Francosphères

Comics as commemoration?

The tirailleurs sénégalais and World War I

Francosphères (2021), 10, (1), 63–77.

Abstract

Drawing on previous research about the ubiquity of the Banania logo, this article considers the recent trend of commemorating the tirailleurs sénégalais via bandes dessinées through a chronological comparison of bandes dessinées produced in France and Senegal since 2003 about the tirailleurs sénégalais and World War I. As an important part of popular visual culture in France and Belgium, bandes dessinées have long been vehicles for teaching and disseminating mainstream values and dominant ideology, thus the choice of medium for recounting the tirailleurs’ history works against colonial-era caricatures. Though each of the bandes dessinées attempts to engender empathy in the reader while educating them about the tirailleurs, critical engagement with their legacy varies as a function of who produced the text. State-sponsored accounts avoid critiques of colonialism and its attendant violence in favour of honouring the tirailleurs’ courage and loyalty, which bolsters the continuity of republican values. Conversely, texts produced as a result of personal connections to the tirailleurs foreground their participation in colonial violence and demonstrate the psychological complexity of their experiences.

Puisant dans la recherche sur l’omniprésence du logo de Banania, cet article considère la tendance d’utiliser la bande dessinée pour commémorer les tirailleurs sénégalais à travers une comparaison chronologique des textes produits en France et au Sénégal depuis 2003 qui traitent des tirailleurs sénégalais et de la première guerre mondiale. Une partie importante de la culture visuelle en France et en Belgique, la bande dessinée se sert depuis longtemps comme véhicule pédagogique efficace des valeurs majoritaires et de l’idéologie dominante; le choix de ce moyen pour raconter l’histoire des tirailleurs lutte ainsi contre des caricatures fixes. Quoique chaque bande dessinée tente d’engendrer de l’empathie chez le/la lectuer.trice tout en lui donnant des informations sur les tirailleurs, l’interrogation critique de leur héritage dépend de ceux qui ont produit le texte. Les récits soutenus par l’état évitent les critiques du colonialisme et sa violence correspondante afin d’honorer le courage et la loyauté des tirailleurs, ce qui renforce les valeurs républicaines. Par contre, les récits en provenance d’un intérêt personnel aux tirailleurs insistent sur leur participation dans la violence coloniale et montrent la complexité psychologique de leurs expériences.

Comics as commemoration?

The tirailleurs sénégalais and World War I

Abstract

Drawing on previous research about the ubiquity of the Banania logo, this article considers the recent trend of commemorating the tirailleurs sénégalais via bandes dessinées through a chronological comparison of bandes dessinées produced in France and Senegal since 2003 about the tirailleurs sénégalais and World War I. As an important part of popular visual culture in France and Belgium, bandes dessinées have long been vehicles for teaching and disseminating mainstream values and dominant ideology, thus the choice of medium for recounting the tirailleurs’ history works against colonial-era caricatures. Though each of the bandes dessinées attempts to engender empathy in the reader while educating them about the tirailleurs, critical engagement with their legacy varies as a function of who produced the text. State-sponsored accounts avoid critiques of colonialism and its attendant violence in favour of honouring the tirailleurs’ courage and loyalty, which bolsters the continuity of republican values. Conversely, texts produced as a result of personal connections to the tirailleurs foreground their participation in colonial violence and demonstrate the psychological complexity of their experiences.

Puisant dans la recherche sur l’omniprésence du logo de Banania, cet article considère la tendance d’utiliser la bande dessinée pour commémorer les tirailleurs sénégalais à travers une comparaison chronologique des textes produits en France et au Sénégal depuis 2003 qui traitent des tirailleurs sénégalais et de la première guerre mondiale. Une partie importante de la culture visuelle en France et en Belgique, la bande dessinée se sert depuis longtemps comme véhicule pédagogique efficace des valeurs majoritaires et de l’idéologie dominante; le choix de ce moyen pour raconter l’histoire des tirailleurs lutte ainsi contre des caricatures fixes. Quoique chaque bande dessinée tente d’engendrer de l’empathie chez le/la lectuer.trice tout en lui donnant des informations sur les tirailleurs, l’interrogation critique de leur héritage dépend de ceux qui ont produit le texte. Les récits soutenus par l’état évitent les critiques du colonialisme et sa violence correspondante afin d’honorer le courage et la loyauté des tirailleurs, ce qui renforce les valeurs républicaines. Par contre, les récits en provenance d’un intérêt personnel aux tirailleurs insistent sur leur participation dans la violence coloniale et montrent la complexité psychologique de leurs expériences.

