12/23/2011 10:33 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Is Tintin Racist?


From the tender age of illiteracy, to the present, I have always had a deep adoration for French comic books (and no, not "graphic novels"). The top of my list has, and always will be, The Adventures of Tintin. One could imagine my sadness when I found out my childhood hero and his white dog would be placed in front of Mr. Spielberg's lens to be bastardized by the Hollywood machine.

Well, maybe it's not so bad after all: There's been controversy over the fact that two book chains in England, Borders and Waterstone's, have removed Tintin in the Congo from the children section of their stores; instead they have filed it in the "graphic novel" section, otherwise known as the, "I'm thirty and still like comic books, how do I explain that at dinner parties?" shelf. Now, malapropisms aside, "graphic novels" tend to be awash with violence, gore, sex, drugs, murder, etc. There is nothing wrong with this whatsoever. However, there is something wrong with placing The Adventures of Tintin alongside such subject matter. Why this decision? Why put the young Belgian reporter and his faithful, articulate dog Snowy amidst the maniacal, depraved characters of The Watchmen? Well because, apparently, Tintin in the Congo's content is "racist."

Of course it's racist! What could one expect from a story written about the Congo by a man whose country had colonized the so-called "Heart of Darkness" (oops) in 1931? But the racism lies in caricature, not overt discrimination. Is this really justification for exiling this colourful, humorous, downright fascinating adventure to the secluded shelves of blood-filled sensationalism and sexual content?

The fear here seems to be that young readers will form their opinions on certain ethnicities based on this comic. Comic. If a child is to become racist based on a series of drawings and speech bubbles, then there is something to be said about his education, but also about parental involvement in said education.

I grew up reading The Adventures in Tintin in their original French. Aside from helping me to learn the language, they also acted as an escape, a sort of vacation when the duties of grade school wouldn't allow my parents to take me somewhere. The stories, in short, are entrancing. Their plots are fascinating, the illustrations are beautiful, and the dialogue is funny; a sure-fire way to get a child (especially a boy) engaged in reading, and an argument that not all children literature must feature either Harry Potter or Superman. To this day, they still prove to be riveting, which would explain the wooden bust of the titular character staring at me on my desk as I write this.

Yet, hypersensitivity has deemed Tintin in the Congo as the kind of material that should be out of a child's immediate grasp. But if we apply this standard to Tintin at large, shouldn't so many more of the Belgian's adventures be treated similarly?

Tintin in America is a compendium of caricatures of Native Americans. Snowy refers to his native kin as: "Redskin dogs! OK, so I'm a paleface...have you redskins ever seen one before?" The "First Nations" are portrayed as fools who fight with each other, and have names the stuff stereotypes are wrought of such as Chief Keen-Eyed Mole and Brother Browsing Bison. By the midpoint of the story, author Hergé makes a joke out of the exodus of the Indians once oil has accidentally been struck by Tintin. I should also note that the cowboys of the Wild West are portrayed as a group of savages hell-bent and more than eager to participate in lynchings. I'm assuming such stereotypes of white people are not considered racist, but payback.

Tintin and the Picaros portrays a group of South American natives as drunks who have been duped by the "white man." The Prisoners of the Sun plays on the ignorance of the Incas: When Tintin is about to be sacrificed at the stake, a solar eclipse occurs and the Indians beg Tintin, the white man, to make the sun appear again.

If we apply this level of pitiable sensitivity to Tintin in general, nearly every issue is derogatory in some way. Does this mean the comics should be out of children's grasp? Absolutely not. The adventures of Professor Calculus and the incompetent twin detectives Thompson and Thompson are the stuff every child's mind should be privy to.

But returning to the main issue at hand: that Hergé's portrayal of the Congo is one of caricature verging on the point of discrimination at times is undeniable. Still: Sorry. If a child's parents cannot explain to the reader the comic's context, then they have no business being parents. The wrapping of the comic in plastic, plastered with a warning sticker is egregious, and a perfect example of the wrongheaded belief that parental guidance must be influenced by authorities outside the home. Furthermore, it is absolutely shameless that in today's society, a childhood hero of my parents' generation is ranked alongside the blood-soaked, barbaric Leonidas of Frank Miller's 300, which was turned into a movie in 2006 with an R-rating for "graphic battle sequences throughout, some sexuality and nudity." There is none of that in Tintin.

If we are to fight ignorance, it must be through education, not censorship. But of course, the former requires just so much effort, so why not forgo it at the expense of a beautifully-crafted and charming story that stands on the mountain-top of genius?