The Adventures of Tintin, Vol. 1: Tintin in America / Cigars of the Pharaoh / The Blue Lotus by Hergé
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
There is something about Tintin, isn’t there? I had never read it before, but a survey course on the history of comics this semester forced my to it. Here are two very intelligent writers in conversation, each of whom has written a book that joins Tintin to modernism (and neither of which I have read):
[Frederic Tuten:] You have given a portion of your life in writing, Tintin and the Secret of Literature, about Hergé’s Tintin albums. I love your sweep from Joyce to Hergé.
[Tom McCarthy:] Hergé has always fascinated and enchanted me. And you too, Frederic. I loved your Tintin in the New World—although that’s more of a tribute to Thomas Mann than to Hergé, isn’t it? I learned as much about writing from Hergé as from any “proper” writer. Stuff about narrative: doubling, interrupting, mirroring, misleading, and so on. Thematically, Hergé’s themes are very classical: ancestral houses; the host/guest relationship gone wrong; secrets passing down generations; and, of course, crypts, in all senses of the word. Then there’s the relation to technology, and to the shifting political tectonics of the twentieth century—and Hergé’s own tortured navigation of these (which curiously mirrors that of Paul de Man, his erstwhile colleague on Le Soir). Plus, of course, it’s just really, really good, and funny.
I too enjoy the curious historical detail about Hergé and Paul de Man appearing together on the pages of the collaborationist Le Soir, and there is definitely something of high modernism’s double-edged politics, at once reactionary and anti-capitalist, about the three Tintin albums collected in this book. Hergé’s right-wing anti-capitalism allows him to criticize American imperialism abroad and at home, even as it valorizes traditional Europe as an enlightened and civilizing force. Likewise, Hergé’s politics give a sometimes painful complexity to his portrayal of other cultures, at least in these albums’ depictions of Native American country, Egypt, India, China: while he grants them a certain measure of respect as genuinely different articulations of the human spirit (a respect that comes out most compellingly in the detailed drawing), he also implies a certain anthropological authority derived from the idea of a civilizing mission. Tintin is master of all he surveys, and so is Hergé behind him.
On the other hand, Tintin is hapless and passive, called “Don Quixote” by one of his enemies, always getting captured, trapped, and almost killed. The narrative structure of these stories is picaresque, the adventures of an almost Candide-like wanderer from one violent situation to the other. This creates the books’ odd sensibility, their sense of a youthful optimism observed nostalgically, from the outside, complete with the world’s cutest talking (or is he just thinking?) dog.
Hergé’s exquisite drawing and the subtle color palette convey more than the writing could Tintin‘s air of wistful and melancholy wish-fulfillment, the weightless and airy reverie of a cultivated civilization half in ruins. The artistic method employed by Hergé, called ligne claire, violates one of the central tenets of American comic-book art, taught to me in childhood by my father, which is to vary the weight of the inked line according to the position of the depicted object in space. But Hergé inks everything with the same thin line and this—along with his avoidance of shadows and other means of rendering depth two-dimensionally—flattens foreground and background into a comic-book deep focus that gives these stories their ineffable and dream-like buoyancy. I would argue that this style’s blatant artifice, its refusal of pretended depth and verisimilitude, works against Tintin‘s ostensible imperialism; imperialism, as I learned from Edward Said, constructs colonized space as background to the three-dimension depth of the foregrounded European subject. Insofar as Hergé refuses this, both as narrative structure (Tintin is a character with no psychological complexity) and as artistic style (Hergé’s consistent line brings every object up against the surface of the picture plane), his books undermine their own ostensible authority. (Of course, a more cynical critic than myself would say, and perhaps rightly, that this is all a pretended innocence, in keeping with Tintin’s own, the better for the European subject to dominate without seeming to dominate.)
