This week, fans of The Adventures of Tintin celebrated the 90th birthday of the famous boy reporter created by the Belgian cartoonist, Georges Remi (pen name “Hergé”). “Tintin” tells the story of a foreign correspondent and his faithful dog Snowy as they traverse the world, fighting criminals, solving mysteries, and breaking stories. As a child, I loved reading about Tintin and his friends. But rereading the series as an adult, I’ve grown to appreciate the deeper layer of political satire and its surrounding controversies.
Hergé began the series in 1929 for the Catholic newspaper Le Vingtieme Siècle and, no doubt, the stories reflect the turbulent times in which he lived. In his debut, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets (serialized 1929–30), Tintin is sent to report on the Bolshevik government under Stalin and is hunted down by the secret police. The Soviets are depicted as weak and dishonest. “By Trotsky, how did that banana skin get itself under my feet?” one would-be assassin exclaims in a moment of slapstick comedy. Another scene shows “English communists being shown the beauties of Bolshevism,” mocking the credulousness of Soviet sympathizers.
At the onset of the Second World War, Hergé wrote King Ottokar’s Sceptre (1938–39), in which the villain Müsstler was intended as a combination of “Mussolini” and “Hitler.” The story is a critique of Nazi expansionism — and especially a response to the annexation of Austria. However, after the Germans had occupied Brussels in 1940, Le Vingtieme Siècle was shut down because of its Catholicism. Hergé went to work for Belgium’s main newspaper, Le Soir, which was under Nazi control.
He mainly steered clear of political topics during this period: Tintin goes to Morocco to fight drug-smugglers, then heads to the Arctic Ocean on a scientific expedition in search of a fallen meteorite, then searches for treasure left behind by his friend Captain Haddock’s ancestors. But following the Allied liberation in September 1944, the author was investigated for Nazi collusion and his then-ongoing series, The Seven Crystal Balls, was interrupted.
Hergé had drawn some Jewish characters with derogatory stereotypes. Still, it was decided that his affiliation with the Germans had been accidental, and that his stories had done far more to raise morale among the Belgians than to support the Third Reich. After the war, Raymond Leblanc, who had been one of the leading figures of the Belgian resistance, set up the independent Tintin magazine so that the stories could continue. Another resistance leader said that Hergé had been “more of a blunderer than a traitor.”
Indeed, the episode recalls the trouble that P. G. Wodehouse, an English author living in France at the time of the German occupation, found himself in after giving several lighthearted broadcasts on Nazi radio. George Orwell wrote in defense of P. G. Wodehouse in 1945:
There is an old saying that if you throw enough mud some of it will stick, and the mud has stuck to Wodehouse in a rather peculiar way . . . Even at the time several letters to the press claimed that ‘Fascist tendencies’ could be detected in his books, and the charge has been repeated since . . . but it is important to realise that the events of 1941 do not convict Wodehouse of anything worse than stupidity.
The same can be said of Hergé, to whom, perhaps, more mud has stuck. Another one of his mistakes was the primitive and infantile depiction of the Congolese in Tintin in the Congo (1930–31). Though the then 22-year-old author’s colonial attitudes were widely held at the time, the book has undoubtedly damaged his reputation. However, his anti-racist sentiment comes out strongly in Tintin in America (1931–32) and in his sympathetic and sensitive portrayal of the Chinese in The Blue Lotus (1934–36), set during the Japanese invasion of 1931.
Nevertheless, with the passing of Tintin’s 90th birthday, one is reminded how remarkable the series really is. Besides fighting Communists, taking on fascists, and defeating gangsters, drug-dealers, evil scientists, and more — in Explorers on the Moon, Tintin landed on the moon 15 years before Neil Armstrong. It is no wonder that by 1983, he attracted the attention of Hollywood when Steven Spielberg bought the film rights to the series. The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, directed by Peter Jackson, came out in 2011.
But beyond its historical significance, there is a timelessness to Tintin that owes to his extraordinary character. Tintin was created in a time when moral and physical courage mattered more than anything else. Though he was by no means perfect, his spirit endures. As many of the stories end: “Long live Tintin and Snowy!”