn’t stand ourselves anymore. First he [David B.] fell out with Marjane, and then he seemed to turn against me and L’Asso as a structure. We had always argued a lot, as was the case between all the founders, but during the last years, we seemed no longer to understand each other.”

And it would seem that he was correct. The following year, Killoffer, Stanislas, and Trondheim also left the house, while Sfar announced he would no longer publish there. They also cited differences with Menu as the cause. Mattt Konture remained loyal to Menu, staying on in his position as co-founder, but was not involved in the day-to-day operation.

Between then and now, L’Association was managed by Menu and a directorial board which had been in place since 1993, with Patricia Perdrizet as president, Isabelle “Zab” Chipot as secretary, and Laetitia Zuccarelli as treasurer. According to Trondheim, the former two were “fiercely loyal” to Menu, Chipot even being a former girlfriend of his. Carmela Chergui, an employee at L’Association through the crisis, describes the three of them as “very close.”

These years saw books of broad appeal de-emphasized in favor of more experimental work by such profiles as Dominique Goblet, Florent Ruppert and Jérôme Mulot, Claire Braud, and Benoît Guillaume, as well as reprints of forgotten classics of Franco-Belgian comics seen to prefigure the avant-garde project that Menu was increasingly pushing. And in 2007, he resurrected the L’Association’s long-running but defunct anthology Lapin as a platform for the cultivation of young talents. This was part of a plan to prevent L’Association from turning into a strictly generational operation and has helped the emergence of significant new authors such as Lisa Mandel, Nine Antico, and Matthias Picard.

At one level, this new direction was a reaction to the mechanisms of co-option Menu had laid out in Plates-Bandes and investigated further in his ambitious trilogy of critical compendia, L’Éprouvette (2006-2007), which united a wide range of critics, commentators, and cartoonists in an effort to articulate a radical, progressive political stance in contemporary comics, French and international. Menu further located this radical aesthetic at the heart of L’Association with MMX/XX, the joint exhibition and publication he issued in 2010 to mark the publisher’s twentieth anniversary. And in some ways, La Bande Dessinée et son double, the doctoral thesis he defended at the Sorbonne on January 8 this year—just as the strike was about to hit—can be seen as a more complex theoretical articulation of this same position.

None of this is to say that L’Association did not continue to publish certain cartoonists of more traditional stripe—the headliner in this respect was the widely popular and award-winning cartoonist and director Riad Sattouf—but with Satrapi devoting her attention to film-making, and other early mainstays such as Sfar, Blutch, and Guy Delisle all alienated, the publisher clearly lacked in marquee names. This proved unsustainable in a book market plagued by falling sales across the board—even the high-profile La Vie secrète des jeunes ['The Secret Life of the Young'], a collection of Sattouf’s strips from the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, sold “only” 20,000 copies where Menu had expected twice that.

Menu insists on having his own thing during a meeting to discuss publication of the Tardi sketchbook he later published. From David B.'s contribution to the upcoming book on L'Association.

In 2009 he called in an accountant to provide an analysis of the L’Association’s financial situation, which turned out to be rather grim. In the open letter he wrote on February 13 this year to defend his position during the strike, entitled “Bandelettes”, he described it in terms of L’Association having been living above its means for several years, its problems masked by the continued success of Satrapi’s books.

As an immediate response, he and the directorial board hired an external manager part-time to oversee the publisher’s finances. They furthermore decided to reduce L’Association’s annual number of publications by about half: where they had published around 40 books in 2009, they slashed it to 25 in 2010. But according to Menu, the problem was not just output, but structural. The slumping market and the end of Persepolis’s cycle as a bestselling book meant that he would have to reduce staff. He started by taking himself off the payroll, effective from March 2010, giving up the annual salary (around €48-50,000, or $66-69,000) that he had been drawing from the structure since 1999.

Trondheim and David B., however, describe this as a ruse by Menu to entitle himself to a severance package of €42,000 ($58,000), and they claim that the employees have since found a projected budget for 2011 in which a salary of €60,000 ($82,000) is allocated to him. “It’s true that I had this sum when I left," admits Menu. "It was a legal severance package for me, as I had worked eleven years as a salaryman. I didn’t ask for a cent more, although I could rightly have done so. So it was just the legal minimum." However, he disputes the second allegation. "Once things were clearer, I was supposed to again work for L’Asso, but for a fee, not a salary, in order to save money at L’Asso," he says. "The thing is that I let more than twelve months pass between my firing and my inscription to the dole, so the dole won’t give me anything now. So I lived for one year on my severance package, but now I get nothing at all. And note that since I was fired, L’Association ended up employing me for fourteen months illegally and for free!”

