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Tintin and the Fascists

 

One of my favorite comic book characters as a kid wasn't a mutant, didn't have super-powers and didn't wear spandex.   He did have weird hair, though.   He was Tintin, the intrepid boy reporter created by the Belgian cartoonist George Remi, better known by his pen name, Hergé. Through much of the 20th Century he was an international super-star with his adventures translated into over a dozen languages.

Since the 1960s, some revisionist critics have called Hergé's hero an apologist for colonialism and a symbol of racist attitudes.   This is largely based on some of his earlier stories and do not take into account his development as a writer.   But what is not as well-known is that Hergé was actually arrested and imprisoned as a Nazi collaborator and that the defeat of the Germans in WWII almost ended his career.

Tintin a Nazi?   Well, not quite.   It's a little more complicated than that.

Hergé started out working as a draughtsman and jack-of-all-trades for a Catholic newspaper in Brussels called  Le XXe Siècle (“The Twentieth Century”).   The newspaper's director, Father Norbert Wallez, decided to begin publishing a supplement to the paper for young people, titled Le Petit Vingtième (“The Little Twentieth”) and commissioned Hergé to create a comic strip for the new magazine.   Hergé named his hero Tintin, and envisioned him as a young globe-trotting reporter.   As a lad, Hergé had been a boy scout, and he gave Tintin all the best qualities of a scout.

Le Petit Vingtième  was meant to be educational as well as entertaining, and since Father Wallez was strongly conservative in his politics, and he told Hergé to have his boy hero educate children about the evils of Communism.   The first Tintin story,”Tintin in the Land of the Soviets”, was largely based on an exposé of Bolshevism entitled “Moscou sans Voiles”    (“Moscow Unveiled”).

For his second adventure, Hergé wanted to send Tintin to America and do a story with cowboys and Indians; but Father Wallez insisted on another "educational" storyline.   This time Tintin went to Africa in order to justify the Belgian colony in the Congo.   “Tintin in the Congo”  was an embarrassment on several levels.   For one thing, the Belgian colony was exploitative and bloody even by the standards of other European colonies in Africa.   For another, Hergé was familiar with Africa only as it appeared in popular culture, and so he relied heavily on stereotypes.   (The Japanese cartoonist Osamu Tezuka had the same problem with his early work  “Jungle Emperor”/”Kimba the White Lion”; he only knew African natives from racist movies and cartoons).   Plus, Hergé wasn't really that interested in the subject matter, and his lack of enthusiasm shows.

Some years later, when the strips were reprinted in color albums, Hergé re-drew much of the art and tried to modify some of the more offensive bits.   For example, in one scene where Tintin is in a schoolhouse teaching the native children about  "de votre patrie: la Belgique"  ("our fatherland, Belgium"), the later version was altered so that he was giving a less controversial arithmetic lesson.   Didn't help much.   The story fell into disgrace during the de-colonization period of the '50s and '60s and quietly went out of print for many years.

Hergé himself later described the story this way:

'For the  Congo  as with  Tintin in the land of the Soviets, the fact was that I was fed on the prejudices of the bourgeois society in which I moved ... It was 1930.   I only knew things about these countries that people were relating at the time:   Africans were great big children ... Thank goodness for them that we were there!   Etc.   And I portrayed these Africans according to these criteria, in the purely paternalistic spirit which existed then in Belgium."
(--  Interviews with Hergé  by Numa Sadoul)


To put  Congo  in perspective, Tintin's next adventure took him to America where he finally got to encounter cowboys and Indians and where he battled Al Capone.   Cowboys, Indians and Gangsters; that pretty much summed up the view of America in European pop culture of that day.   From there he traveled to Egypt in  Cigars of the Pharaoh  where he trailed drug traffickers to India, which was also marred by some bad stereotypes, (such as a couple Hindu priests trying to sacrifice Tintin's dog Snowy to the goddess Kali!)

But here, Tintin came to an important turning point.   Hergé had announced at the end of  Cigars  that Tintin's next adventure would be in China.   He received a letter from a priest named Father Gosset, who was chaplain to the Chinese students at the University of Louvain.   He asked Hergé to be careful about what he said   about China and suggested that he do some research.   Father Gosset introduced him to a young Chinese art student named Chang Chong-Chen, who became close friends with Hergé and assisted him with the next adventure,  “The Blue Lotus”.   This story brought a new level of accuracy to Tintin, as well as respect and understanding of the people and culture of China.   Hergé even wrote Chang into the story as a boy Tintin befriends who becomes Tintin's -- and by extension the audience's -- guide to Chinese life.

Another thing Chang brought to the story was politics.   At the time, China was being invaded by the Japanese; and the Japanese invasion and occupation is an important element in the story.   An incident in the  The Blue Lotus  where Japanese soldiers blow up a rail line and use it an an excuse to invade, blaming the attack on bandits, was based on an actual incident on the Moukden railway.   Chang worked anti-Japanese slogans into many of the signs and bits of Chinese writing seen in the pages.

Hergé's next few adventures involved international intrigue as well.   “The Broken Ear”, set in a fictitious South American country, used elements taken from the Gran Chao War, a conflict between Paraguay and Bolivia over oil rights.   “King Ottokar's Sceptre”, set in the Ruritainian country of Syldavia was inspired by the  Anschluss, where Germany annexed Austria.

