Tintin and the court battle over racist slurs

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The Independent Culture

A Congolese man is dragging Tintin before the courts, accusing the quiffed Belgian cartoon hero of racism and colonialist propaganda.

Bienvenu Mbutu Mondondo wants Tintin in the Congo, a comic strip chartering the boy reporter's adventures in Africa, to be pulled from the shelves in Belgium.

"The blacks are portrayed as stupid children who can't add up two and two and who have to kneel before the whites," said Mr Mbutu Mondondo, who lives in Belgium. "Such books should no longer be on sale in the twenty-first century."

The book, drawn in 1931, shows Tintin sporting a pith helmet over his trademark blond quiff and decked out in colonial khaki as he ventures forth among native Africans. In one scene, he teaches Congolese schoolchildren; in another, a black woman bows before him in honour of the "great" white man, the "big juju man".

Tintin's creator, Hergé, later described this early adventure as a "mistake from my youth", and said it had been the product of his bourgeois upbringing. He went on to purge it of all references of "Belgian Congo" and of its overt depictions of colonial rule when he re-drew it for a colour edition in the 1940s. He also removed a sequence in which Tintin used dynamite to blow up an elephant.

However Hergé – real name Georges Remi – fended off persistent accusations of racism. The national treasure argued that the cartoon strip was meant to be read as a testimony of a bygone age, written long before the abuses of Belgium's King Leopold over what was then Zaire became known.

Earlier complaints had lain dormant for years, according to the current plaintiff. "I don't think investigators wanted to do anything about it," Mr Mbutu Mondondo said in an interview earlier this year. "Hergé and the Moulinsart Foundation [which owns the rights] are like deities in this country, you can't go near them."

The student has vowed to take his case to the European Court of Human Rights if necessary. And he has also written a letter to the current king, Albert II, to bring the cartoon in question to the monarch's attention.

"This comic strip is viewed by most Congolese as a bad memory... from an era when we were seen as inferior beings," he wrote, adding that it was his mission to have the volume banned before the king's visit to Kinshasa in July to mark the African nation's 50th anniversary of independence.

A verdict in the case was expected yesterday, but has now been delayed until 5 May. One of Mr Mbutu Mondondo's lawyers told Belgian media that he could not understand why the Dutch and French-language editions did not carry the same warnings about the book's racist elements as the English version.

The warnings were introduced after a complaint three years ago to the Commission for Racial Equality in Britain. Since then, the book has been largely removed from the children's section in bookshops.