The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 169 | Reflections on Tintin in the Congo

Leaving Proof 169 | Reflections on Tintin in the Congo
Published on Monday, January 21, 2013 by
Recent events in Africa have us thinking of Hergé’s controversial early work about Tintin’s adventures in the Belgian Congo. ALSO in today’s column: A quick look at FUNimation’s Ga-Rei-Zero.

France’s recent military intervention in Mali to help the embattled government deal with the threat of Islamist militants in the country’s north has dominated international headlines lately not just because of the immediacy and scope of a powderkeg situation, but also because it threatens to become the potential nucleus and focus of the type of region-wide conflict seen in areas of the Middle East and portions of South Asia—Algerian militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar has already claimed French military operations in Mali as one of the justifications for his terrorist group’s perpetration of the In Amenas gas plant hostage crisis.

But while most, if not all, of the world’s major democracies seem to support France’s decision to send troops and jet fighters into the West African nation, commentators from both Africa and Europe have broached the idea that we are seeing a revival of la Françafrique, the neo-colonial—some would even say paternal—relationship between France and its former territories in Africa. It should not be a surprise that post-colonial issues of sovereignty and national identity have come bubbling up in the discourse in the wake of these events. After all, it has only been little more than half a century since France, Belgium, and the United Kingdom granted independence to their largest African possessions and withdrew from the continent: Africa may be the cradle of humankind, but it is relatively new ground for modern, participatory democracy.

Africa’s colonial history and the attitudes of its European overseers informed and continue to inform many foreign representations of the continent and its denizens. In comics and related media, particularly those created prior to the 1960s, a number of depictions of Africa and Africans by American and European comics creators ranged from naive to condescending to outright racist.

While not a comic book per se, Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse and the Boy Thursday featured a particularly abhorrent depiction of Africans. [click on image to read the PDF]

The illustrated children’s book Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse and the Boy Thursday, originally published during the 1940s, featured a characterization of native Africans as little more than inarticulate, infantile savages with sub-human intelligence. [click on image to read the PDF]

TintinCongo

Cover for the 2002 English reprint of the original black & white 1931 edition of Tintin in the Congo.

It is Hergé’s work in 1931’s Tintin in the Congo, the second installment in the popular series of Franco-Belgian graphic novels documenting the intrepid boy reporter’s adventures, that primarily comes to mind when thinking of the huge disconnect between the reality of colonial Africa and its portrayal in the popular, printed entertainment of the early and mid-20th century. The controversy surrounding the book is, if not common knowledge, at least somewhat familiar to comics scholars and many long-time comics readers. It’s easy to see why charges of racial stereotyping and the promotion of colonial attitudes have been leveled at the book. Hergé— who it must be noted, had never been to the Belgian Congo—depicts the members of the colony’s native population at various junctures as cowardly, lazy, and in need of constant guidance by their benevolent Belgian masters. The use of the “golliwogg-inspired design for the African natives has also inspired much criticism. The book’s potential for causing offense becomes that much greater when one takes into account the blood-soaked history of the Belgian Congo (and its predecessor, the Congo Free State, a corporate territory wholly owned by Belgium’s King Leopold II): During the Congo Free State era, rubber plantation workers who failed to meet quotas would be punished by having their children and wives mutilated, usually by having their hands and feet chopped off.

Timely intervention, a sign of things to come: The “good white” Tintin resolves the conflict between two Africans.

Europe as Africa’s policeman: The “very good white” Tintin resolves the conflict between two Africans.

Hergé did apologize for the content of the book later in his life, saying in an interview in the 1970s that:

For [Tintin in the Congo] as with Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, the fact was that I was fed on the prejudices of the bourgeois society in which I moved… It was 1930. I only knew things about these countries that people said at the time: ‘Africans were great big children… Thank goodness for them that we were there!’ Etc. And I portrayed these Africans according to such criteria, in the purely paternalistic spirit which existed then in Belgium.

The foreword to the 2002 English reprint of the original 1931 graphic novel, which does away with the various alterations to the content introduced over the years to make it more acceptable to current sensibilities, reiterates the Belgian comics creator’s regrets while also addressing another aspect of the book that has been the subject of much censure, it’s many big-game hunting scenes:

In his portrayal of the Congo, the young Hergé reflects the colonial attitudes of the time. He himself admitted that he depicted his Africans according to the bourgeois, paternalistic stereotypes of the period. The same may be said of his treatment of big-game hunting and his attitude towards animals.

Unfair Game: Tintin takes hunting to another level.

Unfair Game: Tintin takes hunting to another level. [Click image to view in larger size]

Despite it all, Tintin in the Congo remains a popular publication in many Francophone countries in Africa according to Tintin scholars Michael Farr and Tom McCarthy. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, a small industry has grown around the creation of hand-crafted souvenirs based on characters from the Tintin books, including the stereotyped Africans of Tintin in the Congo. Last year, a Belgian court ruled that Tintin in the Congo was not racist in a case filed by Congolese campaigner Bienvenu Mbutu Mondondo to get the book banned according to Belgium’s racism laws, citing historical context as well as noting that

It is clear that neither the story, nor the fact that it has been put on sale, has a goal to… create an intimidating, hostile, degrading or humiliating environment.

While I do agree with the spirit of the Belgian court’s ruling—if we are to live in an international community that allows freedom of thought and expression, then all ideas must be allowed to circulate, even ideas we do not agree with—I do have some concern about the effects the misrepresentation of history in Tintin in the Congo might have. Ultimately however, the real issue in dealing with the notorious work, in my opinion, isn’t the restriction of the book’s ideas on race and colonialism (distasteful as they are), but limiting the deleterious influence of the misinformation they embody, and that can be done without resorting to censorship.

On Ga-Rei-Zero

gareizero_showposterI briefly mentioned Hajime Segawa in last week’s column on eskrima and comics, citing his Tokyo ESP serial as an example of a Japanese comic book that significantly features the Filipino martial art. Segawa has also written and illustrated Ga-Rei, a hybrid action-horror comic (think Hellboy or BPRD) with a slight teen romance twist. Neither title has received official English translations but the latter has received an animated prequel entitled Ga-Rei-Zero, distributed in North America by FUNimation. As the show’s official YouTube channel describes it, Ga-Rei-Zero is about

An elite squadron trained to combat supernatural forces is called in to investigate reports of invisible monsters terrorizing Tokyo, but their mission is complicated by the interference of a rogue exorcist. When the mysterious female slaughters the overmatched attack force, her former comrades are ordered to lock down the crime scene — and forever silence their old friend.

I found the twelve-episode standalone season of Ga-Rei-Zero to be powerfully affecting, almost overwhelmingly so. The series opens with two riveting episodes that feature wall-to-wall, over-the-top action and unrelenting violence before shifting drastically in tone and back in time for a succession of episodes heavy on sentiment and family drama (with a smattering of some mildly weird fanservice here and there) before moving forward in time again and concluding the narrative neatly. The show is available on DVD/Blu-Ray, on VOD via the Playstation Store, and on YouTube, so go check it out.

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