Cowboys and Indians in Africa: The Far West, French Algeria, and the Comics Western in France

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2017

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Abstract

This dissertation examines the emergence of Far West adventure tales in France across the second colonial empire (1830-1962) and their reigning popularity in the field of Franco-Belgian bande dessinée (BD), or comics, in the era of decolonization. In contrast to scholars who situate popular genres outside of political thinking, or conversely read the “messages” of popular and especially children’s literatures homogeneously as ideology, I argue that BD adventures, including Westerns, engaged openly and variously with contemporary geopolitical conflicts. Chapter 1 relates the early popularity of wilderness and desert stories in both the United States and France to shared histories and myths of territorial expansion, colonization, and settlement. Across the nineteenth century, as the United States acquired territories west of the Mississippi and assembled its continental empire, France annexed and incorporated Algeria as “national” space and expanded its second colonial empire into Africa and Asia. I show that tales of white heroics in dramatic frontier landscapes traveled between and across both empires and served the colonizing and civilizing missions of both. Chapter 2 charts the emergence of the Western genre on both sides of the Atlantic at the turn of the twentieth century and its conquest of French audiences by the interwar period. I demonstrate how Western storylines across media – in fiction, in the arena, in comics, and on screen – responded to shifting sentiment in America and France regarding past conquests, the livability of the industrial present, and the viability of colonial rule. Chapter 3 argues that BD adventures from the late 1940s to the early 1960s, including Westerns, worked through the challenges, legacies, and impasses of empire-building and colonization, even as censorship in France during the Algerian war of independence levied content restrictions on the children’s press. Moral referenda on comics in general steered the adventure into “acceptable” territory, which for the overlapping postwar, Cold War, decolonizing periods meant future-oriented stories in which cowboy heroes far from home played out the winning of the “West” across France’s own frontiers in Africa and Asia. My final chapter takes up BD Westerns published in France across the final decades of empire. I argue that tales of cowboys and Indians both circumvented censure and provided adolescents with a variety of ways to think within and beyond empire by displacing contemporary concerns about the wars in Indochina and Algeria onto the mythico-historical context of the settling of the American West. Using key examples from Sitting Bull, Jerry Spring, and Blueberry, I show that realist Westerns invited young baby boomers to envision different futures for France, explore taboo subjects, and work through contested histories and memories of colonial occupation in ways that colonizer tales set in Africa did not.

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Bourque Dandridge, Eliza (2017). Cowboys and Indians in Africa: The Far West, French Algeria, and the Comics Western in France. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/16267.

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