Then, in the fall of 2010, another problem arose. L’Association’s bookstore distributor, Le Comptoir des indépendants, collapsed. Founded in 1999 by a conglomerate of small-press publishers of which L’Association was by far the biggest, the Comptoir had been a central force in opening the bookstore market to alternative comics over the past decade, fuelled by the great success of Persepolis. According to both Menu and Trondheim this setback was substantial. L’Association owned a 34% stake in the distributor and lost €176,950 ($245,000) on its collapse (the distribution of several of the Comptoir publishers, among them L’Association, is now managed by the generalist Belles lettres diffusion).

The seven salaried staff members saw trouble brewing. Carmela Chergui, who has been working with L’Association as press, rights, and membership manager since 2007, describes the situation as follows: “For about six months, we’d been hearing that L’Association was in financial trouble. Menu told us that we would have to talk about solutions together, but nothing ever happened. Being the ones directly menaced by these problems, we naïvely thought he was going to sit us down around a table, show us the numbers and discuss things.

"But Menu was never there and the person in charge [the external, part-time manager] didn’t talk to us about it either," Chergui continues. "As for the president or the accountant, we were never given an opportunity to talk to them. It seemed obvious that if someone should have a say in what was to be done, it would be us, the only ones who really understood the day-to-day operation of the publisher. We did not assume to have a say in the editorial program, but we know who does what and how much it costs. It was a simple question of respect and values. At a certain point, sensing that decisions were being made over our heads, we demanded a meeting with Menu, the president, and the manager.”

This meeting was held on 10 December. Menu announced that there would be up to four layoffs. In his “Bandelettes” he explains his rationale: “The unfortunate slump in revenue [for L’Asso] corresponded with a more general, and incontrovertible, development [in the book market]… and had to be addressed in terms of a smaller, leaner operation, better suited to this new environment and its perspectives.”

The employees, however, were not satisfied with this explanation. “The announcement was made brutally and without any justification in concrete numbers," says Chergui. "At no point were we shown why these layoffs were made necessary by the state of L’Association’s finances. The vague references to the book market crisis or whatever revealed a profound disrespect for our work and investment in the operation. I didn’t understand why they couldn’t just show us these famous numbers, especially since some of us had the skills to read and understand them. And I didn’t understand how, since we were already overworked, they were planning to run the publisher with half the staff, especially seeing that they didn’t really understand who among us did what exactly, and how.”

In “Bandelettes”, Menu admits that he is not a good staff manager and that his interpersonal skills could be better. He notes that the sudden announcement of layoffs contributed to the dissatisfaction of the employees, but emphasizes that he did, in fact, discuss his plans with them, mentioning another measure he was considering on the advice of his external manager: selling off or getting rid of inventory, even though he had previously been philosophically opposed to the idea. L’Association has never offered a book at reduced price, held a sale, or eliminated inventory, and over the years the accumulation of their catalog has meant the accretion of very substantial storage costs.

He further explains his rationale behind some of the announced layoffs: the elimination of mail-order sales and other direct distribution of books that he envisioned to cut costs would put into question the person in charge of these tasks, Fréderic van Linden (a.k.a. Mokeït, co-founder of L’Association); the full-time bookkeeper Philippe Reveau would be replaced by external revision; the reduced output meant that having two in-house designers was excessive, especially since Menu himself could do part of the work, so graphic designer Eric Bricka, who had already announced a six-month sabbatical, would be laid off while Fanny Dalle-Rive would remain in her position; and lastly production manager Nicolas Leroy had already announced that he was looking to change jobs. The last two employees, Chergui and Marie Chesnais would remain on staff.

Chergui finds this rationalization disingenuous, emphasizing that Bricka, although he had announced a sabbatical, had no intention of leaving his job, and that Leroy, while indeed thinking of moving on, had not yet taken any concrete steps to do so. “The situation quickly became both unpleasant and very stressful for us," she says. "In addition to the layoffs there was the future situation proposed by Menu, the president, and the manager to consider. What they were describing wasn’t at all reassuring and we couldn’t make much sense of it in any case…. These decisions seemed to us unjust and illegitimate and we didn’t have any way of protesting them.

“What we wanted most of all,” she continues, “was a new, legitimate directorial board elected by the members, and we wanted to be made privy to the numbers used to justify the layoffs.” As indicated earlier, L’Association had not held a general assembly since 2007, even though its constitution requires it to do so biannually, meaning that the directorial board was technically illegitimate. As Chergui puts it, “It quickly became obvious to us that we wouldn’t achieve anything without a strike.”

This article is based substantially on interviews conducted from June-September 2011. Several additional people were contacted for comments but declined or proved unreachable. My thanks to Jean-Louis Gauthey and Xavier Guilbert for their assistance. The images here are courtesy Lewis Trondheim. Go here for part 2, in which we follow how the crisis came to a head and how the publisher subsequently restructured.