A Tintin Mystery: Why Hergé's comics continue to fascinate, 88 years after their debut

It is truly surprising how every Indian who grew up in the 90s with even the slightest interest in books has read the stories of a young Belgian reporter and his little dog. The Adventures of Tintin were our primer into world politics, warring countries, the Incan empire and even nuclear technology. Every self-respecting, middle-class, kids-go-to-English-medium-school family kept at least a few Tintin comics (‘comic albums’ is the correct term but let’s use ‘comics’ for reasons of brevity) in their book cupboard.

Some of us fell in love with the stories by choice, while for the others, a little "parental guidance" was required. In my case, it took the shape of my mom packing up all of my favourite Hindi superhero comics (which featured fascinating protagonists like Nagraj and Super Commando Dhruva), and donating them to the nearby library. Practically the only comics left in the house were the Tintins which had miraculously "appeared" on the same day.

Now this was a time without the Internet, and only so much TV time was allowed. So as I muttered curses under my breath, I picked up the comparatively huge comics and dug in. It is not an overstatement to say that my life turned out very differently as a result.

Covers of The Adventures of Tintin

Covers of The Adventures of Tintin

For it was Tintin that really got me started on reading English books. From bombarding my mother with enough queries that she finally plonked a dictionary on my head to begging my father to bring just one more Tintin from his trips to Delhi, my reading habit/addiction took off because of Tintin. From there on, I graduated on to Enid Blytons to Harry Potters to Dan Browns to literally-any-book-I-could-get-my-hands-on. It also influenced my career choices first as a lawyer and then as a writer, both professions being ones which involve colossal amounts of reading.

The first thing which draws one towards these comic albums is the distinctive drawing style used by Hergé. The Ligne Claire or clear line style uses strong colours and juxtaposes cartoon characters against a realistic background. The result is quite unique and a reader can identify a Tintin by looking at just a single panel.

But merely having an attractive drawing style will not give a character the long-lasting fame that Tintin has achieved. The stories and how they are told are what really matter. And it is here that Hergé excelled.

The stories themselves were straightforward. Tintin was a reporter with upstanding morals who would run into a tough situation and would then use his smarts to get out of it. However, it is the detail that went into the devising of those tough situations which made the series special.

Hergé was not afraid to wade into complicated subjects like history, politics and science, even though his primary audience were children. He incorporated the wars between China and Japan and the breakup of the League of Nations in The Blue Lotus. He made up two fictional countries, Borduria and Syldavia, and the struggles between the two were actually a satire on the expansionist policies of Nazi Germany.

Then there was my favourite, a two-part story (Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon) about Tintin and his friends landing on the moon. Keep in mind these were published in 1953-54, more than a decade before the actual moon landing happened. While writing this story, Hergé was at his meticulous best as the comic grappled with the science behind launching a rocket propelled by nuclear power and did a pretty decent job of explaining it to a young audience. The larger-than-life depiction of an eerie Moon was quite impressive as well.

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Tintin might have been the main character but the other characters were the ones which actually became the readers’ favourites. These characters added different dimensions to the narrative. Captain Haddock, the tough sailor who accompanied Tintin on multiple adventures presented Hergé with a tough predicament. How could he portray the alcoholic sailor without the swear words? The answer came in the form of mischievously innovative and now iconic curses like “billions of blue blistering barnacles” and “guano gatherer”. Others like Professor Calculus with his aural issues and the incompetent Thompson twins were a constant source of humour.

Hergé’s personal favourite comic interestingly was Tintin in Tibet which had Bigfoot as one of its characters. It was also partially situated in India and the portrayal is strikingly accurate right down to a “holy” cow blocking the street. Just as well that Tintin did not visit India in current times or a lynching would have been a distinct possibility.

The series is not without its share of controversy though. The earlier comics were racially offensive in their portrayal of Africans. In general too, the comics used very ethno-centric portrayals of non-Europeans as it was painfully obvious when a South American or an African was being depicted. This led to litigation around one particular comic (Tintin in the Congo) which to this date remains unavailable in many bookstores. In Hergé’s defence however, he was a part of, and was writing for a racist society. It is only natural that his comics would showcase those prejudices. In any case, the controversial instances are thankfully rare.

Tintin (and Hergé) then, should not be judged by the earlier comics. They should be judged by the kindness shown to Chang, the Chinese orphan who becomes friends with Tintin. They should be judged by the subtle commentary on politics like the contant coups in San Theodoros. They should be judged by the hilarity which ensues when Snowy gets drunk.

Most importantly though, they should be judged by the fact that they nudged many a child into the wonderful world of books and that truly, is their lasting legacy.


Updated Date: May 22, 2017 11:34 AM

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