PARIS — Just a few years in the past, Julien Berjeaut was a cartoonist coming off successful sequence when he acquired the rarest of gives within the French-speaking world: taking on a comic book e book basic, Fortunate Luke.
The story of a cowboy within the American Previous West, Lucky Luke was solely one in every of a handful of comedian e book sequence that, for generations, had been an integral a part of rising up in France and different francophone nations. Youngsters learn Fortunate Luke, together with Tintin and Astérix, at their most impressionable age when, as Mr. Berjeaut stated, the story “enters the thoughts like a hammer blow and by no means comes out.”
However as he sought new story traces, Mr. Berjeaut grew troubled as he mirrored on the presence of Black characters in Fortunate Luke. Within the practically 80 albums revealed over seven many years, Black characters had appeared in just one story, “Going up the Mississippi” — drawn in sometimes racist imagery.
“I’d by no means thought of that, after which I began questioning myself,” he stated, together with why he had by no means created Black characters himself, concluding that he was subconsciously avoiding an uncomfortable topic. “For the primary time, I felt a form of astonishment.”
The results of Mr. Berjeaut’s introspection was “A Cowboy in Excessive Cotton,” which was revealed late final 12 months in French and is now being launched in English. His goal, he stated, was to inform the story of Fortunate Luke and just lately freed Black slaves on a plantation in Louisiana, with the e book’s narrative and graphic particulars reimagining the position of the cowboy hero and the illustration of Black characters in non-racist phrases. For the primary time there’s a Black hero.
“What’s completely different on this Fortunate Luke, and what makes it highly effective, is that it breaks stereotypes inside a basic sequence the place Blacks have been represented in stereotypes,” stated Daniel Couvreur, a Belgian journalist and professional on comedian books. “It’s now not ‘Going up the Mississippi.’ Issues have modified, and, in Fortunate Luke, additionally they change.”
Touching a basic and childhood recollections is a fraught train even in the perfect occasions. However the brand new e book went on sale amid a heated nationwide debate over race, police violence and colonialism, as components of the French institution criticized what it considered an American-inspired obsession with race. What amounted to an try to decolonize Fortunate Luke drew indignant responses.
A right-wing journal, L’Incorrect, accused the brand new e book “of prostituting the solitary cowboy to the obsessions of the occasions” and of turning “one of many main figures of Franco-Belgian comedian books and of our childhood creativeness” right into a determine “as bloated with progressive doctrine as a Netflix sequence.” Valeurs Actuelles, a right-wing journal courted by President Emmanuel Macron, complained that the e book’s white characters have been “grotesquely ugly” and have been depicted as affected by “crass stupidity and nastiness.”
Nonetheless, the e book garnered typically good opinions and was final 12 months’s best-selling comedian e book — promoting practically half one million copies. Some outstanding Black French praised it as a big cultural second.
For Jean-Pascal Zadi, a movie director whose dad and mom immigrated from the Ivory Coast, the e book was an indication that France was shifting, although slowly, “in the appropriate path.”
“France is the outdated girl who’s attempting her finest and who, as a result of issues are altering an excessive amount of round her, is compelled to adapt,” Mr. Zadi stated. “Unimaginable actions are happening, individuals be at liberty to speak, and, voilà, regardless of the whole lot, France has to drift. France doesn’t have a selection.”
Mr. Zadi, 40, stated that “A Cowboy in Excessive Cotton” was the primary comedian e book he had learn since he was a boy. He had abruptly stopped studying the style when, someday some three many years in the past, his older sister introduced residence a duplicate of “Tintin within the Congo.”
Printed in 1931 because the second book within the Tintin sequence, it takes Tintin, a reporter, and his devoted canine, Milou, to what was on the time a Belgian colony. In what amounted to an apology of colonialism, Tintin is the voice of motive and enlightenment whereas the Congolese are depicted as childlike, uncivilized and lazy. A lot of the Black characters are drawn the identical manner, with exaggerated, purple lips and coal-black pores and skin; even Milou speaks higher French.
The e book has lengthy been the topic of fierce debate, even in Congo itself, and has occupied an uncommon place in popular culture: Nonetheless one of many high best-sellers amongst kids’s comedian books, “Tintin within the Congo” additionally embodied the basic comedian books’ racist illustration of Black characters.
