Tintin au Twenty-First Century

When I was very young, our town had an Encore books. It was a special kind of bliss, because it was like the library, but all the books were new. It’s from this book store that I got my set of the Chronicles of Narnia. I spent hours browsing their selection of Babysitters Club volumes. It was the early 90s, though, and not a mega-store like B&N, so it didn’t stock Tintin.

My dad, feeling nostalgic, asked the guys at the counter if they could order them. They could, one at a time. I was shown the list, had no idea where to start, and they ordered the first one off the page: The Blue Lotus. In this way, I became acquainted with Tintin, one book at a time. I was at least twelve before they began running the cartoon in Nickelodeon. I borrowed the 3-in-1 volumes from the library, to supplement the holes in my collection, but I like the single volumes better. The dimensions are bigger, larger than a standard page.

So I was a bit distressed when articles broke out taking aim at Tintin. Several months ago there was an outcry against Babar, whose large-board book is still on the shelf beside my bed. These are characters I grew up with and loved.

The objections to both series have weight. I will defend Babar more strongly, but both were produced during a period of British/European imperialism, and they reflect those values. The Brooklyn Public Library has removed Tintin Au Congo from their general collection.

The book, published 79 years ago, was moved in 2007 from the public area of the library to a back room where it is held under lock and key.

The move came after a patron objected, as others have, to the way Africans are depicted in the book. “The content is racially offensive to black people,’’ a librarian wrote on Form 286, also known as a Request for Reconsideration of Library Material [pdf].

In particular, the patron took issue with illustrations that she felt had the Africans “looking like monkeys,’’ but other elements of the book have also drawn criticism over the years — from the broken French that the natives speak to their general simple-mindedness. (NYT, linked above)

My first reaction, of course, was, “No! Tintin!!” On reading the explanation, I saw the reasons. And then had to dredge up my thought processes of yesteryear.

You see, looking back, I remember being aware that the attitudes in the books weren’t always… favorable. I remember a lot of really pompous Europeans–who were often the villains. I saw these as character flaws, not necessarily a statement from the writer himself. I was also aware that the books were old, and that my parents had read them during their childhoods in white-controlled Africa.

But now I wonder. Just how pervasive are these imperialist messages? Were the depictions of non-Europeans always negative or stereotypical?

I spoke to my parents, and my father has agreed to reread the collection with me. We’ve put in an order online for the three volumes we’re missing, and done some research into the rest.

Neither of my parents recognize Tintin au Congo. I’m guessing it wasn’t allowed in Africa for obvious reasons. More surprising is the first Tintin volume, ever: Tintin in the Land of the Soviets. We’d certainly never heard of THAT! We also hadn’t seen Tintin and Alph-Art, Herge’s very last story, published posthumously. We decided not to purchase those, as the quality is very different from the other books. (Soviets is black and white!) We’ll be rereading and reviewing the books that were read during out childhoods.

I’m a little afraid that this will ruin them for me. There’s a lot to be said for ignorance. But clearly this issue with the Brooklyn Library has been bothering, since I got up early to launch this.

I’m going to finish Negotiating With the Dead and give Julie & Julia (which is infinitely more portable) a shot before launching this little project. I can’t speak to Dad’s schedule.

Look for Tintin in America–mobsters, natives, and a smart little white dog.

Edit 8/27/09: Check out TintinMovie.org for more information on au Congo, and public reaction. Thanks, Chris!

2 Comments on Tintin au Twenty-First Century

  1. Tintin in the Land of the Soviets and Tintin in the Congo were the first two books Herge produced. These two, particularly the later, do contain images we would not consider acceptable.

    Unlike all the other books, Land of the Soviets was never redrawn into the familiar ligne claire style of Herge. It is only available as a facsimile edition of the original work and is aimed at collectors rather than children discovering Tintin for the first time.

    Tintin in the Congo was redrawn and has been republished in the familiar 62 page colour album format. The modern version is toned down compared to the original but still contains images and attitudes that we would see as racist. However when Herge wrote the book in the early 1930s, such images and the colonial mindset were acceptable and even encouraged.

    Herge wrote Tintin over a span 50 years, during which a lot change in the world. Inevitably some of his early work is mired in a time that is almost unimaginable to us nowadays.

    For more in Tintin in the Congo / Racism – see: http://tintinmovie.org/category/albums/tintin-in-the-congo/

    • Thanks for the response, Chris. My family and I had no idea how severe the racism in the early books was–and we can’t know if the content isn’t made available in some form. I agree with the position in Tintin in the Congo Worse Than Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”, that people are reacting so strongly because the US sees comics as being for children. I took a class in university that covered the history of the ‘guidelines’. It sounds like Soviet Union and Congo should be kept out of children’s sections, but preserved as studies of racial attitudes during their era. I’d love to learn more about how Herge’s views changed, and his own views of the early books.

      And, omigod, I had no idea a Tintin movie was in production! Sounds like an excellent cast, too! I’ll be keeping tabs!

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