Lucky Luke, the Comic Book Cowboy, Discovers Race, Belatedly

PARIS — A number of years in the past, Julien Berjeaut was a cartoonist coming off a success collection when he obtained the rarest of gives in the French-speaking world: taking up a comic book e-book traditional, Lucky Luke.

The story of a cowboy in the American Old West, Lucky Luke was solely one among a handful of comedian e-book collection that, for generations, had been an integral a part of rising up in France and different francophone international locations. Children learn Lucky Luke, together with Tintin and Astérix, at their most impressionable age when, as Mr. Berjeaut mentioned, the story “enters the thoughts like a hammer blow and by no means comes out.”

But as he sought new story strains, Mr. Berjeaut grew troubled as he mirrored on the presence of Black characters in Lucky Luke. In the practically 80 albums revealed over seven a long time, Black characters had appeared in just one story, “Going up the Mississippi” — drawn in usually racist imagery.

“I’d by no means thought of that, after which I began questioning myself,” he mentioned, together with why he had by no means created Black characters himself, concluding that he was subconsciously avoiding an uncomfortable topic. “For the first time, I felt a sort of astonishment.”

The results of Mr. Berjeaut’s introspection was “A Cowboy in High Cotton,” which was revealed late final 12 months in French and is now being launched in English. His intention, he mentioned, was to inform the story of Lucky Luke and not too long ago freed Black slaves on a plantation in Louisiana, with the e-book’s narrative and graphic particulars reimagining the function of the cowboy hero and the illustration of Black characters in non-racist phrases. For the first time there’s a Black hero.

“What’s totally different on this Lucky Luke, and what makes it highly effective, is that it breaks stereotypes inside a traditional collection the place Blacks have been represented in stereotypes,” mentioned Daniel Couvreur, a Belgian journalist and professional on comedian books. “It’s not ‘Going up the Mississippi.’ Things have modified, and, in Lucky Luke, in addition they change.”

Touching a traditional and childhood recollections is a fraught train even in the finest instances. But the new e-book went on sale amid a heated nationwide debate over race, police violence and colonialism, as elements of the French institution criticized what it thought to be an American-inspired obsession with race. What amounted to an try to decolonize Lucky Luke drew offended responses.

A right-wing journal, L’Incorrect, accused the new e-book “of prostituting the solitary cowboy to the obsessions of the instances” and of turning “one among the main figures of Franco-Belgian comedian books and of our childhood creativeness” right into a determine “as bloated with progressive doctrine as a Netflix collection.” 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.”

Still, the e-book garnered usually good critiques and was final 12 months’s best-selling comedian e-book — promoting practically half 1,000,000 copies. Some outstanding Black French praised it as a major 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 proper course.”

“France is the old woman 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 mentioned. “Incredible actions are going down, folks be happy to speak, and, voilà, regardless of every little thing, France has to go along with the circulation. France does not have a selection.”

Mr. Zadi, 40, mentioned that “A Cowboy in High Cotton” was the first comedian e-book he had learn since he was a boy. He had abruptly stopped studying the style when, someday some three a long time in the past, his older sister introduced residence a replica of “Tintin in the Congo.”

Published in 1931 as the second book in the Tintin collection, it takes Tintin, a reporter, and his trustworthy canine, Milou, to what was at the time a Belgian colony. In what amounted to an apology of colonialism, Tintin is the voice of purpose and enlightenment whereas the Congolese are depicted as childlike, uncivilized and lazy. Most of the Black characters are drawn the identical method, 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: Still one among the prime best-sellers amongst kids’s comedian books, “Tintin in the Congo” additionally embodied the traditional comedian books’ racist illustration of Black characters.

Throughout 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 in the Lucky Luke e-book are drawn largely trying alike, mendacity round singing, and sleeping on the job. In Astérix, the solely recurring Black character is a pirate named Baba who can’t pronounce his r’s; in an Astérix e-book revealed as not too long ago as 2015, Black characters are drawn “in the traditional neocolonialist custom,” in line with the journal, L’Express.

It shouldn’t be as if change by no means occurred. In 1983, the trademark cigarette between Lucky 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, mentioned that the conventional depiction of Black folks as “savage” and “indolent” was meant to justify colonialism’s “civilizing mission” in Africa. That enduring illustration, even six a long time after France’s former African colonies gained independence, mirrored the psyche of a nation that has but to completely come to phrases with its colonial previous, Mr. Cras mentioned.

“It’s extraordinarily fascinating that he succeeded in releasing himself from that,” Mr. Cras mentioned of Mr. Berjeaut’s work in “A Cowboy in High Cotton.”

Biyong Djehuty, 45, a cartoonist who grew up in Cameroon and Togo earlier than immigrating to France as a teen, mentioned that it was solely as an grownup that he realized how the conventional illustration of Black folks 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 in the Marvel comics, and a narrative about 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,” mentioned Mr. Djehuty, who self-publishes comedian books specializing in African historical past. “It should have been unconscious, however we determine with a personality that appears like us.”

As Mr. Berjeaut — who’s 46 and goes by the pen identify Jul — mirrored on the absence of Black characters in Lucky Luke, he turned to “Tintin in the Congo,” which he had not learn in a long time.

“It was hideously racist,” he mentioned. “Blacks have been ugly, silly — extra silly than kids, as in the event that they have been some sort of animal creatures. They’re talked to as if they’re morons in the complete comedian e-book. They have the feelings of idiots.”

And so in “A Cowboy in High Cotton” — the intrigue takes place in a cotton plantation that Lucky Luke inherits throughout Reconstruction — Mr. Berjeaut mentioned he needed to create the “antidote” to “Tintin in the Congo.”

By most accounts, he has — although in an American context that has at all times made it simpler for the French to talk about race and racism. If the French authorities and main intellectuals have not too long ago denounced the affect of American concepts on race as a menace to nationwide unity, the story of a Louisiana plantation turned a supply of reflection for Mr. Berjeaut.

“While I used to be engaged on the United States, it made me take into consideration Europe and France,” he mentioned. “It was like a sort of mirror. This historical past of slavery, it is also our historical past, although in a different way. This historical past of racism, it is also our historical past, although in a different way.”

Mr. Berjeaut, who studied historical past and anthropology at a few of France’s prime universities and taught historical past earlier than changing into a cartoonist, plunged into books on the Old West. He additionally met French students and activists to debate the illustration of Black folks in popular culture.

For the first time in a comic book e-book traditional, Black characters get pleasure from full-fledged roles, equal to these of white characters. A Black man — primarily based on Bass Reeves, the first Black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi — emerges as a hero alongside Lucky Luke himself.

Reeves and a hurricane assist keep away from turning Lucky Luke right into a “white savior” — a trope that Mr. Berjeaut turned acutely aware of throughout his analysis. Lucky Luke, the iconic cowboy, additionally appears much less certain of himself, in a society in flux.

Mr. Berjeaut discovered archive photographs that the e-book’s graphic artist, Achdé, used to attract Black characters. Gone are the dehumanizing traits. Each Black character is drawn as a person.

Marc N’Guessan, a cartoonist whose father is from the Ivory Coast, mentioned that the illustration of the “range of Black faces” was a belated recognition of the humanity of Black folks in a traditional comedian e-book.

“We do not all look the identical,” he mentioned.

The publish Lucky Luke, the Comic Book Cowboy, Discovers Race, Belatedly appeared first on New York Times.

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