The version of Tintin in the Congo I’m reviewing is a translation of the 1931 black-and-white publication, not the redrawn and colored 1946 version
It is always a bad sign when you remember nothing about a book you once read. A sweeping statement perhaps, but it works as a personal rule. The rule was proven right once again with Tintin in the Congo by Hergé. I first read Tintin in the Congo when I was about seven or eight and never read it again since. For perspective, plenty of my Tintin volumes look as though they are about to fall to pieces, so loved were they in childhood. Tintin in the Congo, on the other hand, is still in good condition. As a child, I never found Tintin in the Congo memorable. As an adult, I find it uncomfortable and can understand why my contemporaries have found it offensive.
There has been a lot of criticism regarding racism and animal cruelty in Tintin in the Congo. Wikipedia is your friend on this issue. For the sake of public service, though, I will list some Tintin in the Congo-related controversy: in 2007, the UK’s Commission for Racial Equality called on bookstores to remove Tintin in the Congo from its shelves because it contained racial prejudice. Also in 2007, a Congolese student in Belgium tried to get the comic banned for its racism. And in 2011, Tintin in the Congo became the subject of heated debate in Sweden dubbed Tintingate (you know it’s serious when an issue has –gate added to its name). Tintingate became a platform for people to argue between removal of problematic content in the media and censorship.
Now, I remembered nothing of the racism prior to rereading. In a way, I suppose that’s a good thing. Shows that being exposed to problematic material as a wee tot does not automatically transform you into a racist, sexist homophobe spouting hate speech. But it did make me nervous as I embarked on the first page.
Well, what can I say? It did start with a disclaimer saying (and I’m paraphrasing here): “publication history, publication information, by the way there’s some racism reflecting the paternalistic attitudes of the 30s. Oh, did we mention animal cruelty? Kaythanksbye.” Can’t say you had no warning…
I’ll start with the good news: plotwise and artwise, it is admittedly an improvement from Tintin in the Land of the Soviets. But not by much. The artwork is still crude, but the body proportions are better this time round. There’s less empty space inside the panels too. The plot is more cohesive in Tintin in the Congo; everything tied up in the end, rather than being one bonanza of slapstick skits. Even so, the plot is simplistic and it’s nowhere near as exciting as later adventures. No wonder Tintin in the Congo left no lasting impression on me!
Tintin in the Congo, just like Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, is also in desperate need of pruning. Too much slapstick! Too much flitting in and out of peril! To be fair, this had to do with volumes one and two of Tintin being serializations. Hergé had had to improvise on creating cliffhangers and then solving these cliffhangers on a weekly basis. Both Tintin in the Land of the Soviets and Tintin in the Congo also ran over 100 pages in book form, instead of the 62-page template Hergé had starting from Tintin in America. Makes sense for there to be a lot of fluff.
For fans of Tintin’s character: this is where his personality started to come into its own. His moral uprightness began to show in an early Tintin in the Congo scene where he refused bribes from three wealthy parties.
But now, the bad news. Oh my, where do I start?
Prior to rereading Tintin in the Congo, I wanted to give it the benefit of the doubt. Surely if the racism was that bad, wouldn’t I have noticed it as a child? I thought if I went into rereading Tintin in the Congo convinced of its racism, I might make instances seem racist because of the criticism of racism. Sadly, wanting to give benefit of the doubt didn’t last long. What really got to me wasn’t the portrayal of the Congolese, which critics and campaigners have claimed to be stupid and lazy. It’s the asides made by Tintin’s dog Snowy. Upon seeing the African boy Coco whom Tintin paid to be their guide, Snowy remarked, “He doesn’t look very bright.” When Coco was frightened upon seeing Tintin in an ape pelt, Snowy addressed the audience with ”Why would he be afraid of a monkey?” I mean, seriously?! What am I supposed to think when reading these winky asides? Reading these scenes made me really, really uncomfortable. I know Hergé would display a more enlightened attitude in later volumes but I couldn’t help but think if Hergé once had such an ideology.
There’s also a “white man’s burden” approach towards the Congolese within the pages. Colonists are given credit for giving these benighted folk civilization. Schools, hospitals, churches – all are gifts from the colonists. Whereas prior, the locals simply didn’t know any better.
As for the animal cruelty, this is terrible to admit but I found the skit of Tintin accidentally shooting fifteen antelopes to be funny. I questioned my general humanity after, but I needn’t to. The cruelty progressively became unnecessary. Animal lovers beware! A teaser to the awfulness: Tintin drills a hole on a rhinoceros’ back, then inserts a lit dynamite into the hole.
Several commenters have made the observation that both Tintin in the Land of the Soviets and Tintin in the Congo are for Tintin completists only and though my Tintin project has only gotten me two volumes thus far, I tend to side with the commenters. So far, I feel none of the magic the swashbuckling Tintin adventures should have given me. Here’s to hoping that the only way is up from now on!