The Colonial Heritage of Comics in French by Mark McKinney

01 Jul

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, a movie directed by Steven Spielberg and produced by Peter Jackson, is scheduled for release before the end of 2011. The film reportedly combines the stories from three books in the world-famous comics series by Belgian cartoonist Hergé (Georges Remi): The Crab with the Golden Claws, The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham’s Treasure. Most movie-goers will have no idea about the historical context in which these three stories were first drawn and published. All were originally serialized by the cartoonist in Le Soir, a newspaper then controlled by the Nazis during their occupation of Belgium. And in the same newspaper, in between the first of these stories and the other two (which constitute a diptych), Hergé drew and published The Shooting Star, whose original version was clearly an antisemitic libel. This was at a time when the Nazis were preparing to kill the Jews in Belgium. Leafing through those old newspapers is a sobering experience, as one reads positive reviews of antisemitic movies and public speeches, and official notification of administrative measures designed to identify and isolate Jews in preparation for the genocide. Today Hergé is mostly celebrated as a creative comics genius, but historical facts like this should encourage us to delve deeper into the relationships between the form, the content and the context of his comics.

There are also colonial dimensions to these three books. For example, The Crab with the Golden Claws depicts Captain Haddock and Tintin being rescued from “pillaging Berbers” by French colonial troops in North Africa. This was not the first time that Hergé set a comics story in an African colony. The most notorious example is Tintin in the Congo (1931). There Tintin captures an American criminal in cahoots with a crooked African “sorcerer.” The American, working for Al Capone, is after diamonds, which is to say part of the mineral wealth that remains the blessing and the bane of the Congo today. Hergé represents rival imperialisms in the Congo: a Belgian one – depicted as being on the side of moral right, and of law and order – and an American one, represented as exterior, criminal and illegitimate. The agents for the Belgian side include Tintin, backed up by what was in reality a fearsome colonial administration and army (see, for example, Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost on the bloody history that Hergé’s work masks). The comic book infamously depicts most Africans as child-like, gullible, lazy simpletons, who speak pidgin French and imitate European dress in ridiculous ways.

If I focus on the Tintin series here, it is because it has had such an enormous impact on French-language comics, cartoonists and publishers, as well as on scholarship about French-language comics. Hergé’s works constitute part of the colonial heritage of today’s comics. And Tintin in the Congo has served as a lightning rod for much of the recent public debate about colonialism in comics. In the United Kingdom there was an outcry over it in 2007, when the Commission for Racial Equality condemned the book for racist stereotypes and Borders bookstores consequently moved the volume out of the children’s section and into the one for adults. There is also an upcoming trial in Belgium, scheduled to begin in September 2011, to decide whether the book is racist and should therefore be banned, or whether the publisher must at least include in the book some explanation about the historical context as it relates to Hergé’s demeaning depiction of Africans. The Tintin series remains widely available around the globe, although this particular volume has not been marketed as aggressively in the Anglophone world as others in the series, for the reasons we have seen.

Those who read comics in French are aware of many other examples of colonialist comics by consecrated great cartoonists from France and Belgium, including Christophe (Georges Colomb), Alain Saint-Ogan, and Jijé (Joseph Gillain). One would be hard pressed to deny that colonialism had an enormous impact on comics in France and Belgium, at least until 1962, when most of the colonies in question had obtained independence, at least in name. Colonialism brought typical characters and plots to comics. For example, Tintin and many European protagonists in other series were heroic figures, who went off on colonial adventures. Among the colonized there were secondary characters, who often served either as helpers (Coco, in Tintin in the Congo) or as wicked enemies, such as the African sorcerer, who is nonetheless won over by Tintin to the side of good, right and of course European civilization, no doubt including Christianity. But the depiction of colonized others – whether sympathetic and seductive (but still subaltern), or far more often, menacing, grotesque or ridiculous – was also part and parcel of the aesthetics that French-language cartoonists worked out in their comics, just as narratives of voyages to and from far-off colonies were common currency until at least 1962. Colonial references are strewn across Hergé’s Tintin series from virtually the beginning to the end.

Colonialism in comics is still with us today in at least three ways. First, the old stories are still around, through the recirculation of the pre-1962 material in its original form, but also vigorous, ongoing republication efforts. Second, today’s cartoonists are still influenced by colonial-era cartoonists and comics. Previous generations of cartoonists left a colonial legacy, a heritage, that remains very influential today: a stock of colonial characters, narrative paradigms and aesthetics. Today’s cartoonists engage with this heritage in various ways, ranging from the reverential to the ironic. The impending release of the Tintin movie at the end of this year will no doubt contribute to the enduring influence around the world of the colonial heritage of comics. And third, there are now significant numbers of people from former French and Belgian colonies living and working in Europe. A few of them work in comics creation and publishing. In some cases they, their parents or their grandparents migrated there permanently – one thinks, for example, of Algerian-French cartoonist Farid Boudjellal and his brother Mourad, who is one of the most successful comics publishers in France today (he owns Soleil Productions and co-manages the Futuropolis imprint). In other cases, they stay for a while in Europe and then return home – examples include the Congolese cartoonist Barly Baruti. For them and for the offspring of former colonials – such as the French who lived in Algeria and left by 1962, when a horrendous eight-year war of liberation ended there – the colonial heritage of comics in French is especially obvious and present. However, that heritage is not just theirs; instead, we all share it – all of us who read French-language comics today, whether in the original language or in translation.

What then might we do with the colonial heritage of comics in French? Do we ignore it? Do we claim that it was marginal to the production of cartoonists whose artistry we often admire in other respects? Or do we instead try to learn what it can teach us about the violent colonial past and its influence on the present: for example, how European artists used to represent subjected peoples and lands? How much have today’s cartoonists changed ways of representing (formerly) colonized groups? And how might the colonial heritage of comics affect not just their content but also their form? I believe that we can understand a great deal about the nature of comics if we take into account their colonial heritage. The work of deciphering that is only beginning.

Mark McKinney is Professor of French at Miami University (Ohio, USA). His book on The Colonial Heritage of French Comics will be published by Liverpool University Press in June 2011, and distributed in the United States by the University of Chicago Press. With Laurence Grove and Ann Miller he co-edits the peer-reviewed, scholarly journal European Comic Art. He edited a volume on History and Politics in French-Language Comics and Graphic Novels, published in hardcover in 2008 by the University Press of Mississippi. It has just been released in a paperback edition. With Alec G. Hargreaves, he co-edited Post-Colonial Cultures in France (Routledge 1997). He has also published articles on French-language comics in Contemporary French and Francophone Studies, Etudes francophones, Expressions maghrébines, the International Journal of Comic Art, and Modern and Contemporary France.

Leave a comment

Posted by on 2011/07/01 in Guest Writers


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: