Tintin’s sins: Belgium reckons with its comic hero’s racist past

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On May 31, a Belgian court will decide whether to ban or at least enforce a disclaimer on the sale of children’s book Tintin in the Congo.

Call it Tintin in the Land of the Censors. On May 31, a Belgian court will decide whether to ban or at least enforce a disclaimer on the sale of children’s book Tintin in the Congo, due to its racially insensitive depictions of the Congolese.

Published since 1931, illustrator and author Herge’s adventure follows the young reporter’s visit to the then-Belgian colony.

In the United Kingdom, it has been sold with a disclaimer since 2007; at the Brooklyn Public Library, it is available only through special appointment.

Peter Birkemoe, co-owner of Toronto comic store The Beguiling, says “while this may have been produced as a work for children at the time, nobody is thinking this should be sold to children now.”

On the other hand the book offers insight into Herge’s evolution. Tintin in the Congo was heavily influenced by the racist, colonial attitudes of the day, but as Herge learned more about the world, “his attitudes shifted, and to see that evolution in the work of the artist is a great lesson.”

Birkemoe says The Blue Lotus, published five years after Tintin in the Congo, shows a shift towards cultural sensitivity. Its accurate depiction of Chinese culture was inspired partly by Herge’s friendship with sculptor Chang Chong-chen. The Taiwanese government later invited Herge to visit, and he did, in 1973.

The original printing of Tintin in the Congo showed Tintin, a reporter for Belgium’s Le Petit Vingtieme, teaching a Congolese classroom about the wonders of Belgium. Revisions were later made to show him teaching mathematics. The offensive illustrations remain. Birkemoe says that “comparing various versions of the same work is one of the things that make it worth studying.”

“With prose, it’s much easier to do an edit. But with comics, with the artist’s hand and the image the way it is, it’s by and large impossible,” says Birkemoe, also co-founder of the Toronto Comic Arts Festival.

Comics, like cinema and print, have a long history of racial insensitivity. Politically incorrect scenes have been excised from films and culturally offensive cartoons were pulled from circulation long ago. Even the Hardy Boys capers’ have been updated to reflect more modern values.

This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star on May 22, 2010.

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