In short, I find Tintin more fascinating than I thought I would. Hergé’s art is sufficiently enchanting that I want to go on looking at it; his writing is pleasantly vigorous and witty, though I find the tangled cops-and-robbers/agents-and-double-agents plots quasi-unreadable and will confess to skimming some of that material. If nothing else, I would like to read more Tintin to appreciate what Tuten and McCarthy make of it.
The “civilizing mission” was even more glaring in the book they ostensibly didn’t include in the collection (since it came before the three albums reviewed here): “Tintin in the Congo”. (Note: it’s been years since I last had a look at Tintin; I know I still have all the albums — except for the early “Land of the Soviets” one and his unfinished “Alph-Art” project — but they’re in a box, somewhere. I’m not familiar with the English names, so I’m relying on Wikipedia for them.)
From your text, am I correct in believing that this is your first exposure to Tintin? On the subject of imperialism, Hergé improved as he aged, but there always tended to be with him a certain attraction to foreign cultures, very much seen through a Eurocentric prism. It’s not unlike Jules Verne, except that the earlier writer oscillated between works where he strove for scientific accuracy and more fantastical offerings like “Journey to the Center of the Earth”, whereas Hergé never went as far in either direction (except maybe for a small part of “Flight 714” in the direction of fantasy). Still, there are interesting parallels, especially in “The Shooting Star”, “The Secret of the Unicorn”/”Red Rackham’s Treasure”, and “Destination Moon”/”Explorers of the Moon”. For “The Seven Crystal Balls”/”Prisoners of the Sun”, where Tintin comes across a secluded Inca community in a remote corner of the Andes (spoilers: that’s the arc in which he’s condemned to be burned at the stake at a moment of his choosing, which he makes coincide with a solar eclipse to convince his executioners of his god-like powers), I wonder if the main influence might not have been the likes of H. Rider Haggard. (It’s just one example of the anthropological angle you mention: in “The Broken Ear”, there are Amazonian tribes predictably very fond of curare; in “The Red Sea Sharks”, there are African slaves who are overly passive about their predicament, and so on. And “Tintin in America”, as it happens, is currently at the centre of a controversy in Winnipeg, where it was pulled from a public library after a complaint regarding its racist content.
I suspect that if Hergé endures, it’s probably because of his acute geopolitical sense, especially on display in “The Blue Lotus”, “King Ottokar’s Sceptre” (a Ruritanian kingdom threatened by Fascism) and “The Calculus Affair” (the same setting as King Ottokar but updated for the Cold War; also the setting used for the two moon albums). Like Jules Verne, Hergé appears to have become increasingly pessimistic (especially in this “relation to technology”), so his later works are either lifeless (I can’t say much about “The Castafiore Emerald”, though it’s occasionally cited as one of his best works), or much darker in tone (“Tintin in Tibet”, written when he was coping with depression).
And then there’s “Tintin and the Picaros”, his last completed book. Very bitter. Probably his masterpiece, though I’m probably alone in thinking that. The setting perhaps plays a large part in this, but that book makes me think, at its best, of “Nostromo”. Hergé began by updating his characters to the seventies, bell-bottom pants and all, with a few more changes: Tintin has lost all taste for adventure, and Captain Haddock can no longer tolerate alcohol since Professor Calculus surreptitiously tested a new drug on him. Anyway, skipping a few details, they find themselves in South America, in a fictional country where two generals, Alcazar (an old friend of Tintin’s since “The Broken Ear”) and Tapioca, are forever alternating in power by means of coup d’état. This time, Tapioca is in power, Alcazar has taken to the jungle, where his guerrilla is kept in a perpetual state of inebriation by the Tapioca regime thanks to regular parachute drops of crates of whisky. Thanks to the Professor’s drug, they are cured of their habit and successfully oust Tapioca. It’s the last frame of the book, however, that lifts it into art. Since someone posted a picture, I’ll just link to it here: http://www.rinconcete.com/images/tintin_picaros_vivas.jpg The image on the left is as Tintin and the others arrive in the country; the one on the right is at the end, when they leave.