In his entry on tirailleurs sénégalais in Postcolonial Realms of Memory: Sites and Symbols in Modern France, David Murphy cites the infamous Banania logo as ‘arguably the most important site of French colonial memory, even though many French people today would have difficulty explaining who exactly the tirailleurs sénégalais were’.1 The inception of the tirailleurs sénégalais in 1857 at the behest of Louis Faidherbe, the French colonial governor in Senegal, situates them at a pivotal moment in the history of France’s colonial expansion under Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte.2 It was not until the turn of the twentieth century with the prospect of implementing the tirailleurs in Europe that their reputation and image became of keen interest.3 The tirailleurs’ varied representations, especially following the 1910 publication of Charles Mangin’s La Force noire and the switch of Banania’s logo in 1915 from an Antillean woman to the smiling tirailleur speaking pidgin French, have been of great interest to scholars who have traced their manipulation and mobilization as a means of controlling (and patrolling) the perception of colonial troops, as well as both their behaviour and the French public’s behaviour towards them.4 Tracking the perpetuation of the racialized stereotypes embedded in these representations alongside critiques of such gross caricatures almost since their debut - including Léopold Senghor’s poetic declaration to destroy the smiling Banania figure and Frantz Fanon’s condemnation of it - reveals a sustained ambivalent response throughout the francophone world to the tensions embodied by the figure of the tirailleur and to France’s shared history with its (former) African colonies.5 Robert Aldrich characterizes such ambivalence in France as ‘a mixture of nostalgia, residual pride, misgivings about the worth of the effort, sometimes shame about what was done, occasional outrage’.6 Writing about the films of Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene, Murphy characterizes tirailleurs as ‘inherently ambiguous figures, for they can be viewed both as the agents of French colonialism […] and also its victims’, citing their indispensable participation in France’s colonial expansion and their subjugation following their service in both world wars. Subsequently, they have been ‘deployed as a conduit through which to explore the nature and legacy of French colonialism in Africa’.7 The central concern of this article is the relatively recent turn towards bandes dessinées as a means of such exploration.

Bandes dessinées, an important component of colonial heritage according to Mark McKinney, have played a key role in the popularization of French and Belgian imperial cultures and national identities.8 The enduring ubiquity of Astérix is but one prime example; the series’ premise - the Gauls’ resistance of the Romans (a thinly veiled stand-in for post-war Americanization) - seems both telling and ironic since it debuted in Pilote in 1959 during the Algerian War.9 Moreover, through their mix of text and image, bandes dessinées have long been powerful pedagogical tools. During the colonial era, portions of the comic strip Bécassine in 1916, Banania comic strips in the 1920s, and the 1940 comic strip Mamadou s’en va t’en guerre presented French readers and tirailleurs with idealized images of the colonial troops as docile and well suited for following orders.10 In 1976, over a decade before Pierre Nora began the project of Les Lieux de mémoire, ‘French state television channel FR3 partnered with the publisher Larousse to produce a twenty-four-volume comic-strip history of France […] titled Histoire de France en Bandes Dessinées’; though not meant to replace textbooks and initially critiqued by historians, the series was successful.11 The use of bandes dessinées as a vehicle for history has only become more popular since the early 2000s with many historians working with cartoonists and the establishment of new journals including L’Histoire de France en BD in 2010, Cases d’Histoire in 2015, and L’Histoire dessinée de la France in 2017.

This article takes a chronological approach to comparing bandes dessinées produced in France and Senegal exclusively invested in commemorating the tirailleurs’ and their efforts during World War I (WWI) to examine the extent to which they acknowledge the ‘colonial dimensions’ in their retelling of the tirailleurs’ story and how or even if they ‘[apply] a critical lens that acknowledges the continued practices of stage-management and control associated with their inclusion in official narratives and memory practices’ (Table 1).12 In the face of renewed nostalgia for the past as evidenced by the surge in popularity of Banania following the 2003 return of the tirailleur sénégalais logo meticulously analysed by Etienne Achille in his article on the logo’s centenary, in what ways do these bandes dessinées engage with existing stereotypes and heed Anne Donadey’s warning of not perpetuating colonial modes of violence inherent to the Banania logo?13 For Donadey, engendering empathy is essential for combatting the perpetuation of colonial stereotypes.14 How do these bandes dessinées promote empathy and with whom? To what extent do any of these bandes dessinées reflect on the construction of official discourse, or, to put it another way, how do they engage with existing lieux de mémoire? Focusing on how the stories vary based on who produced them and when they were produced reveals a dissatisfaction with existing accounts on the one hand and a continued reluctance on the part of official discourse to problematize the past on the other.

