PARIS — 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.”
Still, the book garnered generally good reviews and was last year’s best-selling comic book — selling nearly half a million copies. Some prominent Black French praised it as a significant cultural moment.
For Jean-Pascal Zadi, a film director whose parents immigrated from the Ivory Coast, the book was a sign that France was moving, though slowly, “in the right direction.”
“France is the old lady who’s trying her best and who, because things are changing too much around her, is forced to adapt,” Mr. Zadi said. “Incredible movements are taking place, people feel free to talk, and, voilà, despite everything, France has to go with the flow. France doesn’t have a choice.”
Mr. Zadi, 40, said that “A Cowboy in High Cotton” was the first comic book he had read since he was a boy. He had abruptly stopped reading the genre when, one day some 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, it takes Tintin, a reporter, and his faithful dog, Milou, to what was at the time a Belgian colony. In what amounted to an apology of colonialism, Tintin is the voice of reason and enlightenment while the Congolese are depicted as childlike, uncivilized and lazy. Most of the Black characters are drawn the same way, with exaggerated, red lips and coal-black skin; even Milou speaks better French.
The book has long been the subject of fierce debate, even in Congo itself, and has occupied an unusual place in pop culture: Still one of the top best-sellers among children’s comic books, “Tintin in the Congo” also embodied the classic comic books’ racist representation of Black characters.
Throughout the genre, if Black characters appeared at all, they were in the same racist mold. In “Going up the Mississippi,” published in 1961, the Black characters in the Lucky Luke book are drawn mostly looking alike, lying around singing, and sleeping on the job. In Astérix, the only recurring Black character is a pirate named Baba who cannot pronounce his r’s; in an Astérix book published as recently as 2015, Black characters are drawn “in the classic neocolonialist tradition,” according to the magazine, L’Express.
It is not as if change never occurred. 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 the comic book into an animated cartoon.
Pierre Cras, a French historian and expert on comic books, said that the traditional depiction of Black people as “savage” and “indolent” was meant to justify colonialism’s “civilizing mission” in Africa. That enduring representation, even six decades after France’s former African colonies gained independence, reflected the psyche of a nation that has yet to fully come to terms with its colonial past, Mr. Cras said.
“It’s extremely interesting that he succeeded in freeing himself from that,” 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 that it was only as an adult that he realized how the traditional representation of Black people had affected him.
When he began drawing his own comics, he sketched only white characters. It was not until he discovered Black Panther, the Black superhero in the Marvel comics, and a story about the Zulu emperor Shaka in his middle school library that things changed.
“That’s when, overnight, I started to make drawings of Africans,” said Mr. Djehuty, who self-publishes comic books focusing on African history. “It must have been unconscious, but we identify with a character that looks like us.”
As Mr. Berjeaut — who is 46 and goes by the pen name Jul — reflected on the absence of Black characters in Lucky Luke, he turned to “Tintin in the Congo,” which he had not read in decades.
“It was hideously racist,” he said. “Blacks were ugly, stupid — more stupid than children, as if they were some kind of animal creatures. They’re talked to as though they’re morons in the entire comic book. They have the emotions of idiots.”
And so in “A Cowboy in High Cotton” — the intrigue takes place in a cotton plantation that Lucky Luke inherits during Reconstruction — Mr. Berjeaut said he wanted to create the “antidote” to “Tintin in the Congo.”
By most accounts, he has — though in an American context that has always made it easier for the French to speak about race and racism. If 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 Louisiana plantation became a source of reflection for Mr. Berjeaut.
“While I was working on the United States, it made me think about Europe and France,” he said. “It was like a kind of mirror. This history of slavery, it’s also our history, though differently. This history of racism, it’s also our history, though differently.”
Mr. Berjeaut, who studied history and anthropology at some of France’s top universities and taught history before becoming a cartoonist, plunged into books on the Old West. He also met French scholars and activists to discuss the representation of Black people in pop culture.
For the first time in a comic book classic, Black characters enjoy full-fledged roles, equal to those of white characters. A Black man — 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 help avoid turning Lucky Luke into a “white savior” — a trope that Mr. Berjeaut became conscious of during his research. Lucky Luke, the iconic cowboy, also seems less sure of himself, in a society in flux.
Mr. Berjeaut found archive photos that the book’s graphic artist, Achdé, used to draw Black characters. Gone are the dehumanizing traits. Each Black character is drawn as an individual.
Marc N’Guessan, a cartoonist whose father is from the Ivory Coast, said that the representation of the “diversity of Black faces” was a belated recognition of the humanity of Black people in a classic comic book.
“We don’t all look the same,” he said.