A Conversation with Fabrice Giger, CEO of Humanoids
Maestro of Cutting Edge Science Fiction
Fabrice Giger is easily one of the most influential trailblazers in the comic book world, yet many fans and professionals don’t know his story. In 1988, at the age of 23, he purchased Humanoids, Europe’s renowned comic book publisher. Since then he has worked with some of the industry’s most visionary legends, such as Jean Giraud (Moebius), Enki Bilal, Alejandro Jodorowsky and Ridley Scott, overseeing the development of cutting edge properties that have pushed the boundaries of the comic book medium and science fiction. The catalog he’s shepherded includes: The Incal, Metal Hurlant, The Metabarons and much more. Giger revolutionized the approach to how graphic novels are printed, treating each book as an individual work of art meant to stand out on the reader’s shelf. He has also made great strides in changing the rules of the industry. I had the opportunity to sit with him to discuss his legacy and the future of Humanoids.
JS: Tell me about yourself. I know you bought Humanoids back in ‘88, where did your passion for science fiction and comics come from? Give me the story leading up to the company’s acquisition.
FG: When I was nine years old, I was living on the outskirts of Geneva, Switzerland. And I was in a small village with no kids. The youngest kid was me, and I was all alone. Back then, the graphic novel industry in Europe was already big. And I picked up any book I could. Whenever I’d go shopping with my mother, I would get lucky and she would buy me a book. That’s the way I got into comics. But these comics were not American comics, they were European. Softcovers and hardcovers, which had a different aesthetic at the time. I built a collection and became passionate about the medium.
I started to draw and write. Many children in the U.S. and Europe started by drawing comics in their youth. When I was 14, I started to write about comics. I did that for a few years for a newspaper in Geneva called the Tribune de Genève. I was the special envoy to the Angoulême International Comics Festival; lots of great memories from back then. When I was about 17, I started to work with friends of mine on a magazine project. A fanzine containing stories, comic artwork, things like that. But we wanted to do our job in a very professional way, with nice layouts and with the typical Swiss sensibility for quality typography and printing and all that. I showed our work to people around the industry, and it was so good that they started to ask us to work for them, doing posters, booklets, advertisements in general. By the end of our teenage years, we had formed a company working for different local people and making money in advertising and graphic design. We then began to publish the first comic books under the brand we had - it was called L’Essai (French for “The Try”). We published a few, which taught me how to do that.
There, I learned not only about hiring writers and artists, but how to print, market and distribute the books to ensure their success. That entailed a few hard lessons, and when I turned 21, it was clear to me that the advertisement industry wasn’t something I liked enough to spend my life working in. I was more passionate about comics and movies.
Of course my favorite brand and company was Humanoids, or more precisely Les Humanoïdes Associés, as it’s known under its French name, which translates to United Humanoids, and of course its legendary magazine, Métal Hurlant. But it wasn’t for sale. So then I began this process, of a 20-something, trying to get in touch with Hachette, one of the largest media giants in Europe, which was the owner of Humanoids. I’d send letter after letter telling them that I would love to buy the company. It was a bit more sophisticated than that because I developed arguments explaining why they should sell the business to me and they remain its distributor. That way, they’d make money on the distribution, while the content’s quality remained high caliber under editorial direction that understood and appreciated the brand. This was the actual approach that I took, and I had to prove that this was not just an idea, but something that I had really thought out very carefully.
At first, they were not interested but I kept asking and approaching them, and after six months they finally caved and said, “Let's see the face of this very strange young man from Switzerland.” I think they were amused, or so they told me years later. It was funny to them, almost a joke.
JS: Was Humanoids generating a lot of income for them?
FG: It was something that had been widely successful in the 70’s, and Hachette acquired it in the middle of the 80’s. Back then I believe they were interested in the magazine more than the catalog itself. The thing is, Hachette was too big to handle something that was very successful but needed a boutique approach. Metal Hurlant was a comics anthology containing original stories, articles and was very well known. The stories were first published in the magazine and then were collected into albums (trade paperbacks or hardcovers). But a magazine like Metal needed a lot of passion and excitement and a very specific approach, which was really challenging for such a big group like Hachette.
JS: They didn’t get the brand.