Corpus of bandes dessinées under consideration15

Title Publication date(s) Author(s) Publisher information
La Patrouille du Caporal Samba 2003, 2004, 2007, 2010 Fayez Samb L’Harmattan16
Les tirailleurs sénégalais: une histoire méconnue 2004, 2011 Mamadou Koné (text) Amelle Com and Mandione Ciss (art) Direction des Archives et du Patrimoine Historique (DAPH), Musée des Forces Armées Sénégalaises, UNESCO
L’Homme de l’année 1917 2013 Fred Duval and Jean-Pierre Pécau (text) Mr Fab (art) Delcourt
Demba Diop: un tirailleur sénégalais dans la Grande Guerre 2013 (2nd edition 2017) Tempoe (text) Mor (art) 1st edition: Physalis17 2nd edition: Petit à petit
Sang noir / Histoire des tirailleurs sénégalais 2013 (2nd edition 2018) Frédéric Chabaud (text) Julien Monier (art) 1st edition: Physalis 2nd edition: Petit à petit DocuBD
L’Odysée de Mongou 2014 Didier Kassaï L’Harmattan BD
Les Dogues Noirs de l’Empire: la force noire 2019 Christophe Cassiau-Haurie (text) Massiré Tounkara (art) L’Harmattan BD

Earliest publications: Senegalese ‘reputational entrepreneurs’

That the first postcolonial bandes dessinées exclusively centred on tirailleurs sénégalais were produced in the early 2000s by the son of a tirailleur, Fayez Samb, and jointly by the Senegalese Direction des Archives et du Patrimoine Historique (DAPH) and the Musée des Forces Armées Sénégalaises signals a dissatisfaction with the lack of existing popular consciousness about the tirailleurs in France and in Senegal. In both cases, those responsible for producing the bandes dessinées correspond with Konstanze N’Guessan and Mareike Späth’s notion of ‘[r]eputational entrepreneurs’ who are ‘frequently guided by personal self-interest’ in their quest to promote certain figures as heroes.18 Not an artist by trade and working during his free time, Samb used his father’s patrol during World War II (WWII) as the basis of La Patrouille du Caporal Samba to redeem the tirailleurs’ history in France and potentially Africa (publishing with Paris-based L’Harmattan). In contrast, the two-volume text-heavy Senegalese bande dessinée, more pedagogical pamphlet than entertainment, can be considered an extension of the state-led response under President Abdoulaye Wade to honour the tirailleurs in the direct wake of French President Jacques Chirac’s recognition of tirailleurs’ sacrifices during ‘a ceremony commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Allied landing in Provence’ in 2004.19 For my purposes here, I focus only on the first volume, published that very same year, for what it reveals about how the Senegalese state’s swift response attempted to frame the tirailleurs’ history. Though both Samb’s series and the Senegalese pamphlets are undoubtedly didactic and seek to honour the tirailleurs, the former attends to the complexity of their experiences while the later seeks to control their narrative.

In La Patrouille du Caporal Samba, Samb combines a self-taught style of black ink drawings on plain white paper with extensive research to reconstruct specific events involving tirailleurs from WWI, the interwar period, and WWII. At first glance, the repetitive use of characters in profile and silhouettes with cursive lettering and hand-drawn block letters suggests a certain artistic and narrative naivety and simplicity. This could not be further from the truth. First, each volume abounds with historical details and meticulously-drawn maps and reproductions of military paraphernalia (uniforms, regiment flags, insignia), modes of transportation (WWI fighter planes and ocean liners), and French monuments (the Tata of Chasselay cemetery featured throughout the first volume and even on its cover). Second, Samb’s decision to blend formal French and so-called ‘français-tirailleur’ or ‘petit-nègre’ can be seen as meta-level commentary on the racist assumptions about tirailleurs baked into colonial-era representations. In fact, Samb speaks directly to this linguistic reality on the first page of the series below a profile portrait of the titular Caporal:

Il est probable que le langage utilisé puisse froisser une partie des lecteurs. Nous leur rappelons que cette forme d’expression était le seul mode de liaison possible entre les différentes composantes ethniques qui constituaient l’Armée Coloniale Française.20

This opening warning-cum-historical note dispels the false correlation between linguistic capacity and intelligence of the French civilizing mission’s ideology of cultural superiority, which was reinforced in the early twentieth century in military tracts. This note also destabilizes a monolithic image of the tirailleurs by underscoring the ethnic diversity of the French colonial army.

