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Wednesday, July 9, 2008

On Comics: Not So Fast, Memin

Posted By on Wed, Jul 9, 2008 at 8:28 AM

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Poor Shawnedria McGinty. Last week, the Houston native was walking through the books at her local Wal-Mart, when a brightly-colored comic caught her eye. The star was a mischievous, Spanish-speaking monkey, who usually ended up in one sticky situation or another; the title of the book was “Memin Pinguin.”

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How cute, Ms. McGinty thought. Like a south of the border “Dennis the Menace.” And then she took a closer look.

“They are calling him names,” McGinty explained to one local media outlet. “They call him an animal in one section. His mom is spanking his butt and it looks like they are drowning him.” So McGinty went out and bought a Spanish-English dictionary, and discovered that a few of the lighter-skinned men in the book were actually calling young Pinguin a “black troublemaker.”

Turns out that “Memin Pinguin” has a bit of a controversial history! The Mexican comic book, which was created in the 1940s by an artist named Alberto Cabrera, first ignited firestorms a few years back, with the release of some “Memin” stamps. Most sane people saw the stamps – and the comic – as thinly-disguised racial caricature. (The Wikipedia entry for “Memin” concludes with, “See also: Blackface.”)

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But fans of the comic – of which there are thousands, especially in Mexico and across Central America – argued that the caricature is meant to a wake-up call: Memin’s harassers, for instance, are often depicted as ignorant.

Media fireworks ensued.

What’s not immediately apparent is how those notoriously uptight kids at Wal-Mart let this one slip through the gates. Even if you give a little leeway for “cultural currency” – another talking point from “Memin” supporters – the book still feels pretty damn dated.

First and last time, I hope, that I’ll ever quote Scott McClellan, but here’s what the former Bush press secretary had to say around the time of the stamp fiasco:

"Racial stereotypes are offensive no matter what their origin... Images like these have no place in today's world."

– Matthew Shaer

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Matt Shaer

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