Africa in the European comic book: a setting!

Interview with Michel Pierre, by Emmanuelle Mahoudeau

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Historian Michel Pierre is mad about comic books. He has mainly focused on comic book representations of the Cold War, then, due to his own interest in Africa, published a book on the 1931 Universal Exhibition (Editions Complexe). In it, he combines his knowledge of colonial imagery and his childhood passion, the comic book… An interview on the image of Africa and its inhabitants in the European comic book.

In which period have you studied the European comic book’s vision of Africa?
I have studied it since this art emerged, from the time of Bécassine up until Hugo Pratt and authors such as Jano.
How has this image evolved over time?
There was a period which corresponded to the beginning of the colonial era, which can be qualified as the « Banania » period*, and which is found in Bécassine, and also in Les Pieds Nickelés. Then there was a slight shift in the image of Africa transformed by colonization. The key figure in this kind of publication is the missionary, as in « Tintin in the Congo ».
So, there was the somewhat naive period of discovery, followed by a period of colonial development which lasted up until immediately after the war. In the Fifties, this way of representing an Africa transformed by colonial presence continued. There are albums published by Editions Fleurus at this time on all that colonization had brought in terms of progress. The image of the engineer, the teacher came to join that of the missionary… representatives of knowledge. With, little by little, the beginnings of an African identity.
Did the independence era change all that?
It served as a source of inspiration for some comic strip writers, but they mainly used the uprisings and the African dictators. The comic book caricatures from Banania to Bokassa! Next came the contemporary period, which is sadly more or less absent in Franco-Belgian comic books. When it does feature in them, it is extraordinary. Jano is the perfect example of this. He depicts the real Africa in his work, both that of the covered truck, firmly-anchored in the reality of the towns, and in the culture. In certain Corto Maltèse, someone like Hugo Pratt depicts East Africa, which he represents with a real dignity of characters, closer in some respects to a Kiplingesque tradition.
What is the situation today?
Nowadays, the vision is more realistic, more just. It is that of people who go to Africa. Beforehand, none of them had ever set foot there, whether it was Hergé or Forton! Pratt and Fournier (Spirou) went there. Franquin, who never went to Africa, paints a large number of quite extreme caricatures of this continent in « La Corne du rhinocéros » (The Rhinoceros’ Horn).
Can we distinguish between a vision of Africa and a vision of the African?
Yes, there is an Africa which starts out first of all with the climate and its sounds. This continent is represented as the site of extremes. Generally the rain is very present, the drums, the fauna… with a recurrent bestiary: crocodiles, elephants, rhinoceros… And then the men enter the picture with the same savageness as that integrated into Nature. The two are intimately related in Franco-Belgian comic book imagery.
Do the comic books offer a vision of African history? As, for example, in Les Passagers du vent by François Bourgeon?
Bourgeon looks at the history of slavery in this series and not at African history itself. Bourgeon is a good example of a certain view of Africa. You get the rain, the swamps, the crocodile in it… but – it is not Bourgeon’s aim – nothing about the great Mali empires, or the gold route…
Are there any narratives about these periods of African history?
Bourgeon’s series shows a very deep knowledge of the history of slavery, but I don’t know any comic strip artists or writers who have shown a deep understanding of African History… The albums set in more recent times are caricatural rather, in the La légion saute sur Kolwezi vein!
A bit in the style of Jimmy Tousseul…
No, with him you get quite a just vision of contemporary Africa. It is not the same category. The vision I’m speaking about resorts to the same violence that exists in certain types of European film on Africa. In them, you find a transposition of characters such as Amin Dada or Bokassa, dictators without names, situated in vaguely invented countries… In fact, for most comic strip artists, Africa has no history. They are universes they know nothing about, even less their history.
Jimmy is over…
