For the first time, a black character starred in a comic book by Lucky Luke. It is a police marshal who, together with the cowboy comic hero, resists racism and the oppression of black Americans.
Addressing these sensitive themes is a big step for the comic book, which used to expand stereotypes to joke about them. But isn‘t it too late, almost 75 years after the first Lucky Luke?
“Cowboys weren’t John Wayne.”
Until now, black characters were completely absent in the Lucky Luke series. “When I went to look back, I was shocked,” says Jul, the comic book maker who wrote the screenplay of the new album. “I realized that the whole French-Belgian comic strip world is devoid of black persons, apart from a few small characters from time to time.”
To keep Lucky Luke interesting, the new album had to become more modern, without losing sight of the specific “codes”, says Jul. It had to remain funny and suitable for children and adults. “It was to strike a balance between being honest, not twisting the story, not making it more beautiful, but also not showing torture frontal.”
Jul situated a cowboy among the cotton in the Wild West just after the American Civil War. The story had to go against the prevailing image of a ‘white’ Wild West. One in four cowboys was black, he emphasizes. “We always imagine John Wayne with his blue eyes and well-ironed shirt, he always sits impeccably on his horse, but that‘s not the reality at all.”
In the new book, Lucky Luke goes on an adventure with Marshall Bass Reeves, who really existed. Reeves was an escaped slave who was named as one of the first black Americans to the west of the Mississippi.
The real Bass Reeves:
The story does not preclude the theme of racism. In fact, the comic book largely talks about the segregation and racist violence, which had not yet disappeared after the official abolition of slavery.
“ I find the story for a Lucky Luke very remarkable”, says Jeanet Scheepers, owner of comic book store Comic Strip in Amsterdam. She’s been in the comic strip for 44 years. “Nothing like this has ever happened, that a black hero next to Lucky Luke is the protagonist.”
For example, Reeves is introduced into the strip:
In the strip, the poor lonesome cowboy inherits a cotton plantation. He wants to distribute it among the black workers, but gets a lot of resistance from the white, wealthy plantation owners. And from the Klu Klux Klan. Together with Bass Reeves, Lucky Luke takes on them.
Lucky Luke appeals to other characters on racism:
Lucky Luke thus contributes to the debate on racism and the way black people are portrayed in (old) books and films, says Jul. “We wanted to create something that recognizes the reality of slavery and the absence of blacks in popular culture.”
Jul calls the first black character “a small revolution”. The black cartoonist Chad Bilyue thinks differently. “I think it‘s good that they try to make European comics more inclusive with this album. The character of Bass is clearly based on the black sheriff of the day, which worked well. But it’s too little too late.”
Bilyue comes from the U.S. state of Ohio but has been living in the Netherlands for ten years. “Just about every appearance of black people in European comic books is racist, unfortunately. When people of African descent are depicted, it is never a representation of black people. It is a reflection of European fears for black people.”
If black people already get a role, they are badly depicted, says also comic book owner Scheepers. “My love for the comic book started with Asterix and Obelix. Unfortunately, this is an example of which I would say ‘it really shouldn’t be that not‘.” She points to an album from just a few years ago, depicting black characters like caricatures, with for example overly thick lips.
Less looking in the mirror
Jul therefore acknowledges that his “revolution” comes far too late. “Why have we waited so long? I’m going to involve it on myself. I make comic books for about 15 or 20 years, and I never put black characters on stage. I‘ve never thought about it before.”
For a cowboy in between the cotton he had to “take a step away from the reflexes and automatisms we have”. He sees the same thing happening throughout society. “It’s a form of growing up. That you focus on the world as it looks on the street and not the way it looks when you close your eyes or when you look in the mirror.”