Mark McKinney: the “The Colonial Heritage of French Comics” interview

Mark McKinney has been doing a fantastic job in re-analysing French-speaking comics under the critical affordances brough by post-colonialist studies. He is indeed a leading scholar, having published the groundbreaking The Colonial Heritage of French Comics (Liverpool University Press, 2011) and Redrawing French Empire in Comics (Ohio State University Press, 2013), as well as edited the excellent History and Politics in French-Language Comics and Graphic Novels (University Press of Mississippi, 2008).

Much of his work is both a great introduction to this analytical framework as well as a profund lesson in close reading. He has created a varied and pointed genealogy of colonial themes and treatments within the medium of comics, usually dismissed to the preference of other media. However, it is precisely because of the seemingly innocent, “natural” and immediate nature of comics that colonialism principles and worldviews were transmitted to children, contributing to a “natural framework” of looking back at the colonies and their “subjects.” By creating a “visual-textual pedagogy of Empire,” comics were part and parcel of that discourse. In a time when the multiplicity of political voices and agencies act in the public sphere, and attempt revisitations of older texts (and the controversies surrounding Hergé’s Tintin au Congo precisely in 2012 were a case in point), defended as “appropriate of their time” or “just fun”, etc., critical stances such as Prof. McKinney’s are fundamental.

When I reviewed Colonial Heritage [in Portuguese only], I had the opportunity to interview Professor McKinney, an email interview conducted mid-2012, published here for the first time.

Pedro Moura: I think I am not too wrong if I say that the two main historical comics texts that you study are Saint-Ogan’s oeuvre and some of the adventures from Forton’s Les Pieds Nickelés. Then again, you deal with many other historical (pre-1962) comics as well as contemporary productions. Your choices are judicious and very productive, but can you explain how you’ve made those choices?

Mark McKinney: You are right. For both colonial exhibitions and trans-African expeditions, I tried to be exhaustive and find all the examples of this theme in comics that I could, from the time of the events up to the present. I realize that I certainly missed some examples (including material that I located after my book was completed), but my goal was a picture that was as complete as possible. The fact that both Zig et Puce and Les Pieds Nickelés include representations of both of these events was very useful, because it allowed me to explore the representation of the event in comics by cartoonists on the political right and the anarchist left, that is on both ends of the political spectrum in more-or-less mainstream comics. There were significant differences between the two series, for example: Forton’s depiction of colonialism in both cases constitutes a mocking, left-anarchistic parody, whereas Saint-Ogan’s representation ultimately justifies colonial domination and the civilizing mission; and Saint-Ogan’s episodes stick closer to the events in some ways (his Exposition coloniale episode takes place mostly on the main exhibition grounds, whereas that of Forton takes place mostly on in the area of the sideshows; and Saint-Ogan’s Zig, Puce and Furette is about publicizing a new vehicle, as was Citroën’s Croisière noire, whereas the Pieds-Nickelés go to Africa to replace the French minister of colonies who — in the fiction — wasn’t keen on making the trip himself and was glad to have someone replace him). On the other hand, there are similarities between the two as well, for example, both were colonialist (even the Pieds-Nickelés simply take the place of the French colonial administration, to better exploit the Africans), and in both series the main representation of the 1924—5 Croisière noire took place after the representation of the Exposition coloniale of 1931, suggesting that the latter event stimulated interest in the former, no doubt in part through the exhibit of the Croisière noire that was part of the Exposition coloniale in Paris in 1931.

PM: Your analysis of Saint-Ogan makes use of the most diverse materials and sources, integrating his comics work in, most tellingly, his active participation in the colonialist propaganda of his time. You do not discuss Hergé to the same extent, and you make the reasons explicit in the Introduction, page 19: “the author [of a fully documented, book-length study of this topic on Hergé] would be unable to gain access to the Hergé archives in Brussels”. Saint-Ogan, despite his purported role in the origin of modern French-language comics, is understudied in comparison to Hergé and that is one of the reasons why you focused on him. Did you, however, at any point of your project, wished to include Hergé in the same manner as well? Is that barred access part of your personal experience?

