Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Virtues (and Vices?) of Tintin

I was recently reading an Economist article, "A Very European Hero", which pointed out that a 1949 French law - still in force - prohibits children's books from showing cowardice, laziness, lying, crime, hatred or debauchery in a positive light. Luckily for Tintin, the intrepid Belgian cartoon character and one of my childhood heroes, this is not a problem. "An overgrown boy scout, whose adventures involve pluck, fair play, restrained violence and no sex," Tintin can be counted upon to "seek the truth, protect the weak and stand up to bullies.... He defends monarchs against revolutionaries (earning a knighthood in one book). His first instinct on catching a villain is to hand him over to the nearest police chief. He does not carry his own gun, though he shoots like an ace. Though slight, he has a very gentlemanly set of fighting skills: he knows how to box, how to sail, to drive racing cars, pilot planes and ride horses. He... is quick to defend small boys from unearned beatings. His quick wits compensate for his lack of brawn."

What's not to love about such a hero? Well, some critics are skeptical of Tintin and his creator Hergé, whose real name was Georges Remi. (Just reverse the initials and you get his nom de plum.) For starters, there is the first comic, "Tintin in the Land of the Soviets". It portrays Russia's Marxist rulers as deceivers and cold-blooded killers. This depiction has upset some academics, but seeing as how it is historically quite accurate (ignoring, of course, Tintin's many slapstick escapes), this is no real grounds for criticism.

Then there is the somewhat infamous "Tintin in the Congo", first published in 1930. "Its Africans are crude caricatures: child-men with wide eyes and bloated lips who prostrate themselves before Tintin (as well as Snowy his dog), after he shows off such magic as an electromagnet, or quinine pills for malaria.... It is a work of propaganda—not for “colonialism”, as is often said—but more narrowly for Belgian missionaries, one of whom keeps saving Tintin’s life in evermore ludicrous ways: first dispatching a half dozen crocodiles with a rifle then rescuing him from a roaring waterfall, seemingly unhindered by his advanced age and ankle-length soutane."

Unfortunate, to be sure, but it seems Hergé was more of an unwitting propagandist for the Belgian Congo than a committed racist. In "The Blue Lotus" we find our hero explaining to a young Chinese friend, "All white men aren't wicked. You see, different peoples don't know enough about each other. Lots of Europeans still believe that all Chinese are cunning and cruel and wear pigtails, are always inventing tortures and eating rotten eggs and swallows' nests." This hardly sounds like rampant racism to me.

Philippe Goddin, in his 2007 biography, raises other questions. In the Economist' words, he points out that "Hergé spent the war working for Le Soir, a Belgian newspaper seized by the German occupiers and turned into a propaganda organ.... [In] 'The Shooting Star', and its initial newspaper serialisation... [there is a] panic unleashed when it seemed a giant meteorite would hit the earth. In one frame... Hergé drew two Jews rejoicing that if the world ended, they would not have to pay back their creditors. At that same moment in Belgium, Mr Goddin notes, Jews were being ordered to move to the country’s largest cities and remove their children from ordinary schools. They were also banned from owning radios, and were subject to a curfew. In the news pages of Le Soir, these measures were described as indispensable preparations for an orderly 'emigration' of Jews." "The Shooting Star" first appeared in the newspaper in 1941; when it was released as an album in 1942, Hergé deleted the drawing of the Jews, of his own accord.

Again, "The Blue Lotus" seems to tell another story. First published in 1934, the story is unambiguous about the perfidious nature of the Japanese occupation of northern China and the fraudulent Chinese 'attack' on the South Manchurian Railway, which had been the pretext for aggression in 1931. The reader's sympathies clearly lie with the Chinese, both within and outside the International Settlement in Shanghai, whose European and American masters come off better than the Japanese, but hardly without criticism. (Though Hergé does not reference the fact, it is interesting to note that Shanghai became a haven for Jews escaping the Third Reich during the 1930s, as seen, for example, in the film The White Countess.) Hergé's actions during the Second World War deserve scrutiny, perhaps even condemnation, but readers would be remiss to simply discount his creation for this reason; indeed, Tintin himself would never approve of the sort of compromises his creator seems to have committed.

With this in mind, I was pleased to read that "filming is supposed to begin in earnest [in 2009] on a trilogy of Tintin films to be directed by Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson, using digital 'performance capture' technology to create a hybrid between animation and live action.... He said a film-maker like Mr Spielberg should be given free rein, and told his wife: 'This Tintin will doubtless be different, but it will be a good Tintin.'" Should you need further inducement to look forward to this trilogy, the Economist writes, "Any child reared on 'King Ottokar’s Sceptre', a Balkan thriller; or 'The Calculus Affair', about a scientist’s kidnap, will later feel a shock of familiarity when watching Hitchcock films or reading Graham Greene. It is all there: the dangerous glamour of cities at night; the terror of a forced drive into the forest; a world of tapped hotel telephones and chain-smoking killers in the lobby downstairs."

If "all societies reveal themselves through their children’s books," as the Economist contends, one that reads the adventures of Tintin is probably doing all right.

Special thanks to Santiago Ramos for bringing this article to my attention.
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