I can’t remember when I first discovered Tintin, which can only mean one of two things: either I am getting old, or it was a very long time ago. Probably both. What I do know is that I read Hergé’s Tintin comics enough times as a kid to easily remember many of the stories cover-to-cover. Or at least, I remember vividly the parts that stood out to me then: the exciting chases, the slapstick comedy, Captain Haddock’s endless vocabulary of nonsensical swears. In this series of articles, I go back to some of these beloved comics of my youth and examine what stands out to me now, specifically in relation to their unabashed exoticism, in an attempt to come to grips with some of the more problematic aspects of the books I grew up on.
So, how to talk about Hergé and his work? When it came to Scrooge McDuck in my previous article, I had a clear direction I wanted to go in. Not so here. And the more I read, the more paths seem to open up. It is safe to say then that whatever ends up on the page, there is a lot more that will remain unsaid and if your curiosity is peaked, I highly recommend looking into the works I have listed below which have been a rich source of inspiration.
It is tempting to cover the earliest comics of Tintin, as these are without a doubt the most egregious in their portrayal of the lands and peoples that Hergé’s young reporter visits. The first volume, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets is a propagandistic takedown of communism. The second, and certainly the most infamous, Tintin in the Congo, is a deeply racist piece of colonial propaganda. And Tintin in America, the third comic in the series, is an attack on American consumer society as well as a paternalistic defense of native americans.
Each of these comics were written to fuel a belgian catholic magazine by the name of Le Petit Vingtième. The magazine was helmed by a priest named Norbert Wallez, a larger than life figure and eager polemicist, prone to both outbursts of laughter and rage, and eventually attracted to Mussolini’s brand of fascism. Wallez had taken a liking to Hergé and believed the illustrator would be able to spread his catholic talking points to a young audience via his comics. And he was right: “In fact his talent was an anesthetic,” Pierre Assouline writes, “[i]t disarmed all challenges to the established order” (29). These early stories that were conceived under Wallez’ direction, however, are not the most interesting, as their exoticism is obvious and in all senses painfully so. Even Hergé himself would later reflect on them critically: “In reality my early works are books by a young Belgian filled with the prejudices and ideas of a Catholic, they are books that could have been written by any Belgian in my situation. They are not very intelligent, I know, and do me no honor: they are ‘Belgian’ books” (Assouline 23). He showed some awareness then, though he deflected blame to the state of Belgium at large. In any case, these comics do not reflect well on Hergé, nor Tintin, but neither do they represent what Tintin would soon after become.
The fourth volume, The Cigars of the Pharaoh, reads like the first step in an awkward transition. From its simplistic presentation of foreign nations and cultures to its foregrounding of gags over plot, it falls in line with what came before, but some semblance of scope and ambition begins to emerge. Hergé liberally uses the aesthetics of ancient Egypt, Arabia, and India, but discards them just as quickly.
Its sequel, The Blue Lotus, is the true turning point for Tintin. According to Michael Farr, the story marks the end to the ad hoc week-by-week improvisation of narrative that marked the first four stories and was instead carefully devised, researched, and structured by Hergé (51). During this research Hergé became good friends with Zhang Chongren, a young Chinese artist studying in Brussels, which led to a more considered and sympathetic portrayal of China than the countries his reporter had visited before. The comic bases itself on the Japanese imperial occupation of Manchuria in 1931, mirroring the inciting incident of the attack on the South Manchuria Railway–a false flag operation that lightly damaged no more than 1.5 meters of railway track, but would serve as a pretext for imperial Japan to launch an invasion. It is a firmly anti-imperialist tale, portraying the Japanese as villainous and, well, it shows. Whereas the Chinese population is depicted as moral, humble, and kind, visually best represented by Chang, the Japanese characters are drawn with a great deal of racial stereotyping: take the main villain Mitsuhirato, who is depicted with long teeth and a pig’s nose. Sadly, this is the sort of depiction that would come to be a common way of drawing Asian characters in European comics throughout much of the 20th century.
If Hergé’s views on Japanese imperialism were dim, how did he reflect on western imperialism in China? In what is quite a turn from the colonial propaganda of Tintin in the Congo, he pictures the British imperial occupation in a negative light, showing the imperial white men to be violent, plotting, and all too keen to be in league with the Japanese forces. They are definitely the secondary villains of The Blue Lotus, but villains nonetheless. But where does that leave Tintin, now that he is no longer an out-and-proud colonialist?