FG: Exactly. So, in 1987, they published the last installment of Metal Hurlant. They had this publishing house, part of this gigantic group with no comic books at all. Almost nothing in the field, and I felt they probably didn’t know how to deal with it and I was right. It wasn’t for sale, but with my approach, I really pushed the right buttons, because all the arguments I used were true. And at one point, they said, “This young guy is right. We’ll make money distributing it without having to worry about the rest.” So, they sold it to me.
JS: What was the European comic book market like back then?
FG: Humanoids was and remains cutting edge. It was the only brand in Europe really known outside of France and Belgium. And it still is the most famous internationally. Though there are many other publishers on the continent, who are much bigger than us, but not as well-known as we are. Humanoids was considered very Parisian at the beginning and become this company that bridged continents, by mixing influences from the European bande dessinée, with American comic books and even manga.
JS: So Humanoids was still releasing content at the time?
FG: Yes, but they had to switch to a business model from first publishing the content in magazines, to publishing it directly in books. Which later became the rule for everyone, because there are almost no more comic book magazines in Europe. It’s almost all gone now. So, as in many cases, Humanoids was the first company to take this revolutionary step. They had killed their ideas factory, (Metal was dubbed “La Machine à Rêver” which means the machine which makes you dream) and that’s the moment that I arrived. Right man, right place, at the right time. And they sold it to me for a price that was very fair. The thing is, back then, no comic companies or catalogues like Humanoids were for sale, so it’s not as if there was a market for it with comparable prices.
JS: That seems like a common trend in the industry, during certain eras when comic companies were sold. Owners often didn’t realize what they owned, nor how to exploit it.
FG: They didn’t want to deal with that crazy team of creators. And in their case, they were completely right. Since then they have continued to distribute the catalogue instead of being the owner and producing it, and they made money out of it. Our French books are still distributed by Hachette today and they do a tremendous job.
JS: Where were Moebius, Jodorowsky and the original founders of the company by this time?
FG: By then, when they stopped the magazine in ‘87, all these people but Jodo had left. So I arrived there with a new team. We kept a few of the people who had worked for Humanoids back then. One of them, Bruno Lecigne, is still working with us, and is considered one of the best comic book editors in Europe. It took us very little time to reboot the company and boost it to a degree where it was performing amazingly. All of these artists like Moebius, and others like Bilal, came back to work with us.
And between the years of 1988 and 93 -- It was an explosion of talent – and the revenues followed the same path. It was something extremely energizing which I have never again seen to the same degree in Europe. You have to imagine, back then in Europe, it was the end of the big graphic novel comic book companies being owned by a family. We had only a few big companies. One was Dargaud, publisher of Astérix, which was owned by Mr. Dargaud, the fellow who founded it just before WWII, so he was an old guy. He had to sell it to a group. Another company owned by a family and was sold to a group was Dupuis, publisher of Spirou. Same thing for Casterman a little later, the publisher of Tintin, which had existed for two hundred years.
It was a time when everything was changing, and we were on the scene first. We weren’t smarter than them, but we were way younger. Our approach was very different than any of the other publishers. For example, we were the first ones to start sewing the books’ binding in order to ensure that they were strong and long lasting. We were the first to really work on the covers and the packaging, in the sense that they were important in terms of marketing. We were the first ones to do real marketing to help sell the books. We had a spirit and attitude that was open to trying new things to see what would work. And in doing that, we helped change the rules in the industry.
JS: It’s interesting that you bring that up because it wasn’t until the early-to-mid-2000s that Marvel seriously got into the trades game. So you guys were predecessors in terms of putting quality trade books on shelves. You guys really started that trend in Europe.
FG: We were the first to do that in Europe. Then we did it in the U.S. We published our first book in the U.S. in 1998. We experimented with everything we could. Making mistakes, of course, – such as publishing oversized books when the shelves were not large enough for them back then – but also finding new ways to change the medium. The packaging of our books was something we paid close attention to. I remember in my younger years as a reader, when I’d buy a softcover book that was poorly glued. You’d open your books, and then have fliers falling out. I hated that. And one the first things we did was to have the books sewn, not glued, even if it would increase the cost.
