The children’s comics album Tintin au Congo, by the Belgian cartoonist Hergé, has been much in the news of late– and not in a good way.
In Britain, the Commission for Racial Equality has condemned the book’s “abominable” racism (and proving once more that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, its sales have jumped 5000% on Amazon UK). It’s been banished from the children’s section in bookshops and libraries across America and the UK, in chains such as Border’s.
Finally, following a lawsuit brought by a Congolese student, Bienvenu Mbutu Mondondo, a court in Brussels is to determine whether the book should be banned in Belgium. Similar lawsuits have been brought in France and in Britain.
So: just how racist is Tintin au Congo?
“And to say that in Belgium all the li’l Whites are like Tintin!”
“Me find Tintin’s machine…”
“If him no come in 1 year and 1 day it for you…”
“And if you no be good you’ll never be like Tintin!”
“Never again me him see a boula-matari [stone-breaker-- the title given to Stanley, the white, conqueror of the Congo] like Tintin”
(Dog) “That Snowy…what a guy!”
Note in the upper left-hand corner: fetish statues of Tintin and Snowy before which a Black man kneels in worship.
I could post many more cringe-worthy excerpts, but why bother?
Yes, Tintin au Congo is racist. Whether it should be restricted or banned is a debate I’ll leave to others, although I certainly wouldn’t allow a child of mine near it.
“So what?” the informed comics reader might object.
It’s no new discovery that throughout comics history racist and bigoted content has permeated the art form. The Imp in Little Nemo:
Connie in Terry and the Pirates:
Ebony in The Spirit:
The first appearance of Ebony White; art by Will Eisner
…the list of offensive stereotypes is endless.
One balances a historical approach with a rejection of such inadmissible values, and one moves on.
But the case of Tintin — and of his creator, Hergé — warrants more thought.
First, unlike the vast majority of popular comics with racist elements, Tintin remains relevant.
The series of 23 albums has sold, to date, over 200 million copies in sixty languages and still sells briskly. It has spun off magazines, toys, television shows, feature films; Stephen Spielberg is now in post-production of a blockbuster adaptation of The secret of the Unicorn. Tintin isn’t enjoyed only by middle-aged fans, either; children respond just as eagerly to his adventures today as they did eighty years ago.
So a certain level of scrutiny is justified, simply because of Tintin’s effect on the culture, and on young minds in particular. Tintin au Congo is the most egregiously racist, but most of the other albums have disturbing aspects as well.
I’m interested in Tintin’s racism, xenophobia, and general fear of the Other for different reasons.
Tintin changed over the years. By which I mean that the individual albums were redrawn, rewritten, compressed and otherwise redacted, some more than once: L’Ile Noire (The Black Island) exists in three versions, from 1938, 1943, and 1965.
And in these redactions, the racism has been drastically toned down. Take this example, from (top) the original, and (bottom) the revised versions of Le Crabe aux Pinces d’Or:
And the above shows why I speak of a toning down of the racism, not of its elimination. The caricature of a brutal black is replaced, true – by the caricature of a brutal Arab.
Note that the above change was not made at Hergé’s initiative: it was his American publisher, Simon and Schuster, who demanded it (as well as the ‘whitewashing’ of four Black characters from Tintin in America. ) As Hergé sardonically remarked,
“What the American editor wanted was the following: No Blacks. Neither good Blacks nor bad Blacks. Because Blacks are neither good nor bad: they don’t exist (as everyone knows, in the USA.)”
Thus a racism of caricature is displaced by a racism of denial.
Indeed, the revised editions function as palimpsests—and as with all palimpsests, the ghost of the original text is sensed. Or shall I make a psychiatric analogy and speak of the return of the repressed? Whichever — I find the tension between the clean images and cleaner morals of the modern editions, and the nasty energy of the originals, gives the strip much of its strange and seductive flavor; something subterranean, something I only intuited until I came face-to-face with the older, rougher, uglier incarnation of the strip.
But the other changes in Tintin over time were rooted in the personal evolution of its creator. He progressed from a narrow-minded petty bourgeois stuffed with the ignorant prejudices of his time and caste, to a far more generous spirit eager to engage the world—and the Other—as it truly is. It took him a mere forty years.
In the next instalment (Update: now posted here), we’ll review the background of Georges Rémi aka Hergé, and the shocks to his world that caused his long climb away from simple bigotry; and in particular his meeting with a young artist from China.
The entire Tintin in Otherland is here.
All art copyright Studio Hergé/Moulinsart.