All through the style, if Black characters appeared in any respect, they have been in the identical racist mould. In “Going up the Mississippi,” revealed in 1961, the Black characters within the Fortunate Luke e book are drawn largely trying alike, mendacity round singing, and sleeping on the job. In Astérix, the one recurring Black character is a pirate named Baba who can’t pronounce his r’s; in an Astérix e book revealed as just lately as 2015, Black characters are drawn “within the basic neocolonialist custom,” in line with the journal, L’Express.
It’s not as if change by no means occurred. In 1983, the trademark cigarette between Fortunate Luke’s lips was changed with a blade of grass — following strain from Hanna-Barbera, the American studio that turned the comedian e book into an animated cartoon.
Pierre Cras, a French historian and professional on comedian books, stated that the standard depiction of Black individuals as “savage” and “indolent” was meant to justify colonialism’s “civilizing mission” in Africa. That enduring illustration, even six many years after France’s former African colonies gained independence, mirrored the psyche of a nation that has but to totally come to phrases with its colonial previous, Mr. Cras stated.
“It’s extraordinarily attention-grabbing that he succeeded in releasing himself from that,” Mr. Cras stated of Mr. Berjeaut’s work in “A Cowboy in Excessive Cotton.”
Biyong Djehuty, 45, a cartoonist who grew up in Cameroon and Togo earlier than immigrating to France as a young person, stated that it was solely as an grownup that he realized how the standard illustration of Black individuals had affected him.
When he started drawing his personal comics, he sketched solely white characters. It was not till he found Black Panther, the Black superhero within the Marvel comics, and a narrative in regards to the Zulu emperor Shaka in his center faculty library that issues modified.
“That’s when, in a single day, I began to make drawings of Africans,” stated Mr. Djehuty, who self-publishes comedian books specializing in African historical past. “It should have been unconscious, however we establish with a personality that appears like us.”
As Mr. Berjeaut — who’s 46 and goes by the pen title Jul — mirrored on the absence of Black characters in Fortunate Luke, he turned to “Tintin within the Congo,” which he had not learn in many years.
“It was hideously racist,” he stated. “Blacks have been ugly, silly — extra silly than kids, as in the event that they have been some form of animal creatures. They’re talked to as if they’re morons in the complete comedian e book. They’ve the feelings of idiots.”
And so in “A Cowboy in Excessive Cotton” — the intrigue takes place in a cotton plantation that Fortunate Luke inherits throughout Reconstruction — Mr. Berjeaut stated he wished to create the “antidote” to “Tintin within the Congo.”
By most accounts, he has — although in an American context that has at all times made it simpler for the French to discuss race and racism. If the French authorities and main intellectuals have just lately denounced the affect of American concepts on race as a risk to nationwide unity, the story of a Louisiana plantation grew to become a supply of reflection for Mr. Berjeaut.
“Whereas I used to be engaged on america, it made me take into consideration Europe and France,” he stated. “It was like a form of mirror. This historical past of slavery, it’s additionally our historical past, although in a different way. This historical past of racism, it’s additionally our historical past, although in a different way.”
Mr. Berjeaut, who studied historical past and anthropology at a few of France’s high universities and taught historical past earlier than turning into a cartoonist, plunged into books on the Previous West. He additionally met French students and activists to debate the illustration of Black individuals in popular culture.
For the primary time in a comic book e book basic, Black characters take pleasure in full-fledged roles, equal to these of white characters. A Black man — primarily based on Bass Reeves, the primary Black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi — emerges as a hero alongside Fortunate Luke himself.
Reeves and a hurricane assist keep away from turning Fortunate Luke right into a “white savior” — a trope that Mr. Berjeaut grew to become aware of throughout his analysis. Fortunate Luke, the enduring cowboy, additionally appears much less certain of himself, in a society in flux.
Mr. Berjeaut discovered archive pictures that the e book’s graphic artist, Achdé, used to attract Black characters. Gone are the dehumanizing traits. Every Black character is drawn as a person.
Marc N’Guessan, a cartoonist whose father is from the Ivory Coast, stated that the illustration of the “variety of Black faces” was a belated recognition of the humanity of Black individuals in a basic comedian e book.
“We don’t all look the identical,” he stated.