Maintaining this linguistic mélange, Samb recounts the everyday dimension of being a tirailleur and key historical moments via Caporal Samba and his fellow tirailleurs, thus encouraging empathy through reader identification. Volumes 1 (Tirailleurs sénégalais à Lyon) and 3 (Le tirailleur des Vosges), set during WWII, demonstrate the tirailleurs’ contributions to the French Resistance while weaving in stories of earlier tirailleurs’ contributions during WWI. The first celebrates their integral role in defending Lyon in 1940 while the second recounts the well-documented resistance efforts of Guinean Mamadou Addi Bâ. Volumes 2 (Le Naufrage de l’Africa) and 4 (Le Tirailleur et les Cigognes) use characters recounting stories as conduits for extended flashbacks. Volume 2 tells the tale of the 1920 shipwreck of the SS Afrique that left from Bordeaux destined for Dakar; onboard were a substantial number of returning tirailleurs who lost their lives. Volume 3 imagines an encounter between a tirailleur and France’s famous ace aviation unit, Escadrille 3 known as Les Cigognes. Casting these reconstructions through the tirailleurs’ points of view, Samb prioritizes their agency and portrays them as complex individuals who questioned orders, disputed with one another, and did their best to navigate new environments and situations. Ultimately, Samb claims tirailleur history as French history, which extends well beyond the hexagon.

In telling the tirailleurs’ story, the initial 2004 volume of the Senegalese pamphlet highlights France and Senegal’s shared history, yet, in an attempt to downplay the tirailleurs’ responsibility for colonial violence, paradoxically celebrates a France-centric version of the past while also condemning the French state’s withholding of tirailleurs’ pensions. Foregrounding the longue durée of French armed forces in Senegal, the pamphlet’s narrative begins with a description of Europeans’ drive to find new trade routes in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and posits 1765 when the French governor of Gorée island established the ‘Corps des laptots de Gorée’ as the first iteration of what would become the tirailleurs sénégalais. It then tracks the intertwined colonial and military advancements in Africa during the nineteenth century and ends on a rather ironic note meant to legitimize the tirailleurs’ unmistakable honour. On the last page, in between a drawing of proud tirailleurs marching with the French flag and a photograph of a tirailleur regiment, is a drawing of Charles Mangin writing with the following description: ‘Mangin promu Lieutenant-colonel, admiratif devant ces Tirailleurs pour leurs qualités guerrières, leur consacre un ouvrage publié en 1908: La Force Noire’.21 Without further explanation or details about Mangin’s text, the praise of the tirailleurs by way of Mangin’s publication risks being read as an endorsement of his racialized vision of the French armed forces.

This narrow focus on military history is signalled in the full title of the pamphlet - Direction des archives et du patrimoine historique (DAPH), Musée des forces armées sénégalaises Raconte: Les tirailleurs sénégalais: une histoire méconnue. 1ère épisode: Des origines à la veille de la 1ère guerre mondiale - and its author, Mamadou Koné, the then technical advisor of the museum. The title’s passive construction obscures those responsible for not disseminating this history and, in bringing to the public this unknown past, casts the text’s producers - the Senegalese government - as the agents of justice, effectively deflecting any culpability for rendering such a history méconnue. This deflection of culpability is the central strategy for commending the tirailleurs as heroes. The preface demands that we judge the tirailleurs’ actions as applaudable evidence of their loyalty to the French empire, which, like the title, displaces responsibility for the violence they inflicted on other Africans.

The WWI centenary and mainstream rebranding

Since anniversaries are part and parcel of commemoration offering a moment of reflection as in the case of Chirac’s 2004 comments, it is no surprise that the centenary of WWI would usher in four years of intense reconsideration in France, a reconsideration that included a surge in bandes dessinées about WWI. The French government’s website dedicated to the centenary includes a section on bandes dessinées though mention of bandes dessinées about African soldiers is almost non-existent.22 In fact, the first two bandes dessinées on the website that feature black soldiers are about black Americans - the Harlem Hellfighters - and not tirailleurs. This imbalance in representation both reproduces a historical reality and signals the limitations of France’s reconsideration of the past. First, as Tyler Stovall has demonstrated, the French were in awe of black American soldiers during WWI and developed a strong admiration for black American culture, particularly during the interwar period.23 This acceptance and admiration was not equally bestowed upon colonial soldiers in part due to the discourses mobilized to control their image in alignment with the imperial ideology of cultural superiority. Second, this lack of representations of tirailleurs despite their sustained presence in (post)colonial visual culture and the sheer volume of colonial troops in Europe during WWI is symptomatic of the ways in which French officials and official narratives of WWI and WWII erased them, such as Charles De Gaulle’s whitewashing of the liberation of Paris through the removal of colonial soldiers to the south and rapid repatriations prior to August 1944.

