Let’s talk about Tintin, Racism, and What They Read Alone

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Between the ages of 10 and 13 I had the childhood room that many kids dream of. My bed was a loft raised 6 or 7 feet off the ground and below it I had hung a blue and red hammock purchased on a family trip to Mexico. Once I even took apart an old food processor and rigged the motor on the bed so I could bring things up from the floor without climbing down the ladder. It never occurred to me that there needed to be someone down there to attach something to the string I had affixed to the motor, or that the motor for a food processor is designed to chop things at accelerated speeds, strong enough to pull said string quickly enough so that anything attached would probably punch a hole through the ceiling.

In the evening I would sit in my hammock under the bed and talk on my phone. It had two lines and a long cable. It actually had a button for line one and line two. I don’t remember if they both worked but I know that every time I was on a call with a girl I hoped the other line would ring so I could say “Hold on Crystal, my other line is ringing.” After my evening phone time my favorite things to do was read or watch TV. I would watch some prime time bonbon like V, Chips, or the A-team and then retire to my bed to read for an hour. I read every night. My parents and me had a deal, if my bed time was at 10, I was in bed by 9, and read for an hour. I could read anything I wanted and most of the time it was chapter books. I progressed rapidly from Hardy Boys to Stephen King. I loved horror, but, I also loved comics and especially super heroes. I had a basket full of great stories that I would pour over time and time again. It didn’t matter that I had already read them, I always found a reason to read them again. It was in this basket that I discovered my brothers Tin-tin books. For those of you uninitiated with Tin-Tin, here’s a photo of him and his dog Snowy.

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My first thought was that this was a silly looking character, no one that I would ever call a hero, or that fit into my idea of super anything. His best friend was a tiny white dog and his sidekick, if you could call him that, was an alcoholic sea Capitan named Haddock. How wrong was that first impression. There was treasure hunting, trips to the moon, fist fights, mysterious characters with nefarious intentions, sea journeys and more. It was the perfect combination of Sherlock Holmes and Indiana Jones; an intrepid boy reporter who was always getting into adventures that spanned the globe and had him saving the day. They were old fashioned and modern at the same time, so much so that my young brain could not handle the excitement of what I had discovered.  I mean these were published in 1929 in Belgium. I think part of me was enamored because the Tintin stories were European and had a quality that my American comics didn’t. They managed to be childlike and wondrous while still maintaining a tough adventure like quality. It’s no wonder that Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson decided to adapt them into an animated film.

 

I would spend hours poring over the Tintin comics reading the same books over and over again. The ones I didn’t have I would get from the library, hoarding them in my bed at night, reading until long past I was supposed to. The little light I had in my loft bed burned into the night as I went on adventures with Tintin, Snowy, Captain Haddock, the Thompson Twins, Professor Calculus and more. My affair with this strange hero lasted many years, and in some ways, still does. However as I got older I discovered a problem I wouldn’t have known to look for as a child. It was both in the drawings and dialogue, revolving around the way people of color were presented in each book. Every person of color, or many of them, were drawn and spoke as an ethnocentric caricature. Africans, Asians, and indeed any non-white Europeans were made to look like the kind of ugly racial stereotype you would find in bad propaganda against people of color. In the research I did it seems that according to Herge, the author, and his estate, I’m paraphrasing here, was less an out and out raciest, and more a product of a time and place, when such pictures were considered the norm. He felt his background made it impossible for him to avoid prejudice, which I think, is a load of poop.

We are living in a time that, as of now, doesn’t seem that different from when Herge was writing.  With nationalism on the upswing and hate crimes increasing in frequency it is like being in pre WWII Europe. I will not be raising my kids to see such things to think they are ok, normal, or just part of a silly adventure book. These drawings, no matter when they were created, have power, and as a parent I plan to do everything I can to make sure that those ideas do not fall into my kids heads as any kind of norm. They are not normal, they are painful and terrible. When my children are a little older it will be totally up to them what they want to read, but even then, I will make sure they know exactly what pictures like that are all about so they can be aware of their true meaning.

My son has a loft bed, albeit a smaller one than mine, IKEA style, and he sits in it reading just like I used to. I love looking up there during the day and seeing two or three books in his bed, knowing that he woke up early that day to read. I should put read in quotes because he can’t actually read yet, he is still learning, figuring out the letters and what they mean. My job is to help him figure out what is on the page and make sure he carries an understanding of what it means off the page and into the world. Tintin won’t be in my kids library. It saddens me to say that as it gave me so much joy as a kid, but it would present a bad example for them.  There are so many great adventures to choose from for kids. I’m excited to find something new we can share together that will be a clear and kind representation of the people of this world, no matter when it was written.

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2 Comments

  1. I have similar feelings about classic Looney Tunes. There’s tons of baked-in racism, and even though I have the DVD set that’s introduced by Guinan – I mean Whoopi Goldberg – calling it out I’m not 100% comfortable with the kiddo watching them, and don’t bring them out often. When we do, at least we try to watch as a family and discuss it where we see it. But, I’d love more tools/ideas on how to present the “classics” without contributing to a biased world view. I fear that just omitting them, flawed as they are, would be to deny the racism that was there, and deprive our kids of some great stories.

    1. Totally understand that and I think addressing those things is great. I don’t want to say that ignoring them is a good idea either. They exist and should be addressed, but, In Tintin’s case those stories were a very particular part of my life. I find as an adult, since they are books, they function differently than watching something on TV. I just wouldn’t want to leave my kid alone with that stuff to absorb it like I did, with no thought toward the content. I also don’t know if I’m comfortable the the permanence of images on paper as opposed to a movie or tv show. Those images flicker away where as if it is in print it’s right there on the bookshelf. Either way, in my humble opinion, making sure they understand what they are seeing is always a good idea. Thanks for taking the time to read and leave a note!

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