From our continental correspondent – Tintin in court

Published On May 12, 2010 | By Wim | Comics, Continental Correspondent

Even though I can’t honestly say that this story is currently even remotely on the radar in my country, what with the current crisis in government (join the club! – Joe) and the child abuse scandal that’s rocking the Catholic Church, it seems to be somehow on the boards in the rest of the world, and so here’s the lowdown.

Three years ago Bienvenu Mbutu Mondondo first made the press and national television with his complaint that Tintin Au Congo, is offensive in its depiction of his country and countrymen. The book, the second one about the Quiffed One, that Hergé created between 1930 and 1931, follows Tintin through the then Belgian colony in a series of quite frankly stereotypical sketches and anecdotes.  The Congolese population is indeed shown as an unintelligent and uncivilised lot, heavily influenced by witchcraft and superstition and very eager to emulate their white colonisers.  In one scene, Tintin is shown teaching a group of schoolchildren about Belgium, their home country, while in the end scene, the inhabitants of a village reminisce about how great Tintin was, and prostate themselves before his effigy.

(French cover for Tintin in the Congo, published Casterman, (c) Moulinsart)

Modondo has been trying for three years to get Moulinsart, the current copyright holders to the Hergé legacy, convicted for racism, which in Belgium is a criminal offence.  Since his case hasn’t made that much progress, he has also started a civil case against Moulinsart and against Casterman, the publisher and distributer of the Tintin books.  Modondo demands that the book be taken out of distribution or, if that is not feasible, that a caveat be inserted in each copy.

Casterman in effect does not disagree with the grounds of Mr Modondo’s complaints, but stresses that the book is a historical document, which should be read as belonging to a different time, with different opinions.

(not what modern readers would consider fair or accurate depictions of Africans in these scenes from Tintin in the Congo – ban it or simply include a note to the reader that it reflects attitudes of a much more racist era in history? (c) Moulinsart)

This, however, clashes slightly with Hergé’s own habit of continuously adapting his work to the changing of the times.  For a very long time he refused to have his first book, Tintin Au Pays Des Soviets (Tintin In the Land of the Soviets) be reissued (as had been the case with all the other books) since its depiction of the Soviet Union was clearly biased and even propagandistic.  Other books were drastically modified when the Studios Hergé edited them for the Casterman (colour) versions.  Tintin Au Pays De L’Or Noir (Land Of the Black Gold) was lifted out of its World War II setting, and rather caricatural black characters were replaced by more or less realistic Arabic ones.  In Le Crabe aux Pinces D’or (the Crab with the Golden Claws) and L’Étoile Mystérieuse (The Shooting Star) the very dominant antisemitic undertone is completely eradicated, along with Tintin’s Jewish lookalike and the scheming Jewish businessmen behind the scenes.

In a sense, Modondo’s demand isn’t even that far-fetched.  Casterman can’t possibly market the book as part of a series that’s predominantly aimed at younger readers and at the same time claim that it is a historical document.  Since Hergé has forbidden any more modifications to the Tintin books in his will, a disclaimer or historical note exlaining that the book was produced in an era with very different (and to modern eyes very likely offensive) attitudes to race might not be such a bad idea after all…

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