Great Snakes! Of Tintin's Censorship and Others | Fanboys Anonymous

Great Snakes! Of Tintin's Censorship and Others

Posted by Eddie Siqueira Wednesday, January 15, 2014
Manga and American comics are the undisputed champions of comic books, but woe to they who ignore the world of "B.D." Bandes dessinées are Francophone comics that sprouted in the early 20th century, and although the category includes many important names, Asterix is probably the most well-known. A close second is Tintin, although it never really stood out as a franchise outside of Europe, however revitalized it may have been by the 2011 Spielberg-produced animated motion picture. I will illustrate just why The Adventures of Tintin is one of the all-time greats and why it has suffered in local libraries as of late. First, however, a bit of history.

tintin snowy captain haddock professor calculus nestor irma bianca castafiore wagner jolyon wagg thomson and thompson
Georges Remi Hergé Tintin Snowy Captain Haddock explorers on the moon
Georges Remi, aka Hergé
Georges Remi (better known by his pen name Hergé) was a Belgian cartoonist working for Le Vingtième in Brussels, Belgium in the 1920s. He developed the character Tintin, a reporter for Le Petit Vingtième (the actual name of the children's section of the newspaper), to showcase different world events to kids. This series went on for a good fifty years, with the last volume, Tintin and the Picaros, published in 1976. In that time span, the books took the readers across the world from South America to China, from Scotland to the fictitious lands of Syldavia, and even to the moon years before the actual moon landing, depicting the Earth's natural satellite as scientifically, accurately as possible. It even explored the hypothesis that there was once water on the moon.

However, amid all of this eclectic fiction, The Adventures of Tintin has been the center of controversy for the past few years, more so than in earlier decades. As time passes, the outdated imperialistic patronization depicted in the earlier books becomes more a target for censorship. The Belgian character's capers are being pulled from children's sections in libraries, and some have even banned the books altogether. Such a case was the series' near-banning from the children's section at the Jones Library in Amherst, Massachusetts. Understandably, there has been some fervor over the explicit debauchery of the native Congolese and other instances of worldwide stereotypes.

tintin in the congo snowy coco
The condescending mentality behind "Tintin in The
Congo" was just a manifestation of Eurocentric national pride
Yet, Hergé was just a victim of his times. The Eurocentric mentality was not limited to a few. We can find instances not of racism but rather of nationalism in many works of the early to mid-20th century. One such example is the character Piggy from Sir William Golding's 1954 novel Lord of The Flies; as he tries to break up a fight between boys, Piggy claims, "We're English, and the English are best at everything."

The cartoonist himself developed certain stories against his own will, such as Tintin in The Land of the Soviets and Tintin in The Congo, in which very biased oeuvres coincided with the fascist views of the newspaper for which Hergé worked. Perhaps this is why he later created fictitious nations such as San Theodoros (alluding to Latin American countries going through coups d'état) and Borduria (Syldavia's rival border sibling, aggressive and militaristic), so as to not insult or directly criticize any nation during the period Hergé worked. He also began to display villains as old-school stereotypes—prejudicial, cold-hearted men—and the main character himself as a selfless, unbiased Good Samaritan.

Now that a bit of light has been shed, we proceed to the main event: how is Tintin a unique comic? For starters, it is aimed at children and covers adventure and science fiction. The catch is that the books deal with politically charged story lines, espionage, opium smuggling, and even slavery. Not your average Saturday morning schtick.

tintin and the blue lotus rickshaw scene snowy
Tintin goes on to defend the rickshaw driver from the villain's senseless attack
This is evident in the way the characters conveyed a certain elegance of speech, void of vulgarities (not including the beloved Captain Haddock and the occasional villain). Tintin's sidekick, the wire fox terrier Snowy, was always defying logic and constantly present in literal cliffhanging situations. Indeed, the world birthed by Hergé's cultivated mind was charmingly colorful and a great learning tool as the story took readers around the world. Also, Tintin books had a chronology. The story always picked up with what had occurred in previous books and occasionally mentioned past events.

tintin in the land of the soviets snowy bolshevism communism
The questioning of honesty in the Soviet political system
The first Tintin book gifted to me was impossible to ignore. Its elaborate, decorative Asian dragon dominating the bright, red backdrop and the curious young man peeking from inside a large china vase made me abandon the Turtles' battles against the Foot Clan in the very afternoon I received it. 

The book smelled of the street—the cold air of a smoggy early 90s big city, cigarettes, and my dad's jacket. It was large but didn't have many pages, only 62. It was a complete story, panel to panel in a very simple, colored, shadow-free environment except for particularly dark or stealthy scenes. Not extremely elaborate art, but very stylized.

Ahead of it's time, Tintin reaches the moon in
1954's "Explorer's on the Moon"
"The Blue Lotus" was stamped unambiguously across the top of the cover. Since I had not begun to fully grasp the English language, I followed the frames of the story attentively, recreating my own version as I went along. I had little concept of decades nor made much distinction between early to late 20th century, so I held no prejudice against it for being outdated. In fact, I cared little about where it came from at all, for the images revealed themselves beautifully. After that, I learned a little bit about the Japanese occupation of China, the Boxer Rebellion, and that Chinese women no longer bound their feet to keep them from growing. As if I knew that that had been done at all! I won't reveal the outcome here, but as a kid, I learned more from 62 pages of drawings with text than a year of social studies in school.

Such was the way with the Belgian journalist boy-wonder. He was part Sherlock Holmes, part James Bond, part tourist. Always referred to as a young man, or sometimes a boy, it was impossible not to fall for the character and his peers as you learned more and more about the environments and cultures he came across. Thanks to him, I am sure that my world view is broader, and he gave me genuine real-world knowledge of history, science, and even cryptozoology.

tintin in tibet snowy captain haddock tharkey migou footprintsUnfortunately, there are some aspects of the comic book that are absolutely politically incorrect by today's standards, even though some later editions attenuated these transgressions. However, it merely displays a time of recent history, and the fact that it bothers us is a good thing, because the world has changed. If children nowadays read about history, most of it is only war and conflict. Yet we don't censor these things because we know that they are events that have come and gone. There is so much adoration behind the Pyramids of Giza, the Great Wall of China, or the Colosseum of Rome, yet they were constructed with the blood of slaves while those societies thrived. Why can't we understand that a nearly 100-year-old comic series was created by a man who brought us so many great things as well, despite some understandable lapses of judgement? Hergé definitely redeemed himself as the series went on, and stereotypes became scarcer by the last novel. And what of stereotypes? Cultures were very different from one another before globalization. The 20th century is over. Let's review it as it was and not deny our dirty roots, if they are at all.
herge museum louvain la neuve brussels belgium
Hergé museum in Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium
Should children be exposed to Tintin? Indubitably, yes! Making these comics disappear from the kids' section at a library is like hiding dirty gold under the rug. Besides, if you allow a child to make up his or her own mind about the concept of right or wrong through any form of entertainment, then the issue begins before they pick up a comic. In a home where there is dialogue and understanding, you can throw these slightly transgressive works into a bucket labeled "big deal" and read them with your kids. Enjoy it too, because soon they'll hit their teens and you'll miss having the chance to do so.

I do wonder how popular is Tintin in different parts of the world. Have you ever read a Tintin book? Or at least seen the movie? Was it racist or prejudicial? Comment, blistering barnacles! 

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