'Gentle and candid humor'.
That's what a judge recently said about Tintin in the Congo, a very famous comic book from 1931.
(Please note LJ has changed and my links are being funny, so feel free to google if you're interested.)
I'm not going to bring anyone up to speed on Belgian-comic Tintin. Suffice to say that for eighty years, they've been a staple of children's comics in Europe and hence, the commonwealth. When I was a nipper, Tintin was right there in my kid's library. I never liked Tintin. It was hard to be excited about some little kid and his stupid dog solving crimes when next to Tintin, Doomlord Vek was setting the Energiser to Disintegrate, planning on taking over South London, or Joe Dredd was shooting a T-Rex in the face, or Dan Dare was jumping into impossibly beautiful Frank Hampton space-ships or Sgt. Rock was facing complex moral decisions with a B.A.R. But I was always aware of him. And I read Tintin in the Congo and a bunch of others but they were always weak sauce to me.
So I'm not surprised that recently a Judge ruled they weren't racist.
If there was any danger of that, it would have been happened many years ago.
Because, make no mistake, the comic is racist.
It's a story devoted to detailing how the Congo is better under the control of Belgium, which it was at the time of writing. Even though it's a children's book, it is still a work of political motivation and impact. 'White Man's Burden' stories are a very common byproduct of Imperialism. 'We did this to help you.' 'We did this to civilise you.' And on it goes, on and on, excusing outrage after outrage committed by Empires onto less-fortunate nations and cultures.
And creating sub-human images of the conquered is part of the racist machineries that enforce the forces of hegemony (oooh, lefty words.) It allows you to come to terms with what conquering a people means and it feeds back images into the minds of the conquered. And as we've learned over the last 70 years, since WWII dismissed our old notions of Empire, those are scars that don't easily heal.
Dude, it's just a comic, it was a long time ago. Well, yes, that's true but those images are still around and anyone who saw idiot Tea-Party signs with Obama as a monkey can tell you they still have power, to alienate and dismiss. To cast, once again, not-white as non-human. An ugly part of our language that we seem unable, or in this case, unwilling, to confront and kill.
It was wrong to create those images then. It is wrong to reproduce those images now, enshrined into European and comic cannon. It is wrong to leave Tintin in the Congo alone, dismissing it as just a product of the times.
Tintin on the Congo is culturally significant. Many kids find it a cracking read and Herges, the author, was a genuine pioneer in graphic storytelling. The Tintin books have considerable artistic value. They don't become worthless because of racism. But sometimes, that racism can render something so problematic that it becomes pointless to keep it around. Then again problematic elements remove all merit from a work. If it did, we'd have to chuck half the books in the world into the sea. Banning things that offend us now seems dangerously short-sighted, although we should be glad of the chance to accommodate the voices and desires of those who have historically been shorn of the ability to say 'oh hell no,' to certain representations and images.
(For the record, we shift canon all the time and recontextualise classics every day.Read many Golliwog stories recently? Or Noddy? Read much James Hogg? Or seen many Black and White Minstrel shows?)
If nothing else, it's wrong to vanish a legacy of racist words and thoughts and symbols and images that so encoded European discourse with... everywhere that wasn't Europe. I feel it is an absolute folly to stop teaching that kind of history. "Ah, it wasn't so bad," says the person who has nothing to gain and a little to lose by trying to make up for the abscesses of our history. If we stop teaching, if we stop remembering, we lose our incentives to say "we did wrong but we know it and we can use it as direction to steer away from."
And it is wrong to keep Tintin in the Congo on the shelves as a harmless bit of nostalgia. It is foolish to brush it off as But it is also wrong to deny its effect as a piece of art and its affect as a nasty holdover from Colonial history. It is doubly wrong to leave it unchallenged as a work for children.
Still a great comic though. So if we can't ban it, if we shouldn't ban it, what are we to do?
I'm not sure. I suspect it should be withdrawn as a children's book. Kids have enough on their plate without having to parse racist images and Colonial semiotics when everything else in the world is saying 'These are bad kinds of images.' No parent has the ability to monitor everything a child reads but I think its not unreasonable to imagine parent can hand a kid a famous, beloved bit of fiction without it having 'white man much juju ooga booga' bollocks in it. Without having part of an old, stupid and damaging images waiting there to reinforce the old, stupid damaging systems.
Who wants to take sides with censors though. Just withdraw it as being marked for children and enjoy the 23 other graphic novels.
Context, is also vitally important to this sort of thing. If it's going to be sold, to children or to anyone else it needs that context explained. Footnote, introduction, all that sort of thing. (And yes, I think other comics that indulge in that racial nonsense, even The Spirit, could use that.)
I'm a white dude living on conquered land. It happened hundreds of years before my birth. I'm not responsible for it but I benefit from it and other people suffered for it. Chances are good that you benefit from that kind of a deal too. We can't redress the harms strangers with our DNA did hundreds of years ago. It would also be an act of arrogance to wring my hands a feel guilt every second of the day about the circumstances that lead me to my straits.
But making a bit of an effort to locate the lingering traces of the the justifications and imagery that led to those outrages and label them, without erasing them, without denying whatever merits they might have, is the least we can do.