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

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tags: comics, French history, popular culture

A few years ago, Julien Berjeaut was a cartoonist coming off a hit series when he received the rarest of offers in the French-speaking world: taking over a comic book classic, Lucky Luke.

The story of a cowboy in the American Old West, Lucky Luke was only one of a handful of comic book series that, for generations, had been an integral part of growing up in France and other francophone countries. Children read Lucky Luke, along with Tintin and Astérix, at their most impressionable age when, as Mr. Berjeaut said, the story “enters the mind like a hammer blow and never comes out.”

But as he sought new story lines, Mr. Berjeaut grew troubled as he reflected on the presence of Black characters in Lucky Luke. In the nearly 80 albums published over seven decades, Black characters had appeared in only one story, “Going up the Mississippi” — drawn in typically racist imagery.

“I’d never thought about that, and then I started questioning myself,” he said, including why he had never created Black characters himself, concluding that he was subconsciously avoiding an 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 being released in English. His aim, he said, was to tell the story of Lucky Luke and recently freed Black slaves on a plantation in Louisiana, with the book’s narrative and graphic details reimagining the role of the cowboy hero and the representation of Black characters in non-racist terms. For the first time there is a Black hero.

“What’s different in this Lucky Luke, and what makes it powerful, is that it breaks stereotypes within a classic series where Blacks were represented in stereotypes,” said Daniel Couvreur, a Belgian journalist and expert on comic books. “It’s no longer ‘Going up the Mississippi.’ Things have changed, and, in Lucky Luke, they also change.”

Touching a classic and childhood memories is a fraught exercise even in the best 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 regarded as an American-inspired obsession with race. What amounted to an attempt to decolonize Lucky Luke drew angry responses.

A right-wing magazine, L’Incorrect, accused the new book “of prostituting the solitary cowboy to the obsessions of the times” and of turning “one of the major figures of Franco-Belgian comic books and of our childhood imagination” 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 depicted as suffering from “crass stupidity and nastiness.”

Read entire article at New York Times

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