And Tintin lives on

The BBC called him the greatest journalist of the 20th century. Indeed, it is hard to find a reporter as enterprising as Tintin. But it is Tintin’s creator Hergé who was the real pioneer.
Last Updated 26 February 2023, 01:21 IST
A Tintin mural at a metro station in Brussels, Belgium
A Tintin mural at a metro station in Brussels, Belgium

I wake up every day to Tintin. A giant poster of the French cover of King Ottakar’s Sceptre (Le Sceptre d’Ottokar) occupies a prominent position on the wall opposite my bed and so in the dawn, when my eyes open and its apertures adjust to the world, it is Tintin that I gaze upon. What unbridled joy that image triggers! And I know that a million fans out there pay homage in a billion ways, even if it is not Tintin they see first up in the morning!

A million and billion, did I state? To be precise, a zillion fans and a quadrillion ways! Blistering barnacles in a thundering typhoon (yes, the most obvious cliché!), it’s a lot, wouldn’t you say! Why though? What explains this enduring fandom? Why does this spunky reporter and his motley crew continue to get so much love? To find the answers, we ought to begin at the end. On March 3, 1983, the French daily Libération ran an intriguing headline: Tintin est Mort! (Tintin is dead!)

It was in fact Hergé, the Belgian-born creator who had passed away. And this March will be 40 years since he died. As for Tintin, he is alive and kicking. And as popular as ever. The end is nowhere on the horizon. Or as Hergé might have said so himself (pardon my French), définitivement non (definitely not)!

What explains Tintin’s eternal appeal? A romp through Tintin comics, well, most of them anyway, (see the section on Tintin’s politics), is a guaranteed good time. Fans call them ‘albums’ and some have made the case to call them ‘graphic novels’. Even if older fans have read them many times over, they will, in all likelihood, gaze fondly at the drawings, chuckle again at the jokes, very likely remember when they read it for the first time and connect to it in many different personal ways. It is, as one fan says, meditative and therapeutic. Nostalgia and elements of rediscovery keep the older folks hooked.

But, what about younger fans? Geet, who is 17, began reading the albums when he was five. He still does. He loves its childlike feel and its innocent outlook which remind him of what he himself felt when he first encountered it. Clearly, the ‘albums’ haven’t aged. Their point of appeal may have changed, but that they continue to fascinate is the intriguing thing. Perhaps the answers lie with the creator.

The creator and the cartoon

What sort of person was Hergé and how did he come to create this uniquely appealing character?

Georges Prosper Remi (1907-83) was born in Brussels, Belgium and spent some of his early years in the shadow of World War I when the Germans occupied Brussels. From 1920 to 1925, he went to a Catholic school and was active in the Boy Scout movement. It was in the Scout newspaper, Jamais, and the Scout monthly magazine, Le-Boy Scout Belge, that his first drawings were published. From 1924, he began to sign his drawings as ‘Hergé’. As every fan will tell you, Hergé is the French pronunciation of RG, his initials … reversed!

In 1925, Georges began working at the conservative Catholic newspaper Le XXe Siècle (French for the ‘The Twentieth Century’), though he continued his association with the Scouting magazine where he published his first cartoon series, Totor, in 1926. In 1928, he was put in charge of producing material for Le Vingtième Siècle, (French for ‘The Little Twentieth’) the weekly children’s supplement of Le XXe Siècle. He began illustrating for a strip cartoon produced by a colleague, but wasn’t too happy. His editor suggested that he create a hero of his own, a reporter who would fight for good all over the world.

On 10 January 1929, a comic strip featuring a young man with a round, seemingly ageless face, a hard-to-miss quiff and an all-white dog companion, was featured in the paper. This was Tintin in the Land of the Soviets. In hindsight, one could perhaps opine that this isn’t one of the better works. The plot and sketches both appear crude. But the success it enjoyed set Tintin and Snowy on their path. Congo (Tintin in the Congo, 1931) and America (Tintin in America, 1932) were the reporter’s next destinations. All in all, a total of 24 albums were produced with the last one, Tintin and Alph-Art, remaining unfinished.

Tintin’s politics

Hergé’s first two Tintin volumes do present something of a knotty politics. In Soviets, communism is slammed, rather lamely. Congo, which wasn’t translated into English until 1991 on account of its convoluted colonial positions, is even more problematic. Tintin is patronising, the ‘natives’ are ‘lazy’ in his view and wildlife is to be hunted!

