02 January 2009

The Belgian Boy Reporter

Last month The Economist published a detailed discussion of Tintin's place in European culture, in anticipation of a big-budget Hollywood adaptation.

Much of the article is about why Tintin books are supposedly unpopular in the USA. Not just less popular than in Europe, but practically unknown. Which just hasn't been my experience--I've seen Tintin books in American stores for decades.

I've already written about the comic's roots in the anti-Communist Belgian right wing, and how it reflects a colonialist outlook. The Economist article discusses another dimension of bandes dessinées politics, a couple of decades after Tintin's debut:

In 1949 France banned children’s books and comic strips from presenting cowardice in a “favourable” light, on pain of up to a year in prison for errant publishers. It was equally forbidden to make laziness or lying seem attractive. The law created an oversight committee to watch for positive depictions of these ills, along with crime, theft, hatred, debauchery and acts “liable to undermine morality” among the young.

Taken literally, the law suggests that an ideal comic-book hero would resemble an overgrown boy scout, whose adventures involve pluck, fair play, restrained violence and no sex. That is a pretty accurate description of Tintin, the Belgian boy reporter who enjoyed spectacular success in post-war Europe.
Given that Tintin books had been popular for years in neighboring, French-speaking Belgium, I suspect the character was already successful in France before that law. But the new content requirements may indeed have given him a boost by weakening competition.

Those 1949 restrictions came from all over the French political spectrum, the magazine says.
For all the talk about morality, France’s 1949 law on children’s books had ideological roots. It was pushed by an odd alliance of Communists, Catholic conservatives and jobless French cartoonists, determined that French children should be reading works imbued with “national” values. Pascal Ory, a historian at the Sorbonne university (author of “Mickey Go Home. The de-Americanisation of the cartoon strip”), writes that the main aim of the law—which, remarkably, remains in force today, tweaked in the 1950s to add a ban on incitement of ethnic prejudice--was to block comics from America.
Of course, around the time that France enacted this law, comics were becoming a political issue in America as well. In 1954 Sens. Robert Hendrickson and Estes Kefauver held their subcommitte hearings on the comic-book industry. Here too the result was strict guidelines on how mainstream comics depicted of crime, "debauchery," and heroism. But, as usual in America, the censorious authority wasn't the government but the industry regulating itself to preserve its market standing.

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