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PARIS – A few years ago, Julien Berjeaut was a cartoonist at the release of a successful series when he received the rarest offer in the French-speaking world: the revival of a comic book classic, Lucky Luke .

The story of a cowboy in the American Wild West, Lucky Luke was just one of the few comic book series that, for generations, had been an integral part of the growth in France and beyond. Francophone countries. Children read Lucky Luke, with Tintin and Asterix, at their most impressionable age when, as M. Berjeaut said, the story “enters the mind like a hammer blow and never leaves it”.

But as he searched for new stories, Mr. Berjeaut became confused as he reflected on the presence of black characters in Lucky Luke. Of nearly 80 albums released over seven decades, black characters have appeared in a single story, “Up the Mississippi” – drawn in distinctly racist images.

“I never thought about it, then I started questioning myself,” he said, explaining why he had never created black characters himself, concluding that he subconsciously avoided a uncomfortable subject. “For the first time, I felt a kind of astonishment.

The result of Mr. Berjeaut’s introspection was “A Cowboy in High Cotton”, which was published late last year in French and is now published in English. Its purpose, he said, was to tell the story of Lucky Luke and the recently freed black slaves on a plantation in Louisiana, with the book’s narrative and graphic details reinventing the role of the cowboy hero and portraying black characters in non-racist terms. . For the first time, there is a black hero.

“What’s different about this Lucky Luke, and what makes it powerful, is that it breaks stereotypes in a classic series where black people were portrayed as stereotypes,” said Daniel Couvreur, Belgian journalist and expert in comics. “It’s no longer ‘going up the Mississippi’. Things have changed, and in Lucky Luke they are changing as well.

Touching a classic and childhood memories is a tough exercise, even in the best of times. But the new book went on sale amid a heated national debate over race, police violence and colonialism, as parts of the French establishment criticized what it saw as an American-inspired obsession. for the race. What amounted to an attempt to decolonize Lucky Luke drew angry reactions.

A right-wing magazine, L’Incorrect, accused the new book of “prostituting the lonely cowboy with the obsessions of the time” and of transforming “one of the major figures of Franco-Belgian comics and of our imagination. childhood ”into a figure“ as bloated with progressive doctrine as a Netflix series ”. Valeurs Actuelles, a right-wing magazine courted by President Emmanuel Macron, complained that the book’s white characters were “grotesquely ugly” and were portrayed as suffering from “crass stupidity and meanness.”

Still, the book garnered generally good reviews and was the best-selling comic book of the last year – selling almost half a million copies. Some prominent black French praised it as an important cultural moment.

For Jean-Pascal Zadi, a director whose parents immigrated from Côte d’Ivoire, the book was a sign that France was moving, albeit slowly, “in the right direction”.

“France is the old lady who does her best and who, because things change too much around her, is forced to adapt,” Zadi said. “Incredible movements are taking place, people feel free to speak up, and there you have it, France must go with the flow. France has no choice.

Mr Zadi, 40, said “A Cowboy in High Cotton” was the first comic he had read since he was a child. He had suddenly stopped reading the genre when, one day about three decades ago, his older sister brought home a copy of “Tintin in the Congo”.

Published in 1931 as the second book in the Tintin series, he takes Tintin, reporter, and his faithful dog, Snowy, to what was at the time a Belgian colony. In what amounts to an apology for colonialism, Tintin is the voice of reason and enlightenment while the Congolese are portrayed as childish, uncivilized and lazy. Most of the black figures are drawn the same way, with exaggerated red lips and charcoal black skin; even Milou speaks better French.

The book has long been the subject of fierce debate, even in the Congo itself, and has occupied an unusual place in pop culture: still one of the bestsellers among children’s comics, “Tintin au Congo” embodied also the classic comic racist portrayal of black characters in books.

In all the genre, if black characters appeared, they were in the same racist mold. In “Going up the Mississippi,” published in 1961, the black characters in Lucky Luke’s book mostly look alike, hang out singing and sleep at work. In Asterix, the only recurring black character is a pirate named Baba who cannot pronounce his rs; in a book by Asterix published as recently as 2015, the black characters are drawn “in the classic neocolonialist tradition”, according to the magazine L’Express.

It’s not like the change never happened. In 1983, the trademark cigarette between Lucky Luke’s lips was replaced with a blade of grass – following pressure from Hanna-Barbera, the American studio that turned comics into cartoon.

Pierre Cras, French historian and comic book specialist, said the traditional portrayal of blacks as “savage” and “indolent” was meant to justify the “civilizing mission” of colonialism in Africa. This enduring portrayal, even six decades after the independence of the former French African colonies, reflected the psyche of a nation that has yet to fully assimilate its colonial past, Mr Cras said.

“It’s extremely interesting that he managed to break free of it,” Mr. Cras said of Mr. Berjeaut’s work in “A Cowboy in High Cotton”.

Biyong Djehuty, 45, a cartoonist who grew up in Cameroon and Togo before immigrating to France as a teenager, said it wasn’t until adulthood that he realized how much representation tradition of blacks had affected him.

When he started drawing his own comics, he only sketched white characters. It wasn’t until he found out about Black Panther, the black superhero in Marvel comics, and a story about Zulu Emperor Shaka in his college library that things changed.

“It was then, overnight, that I started making drawings of Africans,” said Mr. Djehuty, who himself publishes comics focused on the history of Africa. ‘Africa. “It must have been subconscious, but we identify with a character who looks like us.”

While Mr. Berjeaut – who is 46 years old and bears the pseudonym Jul – reflected on the absence of black characters in Lucky Luke, he turned to “Tintin in the Congo”, which he had not read in years. decades.

“It was horribly racist,” he said. “Blacks were ugly, stupid – dumber than children, like they were some kind of animal creature. We talk to them like they’re morons throughout the comics. They have the emotions of idiots.

And so in “A Cowboy in High Cotton” – the plot takes place in a cotton plantation that Lucky Luke inherits during the reconstruction – Mr. Berjeaut said he wanted to create the “antidote” of “Tintin in Congo” .

According to most accounts, it has – albeit in an American context that has always made it easier for the French to talk about race and racism. While the French government and leading intellectuals have recently denounced the influence of American ideas on race as a threat to national unity, the story of a plantation in Louisiana has become a source of reflection for Mr. Berjeaut.

“While I was working in the United States, it made me think of Europe and France,” he said. “It was like a kind of mirror. This story of slavery is also our story, although in a different way. This story of racism is also our story, although in a different way.

Mr. Berjeaut, who studied history and anthropology at some of France’s top universities and taught history before becoming a draftsman, delved into books about the old west. He also met with French academics and activists to discuss the representation of blacks in pop culture.

For the first time in a comic book classic, black characters are given full roles, equal to those of white characters. A black man – based on Bass Reeves, the first black Deputy United States Marshal west of the Mississippi – appears as a hero alongside Lucky Luke himself.

Reeves and a hurricane help avoid turning Lucky Luke into a “white savior” – a trope Mr. Berjeaut became aware of during his research. Lucky Luke, the iconic cowboy, also seems less sure of himself in a changing society.

Mr Berjeaut found archival photos that the book’s designer, Achdé, used to draw black figures. No more dehumanizing features. Each black character is drawn individually.

Marc N’Guessan, a cartoonist whose father is Ivorian, said the portrayal of the “diversity of black faces” was a belated recognition of black humanity in a classic comic book.

“We don’t all look alike,” he says.

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