Why is it that comics and children’s books incite such stupidity?
The Brooklyn Public Library has moved Tintin in the Congo from its public shelves and placed it under lock-and-key as part of “a special collection of historic children’s literature that is available for viewing by appointment only”. This censorship was done after the library received just a single complaint. Yet, the library has received over two dozen complaints about other works in the last few years and not one other book has been moved off the shelves.
There is no denying the racist elements of Tintin in the Congo, a work by a naive and unenlightened creator but the nature of public libraries is that they will contain material that is offense to some, or indeed many, people. Obvious examples include Hitler’s anti-sematic Mein Kampf ( Brooklyn Library’s has 10 copies) and Vladimir Nabokov exploration of child sex Lolita (seven copies). So why has this one work been singled out?
The answer lies in the medium and the audience – Comics and Children.
Comics in America have always been seen as something only suitable for children and worthy of special treatment regardless of 1st Amendment Rights. In the 1950’s, the Comics Code Authority (CCA) was formed to regulate the content of comics. Though it had no legal authority, its used public opinion and panics over of juvenile delinquency to force major publishers to either go along with the code or go bankrupt. The strict rules the CCA imposed restricted the growth and development of the comics medium in the US and to a lesser extent in the UK. In Europe and Japan, where no such rules existed, the medium flourished and explored a wide range of themes for a wide range of age groups.
However it cannot be ignored that Tintin in the Congo is a children’s book and that the stereotype’s children are exposed to can have significant impact. Herge himself is a great example of this. The images he drew in Tintin in the Congo reflect the images of black people that he grew up with. There is a real case to be made that Herge’s first two books should not be in a children’s section or at least come with some sort of warning for parents but that is along way from locking a book up away from public view.
The debate about Tintin in the Congo is not an abstract discussion about censorship and civil liberties. It is a real problem having real impacts. Already, white supremacists are using the book as a rallying point for their vitriol (see Tintin on the Front Line of Racism).
By focusing on one aspect of Herge’s work we are losing the sight of how Herge’s life exemplifies the battle against racism. His is a story about how one man overcame his prejudices to become an ambassador for peace and understanding across cultures but to understand this story we must be able to read all of it.