Tintin in the Congo was one of Herge’s early Tintin comics and even back then started a storm of controversy because people thought it was racist. Tintin in the Land of the Soviets and Tintin in America caused similar controversy because Herge had a tendency to use stereotypes for comedic effect. Herge always stood behind his work and said he was young and misguided:
Tintin au Congo should still be regarded as one of the more silly and youthful albums of Hergé. At the time he was much influenced by his employer, Wallez. Wallez had decided that the Belgian youth needed to know more about the values of Colonialism. Hergé was instructed to show Belgium how the Congolese natives were introduced to civilisation. Throughout the album we will witness further displays of such Colonialism. Tintin shows a condescending – even despising attitude towards the natives.
Herge would later go back and edit large parts of the comic to make it more acceptable to the public, but critics were never really happy with it. People seemed to forget about it mostly because Herge became devoted to actually capturing how societies were and stopped portraying other cultures as stereotypes in later books. Then, a few days ago the Commission for Racial Equality suggested that the book was racist:
A hundred years ago it was common to see negative stereotypes of black people. Books contained images of ’savages’, and some white people considered black people to be intellectually and socially inferior.
Most people would assume that those days are behind us, and that we now live in a more accepting society. Yet here we are in 2007 with high street book shops selling ‘Tintin In The Congo’. This book contains imagery and words of hideous racial prejudice, where the ’savage natives’ look like monkeys and talk like imbeciles.
Whichever way you look at it, the content of this book is blatantly racist. High street shops, and indeed any shops, ought to think very carefully about whether they ought to be selling and displaying it.
Yes, it was written a long time ago, but this certainly does not make it acceptable. This is potentially highly offensive to a great number of people.
It beggars belief that in this day and age that any shop would think it acceptable to sell and display ‘Tintin In The Congo.’
The only place that it might be acceptable for this to be displayed would be in a museum, with a big sign saying ‘old fashioned, racist claptrap’.
All this really did was brought a lot of media publicity to the book and caused it to sell quite well on Amazon. Most bookstores just moved it to the adult section and called it a day. Well, yesterday Belgium started an investigation into if the book was racist:
The Brussels public prosecution department has opened an investigation into Hergé’s comic book “Tintin in Africa” after a Congolese student filed a complaint against the book claiming it was “an insult to all Congolese.”
Mbutu Mondondo Bienvenu has lodged a complaint with the court against Moulinsart, which holds the rights to Hergé’s works. No one at the public prosecution department was available for comment but a letter that the public prosecutor has sent Mondondo Bienvenu indicates that a preliminary investigation has been started to see whether the case can be declared admissible.
The Moulinsart office had not yet been informed of the complaint but said that the comic should be seen “in its context.” The Centre for Equal Opportunity and Fighting Racism warns against “political over-correctness.” The comic book caused a stir in Great Britain and the US as well last month.
No one seems to care that Tintin blows up a rhino with dynamite, but they are pissed that Herge drew pro-Colonialist imagery in the ’30s. All of this controversy is unfortunate and I feel that Moulinsart is taking a semi-lame duck approach to protecting the book. Even Herge admitted that the book could be considered offensive, but he considered it to be a part of his growth as a person. It wasn’t until Zhang Chongren’s influence in his life that Herge started portraying cultures without stereotypes:
From Chang, Hergé learned how to paint and draw according to Chinese techniques; it was Chang who told him about ‘la ligne claire’ (clear line), and who taught him how to paint Chinese characters. Chang told Hergé about life in China – the real China, not China as Hergé had drawn her in Tintin au pays des Soviets.
The impact Chang had on Hergé can hardly be overestimated, and it wasn’t a big surprise that the two men became friends for life. A lot of what happens in Le Lotus Bleu comes directly from this early stage in their friendship, and Chang would get a part in the album as Tintin’s first friend (Tchang). The album was so well-made, that when the album was re-edited in 1946, hardly anything was changed to the drawings or the content.
Chang had been clear enough about what really happened with the invasion of China by the Japanese. What he told Hergé was quite different from what people had been lead to believe; the sabotage of the railway between Shanghai and Nanking for instance—supposedly the work of Chinese railway robbers—had been staged by the Japanese. Since Hergé had almost word for word included Chang’s experiences in the album, the Japanese reacted with abhorrence. The Japanese Ambassador filed an official complaint with the Belgian government, demanding that the album be banned. Even the Belgian Army reacted against the publication of the album, claiming it was no longer suitable for children. Hergé more or less admitted his albums were no longer aimed solely at children. But children loved it, and the Chinese were extremely happy with this sudden and unexpected aid in their cause. Hergé even received an invitation from Madame Chang K’ai-shek (wife of the Chinese President at the time) to visit China.
Moulinsart should portray the book as what it is: early, misguided, and part of the grown of an artist. How eventually he came to the conclusion that his previous style was flawed and out of it became one of the most important comic book artists of his time. Maybe the content is offensive to some, but without it as a glaring example of how awful Herge’s style was pre-Zhang Chongren it makes his books afterwards less important.