And now I want to go back and reread them all.
P.S.: The Spielberg Tintin adaptation a few years ago is a good example of what Alan Moore was saying about film, which you quoted on your Tumblr. (It’s probably the worst of all the Tintin-related films, and that includes the old live-action films with original stories like “Tintin and the Blue Oranges”.)
Hi Vett, thanks for that context! You make many of these works sound very appealing; the Nostromo comparison alone….
Interesting that “Tintin in America” is at the center of a controversy: I assume it’s for the Native American content? (Surely nobody cares about the stagey Italian mobsters with their “I will-a keel-a you” accents!) I was actually surprised at how relatively sympathetic it was, the critique of U.S. capitalism for oppressing the Native Americans coming through much more strongly than any authorial animus against them, however Romantically stereotypical their portrayal may be. And “The Blue Lotus,” with its swaggering American racists and their alliance with Japanese to, well, do something bad (I have no head for these spy-novel details) to China…as you say, an acute analysis, and, if not compatible with the left as such, at least somewhat anti-imperialist in a paleoconservative style. Are these books are only controversial on the grounds that they may be given to children? When compared with the adult literature of the time (Pound, Camus, etc.), they are not the most ideologically noxious (granted I have not read “Tintin in the Congo”). I have no intention of seeing the film, to be honest.
Regarding the Canadian controversy on “Tintin in America”: At first it was a bookstore in that town which pulled the book from its shelves. (From what I know, it wasn’t a chain-wide decision, but that chain used to be notorious maybe 15 years ago for pulling, nation-wide, Mein Kampf from its inventory because the CEO apparently found out there were very racist things being said in it…) Since that was reported in the news, the Winnipeg library system checked and found out the book was still on its shelves even though it was supposed to have been removed in 2006 for ostensibly the same reason. (The whole affair is detailed here: http://www.cbc.ca/news/aboriginal/tintin-in-america-pulled-by-winnipeg-public-library-pending-review-1.3000451 ) Considering that it came on the heels of a series of articles in “Maclean’s”, English Canada’s only mainstream news magazine (more assiduous than “Time”, but stodgier), with headlines such as “Canada’s race problem? It’s even worse than America’s”, “Welcome to Winnipeg: Where Canada’s racism problem is at its worst”, and “Winnipeg leaders vow to face racism head-on” — well, I can only guess why that was inevitable; the pendulum might not swing often, but when it does, it swings hard. And I think you’re right, it’s probably because children can read them. Still, some of Verne’s work has aged just as badly, and nobody seems to complain.
As for General Alcazar, I find him one of the most complex recurring characters in the series, in that he is Tintin’s friend, yes, but on a purely utilitarian basis, the perfect foil to his idealism. In “The Broken Ear”, where the character is introduced, he is in power in the republic of San Theodoros, and about to start a war copied almost directly from that of the Gran Chaco between Paraguay and Bolivia, complete with industrialists selling arms to both sides and oil companies funding the hostilities. (The irony, in the end, is that there was no oil at all in the territory at stake, just as in the real Gran Chaco until deposits were discovered a few years ago.)
By the time of “Tintin and the Picaros”, it has become a cold war by proxy. For that, I have to describe the geopolitical climate Hergé came up with in “King Ottokar’s Sceptre”, with the “good country”, Syldavia, interestingly not a democracy but an absolute monarchy, located in Eastern Europe, probably the Balkans, and which appears to be frozen in time, decidedly pre-1914, and its enemy, neighbouring Borduria, which favours more modern forms of totalitarianism. Hergé updates them later, giving Syldavia its own space program and making Borduria go from Fascist to Communist. Borduria backs General Tapioca in San Theodoros, but Alcazar himself is clearly shown to be funded by a carbon copy of United Fruit.
