The Adventures of Tintin in Critical Controversy

It is commonly held that the United States helped create the comics art and literary genre; however, what is often overlooked is the significant comics community thriving in Europe during these early years, particularly in Belgium. Georges Remi (known to the world as Herge) introduced his creation, Tintin, in 1930 and continued producing works up until the 1970s for Western audiences and comics readers throughout the world. Yet, despite Tintin’s world appeal, many readers and critics have recently begun noticing problematic elements in The Adventures of Tintin that warrant further scrutiny given the depictions and treatment of other cultures. Although some of Herge’s works standout as particularly problematic[1], there are elements of how Herge portrays the Other and deals with individuals of different races and ethnicities in Tintin: Land of the Black Gold and Tintin: Destination Moon.

“The Orient has helped to define Europe as a contrasting image,” (Said 1) and In Land of the Black Gold, one can see contrasting images of Tintin from the West and the Arab men from the Middle East that lend themselves to an Orientalist reading. Although this episode is not as problematic as other works by Herge, there are some particular elements that should be examined. At the start of the story, Tintin and company find themselves embroiled in a power struggle between an oil company and the country’s emir, but manage to save the day in the end—a fairly traditional feel good story. Yet, this plot reinforces certain imperialistic notions that it takes a strong Western influence to dominate, restructure, and have authority over the Orient exemplified through the emir’s inability to rule his own country and implore the aid of Tintin (3). While this might be considered a subtle detail, it still serves as an example of the “discourse [of] supporting institutions, vocabulary, scholarship, imagery, [and] doctrines” that imperial European powers imposed upon the colonized (3). Considering the historical relationship between Western Europe and the Middle East prior to, during, and following Herge, one cannot overlook the struggles for independence of the Orient from its European rulers. How then, might this have informed some of Herge’s creative choices?

At a superficial level, Herge clearly seeks to entertain his readers with a combination of globetrotting adventure and humor. The story is replete with slapstick comedy—often at the expense of Captain Haddock, and Detectives Thomson and Thompson—and it takes readers across the globe in the expected style Tintin came to represent as a boy adventurer. In this case, Tintin’s adventure brings him to a Middle Eastern country filled with intrigue and danger. The Arabic men of this country are regularly portrayed in a threatening manner—either taking him and the detectives into custody to kidnapping him and the emir’s son at gunpoint as part of a political power play. In fact, there are few instances when the Arabic men aren’t portrayed with weapons and armed to the teeth. Even the unarmed emir—who often vacillates between comically sentimental over his son: “My little honeybun where are you? …My little peppermint cream…”(Herge 40)—has built a reputation for being downright fiendish as Professor Smith relates prior to his capture: “I’ll be captured and handed over to that merciless fiend! He’ll torture me…put me on the rack! I’ll be impaled…roasted on a slow fire” (61). Despite his effeminate nature towards his son, this man is clearly a force not to be trifled with. Furthermore, this viewpoint confirms many suspicions held by Westerners of their treatment at the hands of Easterners[2].

What is perhaps the most disturbing portrayal of these people is the emir’s child, Abdullah. He is seen as nothing more than miscreant who continually hinders Tintin in his attempts to retrieve him from his captors and return him to safety when cries that he “Shant! Don’t want to go home! This is a nice game” (Herge 51). At best, he is simply an immature young boy who is unable to move past his own interests to see that Tintin is there to help him. At worst, he utterly lacks the ability to recognize his place as the prince and his abduction represents a loss of stability to the kingdom. While this interpretation could be viewed as overly harsh on the young lad, it is important to realize that royal heirs are raised from the earliest age to recognize their importance as the future kings or queens of their realms, and their wellbeing was often tied to that of their respective kingdoms. Lastly, readers should consider the two representations of children and adolescents presented here: Tintin and Abdullah. We see the blonde Caucasian boy who travels the world providing his sleuthing abilities for those in need. This is a sharp contrast with the olive-skinned, Middle Eastern boy who sees the violence and danger before him as natural aspects of the games he might play. It should be no surprise to readers that the earlier portrayals of Arabic men in the story depicted individuals well acquainted with violence. Herge’s story lends itself to readers implying that violence is such an inherent part of Arabic culture that it is seen as a likeable game to one so young as Abdullah and is something they must equip themselves to defend against when they are older.

