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By Toutatis, it’s a girl

Bishakha De Sarkar | Updated on November 01, 2019 Published on October 31, 2019

New girl Writer Jean-Yves Ferri and illustrator Didier Conrad of the new Asterix comic Asterix and the Chieftain’s Daughter , pose with a figurine of their new female lead Adrenaline reuters/ pascal rossignol   -  Reuters

With the introduction of Adrenaline, a new female character in the Asterix series, a look back at the short shrift women have received in beloved classics from Tintin to Feluda

There she was, looking deceptively benign in her pale pink sari and lavender blouse, standing in front of the Durga idol. But it was Irma all right, and — as always — in the background. Tintin played the main role: He was serving folks food from a pail, a practice still followed in Bengal and elsewhere on festive occasions. A grumpy-looking Captain Haddock was seated at the table, as was a somewhat befuddled Calculus. Nestor, the butler, was helping Tintin. Bianca Castafiore, draped in a sari, sat at another table.

The characters — all part of a recent puja greeting shared on social media — gave lovers of Hergé’s comic series some moments of joy. What made my day, however, was Irma. In The Castafiore Emerald, she played a minor role — but was quite the Ma Kali in the end. Milanese opera singer Castafiore was visiting Marlinspike Hall, Captain Haddock’s sprawling mansion. She lost an emerald, a gift from the Maharaja of Gopal, and the police duo Thompson (with a p, as in psoriasis) and Thomson accused her maid, Irma, of the theft.

In the next panels, we read loud and violent sounds in the speech bubbles. And then we saw another avatar of Irma — who had till then been a meek and occasionally snivelling character. She was shown descending on the two cops with a stick, as they took refuge behind curtains and a chair. “Beasts! Beasts! Beasts,” she repeated, as she gave them one good whack.

It sometimes makes me wonder how some of us who grew up on Tintin and Asterix comics, actually ended up rooting for women’s causes. For what we learnt from these two Belgian series was that men — accompanied by their (male) dogs — went on glorious adventures while the women stayed home. In The Adventures of Tintin books, Castafiore was the only woman with a somewhat meaty role, for when she sang, glass broke and brave men quailed (and, in one scene, hens ran helter-skelter). The others were innocuous landladies or bullying harridans. In our other much-loved series — the Asterix comics by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo — the women were mostly in decorative roles. Asterix and Obelix had all the fun.

But now — 60 years after Asterix was first published in the French magazine Pilote and 37 books— the publishers have, finally, tipped their hat to women. Released on October 24, Asterix and the Chieftain’s Daughter, written by Jean-Yves Ferri and illustrated by Didier Conrad, had a female lead called Adrenaline — a teenager with headphones.

“We didn’t want to develop a character who would be based on her seductive side, as we usually do with female characters in Asterix. Most of the time they are young attractive women who seduce Obelix, and their role stops there,” Conrad told the media.

What is it about male writers of children’s books and comics and their inability to portray female characters? Another of my childhood staples was the literature of Satyajit Ray. The man who immortalised women in films such as Charulata and Mahanagar was curiously shy when it came to female characters in his children’s books. There are no women in the lives of Feluda and Professor Shonku — no mother, no aunt, no partner, no neighbour. The detective Feluda solves crimes together with his male cousin and adventure writer Lalmohan Ganguly. The victims are all men, the villains are all men, and the side characters are all men.

In the Professor Shonku books, everybody is male again: Shonku is single, his man Friday Prahlad is single, and his cat Newton is, to the best of our knowledge, a tom. All the scientists Shonku meets from across the world are male; even his invention Robu, the robot (who absent-mindedly sings Bengali patriotic songs), is male. The three mainstays of my childhood favourites were all-male, but, thankfully, there were some pleasant female comic characters that we grew up on, too. We had our Little Dot (she loved polka dots), Little Lotta (yup, plump, and liked her food), Little Wendy (the good little witch) and Little Lulu (who, as the flower girl at a wedding, chucked banana peels instead of flowers on the aisle).

Girls in the room: Amid the all-male cartoons and comics, shows such as Little Lulu were among the few to feature female protagonists

 

Then, of course, there were several female characters in Archie’s life and comics. The three main characters in Josie and the Pussycats were women. But Pepper, the sharp-witted, bespectacled character who was in the original trio of the Pussycats, was somewhere down the line replaced with Valerie — black, beautiful and brainy. But I missed Pepper. It may have been the thick-rimmed glasses.

Perhaps it’s time to bring her back — along with Valerie, of course (no reason why the trio can’t be a quartet). After all, Ray, too, sought to make amends towards the end — translator Indrani Majumdar tells BLink that Shonku’s scientist friend Saunder’s wife, Dorothy, had a small role to play in the last of the books.

Meanwhile, what about Tintin, described in the early comics as a Boy Reporter? French philosopher Vincent Cespedes kicked up a storm two years ago when he said Tintin was a girl — but clarified that he had posted his views as “fake news”. He later said his essay was “an open door, to rethink Tintin with another point of view”. Tintin, Cespedes argued, was not a real person but a part of literature.

Boy reporter: In 2017, French philosopher Vincent Cespedes kicked up a storm when he said Tintin was a girl

 

“If every child in this generation reads Tintin thinking it is a girl, in one generation Tintin becomes a girl,” he told The Guardian. “It is literary, it relies on interpretation.”

Meet Tintin, the Girl Reporter

Published on October 31, 2019
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