PARIS — Just a few years in the past, Julien Berjeaut was a cartoonist coming off a success sequence when he acquired the rarest of presents within the French-speaking world: taking on a comic book e-book traditional, Fortunate Luke.
The story of a cowboy within the American Outdated West, Fortunate Luke was solely considered one of a handful of comedian e-book sequence that, for generations, had been an integral a part of rising up in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 mentioned, the story “enters the thoughts like a hammer blow and by no means comes out.”
However as he sought new story strains, Mr. Berjeaut grew troubled as he mirrored on the presence of Black characters in Fortunate Luke. Within the almost 80 albums revealed over seven many years, 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 primary time, I felt a sort 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 mentioned, 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 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 completely different on this Fortunate Luke, and what makes it highly effective, is that it breaks stereotypes inside a traditional sequence the place Blacks have been represented in stereotypes,” mentioned 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 traditional and childhood reminiscences is a fraught train even in the very best occasions. However the brand 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 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 usually good opinions and was final 12 months’s best-selling comedian e-book — promoting almost half 1,000,000 copies. Some distinguished 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 e-book was an indication that France was shifting, although slowly, “in the best path.”
“France is the outdated woman who’s making an attempt her greatest and who, as a result of issues are altering an excessive amount of round her, is pressured to adapt,” Mr. Zadi mentioned. “Unimaginable actions are going down, folks be happy to speak, and, voilà, regardless of the whole lot, France has to drift. France doesn’t have a selection.”
Mr. Zadi, 40, mentioned 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, sooner or later some three many years in the past, his older sister introduced residence a duplicate of “Tintin within the Congo.”
Revealed in 1931 because the second e-book within the Tintin sequence, it takes Tintin, a reporter, and his trustworthy 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 method, with exaggerated, pink 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 prime 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 have been in the identical racist mildew. 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 not pronounce his r’s; in an Astérix e-book revealed as just lately as 2015, Black characters are drawn “within the traditional neocolonialist custom,” in accordance with the journal, L’Categorical.
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 stress 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 normal depiction of Black folks 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 completely come to phrases with its colonial previous, Mr. Cras mentioned.
“It’s extraordinarily fascinating that he succeeded in liberating himself from that,” Mr. Cras mentioned 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, mentioned that it was solely as an grownup that he realized how the normal 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 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,” mentioned 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 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 all the 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 mentioned he needed 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 menace 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 the US, it made me take into consideration Europe and France,” he mentioned. “It was like a sort of mirror. This historical past of slavery, it’s additionally our historical past, although in another way. This historical past of racism, it’s additionally our historical past, although in another 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 Outdated West. He additionally met French students and activists to debate the illustration of Black folks in popular culture.
For the primary time in a comic book e-book 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 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, mentioned that the illustration of the “variety of Black faces” was a belated recognition of the humanity of Black folks in a traditional comedian e-book.
“We don’t all look the identical,” he mentioned.