Destination Moon provides other subtle examples of where Herge’s treatment of people of different cultures is brought into question. What stands out most in the beginning of this new adventure is the brash, drunken Captain Haddock and his way with words. Herge clearly uses this character for comedic effect as he stumbles over himself to issue forth a bevy of insults and exclamations. He refers to the people of Syldavia—a sort of Eastern European derivative—as “poisoners,” “pirates,” “baboons,” in addition to being a “Tribe of Polynesians,” and members of the “Ku Klux Klan” (68-78). It is interesting to note that this is the response Captain Haddock displays despite never actually having encountered Syldavians or their country prior to this episode; yet, he clearly demonstrates a certain amount of xenophobic tendencies towards people who are not like himself. While this might not necessarily cause Herge to be completely open to charges of Orientalism, it does seem to demonstrate some elements of racism, and this can certainly lay the groundwork for unfair and unrealistic portrayals of Others. After all, the only consequence for Haddock faces for his continued intolerant outbursts is the reader sees him as a bit of a humorous blowhard. At no point does he really learn a lesson about being more tolerant, let alone accepting of others. Further, his words and actions demonstrate a disturbing trend on the part of the wealthy captain to immediately label other people in a disparaging manner particularly if they are not of Western European descent. Although Captain Haddock will ridicule the soldiers armed with submachine guns en route to the centre, the Director General of the Centre, Mr. Baxter, immediately silences him. Interestingly, the soldiers speak with broken English and the director commands the English language with no notable accent. Although it is not directly stated, one should ask why this is the case?

Of course, some modern readers might dismiss such points as catering too greatly to the politically correct movement. However, one need only consider the influence cartoonists and comic artists truly possess when taking into account the furor over pictorial representations of the Prophet Mohammed in Jyllen-Postens’ satirical cartoon from 2005 that resulted in multiple uprisings, violence, and even deaths of protestors throughout the Middle East. Movie insiders indicate The Adventures of Tintin is next in line to receive the Hollywood treatment. With this increased publicity, it is important that these concerns of possible racist, Orientalist, and/or xenophobic elements of Herge’s work be dealt with in such a way that allows the boy adventurer to continue reaching audiences throughout the world, but in a more inclusive fashion that allows for greater agency of Others.

Works Cited

Herge. “Destination Moon.” The Adventures of Tin Tin vol. 5. New York: Little Brown, 2007. Print.

—. “Explorers on the Moon.” The Adventures of Tin Tin vol. 5. New York: Little Brown, 2007. Print.

—. “The Land of Black Gold.” The Adventures of Tin Tin vol. 5. New York: Little Brown, 2007. Print.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1994. Print.

[1] See Tintin in the Congo (1930), The Blue Lotus (1983), The Crab with the Golden Claws (1971), or The Cigars of the Pharaoh (1971) for a few examples.

[2] Many other comics and pulp magazine covers of the early 20th Century often reinforce this image of the dangerous and blood thirsty Easterner as well.

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Forrest C. Helvie lives in Connecticut with his wife and two sons where he is chair and professor of developmental English at Norwalk Community College. His literary interests are broad-ranging from medieval Arthurian to 19th-century American, and most importantly, pedagogy, comics studies, and super-heroes. In addition to academic publications, he writes a variety of comic short stories, including his own children’s comic series, Whiz Bang & Amelia the Adventure Bear. He regularly writes for Sequart and reviews comics for Newsarama. Forrest can also be found on Twitter (@forrest_helvie) discussing all things comics related.

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  1. I can see some broad applications of Orientalist thought to Tintin. But to my mind Herge stereotypes everyone. If a Frenchman of Herge’s time read TINTIN IN AMERICA, he’d assume that everyone in the country was either a gangster or a Native American.

  2. While I agree with the gist of what you’re saying, I think you’ve read too much into some of the specifics that you’ve cited here. Just wanted to make a few points.
    1. I think it’s primarily the Americans who feel that they’ve propagated the 9th Art. I was a researcher in Graphic Narratives and did some dipstick studies which showed that, in Asia and Europe, most people credit Europe & Japan with its propagation and popularity.
    2. Tintin has long been a source of controversy from the perspective of racism and western propaganda. The most prominent example of this Herge’s “Tintin in the Land of the Soviets” (do try to read this one if you haven’t already).
    3. I think citing and using the character of a child in your article to establish an Arab stereotype may perhaps be reading too much into it. After all, a child isn’t really expected to have a mature understanding on affairs of state in his kingdom, and the consequences of his actions – especially if he’s a spoiled brat of a prince.
    4. While I agree that Herge’s art is racist, I think it follows a very common pattern associated with European comic art viz. making the backgrounds photographically realistic while caricaturing the characters. This is very prominent in Asterix comics as well.

