08 January 2008

Tintin Out of the Congo

In recognition of the announcement of the Cybils Graphic Novels finalists, this will be another COMICS WEEK at Oz and Ends: varied commentary on the comics form.

Last fall, as reported by Publishers Weekly, Little, Brown announced that it had halted its plan to bring out Tintin in the Congo in the US. Britain's Commission for Racial Equality had deemed the same book racist in July. Some US booksellers had raised objections to the title, and Borders had decided to shelve it among graphic novels for adults rather than with the other Tintin comics in the children's section.

Little, Brown's original catalogue announcement had said:

With Herge's centennary upon us in 2007, we are now releasing these three previously unreleased titles. We believe they will be a big hit with avid Tintin fans who have been searching for these titles overseas to complete their collections.

In this adventure, Herge brings Tintin and his faithful dog, Snowy[,] to Africa, where they explore the Belgian Congo. (Note: this particular title, one of three originally unpublished in the U.S., may be considered somewhat controversial, as it reflects the colonial attitudes of the time it was created. Herge depicts African people according to the stereotypes of the time period, but in this edition it will be contextualized for the reader in an explanatory preface.)
Apparently that "explanatory preface" was to be the same that appeared in Egmont's British edition, issued in 2005.

The problem with this "graphic album" is obviously its depiction of Africans as nearly identical, goggled-eyed, thick-lipped, ignorant savages. Such an offensive portrayal isn't surprising, considering that Hergé first created Tintin in the Congo in 1930-31, closer to the period when Belgium brutally instituted the "Congo Free State" as a colony than to us today.

Just as obviously, the choice not to republish this book reflects our present political sensibilities. But the Tintin series was political from the beginning. Hergé's publisher commissioned the first, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets (1929-30), to promote its anti-Communist politics.

Furthermore, we mustn't assume that the book that Little, Brown had planned to release was Hergé's original. The artist himself redrew and colored the book for republication in 1946, and at the time changed some references to Congo as Belgian territory. According to Tintinologist, Tintin in the Congo was further changed in 1975 to erase how Tintin killed a rhinoceros by "by drilling a hole in its back, filling it with gunpowder, and lighting it" after complaints from Scandinavian publishers. So Hergé had adapted his book for contemporary tastes all along.

I wouldn't be surprised if some publishers in 1975 wished they could alter the racist caricatures as easily as they could ask Hergé to revise that rhino episode. But Hergé's versions of Africans appear in many panels on many pages, and he would probably have had to rethink his whole approach to them.

I favor the "explanatory preface" approach to republishing books that reflect old racism, even children's books. However, Tintin in the Congo calls into question how effective that approach would be in a "graphic album." Its problem isn't just some words, which are easily revised, or one or two illustrations, which could be altered or dropped. In a comic with lots of African caricatures, the problem becomes pervasive. And art has a faster, stronger effect on readers than a bit of prose at the start might be able to counteract.

For anyone who wants to own Hergé's Tintin in the Congo as the artist first envisioned it, Last Gasp publishes the original--in black and white, naturally.

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