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Reviewed by:
  • The Colonial Heritage of French Comics
  • Christina Carroll
The Colonial Heritage of French Comics. By Mark McKinney. (Contemporary French and Francophone Cultures, 17). Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2011. xviii + 270 pp., ill.

In this extensively researched and thought-provoking book, Mark McKinney performs a 'critical genealogy' of contemporary French comics' imperialist and colonialist prehistory. He contends that colonialist, imperialist, and racist ideologies played a [End Page 587] key role in many canonical comics dating from the first part of the twentieth century, and that their legacy has persisted in shaping contemporary work in several important ways. First, these older comics have continued to reappear in popular editions. Secondly, especially since the 1980s, contemporary comic-book artists have turned back towards imperialist themes, treating them with varying degrees of critical attention. Although McKinney traces colonial imagery in comics to the medium's beginnings in the 1860s, he focuses on its presence in later, canon-defining series like Alain Saint-Ogan's Zig et Puce and Hergé's Tintin. These artists, along with many who followed them, took particular inspiration from two widely publicized colonial 'events': the 1924 Croisière Noire and the 1931 Paris Exposition. In his close readings of the comics' treatments of these colonial spectacles, McKinney convincingly demonstrates that their racist depictions and imperialist narratives were far from incidental; instead, they were central to the comics' humour and ability to make meaning. And while McKinney focuses on canonical artists, he has also assembled an impressive statistical apparatus that demonstrates that these representations appeared across French comics more widely. He finds similarly uncritical representations of colonialism in contemporary comics produced well after the collapse of the French empire. Indeed, he shows that even modern-day comics like Jacques Ferrandez's Carnets d'Orient (1994) and Joann Sfar's Jerusalem d'Afrique (2006), which are critical of French colonialism and the racism that accompanied it, struggle to escape the imperialist visual inheritance left by artists like Saint-Ogan and Hergé. Only a few recent works — Clément Baloup and Mathieu Jiro's Le Chemin de Tuan (2005) and Frédéric Logez and Pierre-Alban Delannoy's Le Roi noir n'est pas noir (2001) — have managed to stand imperialist ideology on its head. McKinney thus effectively shows that, while attitudes towards colonialism have changed over the past century, its legacy continues to trouble the world of comics. The second part of his project — to outline the ways in which comics participated in and helped shape a broader imperial culture — reads as less developed. McKinney explains what this kind of inquiry might contribute to the study of imperial popular culture: comics were aimed at children, distributed across the French empire, and read by both colonizers and colonized. As a result, they offer an exciting new angle through which to examine the questions about the shape and constitution of French imperialist ideology. But on the whole he leaves open for future scholarly investigation the broader question of what comics specifically contributed to the development of colonial and post-colonial culture in both the French metropole and colonies. Overall, McKinney's careful readings illuminate the complexities that continue to underwrite the relationship between comics and imperial ideology, thus offering useful insights to scholars of colonialism and comics alike.

Christina Carroll
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill