Home Arts & Lit Tintin: behind the quiff

Tintin: behind the quiff

William Harrop explores the historical context and controversies surrounding the popular cartoon.

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Image: commons.wikimedia.org

Donning a perpetually immaculate quiff of blond hair, a pair of perfectly creased plus fours and always accompanied by his alcoholic fox terrier, Snowy, Tintin needs no introduction. The brainchild of Belgian cartoonist Georges Remi under the pen name Hergé, Tintin has pinged around the world like a human pinball, foiling the dastardly plots of his many nemeses. However, with 2018 being the 35th anniversary of the death of Hergé, it is important to peel away Tintin’s vivid storyboards and investigate the influences and controversies at play behind his adventures. Tintin was penned between 1929 and 1976, alongside one of the most violent periods of world history, during which Europe was both razed and rebuilt. As a result, his books sketch a chronological tracing of the past and frame a window into some of the darkest periods in world history.

Tintin’s likeness started life in a comic strip about a Boy Scout Patrol leader in the scouting newspaper Le Boy Scout Belge. Spotted for his talent, Hergé was soon nominated to write for the youth supplement of Le Vingtième Siècle, a Roman Catholic newspaper. Pro-fascist and anti-Semitic, Le Petit Vingtième was hardly The Guardian, and this supplement was essentially conservative propaganda. Hergé’s first assignment as editor was to write a story disparaging socialism, projecting the views of the owner of the newspaper, Abbé Norbert Wallez, onto its young readers. Hergé decided to transplant the essence of his scribblings from Le Boy Scout Belge into his story, constructing the character we now recognise as Tintin.

Tintin in the Land of the Soviets was published in weekly instalments between January 1929 and May 1930 and became a resounding success. Hergé illustrated the Soviet Union as a decrepit facade of a country, addled with deceitful Bolsheviks, and famine. Land of the Soviets stressed themes of Bolshevik greed, notably in a scene where Tintin stumbles upon a hideout where Trotsky, Stalin and Lenin had stashed wealth seized from the people. Whilst the story emulated irrational Western fears of the emerging ‘Red Giant’ in the East, the elements of Land of the Soviets pertaining to hunger and tyranny have been recently labelled by The Economist as “uncannily accurate”.

it is important to peel away Tintin’s vivid storyboards and investigate the influences and controversies at play behind his adventures

Tintin’s infamous second instalment saw him cast aside his journalist’s pencil and notepad in favour of a hunting rifle and a pith helmet, as he vacationed in the Belgian Congo. Initially the pet project of Belgian King Leopold II, the Belgian Congo was a vast territory chiselled out of the steaming jungles of central Africa in the 1880s. The ‘Congo Free State’ (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) was born of ‘the Scramble for Africa’, in which European powers hungrily devoured the continent, slicing it up along the luridly straight borders we see in Africa today. Desperate to exploit the riches of the Congo, the Congolese people were effectively enslaved and forced into extracting resources for Belgian profit. Upwards of 10 million Congolese people are estimated to have been killed in the unspeakable atrocities that occurred under Belgian colonial rule.

It was this colonial mindset that would underpin 1931’s Tintin in the Congo, depicting the Congolese people as child-like fools with exaggerated features. This remains a ‘black sheep’ in the Tintin collection, seeing Tintin preach notions of racial superiority to Congolese children, massacre antelope and blow up a rhinoceros by drilling a hole in its back and inserting a stick of dynamite. When compared to Tintin’s overgrown-boy-scout demeanour in Hergé’s other work, the contrast is almost laughable. The grotesque nature of this book sparked debates in 2007 on whether it should continue to be sold in British bookshops.

After wider adventures in America and Asia, events in Europe soon became impossible for Hergé to ignore. The rearmament and expansion of Germany and Italy meant the drums of war rumbled ever closer to Belgium, informing 1939’s King Ottokar’s Sceptre. This told the story of the fictional nation of Borduria, an aggressive, fascist nation in the Balkans. Drawing from the odious  events around him, Hergé based Borduria’s flag on that of Nazi Germany’s, and even creatively named its dictator ‘Müsstler’, a terrifying hybrid of Mussolini and Hitler.

Hergé is undeniably one of the most influential cartoonists of the twentieth century

As German tanks and troops thundered through Belgium in May 1940, Le Vingtième Siècle was shut down, causing Hergé to seek work at the state controlled Belgian newspaper Le Soir, reprising his role of illustrating Tintin. Nazi occupation also saw Tintin undergo a career change from journalist to explorer. The repressive nature of Belgium’s new regime meant Tintin’s job as a journalist might encourage unwanted inquisitiveness in its readers. This explains why Tintin abruptly went from sniffing out corruption in New York to diving for deep sea treasure in the Pacific.

Nazi occupation also saw anti-Semitism seep into Hergé’s work, especially in 1941-1942’s The Shooting Star. This manifested itself in the antagonist, Blumenstein – a cigar toting, Jewish businessman, representative of the ‘evils’ of International Jewry. Hergé was heavily criticised for his compliance with Nazi anti-Semitism at a time where many Belgians were risking their lives to hide the Jewish population from the clutches of the Nazis.

By September 1944, the Allies had liberated Belgium and Le Soir was shut down. Tintin’s continued popularity meant that in 1946 Hergé was given his own publication – Le Journal de Tintin. In the unsettling tension of the Cold War, Hergé injected his anxieties into The Red Sea Sharks and Land of Black Gold, and took inspiration from the upheaval of the Batista regime in Cuba by Fidel Castro’s 26th July movement for 1976’s Tintin and The Picaros. This also embedded a striking resemblance to Castro in General Alcazar, in both appearance and habitual cigar smoking.

Despite the smatterings of intolerance and prejudice in his work, Hergé is undeniably one of the most influential cartoonists of the twentieth century. The boyish charm of his brightly coloured storyboards have provided millions of children with endless enjoyment, inspiring current rafts of cartoonists. When looking back on his work, Hergé voiced his embarrassment of the controversial aspects of his stories, doing what he could to counteract the more offensive aspects of his work by removing and redrawing certain parts. Tintin remains a source of great controversy; however, if nothing else, his stories are beautiful and intriguing snapshots into some of the most troubling periods of world history.

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