So in the 1930s, Tintin fought both the Japanese and expy-Nazis.   How then did he become associated with fascists?

Because about then, Germany invaded Belgium.   “Le XXe Siècle”  and  “Le Petit Vingtième” were shut down, and Hergé and Tintin found themselves without a home.   He found refuge in the newspaper  “Le Soir” (“The Evening”).

Working under Nazi occupation meant a lot of changes in the way Hergé worked.   Most significantly, it meant and end to the type of politically-inspired adventures he had been writing.   He had to abandon  “Tintin in the Land of Black Gold”, with its storyline about Mid-East tensions (and especially its German villain); he did not return to that one until after the War.   Instead, he turned to more fantastic adventures, looking for things that would not upset the Germans.   Whereas in  The Blue Lotus, the Japanese were depicted as invaders and enemies,  “The Crab with the Golden Claws”  featured a Japanese detective in a minor role as one of the good guys.

“The Shooting Star”  is an almost Jules Vernesian science fiction story about an expedition to find a fallen meteor.   The team of scientists whom Tintin accompanies on the expedition is an international one, but tellingly, they all come from countries which are either German allies, like Italy, or neutral, like Sweden.   More significantly, the rival expedition racing against them to the meteor flies an American flag and is financed by a sinister banker named Blumenstein, drawn with stereotypical Jewish features.   Hergé later regretted the anti-semitism in the story and changed the villain's name to "Bohlwinkle", which he hoped would sound more harmless.

While working on  “The Seven Crystal Balls”, Hergé had a narrow escape.   He found an apparently vacant house on the edge of town which he decided to use as the model for villa in which the story takes place.   He spent the morning sketching the exterior.   Shortly after he and his assistant finished and left, two cars full of German soldiers pulled up.   The house had been requisitioned by the SS.   'If they had surprised us a few moments earlier while we were sketching, we would certainly have been closely questioned,' he later recalled.

Although he was never arrested by the Germans, after the War he was not so lucky.   Le Soir  had been a collaborationist newspaper under German control, and once the Germans were expelled, the Allied High Command issued an order banning journalists from working who had collaborated in the production of a newspaper under the Occupation.

Hergé was arrested after the war no fewer than four times, each time by a different service; each time having to face the possibility of a firing squad. He was fortunate; the Military Commissioner trying collaborationists refused to prosecute Tintin's papa, saying "But I would make myself ridiculous!"

Nevertheless, Hergé found himself unable to publish for two years, still under the ban and tainted by his association with the Occupation.   He spent this time re-drawing and adapting his older stories for reprint in England.   Then in 1946, publisher Raymond Leblanc provided the financial backing to start a new magazine, called appropriately enough,”Tintin”, to showcase the character.   Leblanc had been a resistance fighter during the War, and so he also had the street cred to restore Hergé's reputation.

During the Post-war period Hergé wrote what are arguably some of the best of the Tintin adventures,  “Destination Moon”,  “The Calculus Affair”,  and  “Tintin in Tibet”.   He also oversaw revisions to his earlier stories for publication in color albums for the international market.   Here he cleaned up some of the more offensive elements of the older adventures.   Still, he couldn't always avoid charges of racism.   One of his post-war tales,  “Red Sea Sharks”, was inspired by reports he read about modern day slave trade in Africa.   Although his intent was to draw attention to a serious problem, he was criticized for having his native characters speaking in pidgin, and once again had to make revisions.

Much of the perceived racism and colonialism that can be found in Tintin's adventures, especially the early ones, can be blamed on ignorance rather than malice.

But was Hergé a collaborationist? Strictly speaking, he was working for a Nazi propaganda outlet. But apart from the one evil Jewish banker, I can't think of any points in Tintin's adventures during the Occupation where he used Tintin as a mouthpiece for Nazi ideology.

It's true that Tintin's failure to fight the Nazis, as he had the Japanese in “Blue Lotus” or the fascist Bourdurians in “King Ottokar's Sceptre” – his failure to mention the existence of the Nazis at all – can be taken as tacit support. But I'm not sure what alternatives Hergé had. Being a cartoonist without a publisher is a rather precarious position. I suppose he could have shut down his studio, fired his assistants and found honest work. Instead, he chose the path of least resistance, and I'm not sure if I could have done differently in his situation.

For what it's worth, Hergé's defenders argued that continuing to draw Tintin's adventures brought more joy to the children of Belgium during the dark days of the Occupation than it gave support to the Nazi regime.

In his final published adventure in 1976,  Tintin and the Picaros, Tintin had traded his traditional knickerbockers for jeans and had a "Peace" sign on his motorcycle helmet.   Even the ageless boy reporter managed to change with the times.

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Kurt Wilcken draws the webcomic “Hannibal Tesla Adventure Magazine” at http://www.kurtoonsonline.com/ and writes a weekly blog about obscure Bible stories, “The Ones You Didn’t Hear in Sunday School” at: http://onesyoudidnthear.blogspot.com/ He also sometimes refers to himself in the third person and he lives for feedback.