I don’t normally read comic book cartoons. But this week I read a number after receiving a complaint that ‘The Phantom’, published by the Sunday Nation, is racist. The cartoon “fuels the racist narrative that Africans desperately need a white hero to save them from themselves,” says Dr Wambua Kituku. “It should be scrapped, just as the statues of Rhodes were pulled down.”
Dr Kituku compares the racism depicted in the comic strip to the racism exhibited by Cecil Rhodes, the builder of the British Empire in South Africa and Prime Minister of the Cape Colony (1890-1896). His statue was removed from the University of Cape Town following student protests in April 2015, which inspired global campaigns to remove colonial and racist statues.
“The Phantom” is created by Lee Falk, an American writer best known as the creator of popular comic books. The comic is published weekly in the Sunday Nation’s Lifestyle magazine. Along with two other cartoon cartoons – “Popeye”, by Bud Sagendorf, and “Flash Gordon”, by Jim Keefe – they take up all of page 12. All of these comics are created by outsiders.
Newspapers use comics to tell stories and adventures or analyze current events using both words and pictures. Comic cartoons often use humor and drama and have a great impact on readers, especially young people. For many readers, they are the first thing they look at — or the only thing they read — in the newspaper.
Comic cartoons are a clever way to express an opinion, entertain readers, and keep them up to date with news and information. “The Phantom” is an American adventure comic, first published in February 1936. Today, it is distributed in hundreds of newspapers.
The main character, the Ghost, is a white superhero, god-like crime fighter and vigilante who operates in a fictional African country of Bangalla. He is strong, authoritative, intelligent and wise. Africans, who admire him, are like children and the only thing they have to defend themselves with are bows and arrows.
His power is divine. In one of the comic cartoons, he captures all the wizards in the land. He then summons all the chiefs. Sitting on his “fabulous skull throne”, his trained wolf named Devil at his side, he parades the wizards and says:
“Chiefs, the wizards tried to destroy the hospital and the good work of Dr. Axel. They must be punished! Each of you takes the wizard from his tribe. Judge him and decide his punishment.
I agree with Dr. Kituku that “The Phantom” is racist; but it is subtly so and, therefore, particularly harmful to young readers, who may not be able to see the racism. The comic is therefore likely to be more harmful than other overtly racist ones.
One of these comics is “Tintin” in the Congo (“Tintin in the Congo”, in French), the second volume of “The Adventures of Tintin”, the series of comics by Belgian cartoonist Hergé, commissioned by the Belgian newspaper The twentieth century.
It tells the story of a young Belgian reporter, Tintin, and his dog Snowy, who are sent to the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) to report on events in the country. “Tintin” contains racist colonial attitudes towards the Congolese people.
“The Phantom” is also more harmful for the same reason as Tarzan of the Apes, a novel by American writer Edgar Rice Burroughs in which Tarzan, a British lord, is king of the African jungle, where Africans are portrayed as wild.
Fortunately, there are many versions of “The Phantom”, and not all of them have a racist tone. The Swedish version, for example, is not as colonial as the American versions published by the Sunday Nation. It is not politically correct for the Sunday Nation to continue to publish a version that denigrates Africans. After all, we are Nation.Africa. Our goal is to empower Africa, not bring it down.
The Public Publisher is an independent information ombudsman who handles complaints from readers on editorial matters, including accuracy and journalistic standards.