It seems there’s an employee strike at the seminal French comics publisher l’Association. Emails sent to them are met with an auto-response with the following wording:

“Nous, salariés de L’Association, décidons de nous mettre en grève et d’occuper les locaux à partir de ce lundi 10 janvier 2011 à 13h00, et ce pour une durée indéterminée, afin de protester contre l’annonce brutale de licenciements, à savoir 3 à 4 postes sur les 7 actuels.

Nous contestons le cadre de ces licenciements, annoncés par un bureau absent dont le mandat n’a pas été renouvelé depuis de nombreuses années et par un directeur éditorial non salarié dont les responsabilités au sein de la structure restent floues. Nous demandons que soient exposées et justifiées les raisons économiques de ces licenciements, et que nous soit donnée la possibilité d’étudier d’autres solutions.

Inquiets des décisions de gestion prises depuis de longs mois, de l’absence d’échange entre l’équipe des salariés et les décisionnaires, du contexte dans lequel les livres vont être édités et défendus, nous demandons la tenue dans les plus brefs délais d’une assemblée générale afin que soient soumis au vote de ses membres les rapports d’activité et financier de l’exercice 2010 et que soient exposées les prévisions pour 2011.”

In short it announces a strike of indefinite duration, started by the employees this Monday because of an unexplained announcement that 3-4 out of the 7 full-time staff will be made redundant. These redundancies, apparently under way for months now, have been passed on by an outside agency and an unnamed and unpaid editorial director, whose responsibilities and privilege to make such decisions within the company have never been clearly articulated, according to the message. The striking employees demand that a general meeting to be held and that a satisfying explanation be given.

This is sad news. L’Association is perhaps the most innovative publisher of comics these past twenty years and arguably one of the two most significant for the new wave that has swept the medium in that time period. When four of the six artist founders left the company in 2005/6, the remaining partner Jean-Christophe Menu changed its direction somewhat toward more uncompromising avant-garde publication (the remaining partner, Mattt Konture stayed, but hasn’t played much of an editorial or administrative role). Since then, l’Association has published many excellent books, introduced a number of promising younger artists — partly through their revived anthology Lapin, partly in stand-alone books — as well as put out an increasing number of quality compilations and reprints of classic Franco-Belgian comics that have long languished in obscurity.

It has, however, long seemed clear that this was not a viable business model, regardless of the great revenue brought by a few core books, such as those by Marjane Satrapi, and the disagreements that led to the departure of his partners indicate that Menu has long had difficulties running the company in other ways. He has already voiced disatisfaction with how things were going, stating that the financial crisis was affecting the publisher’s sales and that he was going to scale back their annual output by about a third (e.g. here). Crucial in this context is this the closure of the independent bookstore distributor, Le Comptoir des indépendants — a partnership of small press publishers of which l’Association was by far the biggest, and thus the biggest generator of revenue. A development which has landed a number of small press publishers in trouble.

Menu remains, however, one of the great editors and publishers of comics of the past decades and the company he so crucially helped build remains an important presence. Let’s hope that whatever problems they’re having will be resolved to the satisfaction of everyone involved, so l’Asso can stay afloat.

In the meantime, I’ll try to find out more, not the least when I go to Angoulême at the end of the month. Stay tuned here and at The Comics Journal, for whom I’ll be reporting from France.