After peregrinations which lasted for only twelve albums, Jimmy Tousseul, Daniel Desorgher and Stephen Desberg’s hero, lays down his hat in Au revoir Jimmy. An early retirement for this young Belgian who seemed capable of keeping us in suspense a while yet. But this series didn’t really find favour with the public, which maybe didn’t get its ration of a caricatural Africa in this sensitive and intelligent comic book. The end of this magnificently drawn and coloured last album nonetheless hints at a possible continuation… To balance things out, the same publisher (Dupuis) has brought out the magnificent and deeply moving Déogratias by Jean-Philippe Stassen, which plunges headlong into the stories, and thus the History, of the Rwandan genocide.
Are there any European artists who have revolutionized the vision of Africa?
The person who changed it all in my mind was Jano with his African journals and the « Kébra » stories. Even though he works with characters who have animal heads, even though they are not realistic, are fantastical… It was the first time, for example, that an author used the [West African] expression « Bonne arrivée ». There is a real correlation with the reality of the vocabulary and the wealth of today’s language in the language of « Kébra ». This is the one which strikes me as being the most just. And all more so in his travel journals, they’re great.
How would you define an author such as Stassen? Can he be said to have created a style?
This is a new generation which is more concerned with the reality. I get the impression that, apart from Stassen, there are no other authors looking into such African realities.
Have there been times when the African continent was fashionable in the comic books?
Not really. In fact, it is an obligatory path for certain series, such as Tintin, Spirou et Fantasio: Africa is a setting, just like Asia or America. It is always present, even in comic books such as « La Patrouille des castors » or the « Tanguy-Laverdure ».
Do traveller artists, such as Daniel Ceppi, weave their way around Africa?
Ceppi is more interested in Asia. The comic strip artists whose path I have met over there are Fournier, Jano, Ferrandez, P’tit Luc, Wolanski… and Hugo Pratt with whom I worked. I amused myself in writing Corto Maltèse’s biography as if he had really existed, and about his women… Hugo Pratt kept a childhood relation with Ethiopia alive; he drew East Africa. He was also drawn to the Sahara. But it is true that there has never been a saga about sub-Saharan Africa like the one by Ferrandez on Algeria. This is lacking.
Another point, the comic book has changed. Since the end of children’s weeklies, whether Le Journal de Tintin, Spirou, Pif… everything that used to construct youngsters’ vision of the world has disappeared and has been replaced by albums or the television. The world of image transmission has changed.
Which three key comic books would you recommend to readers?
Les Ethiopiques by Hugo Pratt, several « Kébra » albums by Jano, and Stanssen’s work, Deogratias. Going further back, Franquin’s La Corne du rhinocéros, and, of course, Tintin in the Congo.
Can Tintin in the Congo be cited as a typical example of a colonialist comic book?
It is, indeed, often cited as being a sign of colonialism in the comic book, but it is more complicated than that. For many young readers, Tintin in the Congo represented their first fascination with Africa, without being aware of the doubtful side of the work. The little African Coco was a lot nicer than Tintin, an empty character who massacres, who passes by, who doesn’t really have an identity. That’s the very ambiguity of children’s reading matter. It sometimes conveys a caricatured vision. Indeed, it isn’t because you read Tintin in the Congo when you were seven that you joined the colonial infantry or the paras twenty years later! Moreover, people’s reading of Tintin in the Congo at the time it came out was perhaps more subtle that we care to admit. At that time, wrapped up in childhood, you could have been interested in Africa, and not really grasped the somewhat borderline aspect of Hergé’s drawings.
It is also forgetting that at the time during the 1931 Universal Exhibition, a lot of children were urged to go to visit this grand event held to glorify the French empire. They would be fascinated by African or Asiatic productions and later become militant anti-colonialists. The shock which affected them was not that of colonialism’s recurrent figures, but that of the art works from the countries in question. They weren’t to become missionaries or soldiers in the French Camel Corps… but would fight against colonialism.

* Translator’s note: The famous French brand of chocolate drink, Banania, whose packaging bears the face of a grinning African conscript, has become synonymous over the years with the stereotype of the happy-go-lucky, childlike and subservient African.///Article N° : 5471

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