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With September now here, and with it a new issue of Litro focussed on Comics and Graphic Fiction, I wanted to devote this blog to one of my childhood delights: The Adventures of Tintin. I am not embarrassed to admit that growing up, I had a bit of a crush on the tufty-haired reporter and I can’t deny it’s a fondness that’s lasted into adulthood. I own almost the entire series of books, some of them hardbacks passed down to me. I’ve read them countless times; I’ve also got the animated TV mini-series on DVD box-set; I’ve even visited the official Tintin shop, whilst on holiday in Belgium, where I guiltily read the first few pages of the infamous, once-banned story Tintin in the Congo before hastily putting it back on the shelf and pretending it wasn’t there. Yes, I think it’s fair to say I am a Tintin fanatic: I find it hard to believe that anyone could dislike Hergé’s most famous creation and I certainly wouldn’t think twice about letting any future child of mine enjoy his adventures.
Imagine my surprise, then, on discovering that there are some people today who insist there is more to the world of Tintin than I ever could have imagined at 10 years old: that behind the colourful, childish, cartoon adventures of Tintin, Captain Haddock and Professor Calculus, the stories deal with very real, very adult concerns. Indeed, these concerns are so pressing that the stories have been picked up by various literary critics and led to the creation of ‘Tintinology’, the academic study of The Adventures of Tintin.
Tintinologists dissect the comics, examining what they believe are hidden themes of fascism, gender, family history, addiction, animal cruelty, xenophobia, sexuality and class. At first, I couldn’t believe it but when I returned to the texts recently and looked at them with adult eyes, I could almost see where these academics are coming from. When French critic Serge Tisseron asserts that Captain Haddock is a chronic alcoholic, I have to agree that yes, the Captain certainly drinks with worrying alacrity. Furthermore, it is undeniable that some of the Tintin cartoons are racist – I have already mentioned Tintin in The Congo, its publication in English delayed for many years due to its discriminatory depictions of Africans and, to be sure, Hergé’s portrayals of some other ‘non-European’ cultures is far from flattering or acceptable in today’s society. It’s a problem that splits Tintinologists. Whilst some condemn Hergé for his seemingly racist tendencies, others defend him, arguing that he was only reflecting the times, even going as far as admiring the courage of his convictions. Whether you excuse Hergé or not, accusations of racism certainly add a more complex layer to the Tintin stories than I had first thought.
Some critics, however, have taken the study of Tintin even further. Whilst the majority of Tintinologists are French or Belgian, the British author Tom McCarthy published a book, in 2006, called Tintin and the Secret of Literature, in which he asserts that the stories “hold all of literature’s formal keys, its trade secrets”. He even calls upon the big guns of literary criticism – Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes –and stresses his argument with a zeal only displayed by true Tintin-obsessives and those with an in-depth knowledge of the books that far exceeds my own humble understanding. To McCarthy, Tintin has more potential for subtext than many “real novelists”. To him, Tintin is “the degree zero of personage. He has no past, no sexual identity, no complexities,” and, hence, his stories have a symbolic importance that McCarthy believes equals that of the works of Brontë and Faulkner.
It’s not only academics, however, who are keen to drag Tintin into the adult world. In 1993, Frederic Tuten published Tintin and the New World, in which Tintin experiences sex, drugs and wartime crimes at first hand. This adventure is not for children, with Tuten actually depicting sex scenes between our hero and a character named Clavdia Chauchat and leaving him disillusioned with the world around him. Although the novel received mostly positive reviews, it makes me feel uncomfortable – it seems wrong, somehow, to read erotic paragraphs about Tintin that, for me, take away his innocence forever.
So Tintin is having sex, Captain Haddock is an alcoholic and their creator, Hergé, was a racist: whether you find them interesting or not, these adult perspectives of Tintin and his friends do somewhat mar the simple, child-like enjoyment I used to get out of the stories. With the 26thOctober marking the long-awaited release of Steven Spielberg’s big screen version of the boy reporter’s adventures, the Tintin books are likely to see a resurgence in the coming months and many people, adults and children alike, will pick up the stories once more. So should we stop them, if we are to believe what the academics are telling us, that there is more to Tintin than meets the eye? Should we boycott the boy reporter? Personally, I’m torn – although I find the study of Tintin books very interesting and I can even agree with some of the ideas put forward, I believe there is still much delight to be found in the The Adventures of Tintin. Despite the complex adult issues and the supposed deeper subtext, I would argue that most people won’t find those things when they start reading the books. Instead, they’ll discover exciting tales of adventure, curious mysteries and a spindly-ankled, bequiffed, snub-nosed reporter-turned-detective who is honourable, true and good – and that’s the Tintin I know and love.