    • Anish,

      Thank you for the thoughtful response! I agree that there are many precursors to comics prior to its rise to prominence in the United States. It’s for that reason I was careful to point out that creators in the United States “helped create the comics art and literary genre,” but they certainly weren’t the only ones who contributed to this field. I think *most* critics who I’ve read understand this point, and those who do not are often guilty of incorrectly equating superhero comics with all comics. Obviously, they are not interchangeable.

      And I’m always willing to consider the possibility of reading too much into a text! After all, I think most of us have done it at one point or another. :) In this instance, however, what struck me was the context of the young man in question. His behavior is simply uncivil, and considering his place as a future monarch and rigid lifestyle that often entails of royalty, I find it more plausible that we have a very poor representation than an accurate and fair one. I can’t help but wonder why that is. As I pointed out, there’s a range of possibilities here as well; it may just be Herge wanted to focus on the immaturity of the young prince, and who’s to say there aren’t immature rulers out there?-) But I do think the general acceptance of violence and early inculcation to it paints a less than complimentary picture of that culture.

      Regarding “Tintin in the Land of the Soviets,” I can’t say that I’ve read it before; however, I suspect it will find its way to my reading pile shortly. Thanks for the recommendation. I must also confess to not having read Asterix comics either. I figured to begin with Herge as my first real exploration of the Franco-Belgian contributions and move on from there.

  3. Jan Limpens says:

    Please put into consideration, that you are quoting the subtleties of a translation here. While would almost assume the french original to be even “stronger” in language, it is a bit pointless to talk about some arbitrary translation, it might be accurate – my experience tells me it is not likely.

    Then, one needs to consider the common mindset of the author’s surroundings. “Land of the Soviets” is from 1929 and shows pretty well what a normal, not overly intelectual citizen of the time thought about other cultures and political systems. I do not think that Hergé was more arrogant, racist and imperialist than most other people of his era. Surely he had no such agenda. Same goes for his later works, where his attitudes have changed considerably.
    If I am not mistaken, racist rants more or less disappear in the latest editions from the 1970ies when peoples minds seemed to have opened up a bit.

    One should never judge people’s past from today’s moral position. Almost certainly people from the future will find current comics culture to be extremely sexist and offensive to women, but while we might agree with that or not, we can stand it quite right to read some run of the mill superhero booklet with scarcely clad vixens in poses directly lifted from internet porn.
    Same goes for arab depiction in the 80ies until now – it might seem nothing than a preparation for today’s events. Still it does say little about the author, but everything about his surroundings and his influences. We absorb these, if we want to or not. Some might see through this, but most won’t. It just shows that one should not expect from comics artists to be any different from their society.

    • Jan,

      You bring up two excellent points: The first related to working with translations as opposed to texts in their original language, and second, the dangers of anachronism. Considering Herge was alive when these particular works were republished in English, and I don’t recall seeing any sort of controversy surrounding the faithfulness of their translation, I believe one can reasonably assume the amount of content lost in translation is marginal. Perhaps some level tone is lost, as you suggest; however, the lack of concern indicates a reasonable safety in using this text as representative of the original.

      Now, with regards to the second point, I do agree with the caution required to avoid judging a text against later value sets. I specialized in Late Medieval Arthurian literature in my master’s degree, and this lesson was particularly important–especially since I was adopting a 20th Century theoretical lens to analyze the texts. A lack of care and the argument was thoroughly undercut. In this instance, however, I do not believe this to be the case. I am arguing about the concern over depiction of people of different race and ethnicity. These issues were very MUCH in the air–consider the loss of power many Western European countries experienced in their respective colonies during this period. African, Middle Eastern, and Asian countries began rising up and seizing independence from oppressive, European rulers.

      I’d also point out that a number of these stories (including those I’ve addressed) were revised and rewritten by Herge during the 1970s–well into the Civil Rights period. And while he was not living in the U.S. at the time, it’s also difficult to believe that he would have been unaffected or uninformed by this (since Europe was generally more progressive in terms of race relations when compared to the U.S.). So seeing these themes and trends in a work where the issues of Orientalism are quite contemporary with one another….well, I think it’s worth asking the question.

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