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.