Who would have thought that Tintin would so easily become a social media star? After all, the protagonist of Hergé’s comics is a pre-internet reporter, whose adventures around the world are set in a time that is long gone. But following the Brussels attacks, images of the young Belgian were suddenly all over the internet – picturing him lying on the ground, or in tears while reading the news (in a good old newspaper, of course).
Tintin remains dear to many Europeans, inside and outside Belgium. And if you think about it, there is no reason why he shouldn’t be, since he has embodied the continent’s values for half a century.
At first glance, Tintin represents a fairly straightforward message: the importance of selflessness and truth-seeking. But the 24 children’s books, published mainly between the 30s and the 70s, are also filled with references to what Europeans thought about an ever-changing world. Some of these views still make us proud. Others, maybe, not so much.
According to Daniel Justens, who has authored two essays on the representation of language and geography in the series, Hergé’s first editor, priest Norbert Wallez, “was deeply involved in a sort of Christian hyper-conservatism very close to the far right.” Nowadays, the stories written under his influence can be disturbing for how blatantly they pander to anti-communist and colonial stereotypes.
Certain scenes of the first episode, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets (1930), are pure propaganda. At one point, a Bolshevik officer burns bundles of straw in an empty factory, so that the foreign observers outside (“English communists”) can be shown the smoke coming out of the chimneys and be fooled about the country’s industrial productivity.
When it comes to colonialism, Hergé’s early work is not exactly nuanced. In Tintin in the Congo (1931), the young European journalist teases the locals for their laziness, teaches maths to a class of black children and fights against a sorcerer who wants to keep his people in a state of ignorance to dominate them more easily.
“It is a controversial book,” says Oliver Dunnett, a researcher currently at Queen’s University Belfast who has studied geopolitics and identity issues in Tintin. “In the UK, a commission for racial equality called for it to be banned from sale.”
But what’s fascinating, when reading the entire series today, is how clearly its values evolve in line with world politics.
In the 70s, Hergé sent Tintin (not for the first time) to Latin America. There, again, he ends up among an indigenous population with an entirely different culture, the Arumbayas. But this time around, there are few traces of his old, patronising behaviour. At one point, a white man who’s decided to live with the tribe even scolds Tintin for his lack of tact: “When travelling, you must adapt to local habits. Otherwise just stay at home!”
This evolution over time is not limited to the relations between Europe and developing countries. Hergé was a sponge. Not known for being a very political person, he often absorbed the dominant narrative on an issue and made it part of his comics, not necessarily in ways that we would approve of today.
He re-wrote stories, too. A first version of The Shooting Star, which appeared during World War II while Belgium was under Nazi occupation, featured villainous Jewish characters and an American expedition competing with Tintin’s side. Hergé then retouched it for the Cold War era, and in the new version anti-Semite references were largely gone and the US had conveniently been replaced by a fictional country, the São Rico (Saint Rich).
The new name, however, and the fact that the American identity of the reporter’s opponents is still hard to overlook, also suggest that something does remain (almost) unchanged throughout the series. Judging from his work, Hergé was not a fan of US-style big business.
During his endeavours Tintin meets all sorts of greedy tycoons, most of them from the United States. Some offer him money, in which he is totally uninterested. Others try to grow their fortunes with appalling indifference to morals. In The Broken Ear (1937), set in South America, the magnate Mr Trickler causes a war to lay his hands on an allegedly oil-rich area. A reference, as it often happens in the series, to real events: the Gran Chaco War fought in the ’30s between Bolivia and Paraguay.
In contrast to such ruthless economic imperialism, Tintin stands as a beacon of European humanism, a model of sensibleness committed to stopping the vicious, violent cycle of local coups. When in a more recent story he helps reinstate ousted General Alcazar, the latter has to promise he will not allow any bloodshed by his men.
Hergé’s eurocentrism survived under the US political and cultural hegemony of the second half of the century. When he takes his creature outside the earthly atmosphere, in a couple of volumes published in the ’50s, the fictional scientific mission is entirely European: in this space race, there is little room for the almighty ally and protector. Once again, Tintin and his gang succeed. After all, this tireless man, who has reflected the continent’s virtues and flaws for so many years, did deserve to be the first to walk on the Moon.