Thereon, things do seem to improve, to some extent, anyway. Tintin in America suitably caricatures big business and how it treats Native Americans. There is a faint air of anti-colonial sentiment in Cigars of the Pharoah. The Blue Lotus calls out the Japanese and how they conducted themselves in China. Prisoners of the Sun seems sympathetic to the indigenous culture of South America and The Castafiore Emerald truly highlights the racism that the Roma face.

As far as political commentary goes, one sequence in Tintin and the Picaros is a particular favourite. When Tintin flies into San Theodoros, a panel shows an urban slum with a poster screaming ‘Viva Tapioca’. Post-adventure, when he flies out, the poster reads ‘Viva Alcazar’ with the slum itself remaining unchanged. Was Hergé muttering, ‘Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’ (the more things change, the more they stay the same) when he drew these? Maybe.

But was it all good? Maybe not.

Take for instance The Red Sea Sharks. It was a screed against slavery, certainly, but the Africans were portrayed as childlike and naïve. And King Ottakar and Emir Ben Kalish Ezab (Land of Black Gold and others) aren’t democrats. They are autocrats, passed off as benevolent, maybe for us to like them. There are other cringe-worthy bits too. Perhaps, the politics in Tintin is a reflection of the time, as is often the case. That would, of course, be a sympathetic way of looking at it.

Women haven’t exactly fared well either. They are mostly absent and some like Bianca Castafiore are given a bad, bad deal. If you think about it, Castafiore is brave and sharp (Picaros and Calculus Affair demonstrate that). But, what is highlighted is not her intelligence as much as the comic elements of her personality.

And the politics of Hergé…

Hergé’s first editor, Norbert Wallez, was a fascist sympathiser. And some of his influence is evident in the first two albums. But more than his initial leanings, what has often come in for scrutiny is what Hergé did (or did not do) during World War II, given that he was arrested for being a ‘collaborator’ with the Nazi regime that occupied Belgium, after the war. Hergé did not actively oppose the regime. He chose to keep his head down. That in itself is not so damning since many other artistes did the same. More damningly, he published his work in a Nazi paper — The Crab with Golden Claws was serialised between October 1940 and October 1941. That seems to have raised many hackles and resulted in reprisals. In any case, he was only charged, never convicted.

In his defence, one could perhaps point to King Ottakar’s Sceptre (1939), which has a villain named Musstler — surely, Mussolini+Hitler, as many have pointed out.

What next for the boy reporter?

Will Tintin continue to be popular? Will a new generation overlook some of its political deficiencies and its poor performance in the gender department? Who knows?

The Steven Spielberg-directed film, The Adventures of Tintin, did extremely well when it was released in 2011. It very likely prompted a whole new generation to discover the series. And if translations are an indicator, Tintin continues to be popular throughout the world as newer and newer languages are being added. The Hindi translation, for instance, came out only in 2010. Also, from time to time, artists share mock Tintin covers on social media — Tintin in Pondicherry, Tintin in Kolkata and the like. Incidentally, Tintin in India or The Mystery of the Blue Diamond is a 1941 Belgian three-act play written by Hergé and Jacques Van Melkebeke. Sadly, the play’s script has been lost.

So now, go back to the time when it all began for you. You opened the pages of an album tentatively — you were intrigued, expectant, curious and excited. You then immersed yourself in Tintin-land. Recollect how you felt. Remember the tingling sensations that ran through you. Don’t you feel it still? Don’t you feel it again every time you open an album? It is magical. Always. That is Tintin in a nutshell. Vive la Tintin!

The passion of the fan

Hari Krishnan, a veteran adman, has a personal den dedicated to the Tintin series full of paintings and figurines from the series. He has painstakingly recreated panels on canvas from the series, spending the past 12 years indulging his fandom. Author, poet and translator, Maithreyi Karnoor pursues her fandom differently. Instead of buying a box set of the series, she is building her set one at a time by looking for used copies in second-hand bookshops, that are in reasonable condition, but have something of the imprint of the previous owner in them. Just to get something of the vibe! For her, it is a reminder of the times she painstakingly collected pages of the albums that were serialised in a popular weekly.

The author is a publishing professional who writes on literature, language, and history. He can be reached on Twitter @karthik_venk

(Published 25 February 2023, 20:20 IST)

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