MM: There were a few reasons why I mostly set aside Hergé’s comics, with a few exceptions: (1) the virtual impossibility of access to key archival material about Hergé, which you mention — I am absolutely certain that I would have been refused access to the archives controlled by the rights owners (Fanny and Nick Rodwell), especially given my topic and perspective; by contrast, I had free and easy access to Saint-Ogan’s scrapbooks at the CNBDI, whose archivists have always been extremely helpful; (2) Saint-Ogan’s work was immensely popular and influential in previous decades, especially during the inter-war period (1920s and 1930s), and was very influential on Hergé (as Thierry Groensteen has demonstrated), but has been comparatively much less studied than the comics of Hergé; (3) Saint-Ogan’s work, like Hergé’s, has been important for the critical canonization of comics in France, and specifically of French comics, over the past four decades or so; and (4) I wished to mostly focus on the French context (so mostly the Frenchman Saint-Ogan instead of the Belgian Hergé), because it’s the one that I know best, and because I believed that sticking to a national framework would provide more coherence to my focus, which has a strong historical component — French colonial history is related to but also distinct from Belgian colonial history. If I could have had such free and open access to the Hergé archives, then I would have liked to include more from them, specifically the connections between Hergé’s comics and the Croisière noire and (Belgian?) colonial exhibitions. That would have reinforced the limited comparative dimension of my book: the connections between French and Belgian comics and their contexts.

PM: Hergé has been time and again at the heart of post-colonialist discussions, as quite recently due to the Belgian court’s decision in relation to Bienvenu Mbutu Mondondo’s process. Would you care to say something on this matter?

MM: both the Tintin series and the Zig et Puce series are shot through with both colonial and antisemitic racism. The issue then is what should be done with such works. I believe that the only appropriate thing to do with them is to study them in a critical manner, and to use them to teach others, especially youths, about the past and its representation in comics. Both Tintin au Congo and L’étoile mystérieuse should include strongly critical, independently written introductions that analyze how the works are racist and do not diminish the responsibility of the cartoonist in spreading these reprehensible views, as is usually done by Hergé’s many hagiographers. All past and present profits from the sale of the works should be recovered and set aside in a special fund as a form of representational reparations: the fund should be independently administered (it should be completely independent from the Hergé rights holders or any Hergé apologists) and used to teach children about the relationship between colonial racism, antisemitism and comics. Of course there is almost no chance that we’ll see this in the foreseeable future, but it’s important to work at shifting the terms of the discourse, as people such as Maxime Benoît-Jeannin have worked to do regarding Hergé. Following Benoît-Jeannin and Joël Kotek (his chapter in Les grands mythes de l’histoire de Belgique, de Flandre et de Wallonie), I have written elsewhere about the mythical national dimension of Hergé-worship in Belgium (“Georges Remi’s legacy: between half-hidden history, modern myth and mass marketing,” International Journal of Comic Art, vol. 9, no. 2, fall 2007, pp. 68–80).

PM: One of the problems in most of the knee-jerk defence of these “classics” is that people will just say that “it’s a work of its time”, but more often than not this is said in ignorance: no one cares to learn if there were counternarratives, different political positions and struggles – your mention of the Surrealist and Communist 1931 counter-exposition, publications such as Le cri indigène, Le paria, etc. shows that there was not a single story – and, even worst, to really understand the Other, thus perpetuating the same backward principles (if it’s not worse, being done in the present, of course). Comics academia is important, but I guess we’re aware that it has a somewhat limited audience. And you also discuss the need to bring out to the open these discussions. Do you think that by having artists addressing this subject within the comics medium (especially Sfar who reaches a wider audience than Alagbé, perhaps) is one of the most important steps?

