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Sunday, July 20, 2008 

The resurfacing of the Memin Pinguin controversy

3 years ago, there was a big uproar when Mexico tried to publish postage stamps featuring Memin Pinguin, which in the United States is considered to be a blatantly racist depiction of blacks mainly because of how the title protagonist is drawn. I once wrote about it at least a year ago. Now, this ghastly Mexican comic book has turned up in the news again in the past week after Wal-Mart tried selling it in Houston and met with some angry backlash. The news has also turned up in a few parts of the comics blogosphere as well.

I thought to take up the challenge of writing some more about the subject but waited a little longer because I'd noticed that there may be more than meets the eye to the subject worth noting as well, and wanted to figure out how to best work on everything. First, let's begin by presenting the news as reported by a mainstream news source like CNN:
For more than 60 years Mexicans have followed the adventures of “Memin Pinguin.” But the dark-skinned Memin’s exaggerated features in “Memin for President” came as a shock to Houston, Texas, Wal-Mart shopper Shawnedria McGinty.

“I was like, OK, is that a monkey or a boy?” McGinty said. “To me it was an insult.”

She’d never heard of “Memin Pinguin.” She bought a Spanish-English dictionary and tried translating but still didn’t like what she saw.
Now here's what they didn't seem to mention: From the Dallas Morning News:
HOUSTON - Shawnedria McGinty was not sure what to think when she saw the comic book series Memin Pinguin on shelves at her local Wal-Mart. After flipping through the popular Mexican comic book, one word came to mind – racist.

“OK, is it a monkey or a boy? ... So, I opened the book up,” she said. “This is, you know, rude."


“They are calling him names. They call him an animal in one section. His mom is spanking his butt and it looks like they are drowning him,” said McGinty, who went so far as to buy a Spanish dictionary to better understand the comic books.

She found one passage particularly offensive. In the frame, Memin Pinguin is being kicked by a light-skinned man and called “a black troublemaker.”

Activist Quanell X said the problem with the book is more than just words.

“This is poking fun at the physical features of an entire people. Making them look buffoonish (and) portraying the young (black) kid as stupid,” said Quanell. “Whenever they are beating him, they are referring to him as Negro. Even here when he is being punched, slapped (he is called) Negro.

“This is a disgrace.”
Now this is certainly disturbing, and after reading this article, which provided what a news source like CNN cannot possibly be trusted to provide, I can certainly understand why they feel it's disgraceful. The stereotypical way in which Memin is drawn may be just the tip of the iceberg. The most challenging question here is if the violence described in the article was being played for laughs. If indeed it was, that is very disgusting. Is that what the artists and writers who concocted the books thought would make for ideal slapstick?!? It all sounds really tasteless to me. And what's really sad is that even today, this book is still seen in Mexico as a "cultural icon". The gossip blog of Guanabee has two more panel frames that they've translated that are also very troubling.

I think this is where I'd like to point out some differences between this and some cases of stereotypical drawings done in America. Years ago, I knew little about the original cast of supporting/recurring characters in Will Eisner's Spirit comic strip, so I knew almost nothing about how Ebony White, the young black taxi driver who helped Denny Colt on some of his cases, was drawn stereotypically. But as I also discovered, Eisner wrote later on that he'd realized he'd made a mistake when he was writing the introduction to the Fagin the Jew graphic novel, and said there that, "[as] I continued my career, I never recognized that my rendering of Ebony, when viewed historically, was in conflict with the rage I felt when I saw anti-Semitism in art and literature." (Eisner also spoke about the subject in this 2003 Time interview.) So while it's certainly a shame that one of comicdom's greatest masters resorted to a dreadfully stereotypical rendition of a black protagonist, it's good to see that he realized later on the mistake he'd made, and in later depictions of the Spirit in comic books, when Ebony White appeared (one certain example is the recent Darwyn Cooke miniseries), he was drawn more respectably. That's the impressive thing about many Americans, that they do their best to learn from their mistakes and try to find how they can correct them.

By contrast, it's uncertain if that's the case in Mexico, where Memin Pinguin is still being viewed as an iconic figure, which is ludicrous. Certainly there are some people of Mexican/Latin American background who've said that they realize why Memin Pinguin is offensive to blacks, but it still looks like a large majority are continuing to uphold the design.

America's masters in artistry who made these kind of mistakes usually learned from the errors they made in past years. Can Mexico not do the same?

Update: thanks to Dr. Sanity for linking.

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About me

  • I'm Avi Green
  • From Jerusalem, Israel
  • I was born in Pennsylvania in 1974, and moved to Israel in 1983. I also enjoyed reading a lot of comics when I was young, the first being Fantastic Four. I maintain a strong belief in the public's right to knowledge and accuracy in facts. I like to think of myself as a conservative-style version of Clark Kent. I don't expect to be perfect at the job, but I do my best.
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