1. Tintin – The White Saviour
As we have seen, Tintin is not unsympathetic towards foreign cultures, nor oblivious to the facts of western imperialism. However, this presents a problem for a series so centered around its boy-scout protagonist, who must now be dissociated from the colonial powers. One strategy to cope with this can be seen throughout the comics to come: Tintin will almost always stand up for the innocent locals. Both The Blue Lotus (1936) and Prisoners of the Sun (1949) feature scenes in which western men threaten native people with violence and they play out in nearly identical fashion: right as these men are about to physically abuse their victims, Tintin rushes onto the scene and scares them off. As such, Tintin is seen to side with the local population, rather than the imperialist force and he can assume a more ‘local’ role himself, one which leads him to assume local dress at various points in both these stories.
Besides violent western imperialists, The Blue Lotus also introduces Thomson and Thompson: identical Belgian detectives, who blunder their way through slapstick comedy, all the while bartering in stereotypes. They serve as the ignorant but well-meaning white men against which Tintin can set himself off to appear more in tune with the Chinese people. When Tintin meets Chang–by saving him from the roiling waters of a river, naturally–the two have a conversation in which they discuss ignorant western stereotypes. A few pages later, the Thompsons go undercover in search of Tintin, disguising themselves in the exact way that Tintin and Chang mocked earlier. In the later Tintin stories–as in Prisoners of the Sun for instance–Captain Haddock similarly serves as the ignorant white man that makes a comedic arse of himself, to play off against Tintin’s superior sensitivity and sympathy for the local population.
Western ignorance does with fair regularity become the butt of the joke, something quite rare for the time (and sadly, many of the stereotypes that Hergé mocked in The Blue Lotus, would proliferate in Belgian comics long after its release). Simultaneously, however, the reader is reassured that Tintin is most definitely not a part of the problem.
2. How Tintin is part of the problem
Tintin is a tourist. Almost every volume he travels to a different destination, preferably something exotic to the western taste. He sees the local sights, dips his toes into local culture, and appropriates their dress for a while. Then, when the adventure is over and the plot resolved, he leaves for home only to do it all over again in some other exotic place in the next adventure. It is no surprise then that comic panels of boats coming into port and planes touching down in foreign places occur regularly. But really, Tintin is not only a tourist, he is the reader’s gateway into tourism from the comfort of their own couch (chair, bed, toilet, wherever you happen to enjoy doing your reading). If we read Malcolm Crick’s understanding of tourism, we can begin to see how Tintin the comic serves a similar purpose to tourism:
So, it is the task of the industry image-makers to create a place which is exotic but not alien, exciting yet not frightening, different but where they speak your language, so that fun and relaxation, untroubled by the concerns of the real world, are possible. Such a space, of course, requires sweeping most of social reality under the carpet.Crick qtd. in Huggan 178
Tintin adventures are full of excitement, but they shy away from the truly frightening. Afterall, at the end of the day we can be assured that the main characters will be fine once the adventure is over and the status quo restored. Their encounter with the other will never affect them in any profound way. The adventures are well researched enough to convey a sense of authenticity, whilst playing into many of the intrigues and stereotypes that are sure to excite the tourist. And the European reader at least need never worry that things are not catered to their sensibilities. They are domestic comics, by the hand of people who have based their depictions of the foreign on photographs, drawings, and descriptions, and infused those with their own western (Belgian as the case may be) understanding of the world. As Graham Huggan says of exoticism, “the objects of its gaze are not supposed to look back” (14).
As we have seen though, sometimes Tintin disrupts this. The Blue Lotus is keen to talk about certain social and political realities and forces the reader to engage with them. It mocks the Thompsons for their tacky stereotyping disguises, the way you might mock a tourist who steps into the first tacky tourist trap they come across. But part of the myth of tourism plays into the fantasy that we know better than those tourists, and can transcend our tourist status to gain access to a more authentic experience of the places we visit. “Tourism shares with exoticism the impossible search for ‘uncontaminated’ experience” (180) Huggan writes. But like anything that is exotic, anything that is touristic is already contaminated from the start. And so, when Haddock tastes a chili pepper in a Nepalese market, ignorant of what it is, and his mouth bursts aflame, we are invited to laugh at him with Tintin who can explain his mistake. With Tintin, it might feel like buying into an uncontaminated experience (though that will largely depend on your own background)–it felt like that for me as a kid–but only if you forget the perspective from which it is conceived in the first place, i.e. if you forget that the tourist gaze all too often directs itself toward an exotic mirror.
