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Swinging into stereotypes

Describing one of his early books as "a mistake from my youth" and a product of his bourgeois upbringing, author Georges Herge had to redraw Tintin in the Congo in 1946, toning down stereotypes of native Africans, deleting a scene where an elephant was blown up by dynamite and discreetly removing any overt references to Belgian Congo.

It's ironic, then, that in the week the Democratic Republic of Congo marks its 50th year of independence from Belgium, a fresh civil law suit has been filed by a Congolese man, Bienvenu Mbutu Mondondo, after he despaired at the lethargy over his original criminal law suit filed against Tintin's publishers in 2007 on charges of racism.

Incidentally, the controversy in 2007 shot the book from the nether regions of the Amazon sales chart to number five in just under a week. No doubt the same thing will happen again.

I was a huge Tintin reader as a kid, and thought none the less of native Africans after reading Tintin in the Congo, or the stereotypical Russian portrayed in Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, or the sherpas in Tintin in Tibet. Can you imagine the results if Tintin had made it to Ireland?

Another writer who has had accusations of racism hurled at him is Edgar Rice Burroughs, creator of Tarzan. The basic argument runs thus: a white boy is raised by monkeys to become Lord of the African jungle and takes on local, black, baddie tribes. As a pitch, it wouldn't pass a publisher's desk these days.

In the early books, Arabs were always "surly" and called Christians (whites) "dogs", while blacks were "jabbering warriors". But the stereotyping didn't stop there. Russians cheated at cards, a Swede was dirty and the British aristocracy was weak and corrupt. Again, thank God, Tarzan never made it to Ireland. But he did swing off course when Burroughs, in later years, had him as an RAF pilot (Tarzan and the Foreign Legion).

In the build up to the Tarzan centenary celebrations in 2012, Faber announced this week that they are "re-imagining" the hero (probably a good idea) without stripping him of his "edgier, untamed and feral" side, for the first of a new series of Tarzan books to appear next year.

Set in Africa, the new Tarzan still has perils to face, just not racist ones. "Warring guerrillas, poaching of endangered animals, illegal logging and the decline of the environment" are the more PC issues for our hero.


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