JS: What was it like when you stepped into your new role? What was it like when you had these legends in the field who came together and realized that this 23-year-old kid just acquired their entire life’s work!
FG: I remember the first time I met Jodorowsky in October of ‘88. It was at this little restaurant next to the office where Hachette had Humanoids based for a few years. And he told me in his unmistakable accent, “But... how old are you?!”
FG: That was the first thing he said to me. And I told him, “I’m 23.” And this was something he couldn’t even understand. Everything was at play during this meeting. Everything was established. It was a make or break moment. Because I may’ve been young, but I had a clear sense of what I wanted. After an hour, he told me, “Okay, you look much younger than me, but in fact, your spirit is older.” From that moment on, our relationship has been perfect. A very respectful two-way relationship. He has often said, “After this meeting, I’ve been a samurai for Humanoids for decades.” For years and years, we talked almost every day. Then he decided not to be a samurai anymore and resumed his directing career. He turned 88 last February, but he remains very creative in various disciplines – his latest movie, Endless Poetry, will be released in the US in June. We still work together – the new cycle of the Metabarons, simply called The Metabaron, is a big international success, with great artists such as Valentin Sécher ...who was born the year I met Jodorowsky the first time.
JS: How did Moebius react?
FG: He didn’t do the “you’re so young” bit. He was in awe. “Okay, you’re young. This is fantastic. You’re doing the crazy stuff I would’ve loved to do at your age.” It was more like that. I remember the first meeting we had, also in a restaurant (it happened in France, after all). It was in a nice brasserie. We had started to talk a bit, he looked at the menu, then closed it, asked to be excused from the table for a few minutes. He crossed the street, went into a grocery shop, bought a raw avocado, came back and asked for a knife. That was it. He ate his avocado during the lunch. He was deep into the Instinct Theory back then. We talked about many things and established a deep relationship. I have fond memories of all the conversations we had over the years. When he would visit my place he wouldn’t bring wine, but a drawing. I actually have one right here. It’s Moebius’ drawing, the way he saw me when I was about 25. He saw me as someone who had to juggle to keep things going, which wasn't that far from reality at that time.
Each of my first encounters with the talent at Humanoids were not only decisive, but they were also interesting stories in of themselves. It fueled me with the energy I needed to push the whole thing forward. And we all became arrogant to the degree that we believed that anything was possible. And even if it wasn’t true, it makes you capable of amazing things. Soon the artists and writers realized that there was a real difference between us and the executives at other publishing houses.
JS: What does it take to create great comics?
FG: It takes talented artists and writers! And the publishers can facilitate the process. That's where my background helped me. My father is a painter, an artist, and I grew up in an environment with only artists. So I understood how an artist functions, how his/her sensitivity is key, etc. A publisher can bring the support needed, and sometimes pushes where it hurts to get the best out of them, in order to get great material. It's the right balance between creative freedom and respecting certain rules of the industry. From the very beginning, it was very clear to me that with the people I was hiring and the team I was building around me, how I wanted creative projects to be handled. And our approach was radically different to others.
JS: I read about this, and correct me if I’m wrong, but even then, in the 80’s, you saw the potential of comics, specifically the library of Humanoids translating into film and television.
FG: And we tried. Not only movies, but so much more. To me, a comic book artist is so much more than that. Very often, he or she is a writer, and a director, and a production designer, they have to build the whole thing. Take Ridley Scott for example, he draws. I remember having a meeting with him, and seeing some of our book excerpts projected on a wall. He was overjoyed. Ridley completely understood that a comic book artist has to be multifaceted person, able to do all these things. Then, as a publisher, you have to take all these elements into consideration. The book is probably the first goal, but not the last step of the process. It has to expand, and we tried many things during an era when CD-ROMS were barely in existence. We tried to create interactive CD-ROM comics, with only the panels, without balloons, without text but with sound and voices. To see how it would work as an immersive experience.
JS: On the topic of Ridley Scott, I understand there was once a web initiative launched between him and Humanoids, and a lot of content was created for it. Is that true?
FG: Yes. We had a project with Ridley and Tony Scott, which was about developing the first website dedicated to science fiction, with original content coming from the Scotts’ side and the Humanoids' side.
JS: Was that content ever used for anything?
