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Cancel Tintin? Spotting Racist Imagery In Comics Around The World

Some of the world's most beloved comics and graphic novels contain depictions that are antiquated at best and downright racist at worst.

Photo of little girl reading Tintin in the Congo comic book

Tintin has been criticized for its depictions of people of color

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank

PARIS — From the anti-Semitic children's books of Nazi Germany to the many racist caricatures of Asian, African or Indigenous people in the 20th century, comics have long contained prejudiced, sexist and xenophobic stereotypes.

These publications have been rightfully criticized and, in some cases, replaced with more diverse and accurate narratives created by a broader range of artists and writers. Earlier this year, the publisher of beloved American author Dr. Seuss announced it would no longer distribute six of his books due to racist and offensive imagery of Black people, Asians and Arabs.

Still, some are pushing back, saying that this kind of unwarranted "cancelling" threatens freedom of expression and the sanctity of beloved, and often nostalgic, imagery.

Here are examples from three countries around the world about how people are handling the debate and sketching the future of comics.

In Canada, Torching Tintin & Astérix

Still image of an Asterix movie showing Obelix with a stereotypical North American Indigenous woman

A scene from the 1994 film "Asterix Conquers America"

— Photo: Extrafilm

• The Adventures of Tintinand The Adventures of Asterix both emerged in French-speaking Europe during the 20th century and quickly developed global audiences. Tintin has been translated into over 70 languages and Asterix into 111, and both were adapted to different media including television, film and even a theme park.

• But the comic books have also been called out for controversial depictions of certain groups, including North American Indigenous peoples. And as Radio-Canada recently reported, one group of French-speaking schools in Ontario found the texts so offensive that — in a show of solidarity with the country's First Nations — they decided to go ahead and burn the books.

• The report, not surprisingly, stirred up a pretty fiery debate on the issues of free speech and what some refer to as "cancel culture."

• Suzy Kies, co-chair of the Indigenous Peoples Commission of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberal Party, was involved in the burning and said in a video, "We bury the ashes of racism, discrimination and stereotypes in the hope that we will grow up in an inclusive country where everyone can live in prosperity and security."

• She and others fault the Tintin and Asterix books for depictions that oversexualize Indigenous peoples and paint them as lazy, alcoholic and "savage."

• But now, Kies's identity as being of Abenaki and Montagnais-Naskape descent is under question and she has resigned from her chair position. For his part, Prime Minister Trudeau said he is "never in favor of burning books," but added the importance of reconciliation with First Nations, particularly with the recent discoveries of unmarked mass graves at residential schools that Indigenous children were forced to attend.

• Maybe instead of fighting over these comics (which are rarely historically accurate), attention should be focused on projects like This Place, a graphic novel anthology telling Canadian history through the perspectives of Indigenous people from around the country.

France's Favorite Cowboy Shoots For More Diversity

Cover of Lucky Luke's 81st album, A Cowboy in High Cotton

The latest Lucky Luke includes the perspective of Black Americans in the Wild West

— Photo: Cinebook

• In a more progressive model for rethinking cartoons with long — and complicated — legacies, Lucky Luke in France is taking a different direction. Telling the story of a cowboy in the Wild West, Lucky Luke was and continues to be a staple for many French children. And yet, despite being in print since the 1940s, the series is notably lacking in terms of diversity. The only edition featuring Black characters — Going up the Mississippi — was filled with racial stereotypes.

• But in 2020, well-known French cartoonists Julien Berjeaut (known as Jul) and Hervé Darmenton (known as Achdé) took on the challenge of a more inclusive Lucky Luke. With its 81st album, Un Cow-Boy Dans Le Coton (A Cowboy in High Cotton), they changed the perspective to focus on recently freed Black slaves.

• The plot begins like a typical Lucky Luke narrative. He inherits a Southern plantation, but then decides to redistribute the land to Black farmers. The other main character is inspired by Bass Reeves, who was the first Black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi. And Lucky Luke must rely on Reeves to go up against the real enemy: the Ku Klux Klan.

• Berjeaut interviewed French activists and scholars to better understand the representation of Black people in popular culture. Despite facing criticism in some conservative media, Un Cow-Boy Dans le Coton ended up being the best selling comic book in France last year.

Japan Gets A Manga Makeover

The cover of Unrivaled NAOMI Tenkaichi — Photo: @nakayosi_manga/Twitter

• Outside of France and Belgium, Japan arguably has the largest market for graphic novels, or manga, which first developed in the late 19th century. And like their European counterparts, certain manga titles have been accused of using racist tropes.

• One example is the character Mr. Popo, a genie from the popular Dragon Ball series who has been cited for having offensive features. But as author and Japan Times columnist Baye McNeil told the Christian Science Monitor, "Though these characters are inaccurate, I don't think they are necessarily intended to be offensive. It's also true that those comics are not supposed to be consumed by non-Japanese."

• In the meantime, more and more mangaka (creators of manga) are expanding beyond these traditional representations, including in their depictions of women, who are over-sexualized in many manga. The majority of mangaka have historically been men, but this is shifting, leading to a broader exploration of themes around gender, sexuality and equality.

• One interesting case involves the tennis star Naomi Osaka, who is of Japanese and Haitian descent and has often been portrayed in Japanense media as having lighter-colored skin and hair than she actually does.

• That's why, for a comic about the athlete called Unrivaled NAOMI Tenkaichi (tenkaichi means "best of earth"), her sister worked with the publisher directly to make sure Osaka is more accurately depicted — even if the story itself is quite fantastical. In it, Osaka travels the universe playing "space tennis." Kazam!

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