In this section, I compare the three mainstream bandes dessinées about tirailleurs in WWI - published in France in 2013, all by French authors and artists - to assess how, in attempting to honour the tirailleurs as part of the centenary, they potentially reframe their legacy for the general French public. All three - L’Homme de l’année 1917: le soldat inconnu, Demba Diop, and Histoire des tirailleurs sénégalais - metonymically mobilize a well-spoken fictional protagonist (Boubacar N’Dore dit Bouba, Demba Diop, and Yacouba Ndaw respectively) as the proxy through which readers learn of tirailleurs’ experiences and heroism. First-person narration is meant to humanize the tirailleurs by combatting Banania-style stereotypes. Yet, this narrative choice ironically risks upholding a colonialist understanding of French universalism predicated on a belief in cultural superiority. Unlike Fayez Samb’s Caporal Samba, these protagonists speak a high level of French (in addition to other languages); the result is that these bandes dessinées designate linguistically assimilated tirailleurs as the ones worthy of commemoration.

Through their narrative similarities, these bandes dessinées seem to suggest that tirailleurs’ commemorative status is a function of their willingness to sacrifice themselves physically and psychologically for France and that non-racist French soldiers are equally worthy of commemoration. Each deal with the protagonist’s courageous and loyal performance on battlefields under the command of a French corporal or captain who accepts the tirailleurs as his equal brother-in-arms in stark contrast to the higher-ranking officials’ overt racism. The pre-war lives of Demba and Yacouba and their respective French officers are presented as practically the same despite being from different cultures, thus suggesting that social class solidarity supersedes racial difference. In contrast, Bouba’s commanding officer, Joseph Sobrier, also happens to own Bouba’s familial land in the Ivory Coast; nevertheless, their fraternal bond is forged in their shared experiences following orders enforcing colonial expansion throughout North and West Africa over the course of several years, before they are deployed to the trenches in France. Both Demba and Yacouba are wounded in battle (Demba loses a leg and Yacouba is shot in the shoulder), but meet up again with their former officers in civilian life (Demba’s captain visits him in his village to bestow upon him a medal of honour and Yacouba and his former officer grab drinks in Marseille in 1939), while Bouba is killed saving Joseph’s life. These ‘racial reconciliation fantasies’, to use historian Sarah J. Zimmerman’s characterization, posit the false binary of ‘good’ (accepting) and ‘bad’ (racist) French as an unchanging lynchpin of French universalism, which, rather than engaging critically with the ideological underpinnings of republican values, has the double function of absolving colonial violence and contemporary social unrest as little more than the result of a few bad individuals.24

With the inclusion of materials from the Musée national de la Légion d’honneur et des ordres de chevalerie and L’Office national des anciens combattants et victimes de guerre in Demba Diop and Histoire des tirailleurs sénégalais, these bandes dessinées are the most closely aligned with and provide insight into French state discourse, which downplays the systemic racism undergirding the colonial endeavour. Demba Diop includes a half-page scene in which the convoy transporting him and other conscripts passes by an entire village in flames; the only explanation comes in the form of a French soldier’s word balloon: ‘Ceux-là y’ z’auraient dû obéïr comme les s’aut’es!’.25 Though the use of violence on the part of French colonial forces to quell any and all resistance is implied in this short scene, such violence is not depicted and, like Demba who is only passing by, the message for the reader is that it is better to move on and not dwell on such facts.

Through their use of extradiegetic materials, both texts acknowledge the limitations of historical fiction and gesture towards further research. Demba Diop includes a one-page afterward with a short summary of ‘La force noire’ and a two-item bibliography. The afterword’s sustained use of the passive voice obscures historical reality (‘C’est en 1857 que sont créés les compagnies de tirailleurs sénégalais’), thus abstaining from critiquing figures such as Faidherbe or Mangin.26 Most problematic is the unexplained declaration that ‘[o]n les appellera “la force noire” mais aussi parfois “les y’a bon Banania”’, without any discussion of what Banania is, despite there being a section entitled ‘L’image du tirailleur’ that only mentions enemy propaganda that promoted barbarism and racism.27 The utter lack of discussion about the term Banania and the displacement of racist stereotypes as coming from Germans demonstrates a refusal to examine the racist underpinnings of ‘La Force noire’. Conversely, Histoire des tirailleurs sénégalais is structured around extradiegetic inserts. These regular instalments of historical facts imitate textbooks to capture readers’ attention, blending large-font headings, visual reproductions of artefacts, maps, textboxes featuring statistical data and recommendations for further reading, and columns of distilled explanations. They also provide a much more robust engagement with the complexity of the French empire at the time of WWI, including information pertaining to other colonial subjects - tirailleurs algériens, tunisiens, and marocains, and the ‘Corps des travailleurs chinois’ - as well as discussions about German and French racist caricatures of colonial soldiers, and discussions of cemeteries and monuments for the tirailleurs erected by the French state. However, though the inserts and the epilogue in which Yacouba alludes to decolonization imply that the French state has atoned for its past, the sheer amount of replicated colonial-era imagery in the inserts and imitations in the diegesis could be seen as support rather than critique of France’s civilizing mission. This tension manifests directly following the last page: accompanying the quotation from Senghor’s poem ‘Tyaroye’ that eulogizes the victims of the 1944 massacre, and from which Sang noir drew its title, is a photograph of Senghor in his Académie Française regalia. The official cooptation of Senghor via his induction into the French canon effectively undermines his outrage at France for the massacre while once again reinforcing cultural assimilation as commendable and worthy of commemoration.

