Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Tintin in the Land of Potential Censorship

I'm a pretty big Tintin and Hergé fan. I first read the comics as a child, and I even remember going to libraries to borrow the comics. The first one I owned was Prisoner's of the Sun, and I think that its use of in media res (as the second book in a two part story) has influenced my enjoyment of creating stories that start in the middle.

I've read all the Tintin comics (and several of Hergé's other comics), read the novel, own several of the pastiches that have been created, have read or watched comics, books, and documentaries about Tintin and Hergé, watched the various animated shows (and will watch those weird old live action movies at some point), went to Belgium just so that I could go to the Hergé Museum, have owned pieces of the merchandise (including rad standees when I was a kid, and a watch I wore until it broke), had Tintin's haircut for years, and in some ways feel that my life as a globe trotting, occasional journalist that wants to have adventures was influenced by Tintin.

So I say this as someone who really loves the character: Tintin in the Congo is a racist book that should not be in children's sections of libraries (or bookstores for that matter).

Now, I've seen this book in children's sections before (that's where I first read it a few years ago), but I'm writing this post because of this article about a library that refuses to move the book out of the children's section after parents complained.

First a bit of background. Tintin in the Congo was the second Tintin adventure after Tintin in the Land of the Soviets. It was originally published from 1930 to 1931, but this version doesn't really look much like what most people expect Tintin to look like. Hergé was still a fairly young and inexperienced artist at this point in his career so the art isn't as developed as it would later be, plus the books were published in black and white. Later he redrew and colourized his earliest books (excluding Tintin in the Land of the Soviets), and this revamped version was released in 1946. Later revisions (to remove a rhino being blown up) where made in the 1970s at the request of publishers in other countries.

Despite those changes the colour version of this book was not published in English until 2005. (A reproduction of the original black and white version was published in the early 1990s, but that was aimed a collectors.)

Now I could go into all the problems with the book, but there are other articles written by people who have read it more recently than I have (and I'm not that interested in rereading it). So try this one or this one.

I'm not saying Tintin in the Congo shouldn't be in libraries, but putting it in a children's section seems misguided and ignorant at best, and malicious at worst. Honestly, there aren't enough portrayals of people of colour in any comics, let alone in comics aimed at kids, and so having one that is super racist against Africans seems like a terrible, terrible idea.

The head librarian at the library in question apparently said that moving the books was the same as censoring them, which seems kind of strange to me. They quote the ALA definition of censorship as a "change in the access status of material, based on the content of the work and made by a governing authority or its representatives", while saying that “If the Jones Library does nothing else, we protect everyone’s constitutional right to read anything he or she wants. Our mission does not include censorship.”

How does moving this book to the adult graphic novel or 741.5 section change the access status? Children can still find it (and in fact more people overall would see that the book exists). I have to wonder what this library would do if a book was miscatalogued. If Lost Girls by Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie was in the kid's section at the library (it's a crossover between Peter Pan, the Wizard of Oz, and Alice in Wonderland!) would it just stay there forever?

When it comes down to it I think the only reason that Tintin in the Congo is shelved in the kids section anywhere is because most cataloguers don't know that much about comic books (I see miscatalogued comics all the time), and so they just put it where all the other Tintin comics go. It's kind of funny that I'm complaining about that this time, as usually I'm upset because a series has been split into multiple different sections, but I think this shows that for librarians knowledge of material and context is important.

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