FG: No. That was during my early years in Hollywood, at the end of the 90’s. Ridley Scott knew Humanoids very well. Actually, he decided to direct Blade Runner after he read a a short story in Metal Hurlant (The Long Tomorrow by Mœbius and Dan O'Bannon). In the 70s, he was of course also aware of the Dune project by Jodorowsky. So, at the beginning of the internet era, we were brought together. Everybody was starting to talk about the web and what it would be. At Humanoids we were very much into it. We were the first graphic novel publisher to have a website in Europe. And this idea came up of creating a website with the help of a venture capitalist. The goal of the site was to produce original science fiction content with him, his brother, as well as Renny Harlin, the director of Die Hard 2. And two of Ridley’s children, too. We were in this together, dreaming up the coolest content we could create. I spent every day for a year at Ridley’s office in LA, RSA. We used our best creative people, and our best engineers. This was in ‘99-2000.
JS: What happened to that content?
FG: All that content is on a shelf, because of the fact that the internet bubble burst. I remember that day very clearly. We were creating great material for the time. One day we get this call from the V.C. and he said, “Guys, it’s over. Pop.com closed its door this morning. It’s over. The internet is over. We will not launch the website, there’s no market for it anymore.” That was a few months before launch.
You have to remember that bandwidth was an issue back then. Today it isn’t. We had to not only care about the content, but how to deliver it and the best way to deliver it. So the evolving standards made our content obsolete in the market five years later. These things have not been shown. Well, we did make some of it available online for two weeks at one point in Europe. Our servers crashed because too many people downloaded it.
JS: I imagine you must've been frustrated at the setback. What did you learn?
FG: I was very frustrated indeed and as Humanoids was growing so big, so fast, this abrupt event changed the course of action. And that was just before a lot of other shit hit the fan, 9/11, the invasion of Iraq and other things that made things worse. It was a depressing time and I was not far from burning out. In 2004-2005, I told myself, “that’s enough.” I needed to get away from everything, so that’s when I and my family went to live in India and took a sabbatical for a few years. (Laughter)
But the Scott years, if I can call them that, showed me even more that graphic novel content, driven by artists and writers, was and still is the perfect vehicle for the movie industry. What happened later with Marvel was not astonishing to me at all. It was a logical step. I didn’t expect it to become so big, but that it would happen was clear. When I returned in 2008, I became adamant that we needed be part of the development process. Not only in terms of business, but in the creative aspect too. We needed to ensure that our content really gets the treatment it deserves.
JS: What’s interesting about Marvel is that they attempted to create a Humanoids- esque imprint called Epic under Jim Shooter’s direction, who was the editor-and-chief back in the 80’s. That unfortunately failed, but it was their attempt at cutting edge stuff that really tried new things outside of their regular superhero staples. They even reprinted a number of Humanoids books, including The Incal.
FG: Yes, that was the first time it was really in the album format in the U.S. But we experienced the same thing with DC later on, when they made a similar attempt at licensing our books. It was not a market they really knew how to deal with. That’s also the reason why we want to be involved in the movie development of our catalog, because we have so many different genres. We have westerns, thrillers, science fiction, action-adventure, and more. The only way to deal with that –for books, as for movies and television series– is to consider each one of them as unique. It requires a way bigger commitment to the material. And as we have a specific approach to the production of our books, we try to have the same for our movies currently under development. I’m not trying to teach here, but I’m just saying our vibe, our specific sensibility is one that gives a special color to what we are trying to achieve in the industry. A good example is what we are doing with Bouncer, a Western created by Jodorowsky and Boucq.
JS: In development right now?
FG: We are in the casting stage and it will be shot this year. The director, Floria Sigismondi, who directed The Runaways, isn’t far from our style. To some degree she’s not that far off from Jodorowsky. And her strong vision for Bouncer will definitely bring something to the Humanoids family. It’s what I consider the Humanoids process, which is to work with people who have a strong point of view, a strong vision for our material. And that’s what we are doing now.
JS: What is your vision for Humanoids in terms what you want to achieve in Hollywood?
FG: If we decided to just sell options, we would probably have two-thirds of the catalog under option so far. That’s just based on the inquiries, demands, and offers we’ve received in the past 25 years. We’ve received dozens serious offers or inquiries on The Metabarons and The Incal alone. The Incal is the bestselling science fiction graphic novel of all-time.
