Hergé, Kuifje, and Cartoon Racisme: Viewing Past Art with Modern Ambiguities

It was one of the final days of my visit to Amsterdam and I found myself, amongst friends, in the famed meeting place of Dam Square, flanked on all sides by histories of royal grandeur and European aggression. First there was the Koninklijk Paleis van Amsterdam, once the seat of King Napoleon in his conquest of Holland; second, there was De Nieuwe Kerk, a center of the Dutch Reformed Church to be spread across Africa, Asia and the Americas; thirdly, and finally, I could see the Nationaal Monument to the Second World War, a somber but harsh reminder of the damage that imperial wars could bring. But, I visited none of these places, as in the corner of my eyes, tucked around the corner of a Madame Tussauds, I came upon a very “foyles-esque” bookshop named Scheltema. Its modern facade of glass panels were an enticing juxtaposition to the aforementioned buildings, and so I went in, intent on testing my Dutch skills on some unwitting novels. 

 However, it was not to be the novels that grabbed my attention in that shop, but instead the section entirely dedicated to comic books, or strips; and primarily, De Avonturen van Kuifje (The Adventures of Tintin) and De Avonturen van Asterix de Galliër (The Adventures of Asterix the Gaul). These illustrated adventures seemed to be the perfect way to improve my language skills whilst avoiding getting bogged down in the complex language of a novel. I immediately picked up three copies of Kuifje, and one of Asterix; which, to my dismay, came in a strange, small paper bag with no handle. But it isn’t my last summer holiday that I am here to discuss; but rather, the discoveries I made upon reading Kuifje and what I began to learn about the world of Hergé, the author and illustrator. 

 

If you’ve never read or watched anything Tintin before, then refer to this excerpt from its Wikipedia page, which I believe summarises it nicely:  

‘The series is set during a largely realistic 20th century. Its hero is Tintin, a courageous young Belgian reporter and adventurer. Its well-researched plots straddle a variety of genres: swashbuckling adventures with elements of fantasy, mysteries, political thrillers, and science fiction. The stories feature slapstick humour, offset by dashes of sophisticated satire and political or cultural commentary.’ 

In many aspects his is completely right, the adventures that Tintin, or Kuifje, undertake are not simple, but instead layered and well thought out mysteries, each located in rich and original locations with an excellent attention to detail. At a first read, you can’t help but identify with the ambitious protagonist who travels so effortlessly through ancient tombs, great deserts; and, in one comic, the surface of the moon itself. There is much to be admired in the illustration, the ligne claire style made famous in these works, making each new comic appear as both an excellent story and a piece of art. 

 

 However, there are elements dotted within the drawings, and in the plots themselves, which are not so innocent or joyous, and instead made me think back to certain colonial discourses, or stereotypes, that can sometimes vividly pop out from the page. I found the starkest example to be in the image above, whose aged depiction of black people was so common, and yet so victual, in early 20th century drawings. In that moment the allusion of having an uncomplicated story was broken, and from there I began to look deeper into the creator and his complicated convictions.  

It was in this discovering of unsettling truths that I found the darker, more politically motivated, side of Hergé’s earlier works, that being, before the second world war when he worked for the ultra-conservative Belgian newspaper Le Vingtième Siècle (The Twentieth Century). Under the direction of the chief-editor Wallez, the artist began to create works with his new character that supported a far-right, fascist perspective on the places he visited. In one, named Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, the young reporter is essentially a tool for a piece of anti-communist propaganda, struggling through a starving, brutal country. In another, Tintin in the Congo, the young boy is worshipped as a ‘white savior’ by the local native people, whose portrayal is used to improve attitudes towards the Belgian Congo, one of Europe’s most vicious and extractive colonies. The cover page of that comic, which you can see below, is cringe worthy enough in just its illustration; its contents, which will not be discussed here, are even worse.  

 So how is it that we, as a modern reader, or me, as someone who enjoys other Tintin works, should engage with these facts? That is a complicated question indeed, and one that pervades much of our understanding of artworks from times of various stereotypes. Firstly, I believe it is important to be fully aware of the development of Hergé in the years after the war, who himself tackled his earlier self and perspectives. It is important to note, also, that when freed from the directorship of Wallez the comics themselves were also seamingly freed of the political convictions that guided his earlier work, quite a lot of which has now been redrawn in the face of criticism from both others and himself. 

 However, that is not to say that we should ignore the racism in these works simply because they existed in the past, or because Hergé has attempted to redeem himself from them. The problems still sometimes exist in the newer editions; and, as long as we have access to the older ones, the perspectives of the creator’s younger self will still be readable available to us. It is impossible to avoid the problematic drawings from time to time when reading the comics, and so why block them out and ignore them? Instead, I suggest that we engage with it, use it to fuel our understanding of the texts that we read and how we read them. I am a fan of Kuifje, and many of the comics, but that does not mean I venerate the author or his creations. I am aware of its history and what it may mean to people; but, at the same time, I can appreciate the author’s attempts to improve himself and his work beyond the gross stereotyping of its past. 

 In a modern world where views have greatly changed, and where we can often be looking back at the past with disgust, there is a need to change the way we might ‘enjoy’ something we a problematic history. In the same way that scholars study something with and without its issues, it is in the same way that we should approach our entertainment with a critical eye. We shouldn’t accept, or denounce something so quickly without an understanding of it. We shouldn’t scoff at those who attempt to find issue with what we enjoy, just as we shouldn’t immediately reject all things that have those issues either. That, to me, would make us people less sensitive to the ambiguous reality of many of things around us. 

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