The lack of extradiegetic materials in L’Homme de l’année 1917 contributes to its ability to go beyond the other two in its critical retelling of the tirailleurs’ history and in its symbolic gesture to commemorate them. Without the support of official institutions such as veterans’ affairs, the authors, Fred Duval and Jean-Pierre Pécau, generate a much more nuanced tale dedicating almost a third of the narrative to the tirailleurs’ contributions for subjugating other Africans in the name of French colonialism. As a precursor to being killed by a German soldier to protect Joseph, Bouba saves Joseph’s life outside Abidjan while fighting against other Africans, and he helps strategize against locals in Morocco. Later, while on leave in Paris with Joseph, the two both frequent the same brothel after Bouba earns money from some men interested in him. It is not revealed until the last page of the text that these men asked him to dress in a Zouave uniform (a uniform associated with colonial soldiers from North Africa) and pose for an artist, all of which results in the production of the 1915 Banania logo. This twist of events operates as an ironic counterpart to the opening scene: a recreation of 10 November 1920 when Auguste Thin selected an anonymous coffin to be interred the next day at the Arc de Triomphe as the unknown soldier. Later in the story, after Bouba’s death, Joseph calls in favours and has two men help him switch the body in the designated coffin for that of Bouba’s, which he had exhumed. The visual stereotype and the national icon become one and the same in this fictionalized reimagining, yet there are supposedly only three witnesses and no extradiegetic evidence to authenticate the swap. Nevertheless, this popular bande dessinée metaphorically places the tirailleurs - and, by extension, the French empire - at the heart of national memory. Indeed, as the inaugural volume of the L’Homme de l’année series whose central concept is to focus on (sometimes, but not always, fictional) individuals at the heart of events ‘qui ont marqué notre mémoire collective’, this bande dessinée seems to advocate for an expanded, (post)colonial understanding of France and French history.

La Force Noire in Africa

The last two bandes dessinées, L’Odysée de Mongou (2014) and Les Dogues noirs de l’Empire: la force noire (2019), present narratives from the point of view of African authors, but eschew a Senegal-centred version of the tirailleurs. L’Odysée de Mongou is an adaptation of Pierre Sammy Mackfoy’s 1977 novel of the same name realized by cartoonist Didier Kassaï, both from the Central African Republic. Les Dogues noirs de l’Empire: la force noire, written by French Christophe Cassiau-Haurie and illustrated by Malian Massiré Tounkara, centres on two cousins whose respective villages are separated by a river and who, because of European colonial expansion, become mortal enemies. Celebrating the talents of Kassaï and Tounkara and seeking to go beyond official discourses, these two texts offer perspectives of the tirailleurs and WWI remarkably different from those in the previous sections.

The odyssey of Mackfoy’s Mongou from a fictional village in Africa’s interior walks readers through the protagonist’s experience of French colonization up until he receives a medal at the end of WWI, not for his service as a tirailleur, but as a colonial intermediary who facilitated colonial rule and military recruitment. An older French explorer is the first white European to reach Mongou’s village, but is soon followed by the French colonial army including tirailleurs, the Catholic church, and the colonial school. Though standard French is used throughout, even when characters are evidently speaking different languages (so that readers can follow along), the tirailleurs speak pidgin French and often argue with locals while carrying out orders. As with almost all the previous texts, military recruitment ushers in a montage of familiar scenes: medical exams, uniform and weapon distribution, basic training, traversing great distances to reach the port at Dakar, and the ship ride to Marseille. However, once in France, Mongou’s trajectory diverges from that of his compatriots because of his évolué status. Having quickly learned French, Mongou diplomatically facilitated French colonial rule in his village and is subsequently afforded a civilian existence in France where he simultaneously experiences culture shock and racism. At the end, after running into compatriots in uniform who recount their experience of the war, Mongou is awarded a medal for ‘tout ce qu’[il a] fait pour elle, la patrie’ before returning home (though only his departure is pictured).28 Rather than condemn French colonialism outright, Mackfoy’s fictional Mongou and Kassaï’s water-coloured ligne claire realism balances humour and seriousness, leaving judgement up to readers.29

Les Dogues noirs de l’Empire also follows the story of a single protagonist, Bakary, but it is the only text set in the African theatre of WWI focusing on the border between French-controlled Dahomey (Benin) and German-controlled Togoland (Togo). Tounkara’s realistic digital art blends a rich palette of colours to dramatize the colonially driven tragedy that befalls Bakary and his close cousin, Babacar. When Bakary announces to his father that he will enlist so that the tirailleurs do not burn his village, he learns that Babacar has already enlisted with the Germans and will therefore be his enemy. The closing image is a splash page of a tearful Bakary on his knees looking directly at the reader while holding Babacar’s lifeless body, having just killed him to save his French captain. This family tragedy invites readers to consider the many horrors of colonial rule alongside those of modern warfare. Following the usual enlistment montage, this text presents dynamic battles played out on the African landscape. At one point, when the French try to storm the beach in Kameroun, following the assassination of the Kamerounian prince who planned to work with the French, the images feel lifted from popular culture representations of the Normandy landings during WWII. This text also seems in dialogue with Demba Diop and Histoire des tirailleurs sénégalais. Les Dogues noirs and Demba Diop open with a panel depicting the iconic French National Assembly in Paris to stage speeches and cameos of key advocates and critics of Mangin’s Force noire. Similarly, all three feature quotations from Senghor’s Hosties noires. The citations in Demba Diop and Histoire des tirailleurs sénégalais emphasize tirailleurs’ sacrifice to France and fraternity with the French while the excerpt from ‘Prière de paix’ that serves as an epigraph for Les Dogues noir and from which the title is derived underscores colonialism’s transformative power that made Africans the tools of violence towards other (soon-to-be) colonial subjects. Senghor’s poem prays for France’s pardon and for fraternity, yet the excerpt that prefaces this story of interfamilial violence brought on by European competition seems to suggest the naivety of such a prayer in light of France’s post-independence relationship with its former African colonies.

Conclusion

To conclude, I would like to return to the issue of empathy and its relationship to commemoration at work in the bandes dessinées examined here. The concerted effort in these bandes dessinées to praise the tirailleurs’ service and sacrifices deploy similar narrative strategies to engender empathy. In the mainstream French bandes dessinées, readers are encouraged to identify with the French-speaking tirailleur protagonists as well as with their French captains. This strategy to combat Banania-style stereotypes ironically draws a direct line from the colonial past to the postcolonial present in its facile portrayal of what constitutes a good Frenchman (colour-blind) and a bad one (overtly racist), without robust engagement with the carryover from the colonial era of French universalism’s ideology of cultural superiority. Not surprisingly, what we might consider the state-sanctioned texts in Senegal and France - Les tirailleurs sénégalais: une histoire méconnue, Demba Diop, Histoire des tirailleurs sénégalais - maintain the French republican ideals of equality and fraternity, but fail to account for the French empire’s culpability for the colonial subjects’ lack of liberty. All three extol tirailleurs for following orders and forego sustained critique of the orders given. The bandes dessinées by African authors and artists - La Patrouille du Caporal Samba, L’Odysée de Mongou, and Les Dogues noirs de l’empire - generate much more nuanced and fraught representations of the tirailleurs, French colonialism, and WWI. They present nuanced and complex protagonists and they foreground rather than pass over the tirailleurs’ complicity in colonial expansion as a foundational dimension of their history. Despite the varying degrees of colonial critique, all of these bandes dessinées place tirailleurs at the level of national celebration in France and Senegal and demonstrate bandes dessinées as a productive site for re(en)visioning the past.

David Murphy, ‘Les Tirailleurs sénégalais’, in Postcolonial Realms of Memory: Sites and Symbols in Modern France, ed. by Achille Etienne, Charles Forsdick, and Lydie Moudileno (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2020), pp. 290-97 (p. 290). Following Anne Donadey’s example of an ethical analysis of Banania, I have chosen not to include any iterations of the logo, which are (perhaps too) readily retrievable online.

See Éric Deroo and Antoine Champeaux, La Force noire: Gloire et infortunes d’une légende coloniale (Paris: Éditions Tallandier, 2006).

For brevity, I use the tirailleurs and tirailleurs sénégalais interchangeably unless otherwise stated, even though there were other tirailleurs from throughout the French empire, since the corpus under consideration here centres on soldiers from West French Africa and Equatorial French Africa.

Etienne Achille, ‘A l’approche des cent ans de Banania, le retour tu tirailleur’, Contemporary French Civilization, 38.2 (2013), 201-16 (p. 202).

Murphy, ‘Les Tirailleurs sénégalais’. See Anne Donadey, ‘“Y’a bon Banania”: Ethics and Cultural Criticism in the Colonial Context’, French Cultural Studies, 11.1 (2000), 9-29.

Robert Aldrich, Vestiges of Colonial Empire in France: Monuments, Museums and Colonial Memories (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), p. 8.

David Murphy, ‘Fighting for the Homeland? The Second World War in the Films of Oumane Sembene’, L’Esprit Créatur, 47.1 (2007), 56-67 (pp. 57-58).

