PARIS — Just a few years in the past, Julien Berjeaut was a cartoonist coming off a success collection when he obtained the rarest of affords within the French-speaking world: taking up a comic book guide traditional, Fortunate Luke.
The story of a cowboy within the American Previous West, Fortunate Luke was solely certainly one of a handful of comedian guide collection that, for generations, had been an integral a part of rising up in France and different francophone international locations. 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 printed 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 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 sort of astonishment.”
The results of Mr. Berjeaut’s introspection was “A Cowboy in Excessive Cotton,” which was printed late final yr in French and is now being launched in English. His intention, he stated, was to inform the story of Fortunate Luke and lately freed Black slaves on a plantation in Louisiana, with the guide’s narrative and graphic particulars reimagining the function 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 totally different on this Fortunate Luke, and what makes it highly effective, is that it breaks stereotypes inside a traditional collection the place Blacks had been represented in stereotypes,” stated Daniel Couvreur, a Belgian journalist and professional on comedian books. “It’s not ‘Going up the Mississippi.’ Issues have modified, and, in Fortunate Luke, additionally they change.”
Touching a traditional and childhood recollections is a fraught train even in the perfect instances. However the brand new guide 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 and decolonize Fortunate Luke drew offended responses.
A right-wing journal, L’Incorrect, accused the brand new guide “of prostituting the solitary cowboy to the obsessions of the instances” 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 collection.” Valeurs Actuelles, a right-wing journal courted by President Emmanuel Macron, complained that the guide’s white characters had been “grotesquely ugly” and had been depicted as affected by “crass stupidity and nastiness.”
Nonetheless, the guide garnered usually good opinions and was final yr’s best-selling comedian guide — promoting practically half 1,000,000 copies. Some outstanding Black French praised it as a big cultural second.
For Jean-Pascal Zadi, a movie director whose mother and father immigrated from the Ivory Coast, the guide was an indication that France was transferring, although slowly, “in the proper course.”
“France is the previous girl who’s attempting her finest and who, as a result of issues are altering an excessive amount of round her, is pressured to adapt,” Mr. Zadi stated. “Unbelievable actions are going down, individuals be happy to speak, and, voilà, regardless of every thing, France has to drift. France doesn’t have a alternative.”
Mr. Zadi, 40, stated that “A Cowboy in Excessive Cotton” was the primary comedian guide 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 duplicate of “Tintin within the Congo.”
Printed in 1931 because the second guide within the Tintin collection, 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 cause and enlightenment whereas the Congolese are depicted as childlike, uncivilized and lazy. Many of the Black characters are drawn the identical approach, with exaggerated, purple lips and coal-black pores and skin; even Milou speaks higher French.
The guide 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 traditional comedian books’ racist illustration of Black characters.
All through the style, if Black characters appeared in any respect, they had been in the identical racist mildew. In “Going up the Mississippi,” printed in 1961, the Black characters within the Fortunate Luke guide 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 not pronounce his r’s; in an Astérix guide printed as lately as 2015, Black characters are drawn “within the traditional neocolonialist custom,” in line with the journal, L’Specific.
It isn’t 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 guide 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 a long time 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 youngster, 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 identify Jul — mirrored on the absence of Black characters in Fortunate Luke, he turned to “Tintin within the Congo,” which he had not learn in a long time.
“It was hideously racist,” he stated. “Blacks had been ugly, silly — extra silly than kids, as in the event that they had been some sort of animal creatures. They’re talked to as if they’re morons in the whole comedian guide. 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 talk about race and racism. If the French authorities and main intellectuals have lately denounced the affect of American concepts on race as a risk to nationwide unity, the story of a Louisiana plantation turned 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 sort of mirror. This historical past of slavery, it’s additionally our historical past, although otherwise. This historical past of racism, it’s additionally our historical past, although otherwise.”
Mr. Berjeaut, who studied historical past and anthropology at a few of France’s high universities and taught historical past earlier than changing 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 guide traditional, Black characters take pleasure in full-fledged roles, equal to these of white characters. A Black man — based mostly 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 turned aware of throughout his analysis. Fortunate Luke, the long-lasting cowboy, additionally appears much less certain of himself, in a society in flux.
Mr. Berjeaut discovered archive photographs that the guide’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 traditional comedian guide.
“We don’t all look the identical,” he stated.