Beyond The ‘Blistering Barnacles’: Tintin and Controversy

Georges Remi, better known as Hergé, is a pioneering figure in the history of graphic novels and comic strips. Herge’s volumes of Tintin have earned readership from all parts of the globe and is the only comic strip which has been translated into more than twenty languages. To this day, Tintin, the robust reporter of Le Petit Vingtieme enjoys a worldwide fan following. We cannot help but admire the boy reporter’s adventures around the globe with his four-legged companion, Snowy. Originally written in French, Tintin was loosely based on Herge’s earlier fictional character Totor, a chubby boy scout. Though bearing no similarity in appearance, Tintin and Totor have a number of traits in common. Herge’s ligne claire or clear line style and his simplistic yet structured way of framing narratives are unparalleled. Herge’s works were published serially in Le Vingtieme Siècle, a staunchly Roman Catholic and conservative Roman Catholic newspaper based in Herge’s hometown Brussels.

 

 

 

Hergé working on Tintin comics. 
Hergé working on Tintin comics.

Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, the first volume of The Adventures of Tintin was published serially from 1929 to 1930 in Le Vingtieme Siècle’s children’s edition, Le Petit Vingtieme. The style of drawing is markedly different from the other volumes with an element of crudeness in it. It goes without saying that Tintin’s experience in Soviet Russia goaded European readers to unleash their hatred for the Russians in general. In this volume, Soviet Russia is portrayed as a regressive land, dominated by power hungry Bolsheviks who are creating an atmosphere of terror and fear to keep Communism intact in the country. The corrupt Soviet leaders appearing in the volume swear by Lenin and Trotsky, making repeated attempts at eliminating the ‘bourgeois’ reporter Tintin. Herge’s Soviet Union is dominated by brute Cossacks and OGPU personnel. In the final section of the volume, Tintin discovers a secret hideout where ‘Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky have collected together, wealth from the people’. The historical validity of the Soviet political scenario typified in the volume is a subject of contention. The question is, a story which is seemingly innocuous in its content and was expected to be read by children is suffused with political implications. Snowy’s disparaging remarks on the dismal state of life in the Soviet Union embodies the early 20th-century European outlook towards Russia, the cradle of Communism.

 

 

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Extracts from Tintin in The Land of The Soviets
Extracts from Tintin in The Land of The Soviets

Herge’s second volume, Tintin in The Congo has racism embedded in it. This volume is perhaps the most controversial work in Herge’s oeuvre and has been considered offensive and inappropriate. Campaigns have been launched to ban the work and restrict its availability in Europe and Africa. Set in Congo, the story gives an account of Tintin’s adventures in ‘the dark continent’. Native Africans are projected as an uncivilized lot, trying to imitate Western culture and lifestyle. In course of the story, we find Tintin arriving at a station where thick-lipped Africans, ridiculously dressed in Western clothes are waiting for the train. As a White European, Tintin plays the role of a torch-bearer, who brings the principles of Western civilization in the tribal villages of Africa. When Coco, the native boy appears for the first time, Snowy doubts his intelligence by remarking ‘he doesn’t look very bright’. Later on, Tintin is carried by the Africans in a mounted bamboo chair to meet their king. The Father is a typical Catholic missionary who has taken up the task of educating these rusty Africans, as a ‘white man’s burden’. It becomes more evident when Tintin teaches the geography of Belgium to his young students at the Father’s school. To highlight the backwardness of Africans, Hergé introduces an episode where Snowy is crowned and worshipped by the pygmies. At the close of the book, idols of Tintin and Snowy are worshipped and one villager praises him by saying ‘In Europe, all young white men is like Tintin’. The book has also been reprimanded for legitimizing violence towards animals.

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Extracts from Tintin in The Congo
Extracts from Tintin in The Congo

The representation of the Japanese and Chinese people in The Blue Lotus is also problematic. On the one hand, Tintin empathizes with the Chinese, saves a rickshaw puller from getting harassed by a white man and shares emotional ties with a Chinese family and on the other hand he is indifferent to the Japanese. The distinction between the portrayals of the two races doesn’t call for a close reading. Mr. Mitsuhirato, an out and out negative character is Japanese and he is so caricatured that he seems out of place in the narrative. The racist depiction of the Japanese can be linked to the anti-Japanese war propaganda of the time.

Mr. Mitsuhirato in The Blue Lotus
Mr. Mitsuhirato in The Blue Lotus

                                            

The first edition of The Shooting Star had a typical Jewish villain, a business tycoon named Blumenstein. One particular panel was extremely demeaning as it depicted two Jews welcoming the end of the world because they wouldn’t have to pay off the creditors. The publication sparked off protests and Hergé had to exclude that panel and rename Blumenstein as Bohlwinkel from the fictional country of Sao Rico.

Mr. Bohlwinkel in The Shooting Star 
Mr. Bohlwinkel in The Shooting Star

Herge’s sympathetic feelings towards absolutism and conservatism are evident in King Ottokar’s Sceptre. In King Ottokar’s Sceptre, Tintin foils a conspiracy aimed at ousting King Ottokar and protects his right to the throne. By siding with Ottokar, who is an absolutist monarch, Tintin appropriates absolutism. In Tintin and The Picaros, Tintin and Captain Haddock put an end to the autocratic rule of General Tapioca, only to replace him with another autocrat, General Alcazar.

The portrayal of Indians in Tintin in Tibet and The Cigars of The Pharaoh is riddled with stereotypes. Hergé simply couldn’t visualize Indians without turbans and ludicrous beards. In The Cigars of the Pharaoh, most of the Indians, apart from the Maharaja of Gaipajama and the people in his kingdom, render services to their British masters. In keeping with this racial outlook, Hergé has exoticized and mystified India by showcasing it as a backward place dominated by fakirs, religious fanatics and turbaned men (women are almost non-existent) with below average intelligence. Tintin in Tibet, though less problematic, is not free from stereotyping. The Arabs, who are the worst victims of stereotyping in popular culture, appear as people blessed with cruelty and brutality in The Crab with The Golden Claws and The Land of Black Gold.

An extract from The Cigars of The Pharaoh 
An extract from The Cigars of The Pharaoh

Then comes the most important question- where are the women in Herge’s Tintin? The only character appearing consistently throughout the series is Bianca Castafiore, who is utterly indecisive, theatrical and wanting in wit. Others play ornamental roles, contributing little or nothing to the central plot. In an interview, Hergé said “for me, women have nothing to do in a world like Tintin’s, which is the realm of male friendship”.

Haddock’s ingenious vocabulary of cuss words is replete with racism in some cases. The particularly problematic ones include ‘bashi-bazook’ (a reference to the irregular soldiers of the Ottoman army), ‘Balkan beetle’, ‘Fancy dress Fatima ’, ‘Patagonians’ and a few others.  The seemingly sensational world of Tintin is therefore punctuated by racial stereotyping, political conservatism and male-chauvinism.

 

 

 

 

 

Written by: Samyabrata Das

 

 

 

 

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