Mark McKinney, The Colonial Heritage of French Comics (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2011).

For more on how Astérix reinstills values from the Third Republic and aligns them with post-war French society while also alluding to Nazi Occupation during WWII and trafficking in colonial-era stereotypes, see Pierre Marlet, ‘Le sceptre de Tintin et le bouclier d’Astérix confrontés à leur mythe national’, in Mythe et bande dessinée, ed. by Viviane Alary and Danielle Corrado (Clermont-Ferrand: Presses Universitaires Blaise Pascal, 2006), pp. 111-27; and Henri-Simon Blanc-Hoàng, ‘Antiquity and Bandes Dessinées: Schizophrenic Nationalism between Atlanticism and Marxism’, in Comics as History, Comics as Literature: Roles of the Comic Book in Scholarship, Society, and Entertainment, ed. by Annessa Ann Babic (Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2014), pp. 15-32.

See Alison S. Fell and Nina Wardleworth, ‘The Colour of War Memory: Cultural Representations of Tirailleurs Sénégalais’, Journal of War & Cultural Studies, 9.4. (2016), 319-34; and Myron Echenberg, ‘“Morts Pour la France”: The African Soldier in France During the Second World War’, The Journal of African History, 26.4 (1985), 363-80.

Guillaume de Syon, ‘Did You Learn Your Strip? The History of France as Comic Fad in the 1970s’, in Comics as History, Comics as Literature: Roles of the Comic Book in Scholarship, Society, and Entertainment, ed. by Annessa Ann Babic (Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2014), pp. 33-45 (p. 33).

Etienne Achille, Charles Forsdick, and Lydie Moudileno, ‘Introduction: Postcolonizing lieux de mémoire’, in Postcolonial Realms of Memory: Sites and Symbols in Modern France, ed. by Etienne Achille, Charles Forsdick, and Lydie Moudileno (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2020), pp. 1-19 (p. 12).

Achille, ‘A l’approche des cent ans de Banania’. Donadey, ‘“Y” a bon Banania’.

Donadey, ‘“Y’a bon Banania”’, p. 27.

The one major exemption from this list is the two-volume Le Coeur des batailles by Jean-David Morvan and Igor Kordey, published by Delcourt in 2007 and 2008 respectively.

This series predates the establishment of L’Harmattan’s specialized BD series launched in December 2010.

Since Physalis went out of business in 2015, Petit à Petit reissued Demba Diop with almost no changes and Sang noir under the new title Histoire des tirailleurs sénégalais.

Konstanze N’Guessan and Mareike Späth, ‘Y’a Bon? Popularizing the Tirailleurs as Heroes of (Anti-)Colonialism’, in Heroism as a Global Phenomenon in Contemporary Culture, ed. by Barbara Korte, Simon Wendt, and Nicole Falkenhayner (London: Routledge, 2019), pp. 70-104 (p. 73).

Ginio, Ruth, ‘African Colonial Soldiers between Memory and Forgetfulness: The Case of Post-Colonial Senegal’, Outre-Mers. Revue d’histoire, 93.350-51 (2006), 141-55 (p. 141).

Fayez Samb, Tirailleurs sénégalais à Lyon (Paris: Éditions L’Harmattan, 2003), n.p.

Mamadou Koné, Mandione Ciss, and Amelle Com, Les tirailleurs sénégalais: une histoire méconnue (Dakar: Direction des archives et du patrimoine historique, Musée des forces armées sénégalaises, 2004), p. 20.

Joseph Zimet, 14-18 Mission Centenaire, 2013 >https://www.centenaire.org> [accessed 4 July 2020].

Tyler Stovall, Paris noir: African Americans in the City of Light (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996).

Sarah J. Zimmerman, ‘Review: Frédéric Chabaud. Histoire des tirailleurs sénégalais’, American Historical Review, 125.1 (2020), 168-70 (p. 169).

Mor Tempoe and Florent Daniel, Demba Diop: un tirailleur sénégalais dans la grande guerre (Rouen: Éditions Petit à petit, 2017), p. 10.

Tempoe and Daniel, p. 48.

Tempoe and Daniel, p. 48.

Didier Kassaï and Sammy Mackfoy, L’Odysée de Mongou (Paris: Éditions L’Harmattan, 2014), p. 48.

The ligne claire aesthetic refers to the Franco-Belgian bande dessinée style perfected and popularized by Hergé in Tintin. This aesthetic prioritizes legibility and foregoes shading. Many francophone African cartoonists, especially those who started in the 1980s and 1990s such as Barly Baruti and Pat Masioni, have adapted and adopted this aesthetic by imbuing their work with detail, nuance, and realism.


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Bumatay, Michelle