3. Finding yourself in Tibet
If we are to see and read Tintin as a form of couch-tourism, then Tintin in Tibet is the gap-year of the comic series. It symbolizes Hergé’s internal struggles with an escape to the mountainous, snow-covered regions of Tibet. Where better for a European man to go in search of himself? The story’s premise steers away from the by now well-established formula. It is not a tale of political intrigue, international crime, or treasure; Tintin does not dish out justice or right wrongs, he is simply in search of a friend. That friend is Chang, from The Blue Lotus, who went missing after a plane crash deep in the mountains and is presumed dead. That is, by all but Tintin, who has a premonition in the form of a dream that Chang has in fact survived. It is on this tenuous dip into a collective unconscious–Hergé subscribed to many of Jung’s psychoanalytic theories (Assouline 190), that his entire search rests. It is a personal journey undertaken by Tintin and Haddock, without any of the other regulars, which makes sense: Tintin was a reflection of Hergé’s optimistic youth, his years as a boy scout, and Haddock, Assouline writes, “in his despair he resembles Hergé himself when he was discouraged ” (74). The two of them battle constantly, as Haddock threatens to quit their hopeless search time and again, but at the precipice of their break-up the old sailor concedes to the young boy and follows again in his trail. The boy scout Tintin became Hergé’s mantra as much as Haddock’s anchor, as he would often tell himself: “when in trouble a scout smiles and whistles” (191).
On their journey they eventually surmise that Chang has been taken by the Yeti and the sherpas that have guided them up into the mountains flee in fear of the monster. But the loyal Tintin perseveres, and eventually tracks down Chang, coming face-to-face with the abominable snowman. Perhaps I should say, the not-so-abominable snowman, or even the really-quite-sympathetic snowman, as it turns out. Better yet, in Hergé’s own words, and his third act of self-identification: “the lovable abominable snowman?” (192). The yeti was the man he had come to terms with in the process of writing Tintin in Tibet.
Hergé domesticates the exotic setting of Tibet, by turning it into the battleground of his own selfhood. In all his facets he comes to clash within the snowwhite region of a country he has never set foot in. First through the dual images of the western explorer/tourist: Haddock the cynical mass-tourist and Tintin the ever optimistic traveler-tourist, the one who negotiates himself through his landscape as a local, the one who inspires Haddock the push on when he threatens to resign himself to failure. Later, In a final act of domestication, Hergé finds himself within the exotic as a kind, misunderstood creature. And ultimately, a lonely one. The story is never unsympathetic to the others it portrays, people Hergé had often only read of, but their voices can never speak back.
And yet, on the final panel of the comic we suddenly switch to the yeti’s perspective, and with him the European reader looks back at themselves from a different point of view, if only for a brief moment.
It is this that makes Tintin more complex to grapple with than Scrooge was. Without doubt the boy scout is a colonialist, a paternalist, and a western tourist, but the series’ messages of understanding, respect, and empathy for the other occasionally break through. Often the openings close up just as quickly as they come into view, but they are openings nonetheless. It is no coincidence, then, that Herge wanted to give co-credit to Zhang for his collaboration on The Blue Lotus, the only time he ever extended an offer to share the spotlight, despite the fact that he would work on his comics with a studio that consisted of many talented artists. As much as his work is difficult to grapple with, so is the man behind it, and I was pleasantly surprised to find those layers in coming back to this series. Still, if there is one question I take away from Tintin’s exoticism, it is this: how can we write about the other without making it about ourselves?
Written by Reinier Van Der Plas
Assouline, Pierre. Herge: The Man Who Created Tintin. Translated by Charles Ruas, Oxford University Press, 2009.
Farr, Michael. Tintin: The Complete Companion. John Murray, 2001.
Goddeeris, Idesbald. “Tintin’s fight with Racism against the Chinese.”Race and Racism in Modern East Asia: Western and Eastern Constructions, edited by Rotem Kowner and Walter Demel, Brill, 2013, pp. 232-234.
Hergé. The Adventures of Tintin: The Blue Lotus. Magnet, 1975.
—.The Adventures of Tintin: Prisoners of the Sun. Little Brown and Company, 1975.
—.The Adventures of Tintin: Tintin in Tibet. Magnet, 1976.
Huggan, Graham. The Postcolonial Exotic: Marketing the Margins, Routledge, 2001.