I recently came across a discussion from last year on the blog The Hooded Utilitarian. It’s from a series of articles called The Anniversary of Hate, where different writers discuss “the worst comic ever.” The title of this particular entry, by Alex Buchet, speaks for itself: Spirou and Fantasio: Racism for Kids.
I’d encourage you to go over and read it in full, but here are some excerpts:
Tome and Janry’s success is owed to the genuinely disciplined mastery of slapstick comedy, satire, and adventure combined with imaginative use of science-fiction and fantasy, all illustrated in a style that marries meticulous attention to detail with a wild fluidity of caricatured movement.
And yet something in this most accomplished comic strip stinks, something it shares with far too wide a selection of European comics for children.
That something is racism.
Every ugly sinophobic, Orientalist stereotype is trotted out; Mandarins with four-inch fingernails wearing dragon masks, trick Buddha statues, Fu Manchu moustaches, a disgusting willingness to eat scorpions, cobras and tarantulas, barefoot coolies, pigtails, submissive cheongsam-clad lovelies…enough! My stomach can’t take any more.
The total effect is made worse by the high skill of the execution. Such was the case for such racist vileness as the films Birth of a Nation or the Nazi-era The Jew Suss. On its own minor level, Spirou et Fantasio à New York joins this unsavory company.
Yikes! And finally:
apart from the odd Black bystander, all the ethnics in [Spirou et Fantasio à New York] are cowardly, treacherous and greedy, with no redeeming features.
The post led to a long discussion (curiously, none of the participants seem to have realized that the album is available in English from Cinebook), where Fantagraphics’ Kim Thompson was particularly eloquent in his defense. To summarize his position, the album is meant as a parody of existing clichés about New York and America. Everything in it is deliberately silly, and the racial caricatures are meant to be understood as playful, completely over-the-top stereotypes with no relation to reality. As long as its readers realize that, and aren’t influenced to think that this is what Italians or Chinese are really like, it is a relatively harmless if perhaps somewhat tasteless book.
Belatedly adding to the discussion, I think we can get a better sense of Tome & Janry’s intent by looking at some of their other albums. For example, the depiction of New York can be understood more clearly when we consider how they portrayed the Soviet Union and Moscow in the 1990 album Spirou à Moscou (Spirou #42, “Spirou in Moscow”).
In comics, this sort of preposterous national caricaturing is perhaps most famous from Asterix, and it’s generally understood to be all in good fun.
Spirou in New York was a very popular album, and Don Vito Cortizone became one of the main recurring villains, both in Tome & Janry’s albums and in the 1993 cartoon. His first return was in 1991’s Vito la déveine (Spirou #43, “Vito the Unlucky”), where he has taken his rivalry with Chinese triads to the Pacific. Here, the outrageousness of the stereotyping of the Chinese gangsters is turned up even higher. Just as Vito is reviling his enemies with crude racial attacks, they arrive… proving him right in every detail:
The absurdity is obviously part of the joke, and taking it so far beyond anything that could possibly be taken seriously arguably takes much of the sting out of it. It the kind of goofiness one might see in a Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker movie.
However, returning to New York in the 1995 adventure Luna Fatale (Spirou #45), the stereotypes are still there, but less obviously ridiculous. No longer is the whole thing played for laughs:
This change in tone means that the ironic distance threatens to collapse, and if we are worried about propagating stereotypes, presenting them in subtler form is perhaps more dangerous.
In between these adventures, Tome & Janry dealt directly with the topic of racism in Le rayon noir (Spirou #44, “The Black Ray”) from 1993, where a lab accident turns Spirou (and later others) black:
Although the notion of a white character in “blackface” and the way Janry’s drawing style uses thick-lipped, wide-nosed exaggeration to render African features might be considered offensive in some contexts, the story is quite clearly a well-intended parable (sometimes painfully sincere and didactic) against racism and xenophobia, and (as showing the same character before and after the ray’s effect demonstrates) the black faces are really no more caricatured than the white ones.
Tome & Janry’s attitude to racism – opposed to prejudice or unequal treatment, but willing to play with caricatures and stereotypes they see either as innocent or too grotesque for anyone to take seriously – is perhaps best expressed by this page from Le petit Spirou #3, Mais! Qu’est-ce que tu fabriques? (“Hey! What Are You Doing?”):
Personally I’m conflicted over this aspect of Tome & Janry’s work. I can see how people would get offended, and I’m not 100% convinced this kind of thing is totally harmless, but at the same time I really don’t think they mean any harm, and the general tongue-in-cheek zaniness of it all makes it hard to take it too seriously. In any case, I hope it’s something we’re past and won’t be seeing again in any future Spirou adventures.