PARIS (Reuters Life!) - The exploits of doughty French-language comic hero Asterix have captivated readers worldwide for decades as he beats back legions of Roman soldiers from his small village in Gaul with just a swig of magic potion.
But in October the Asterix series met a surprise challenger in the form of a cheeky erotic comic called "Happy Sex."
Drawn in loving watercolor across 60 pages by the illustrator "Zep," the humorous bedroom vignettes of "Happy Sex" feature couples spicing up their sex life with bondage gear, role play and menages-a-trois.
The bedroom adventures often have unintended consequences, such as when dirty talk provokes fits of anger or when a vibrator is mistaken for a toothbrush.
The comic has been an unexpected hit since it appeared in October and was ranked the third-biggest seller in France in 2009 by research firm GfK, just below the latest edition of Asterix -- which took the top spot -- and another established French-language series called "Blake & Mortimer."
According to publisher Delcourt, 300,000 copies of Happy Sex were sold last year, still some way behind Asterix' "Livre D'Or," which according to its Lagardere-owned publisher sold around 1.2 million copies in France.
Explaining the success of "Happy Sex" is not hard, argue industry analysts, when you consider illustrator Zep is also behind the hugely popular and long-running series "Titeuf," which features a blonde-quiffed boy as its eponymous hero.
"It's the name. It's that simple. It's Zep," said Gilles Ratier, secretary-general of the comic critics' association ACBD.
Elderly ladies were said to be buying "Happy Sex" for their little grandchildren thinking it was the new "Titeuf," he added.
Booksellers are also seeing other erotic comics benefiting from the success of Happy Sex, said GfK analyst Celine Fedou.
"It's had a strong impact on the segment," she said.
The broader French comic market has managed to resist a year of economic slowdown in France, growing 0.3 percent in 2009, according to GfK research.
The market is worth around 400 million euros ($561.6 million) in total annual sales, with the average price of a French-language comic --or "bande dessinnee" -- at around 11.60 euros ($16.29), says GfK.
"Comics have been a comfort, either they make you laugh or they just change a bit from the day-to-day," said Ratier, of the ACBD.
The leading publisher is Media Participations, which counts insurer Axa and tire-maker Michelin among its shareholders, according to ACBD.
The market is also benefiting from a brake on the "oversupply" of titles seen over the past few years, said Yanis Berrouka, head of comics for French retailer Fnac, a subsidiary of French retailer and luxury group PPR.
"Production (of titles) slightly slowed down in 2009 ... But the fact is comic-book production has tripled over the past 10 years," said Berrouka. "When there is oversupply I would say there are many titles that get overlooked."
Production of French-language comics grew just 2.4 percent in 2009, after growing by 10 percent in 2008, according to the ACBD.
Editing by Paul Casciato