MM: I am completely fed up with the hagiographic defence of “classic comics” and their “great authors” that you mention (“it’s simply a work of its time”; “the author was well-meaning”; “this work wasn’t his fault, but that of someone else” [e.g., l’abbé Wallez], etc.), especially when one sees that these cartoonists continued to rework the same racist visions in their comics over several decades, while generations of activists and ordinary people critiqued colonialism and antisemitism, and while the Shoah and the crimes of European colonialism took place and were documented in all their horror. For example, Hugo Frey convincingly analyzes the antisemitism that runs through Vol 714 pour Sydney, in his chapter in a book that I edited (History and Politics in French-Language Comics and Graphic Novels, University Press of Mississippi, 2008, 2011). Saint-Ogan did the same thing in the Zig et Puce series. The anti-anticolonial work of Saint-Ogan — his work against the anticolonialists — in Le coup de patte demonstrates the fact that the French cartoonist was perfectly aware of the anticolonial critique that the Surrealists and Communists made of the Exposition coloniale of 1931, at the time that the events were taking place. His immediate response was to ridicule that anticolonial critique in a magazine that was both colonialist and antisemitic. Yes, of course, one of my frustrations with academic publications is that they generally reach a micro-audience. This is compounded by the fact that my research on French comics has mostly been published in English and in Anglophone countries, so is mainly inaccessible to most of the people with a direct stake in this history: French speakers in France and elsewhere. I hope to publish a French translation of my books, in a more popular version, in the near future. And of course lectures, interviews, reviews, and discussions on the web and in magazines can help combat racism in and around comics, as well as demystify and demythify cartoonists and comics. Yes, certainly, cartoonists can provide much more widely read critiques of colonialism and racism in comics, as Sfar does in Le paradis terrestre, the fifth volume of Le chat du rabbin, with his parody of Tintin au Congo. But Sfar’s comics — specifically that series — also help construct and perpetuate problematic representations of (post-)colonial alterity, even as they also convincingly critique other aspects of colonial history and ideology. Alagbé’s work is less well known, precisely in part because of the radical nature of his critique of colonialism, but also because his comics are more experimental and less mainstream in artistic terms than those of Sfar. Alagbé’s position is therefore a courageous and a costly one. I’m glad to see that he has just published a new edition of Les nègres jaunes with Frémok.

PM: It’s amazing how some of the situations in these comics are the proof that racial stereotypes are not, shall we say, equivalent depending on who’s doing what. Due to power dynamics across history and an evaluation hierarchy that is always present, blackface is not the same thing as whiteface. So, in historical, children-oriented, humourous comics, when the main characters dress as black Africans, they are always able to fool real Africans because the former are cunning and the latter naïve, but whenever a black African dresses in European garbs what is focused on are the errors (no shoes, etc.). Do you think that the pervasiveness of this sort of images in comics and elsewhere has contributed to a warped gaze on the other, especially black Africans?

MM: Yes, certainly: these representations are the products of racist, colonial ideologies and discourses, both visual and textual. The negative French colonial stereotype of the évolué/e derided the efforts of the colonized to take the so-called civilizing mission (really a European colonial pretext for exploiting the colonized) at its word. Dressing like the French and, more generally, adopting their cultural norms was never sufficient for one to be accepted by the colonizers, as anticolonial thinkers such as Frantz Fanon (Peau noire, masques blancs) and Albert Memmi (Portrait du colonisé, précédé de Portrait du colonisateur) argued persuasively. As Patricia Morton shows in Hybrid Modernities, the colonized actors who worked in the human dioramas at the 1931 Exposition coloniale internationale in Paris were not allowed to wear western clothes as some often usually did at home, except a few of them, who were made to do so incompletely, in a kind of cross-dressing that was designed to show that they were not completely civilized and should therefore remain in their colonized status. So in that sense it’s not surprising to find similar representations in comics from that period. What we should not forget was that at the same time there were also critiques of such representations, and that these did not always emanate from the left: a well-known example is the critique in the right-wing publication Candide of the manipulation of New Caledonian Kanaks who were brought to Paris during the Exposition to play the role of cannibals in order to earn money for an association of French colonizers. In colonial-era French comics, and in some post-1962 ones, cartoonists ridicule the (former) colonized through both blackface and whiteface, which produce a colonial aesthetic of the grotesque. The republication of such works, often considered to be classics, continues to have an impact on European readers today, including post-colonial minorities who encounter therein some grisly relics of the past, but unfortunately these are too rarely contextualized and analyzed.