In another context, “The Shooting Star” does have an anti-capitalist message — even, originally, an anti-American and antisemitic one, considering it was published in 1942. Hergé, however, is known to have made several changes to his albums, not just from their initial newspaper run but also years after their first publication in book form. Sometimes it was just to modernize them (I do remember one specific example, the 1938 “The Black Island”, which was extensively redone in 1966 to update airplanes and fire engines and so on for its first English translation — it’s set in Britain.). In other cases, it was to get rid of controversial elements. This page (in French) lists some of the changes made to various albums: http://dardel.info/tintin/variantes.html Most of these are for automobiles, but there are a few examples of stereotypical black people later replaced with less controversial characters, i.e. whites. (I’d love to see the American liberal reaction to this one.) It doesn’t mention “The Shooting Star”, but the Wikipedia page provides a good example of a major change. The story is about a race for a meteorite that fell at sea in the Arctic, with scientists (and Tintin) on one side and a business venture led by an American Jewish financier on the other. (An obscure Verne story, published posthumously, was based on the same idea, but Hergé claimed it was a coincidence.) In the original version, the business expedition flies the American flag, which is replaced with that of a fictional country in later editions. After this, Hergé moved on to his “Red Rackham’s Treasure” story arc, which is pure escapism, one of the most fun entries in the series, but one of the least rewarding, analytically.
As for the Spielberg film, it can best be described as what happens when someone thinks that computer animation might have progressed enough for the uncanny valley to be bridged — but nope, that wasn’t the case. (If that had been successful, I guess the sort of actor breakdown like that of Ian McKellen on the set of “The Hobbit”, despairing at having to act by himself in front of a green screen for what was, in the film, a crowd scene, would soon have been a thing of the past, the live actor having become just as unnecessary as everything else surrounding him in the production of “movie magic”.)
Thanks for the details…sometimes I think if we followed some Rousseau-like plan of not giving children books at all we could avoid these censorship questions. Though I guess Rousseau wanted to give the kids Robinson Crusoe, which is racist, so not entirely. (On the other hand, I was allowed to read whatever I wanted when I was a child, nobody cared at all, and I turned out all right, if you call this all right.)
Your description of the geopolitics of the later albums make them sound intriguing (literally, I guess). Have you read Tom McCarthy’s Tintin book? I haven’t. According to wikipedia, McCarthy sees some kind of contradiction or deconstructive aporia in Hergé’s conservative values and anti-capitalism. It has to be more complex than that, or else McCarthy doesn’t understand conservative thought beyond some relatively recent Reagan/Thatcher notion of it. Still, I am interested to read it…
Sorry for the belated response. About McCarthy’s book: no, I haven’t read it. I see that it’s been translated, so I might have heard of it, but if so I didn’t recall the author’s name. To be honest, I find this interest for Hergé in the Anglosphere and especially among academics quite surprising, as Hergé, unlike Simenon (an author he reminds me of — I sometimes wonder how similar they were), didn’t produce a series of hard psychological novels alongside his lighter fare. (I’ve read some of his other works, “Quick and Flupke” and “Jo, Zette, and Jocko”; they’re fine, but not really worth much attention.) Even his famous “ligne claire” seems heavily indebted to ukiyo-e artists.
This being said, I wonder how many other European comics could be of such interest to American audiences. Asterix has been translated, but I can’t imagine how it must read in English, with all the puns lost, and a lingering sense that this series is nothing other than an exercise in French exceptionalism, with the Romans standing in for the Americans, a dated product of the “Trente Glorieuses” that only seems to endure because of nostalgia. Post-Goscinny (who died in 1977), it just became sad to read, especially as Uderzo — not much of a writer — decided to write his own plots (unlike Morris with “Lucky Luke”, who turned to new collaborators). Goscinny was a brilliant satirist, but I’m not sure much of his satire works well in translation.
[…] My general impressions of Tintin, based on the three albums subsequent to this one, can be found here. As other reviewers have argued, this notorious book lacks the complexity and interest to be found […]
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