My children first discovered Tintin in the Vancouver (Wash.) Public Library, and fell hard for him. They were instant fans, checking the books out over and over, reading them silently and out loud, even buying copies on our infrequent trips to Powell's Books. The adventures of the tuft-headed boy reporter of uncertain age and provenance were good clean fun with a touch of cult appeal-an international fan club that had been growing since the 1930s.
The series originally created by Belgian artist Georges Remi (aka Hergé) in 1929 has attracted spasms of attention in every generation, but this latest revival, spurred by the first full-length movie version, has received mixed reviews. One virtue of the series is that it takes its hero all over the globe to tangle with many cultures-Hergé is known to have done extensive research into the geography and customs of the country he was depicting. But he was also a man of his time (born in1907) and undoubtedly shared many of its prejudices. This has become painfully apparent with one title: Tintin in the Congo, originally published in 1931 but available in English only since 2005. David Enright, a human rights lawyer in the U.K., found it so offensive that he pushed for the book to be wrapped in a protective cover, taken out of the children's section, and placed on the top row of adult graphic novels. A children's comic? With a warning label?
Of course, this is ridiculous. Of course, this is overreach. But … Tintin in the Congo is fairly cringe-inducing, with its depiction of coal-black, semi-naked natives worshipping the hero's snow-white terrier and carrying Tintin in a bamboo chair to their king, a clown in a leopard skin brandishing a rolling-pin scepter. Have you ever encountered an old advertising shingle in an antiques mall that used thick-lipped little black children called "pickaninnies" to sell soap or molasses? It wasn't that long ago-the memories are still sharp in people over 50.
Increased sensitivity to racial stereotypes is a good thing. Pasting elaborate disclaimers on an 80-year-old comic book and excising the n-word from a great American classic is perhaps too much of a good thing. When does it go too far?
- When one race holds another hostage, manipulating old guilt to gain special privileges.
- When we can't let children think for themselves. Fifty years ago, a certain amount of reeducation and course correction was necessary. Now, when most schoolchildren share space with classmates of different races every day, they can decide for themselves when a depiction is ridiculous or unfair.
- When children see an obvious double standard: gratuitous sex and violence OK, racial clichés and smoking absolutely not OK.
- When it makes us overzealous in the vain hope that no one should feel uncomfortable.
Anyone with a passing interest in Tintin knows that the books are packed with stereotypes: sneaky Arabs, inscrutable Asians, taciturn red men, Italian gangsters, drunken sailors, absent-minded professors, lazy Latins, prima-donna sopranos. That's one thing that makes them fun. It also makes them educational, as a window into how some white Europeans thought about the rest of the world that they pretty much controlled. Taken on his own terms, Tintin could even help us query ourselves about our own prejudices and stereotypes. If that's allowed.