PM: There are not many, if at all, examples of counter-narrative, antiracist, anticolonialist comics within the early historical period you’ve analysed. Do you think that this is because comics were considered mostly, if not solely, as a medium for children, therefore, where politics played no part (in the sense of conscious criticism, given the fact that to claim an apolitical end only reinforces a certain hegemonic ideology)? So that the changes that we see in contemporary discourse within comics is also a sign of the changes of the expressive, political and aethetic possibilities of comics as a medium?

MM: Yes, the fact that comics during this time were aimed mostly at children must help explain the fact that there is so little in the way of antiracist and anticolonialist comics before the 1980s in France and Belgium. I’m not yet ready to completely exclude the possibility that there might have been works that we don’t know about, because so much remains to be done in terms of recovering the history of the medium. There were certainly anti-colonial cartoons, including ones that critiqued the Exposition coloniale of 1931. As you point out, we now see a much wider range of political and aesthetic expression in the comics medium today in France, including comics by Algerian-French cartoonist Farid Boudjellal, or the now defunct journal Le cheval sans tête, edited by Alagbé and Olivier Marboeuf. These are exciting changes in the comics field. We’re also finally seeing comics by women from post-colonial ethnic minorities in France: for example, Leïla Leïz, Marguerite Abouet and Zeina Abirached. This too is helping to change what is generally thought possible in comics today in France.

PM: Your main focus here were comics related to the cultural negotiation with French sub-Saharan colonies, but I know that you have interest also in contemporary French-Algerian authors, such as Farid Boudjellal, for instance. Do you have any plan in doing another volume dedicated to other areas/chapters of French colonialist history?

MM: I have already written another volume, titled Redrawing French Empire in Comics, which is to be published by Ohio State University Press in June 2013, in a new book series on comics and cartoons. It deals with the representation of Algeria and Indochina as French colonial entities in French comics. And there remains much work to be done, so it is very encouraging to see up-and-coming researchers such as yourself, Michelle Bumatay (at UCLA, in California), and Catriona MacLeod (who did her Ph.D. with Dr. Laurence Grove at the University of Glasgow) doing exciting work in this field.

PM: What kind of works would you like to see in the near future, or what kind of research do you think that is needed in academic research that brings together postcolonial studies and comics?

MM: There is a massive amount of research still to be done at the intersection of (post-)colonialism and comics in French. We’re really only at the beginning, so the field is still pretty much wide open. To my mind, some of the most interesting would bring together comics produced in Europe and ones created in (former) European colonies, as Nancy Rose Hunt has done in a book chapter: (2002) “Tintin and the interruptions of Congolese comics,” in Paul S. Landau and Deborah D. Kaspin, eds., Images and Empires: Visuality in Colonial and Postcolonial Africa, Berkeley: U of California P, pp. 90–123. I would also like to see more that bridges the gap between the necessary theorization of the medium as such (often in abstract, formal terms), and the influence of colonial aesthetics and politics on it (in my book, see for example the notion of the colonial grotesque). Ann Miller has done some excellent work on the topic, for example, in her analysis of the colonial adventurer, from Tintin on to the present: (2004) “Les héritiers d’Hergé: the figure of the aventurier in a postcolonial context,” in Yvette Rocheron and Christopher Rolfe, eds., Shifting Frontiers of France and Francophonie, New York: Peter Lang, pp. 307–23.

PM: A little off-topic, but somewhat related, have you read Craig Thompson’s Habibi? If you did, would you like to share some thoughts on this book, considering how much discussions it has triggered about neo-orientalism, the reductionism it seems to involve, and a utilitarian attitude towards Arabic culture?

MM: I’m afraid that I’ve not yet read it, but will plan on doing that soon. The issues you raise are important.

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