Some of my fondest memories involve sitting under the guava or the European gumtree, perched on the wall of our garden as the sunlight dappled on an old copy of a Tintin comic. For some years, at least, before the gumtree was cut down, the leaves bore witness to me following the globe-trotting adventures of the Belgian reporter, replete with hilariously-named companions and witty play of words. My nostalgia is as much for the inked characters and words on the paper, as for the musty smell of the oft-thumbed and yellowed pages of the comic, and the permanently romanticized view of the sunny garden. The comics have left a palpable imprint on my sense of humour and love of a certain kind of literature. And perhaps it is this imprint, along with my pleasant nostalgia, that makes it a struggling task to accept Hergé’s racism through his Tintin comics.
Hergé’s (or Georges Prosper Remi’s) writings were, undeniably, a product of their times. His first two series in the Adventures of Tintin comics, Tintin in the land of the Soviets (1929) and Tintin in Congo (1931), have famously been the subject of much debate, since the late 1900s. In Soviets, Hergé offers a crude critique against Marxism – meant to inculcate anti- Soviet sentiments in the European youth at the time, by portraying the Bolsheviks as inherently evil without a full comprehension of how they rose to power or what their political views were.
In Congo, African tribes and leaders are portrayed as either infantile, or in need of saving, to the extent that Tintin becomes the embodiment of fairness for young Africans, even having a temple made after him. Congo itself was a colony of Belgium from 1908 to 1960, one of the two colonies that Belgium governed, and the comics grossly ignore the labour politics of the Congolese and their efforts in both the World Wars. It was not until after the decolonisation of Africa that European perception of ex-African colonies changed.
Much of the modern debate surrounding the banning of select Tintin comics is centred around the depicitons of big-game hunting in Congo and the anti-Semitism in the The Shooting Star. Besides the uncomfortable portrayals of the Congolese, a few panels in the 1931 edition of Congo depicted Tintin drilling a hole into a live Rhinoceros, filled with dynamite, and blown up. In the 1946 edition, this scene was replaced, with Herge apologizing for what he recognized as “youthful transgressions''. In the Shooting Star, the villainous financer was renamed, from the Jewish Blumstein to the innocuous Bohlwinkel.
Hergé’s subsequent works became politically neutral, written after the German occupation of Belgium and the German takeover of Le Vingtième Siècle, the conservative Catholic newspaper he wrote for. While the white-saviour narrative continued with Tintin leading as the embodiment of Europe that “natives” had to follow, the later works are much less politically biased.
However, he prefaced Tintin in America with a critique against the racism in the United States, alongside his anti-imperial stance in The Blue Lotus. He is also known, famously, for not joining with the far-right extremist forces in German-occupied Belgium at the time, as many of his colleagues had. Michael Farr, a British expert on The Adventures of Tintin series, claimed after a meeting with Hergé that “you couldn’t meet someone more open and less racist”. Others have called him an opportunist, heaving towards the side that was popular. Perhaps this was indeed the case, or equally, perhaps Hergé did change his views, and his writings in Soviet and Congo are merely reflective of the predominant Belgian culture at the time.
At any rate, the question still remains: how do we read, or re-read, Hergé (or many such childhood-favourite authors, like Dr. Seuss)? Shelving the books and forgetting the authors is undoubtedly impossible, and misguided besides. A recognition of the biases, and a plethora of context surrounding these texts must be made available at all times. A celebration of a character or a person must not come at the cost of ignoring their uncomfortable stances.
The depiction of Africa in 20th century comics has been abysmal. A tendency of depicting the 'other' as a 'noble-savage' is a familiar concern to those readers who have spent much of their lives in recently liberated colonies. It is, perhaps, especially imperative for such readers to keep this in mind and not repeat them.
In our Consumerist times, it seems, we sometimes forget to start dialogues on themes that are unfamiliar and maybe even uncomfortable to us. We forget which stories desperately need to be told and which have not seen the light of day under the shadow of popular literature.
This, at least, is what I have strived to do: to maintain a balance between nostalgia and a recognition of biases. My memory of the Tintin comics will remain just as romantic as the idyllic memory I started with in the beginning of this article.