Page last updated at 15:14 GMT, Wednesday, 28 April 2010 16:14 UK

Race row continues to dog Tintin's footsteps

By Neil Smith
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

A Congolese man is attempting to have a controversial Tintin book banned in the cartoon star's home country of Belgium.

Protesting Congolese student holds copy of Tintin in the Congo
The book is published in the UK with a warning about its content

The case relates to Tintin in the Congo, an early adventure written in the late 1920s in which the Congolese are presented as crude racial stereotypes.

Tintin's creator Herge - real name Georges Remi - would later express regret over the book, saying it was a youthful indiscretion that reflected the prejudices of the time.

Yet, the Belgian author was perhaps guilty of other instances of racial insensitivity that have prompted both criticisms of his conduct and impassioned leaps to his defence.

Most of these centre on the World War II years, in which Tintin comic strips - known as bande dessinee in French-speaking countries - featured in the pages of leading newspaper Le Soir.

Because the newspaper was under Nazi control at the time, Herge was subsequently accused of being a collaborator for continuing to contribute to it.

"It was something which was held against him - that he continued to work for a pro-German paper," says Michael Farr, author of several books on Herge and Tintin.

"He was criticised for it and investigated but was found not to have done anything culpable."

Tintin and the Thompson twins
Herge's boy reporter celebrated his 80th anniversary last year

Some, however, suggest Herge's work for Le Soir went beyond that of a writer reluctantly co-opted by an occupying force.

One story, The Shooting Star, is especially contentious for its depiction of a villainous character named Blumenstein - considered by some to be an anti-Semitic caricature.

There is also a notorious panel in which two bearded characters named Isaac and Salomon look forward to the end of the world as a way of avoiding their debts.

When the story was later published in book form, those offending panels were omitted and the Blumenstein character was renamed Bohlwinkel.

In subsequent versions, additional tweaks saw the villains change from a group of Americans to citizens of the fictional country of Sao Rico.

"Blumenstein was clearly portrayed as Jewish and he regretted that," says Farr, whose books on the subject include The Adventures of Herge and Tintin: The Complete Companion.

"He acknowledged the mistake and he corrected it. He didn't have unpleasant right-wing views."

Yet the academic Laurence Grove takes a tougher line, claiming Remi was an opportunist who endured by bending to the prevailing wind.

Georges Remi, aka Herge
Tintin's first adventure appeared in Belgian newspaper Le Vingtieme Siecle in 1929
He went on to appear in 23 more adventures, all written and drawn by Herge
Georges Remi (above) created his pen-name by reversing his initials, which sound like "her-shay" when spoken in French
More than 200 million Tintin books have been sold in 58 languages
Tintin is usually accompanied by his dog Snowy and his friend Captain Haddock
Other recurring characters include scientist Cuthbert Calculus and the opera singer Bianca Castafiore

"Part of the reason for his popularity was he followed the trends of the time, and there were certain trends that were very unpleasant," he told the BBC News website.

"When it was fashionable to be a Nazi, he was a Nazi. When it was fashionable to be a colonial racist, that's what he was."

That point of view would surely be contested by Farr, a prominent 'Tintinologist' who met Herge prior to his death in 1983.

"Having had the benefit of knowing the man, you couldn't have met someone who was more open and less racist," he said.

Yet claims and counter-claims about the author's sympathies are sure to escalate over the next few years with the release of three Hollywood films featuring his popular hero.

The first of these, directed by Steven Spielberg, is released in November 2011 and is based on the Secret of the Unicorn book.

A second, based on Red Rackham's Treasure, will be released in 2012, with a third to follow in 2013.

Grove, senior lecturer at the University of Glasgow and president of the International Bande Dessinee Society, insists Herge was an "excellent artist" who was "well ahead of his time".

However, he continues, "you could say he was more concerned with stylistics than political content."

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