JS: The Incal and The Metabarons are properties I’d hold up there with Dune in terms of being masterworks in science fiction. They are incredible books. I'd imagine they'd be difficult to translate because of the scope of vision.
FG: It’s certainly not just one movie. That’s something we’re starting to work on, but we’ve been reluctant to do so for 25 years until we feel we can give it the treatment it deserves.
JS: I understand that you’re gun-shy. Those properties are so amazing, what would it take for Hollywood to meet you half way to get those stories made?
FG: It’s all about the talent. The directing and writing talent have to be the right match. One of the first experiences I had in Hollywood was with The Metabarons in the 90s. The studio picked the wrong talent to adapt it. Fortunately, it didn’t go through, because they had some changes internally. But it taught me a lesson: The most important element in a project is the talent. Who are the people you will develop this with? Having control of our projects over the years has put us in a place where we can now deal directly with the talent we want, because we know that many of these properties are interesting to potential partners.
JS: It’s incredibly tasteful and high-brow stuff that you guys produce. What I respect about Humanoids is that you aren’t trying to do anything derivative. So many production companies are just trying to flip a pre-established thing. You’re going for something truly unique.
FG: When we have new projects, the first question we ask ourselves is, “have we seen this already?” If the answer is yes, we’ll pass. Or, we will push to find a new angle. And if you have that kind of approach, it doesn’t mean you will create amazing stuff every time, but it increases the odds. You have to try new things, as do the writers and artists. You have to help them evolve. We do the same thing with the movies now and the directors we work with. In terms of development, if there something equivalent, we try to find a new way of doing it. It doesn’t make our life easier, but I think it makes our projects more interesting.
JS: Can you talk about the difference between Metal Hurlant and Heavy Metal? Many confuse the two for each other.
FG: People often confuse both brands Heavy Metal and Métal Hurlant which is normal, since Heavy Metal was adapted from Métal Hurlant and published our content for a few years in the mid to late 70’s. Métal Hurlant and its numerous foreign versions have been a major influence in pop culture since then, and one can see its mark everywhere. Many talented people all around the world have been influenced by its content and our books. Recently, I read in interviews that Metal was an important influence for Alex Garland (Ex Machina), and even Hans Zimmer, the composer.
JS: What is your relationship now, if any, with Heavy Metal? I know they’re in Hollywood trying to exploit the magazine. Do you still have a relationship with them?
FG: We have met the new owners who seem nice, but we don’t really know them. To some degree, I still believe that the real spirit of Heavy Metal is that of Metal Hurlant. They have, for the most part, lived on a wave which started in the 70’s. Those content licensing deals, and creative agreements happened before me. Back then, they decided, probably because it was cheaper, not to publish the Humanoids content and to go with material whose quality was not at the same level. Clearly, in a spiritual sense, there was a split between both brands back then. They went into a different direction, with the big tits and stuff like that, while Humanoids has been investing heavily in creating new content and building a strong catalog of IPs.
JS: What about Ridley Scott?
FG: I haven’t reconnected with him since I came back from India ten years ago, and I regret that since I have a profound admiration for the man and his work. I remember one of the last things we discussed was The Metabarons –I even recollect a meeting about it with him, Mœbius and Jodorowsky in an editing suite…– but he wasn’t ready for it.
JS: Are there any plans to revive Metal Hurlant?
FG: We actually did a kind of 2-year revival in the early 2000s and, again Metal played the role of talent booster. Talents such as Jerome Opena, Adi Granov, Igor Baranko, Jerry Frissen published their first pages in there, along with numerous established writers and artists. We had no certainty about the outcome, but we are now thinking of ways to resurrect once more the spirit of Metal.
JS: You’re obviously a huge science fiction fan, I heard that you were possibly buying, or licensing properties from Robert Silverberg.
FG: Yeah, we have a great relationship with Bob. We will be publishing an adaption of one of his books in Europe this April. The first volume out of two for Downward to Earth, which he wrote in 1971. A Time of Changes is another adaptation we are working on. These are masterpieces. They are so deep and touch people not only in the science fiction world, but beyond. The adaptation process is particularly complicated though. For instance, in Downward the main character speaks in the first person throughout the whole book. It was really challenging for Philippe Thirault, the adapter (writer of MISS: BETTER LIVING THROUGH CRIME). But he’s also very talented and understood deeply what Bob did and turned it into something that’s cinematic without losing the spirit of it. And the art of artist Laura Zuccheri gives it the deluxe treatment.
JS: I was reading the second part of Isaac Asimov’s autobiography, In Joy Still Felt. Asimov knew Bob, since they were friends, and I was surprised to learn that he was jealous of him at one point.
FG: Did you see how many books Silverberg wrote and how fast he was?
JS: He was indeed faster than Asimov, and he was so successful at such a young age. He was always good at making money and he is a genius.
FG: Earlier in his career, Silverberg books were big in Hollywood. But the market was not ready, in the sense that all the visual effects technology that Lucas, Cameron and others developed later, wasn’t around yet. I believe that Hollywood will rediscover Silverberg. And maybe to some degree. Humanoids will be part of that rediscovery, because the adaptation work we do paves a clear path to movie or television adaptations. And Bob’s agent, Vince Gerardis, will help in this endeavor –hopefully as successfully as he helped George RR Martin get A Song of Ice and Fire turned into the phenomenon Game of Thrones (laughter). Speaking of George R.R. Martin, he told me that one of his favorite books is A Time of Changes. It’s so modern even though it was written in the 70’s and it’s so powerful.
JS: Was there any interest at Humanoids to adapt other New Wave writers, like Harlan Ellison, Philip K. Dick, J.G. Ballard?
FB: The answer is yes. Not for PKD, but there are a few that I can’t mention yet. The nice thing about Bob is that he’s still living. I just wished him a Happy Birthday the other day.
JS: Do you still follow modern science fiction?
FB: Yeah, especially in Europe. We’re starting a new project based on novels by European science fiction writers, but we are very open to doing more because I feel that to some degree, the pool of comic book talent, specifically writing talent, is not that wide.
JS: I had read somewhere that there are less writers in the professional comic book field than there are players in the NBA.
FB: That makes sense and it’s a problem. And when they become successful they have a tendency to make creator owned projects. That’s great for them, and I have no problem with that, but for a publisher like Humanoids which continuously develops an international catalog and uses the income from it to finance new projects, it’s important that the pool of A-list-talent is as deep as possible and available to us. That’s why we spend so much money and make such an effort on the writing and the art, so a writer who pitches us a story knows that we will find him a top artist to partner with, and vice versa. And by the way, our European origins make our contracts not very different from a creator-owned contract.
So the adaptation model has been an answer to that. But still, you have to find the right person to do the adaption. You can’t just take the book and break it down. You have to really create something new out of it. And I believe that when Silverberg saw the first pages of the graphic novel adaptation of Downward, he was stunned.
JS: One of the reasons I wanted to speak with you is that it’s all connected. If you study the history of sci-fi and comics, starting with Hugo Gernsback who launched the first SF pulp magazine, to the beginning of fandom, to the rise of comic book publishing, movies and TV, it’s all connected.
FB: It’s one big wave.
JS: And when you speak to people who work in the field, it all connects to a larger narrative to what I think is ultimately the most influential genre.
FB: I completely agree. It’s part of the same system, with waves.
JS: It doesn’t seem like most people know your story, which is a fascinating one. You’ve shepherded this company since the end of the 80’s. You’re still young. What do you really want out of this company. What do you really want to do with its legacy?
FB: I’m behind the schedule I had in mind ten years ago, compared to where I intended us to be now in our push into the film and television arena. That’s because we are too meticulous and don’t want to rush things if we don’t feel ready to do them justice (laughter). But now we’re ready, and we are doing it the way we think it should be done. So my legacy will be made when you see a few movies from us, hopefully interesting movies. It’s still all about telling stories. That’s what we like, putting together talent from all around the world who work on a project together, giving life to characters and worlds. We’ve done that on paper, and we’ll continue to do it on paper and on the big screen.
Right to Left (Ridley Scott, Tony Scott, Renny Harlin, Fabrice Giger, Jean Giraud (Moebius), Alejandro Jodorowsky.