The Marvelous Boy
A way of looking at Tintin.
Dec 7, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 12 • By CHARLES TRUEHEART
The Metamorphoses of Tintin
The comic-book hero of my youth, Tintin, will soon become accessible to a new generation of moviegoers. The directors Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson, who discovered their mutual passion for Tintin, are collaborating on a series of animated adventure films for Dreamworks, the first of which will appear next year.
While I fear this well-financed new imagining of Tintin will smother my own lifelong construct, or deprive others of figuring him out for themselves through the ur-texts, I can't help but be cheered by the staying power of this peculiar character, who's been around for 80 years and long ago transcended his Belgian roots to become nearly as familiar as Mickey Mouse. So it is very handy, if a potential buzzkill, that the Stanford scholar Jean-Marie Apostolidès has written a book explaining in some detail why this might be.
As contemporary heroes go, Tintin is not an easy sell. Only animation could do him justice, in fact. He is a kind of Aryan alien, bubble-headed but featureless beyond dots for eyes and an odd twist of reddish hair. He wears old-fashioned golf pants. He travels in the company of a white girly-dog named, in the English version, Snowy. He has no parents, no surname, no history, no personality other than goodness and pluck. Tintin is, or was in the early books, a free-range journalist, though he never seems to report or write or publish anything. Trouble finds him with regularity, and always regrets it.
Tintin's constant companion is nearly as well known as he. The bibulous, anger-prone sea captain Archibald Haddock is all edges to Tintin's none; it is their unlikely bromance that stirs Apostolidès's juices, and perhaps Spielberg's and Jackson's too. Tintin and Haddock are often joined on their adventures by the half-deaf physicist Cuthbert Calculus, the large-bosomed diva (and sole female in the Tintin universe) Bianca Castafiore, and a pair of identical idiot policemen named Thompson and Thomson. (I use the inferior English names invented by the very British translators of the French originals, beginning in the late 1950s.)
Tintin was born in 1929 at the pen of a 21-year-old Belgian artist named Georges Remi, who reversed his initials and pronounced them Hergé, his nom de plume. Originally published in weekly Brussels newspaper supplements, and later in eponymous hardcover albums, these stories went on to find audiences in dozens of languages and more than 200 million albums.
With a few exceptions the Tintin stories are set in exotic places where their creator had never been: the Soviet Union, the Congo, the United States, the Balkans, the Arabian Peninsula, the high seas, China, Tibet, South America, the moon. They were full of political intrigue and financial shenanigans and adult eccentricity, and in their own way bespoke the real world to several generations of young Francophone children.
Hergé through Tintin became the father of what Europeans call bande dessinée, or BD. There's a fine BD museum in Brussels, and this year, in recognition of the most prominent such artist of the century, and the second most-translated Belgian author after Simenon, an Hergé museum.
The interest generated by the museum opening and the forthcoming animated movie fueled this new edition of Apostolidès's book, a classic text in the field of Tintinology and part of the industry of enchantment-spoiling inspired by Bruno Bettelheim. First published in French 25 years ago, The Metamorphoses of Tintin is now being issued in a rather lifeless, yet still welcome, English translation.
As the subtitle says, the book is for adults, and far preferably adults who are deeply familiar with Tintin and his friends. Apostolidès treats the Tintin stories as allegories; he palpates them for meaning and inspiration; he interprets them as one would dreams. The tools of the critical trade so much in fashion at original publication are much in evidence. To put it another way, The Metamorphoses of Tintin appreciates Hergé's oeuvre in ways that almost certainly never occurred to him, let alone to you or to me.
In the first seven albums, published before World War II, Snowy was Tintin's only foil--Sancho Panza to his Don Quixote. "The master remains a model for the dog without ceasing to be his opposite," writes Apostolidès. "Tintin is brave, while Snowy is fearful; the former is a pacifist, but the latter is always looking to pick a fight. . . . Tintin is prudence itself, while Snowy acts without thinking about the consequences." And so forth.
Hergé obviously found limitations on the complexity Snowy could incarnate. Thus Haddock arrives on the scene, in "The Crab with the Golden Claws," in outrageous contrast to the polite and pious cipher of Tintin. For Apostolidès Haddock is "above all a mouth. . . . The captain's relation to the external world is lived in the oral mode, passionately and voluptuously"--swearing, smoking, drinking. (How will Hollywood handle this?)
Haddock favors whiskey, but judging by the books, Hergé had a fondness for champagne. Apostolidès believes the recurrence of champagne in these tales is "an unconscious equivalent of having sex . . . the oblong shape of the bottle's neck and the foamy froth that suddenly spills out," etc. He reminds us, too, of an earlier episode involving champagne and "latent homosexual desire" between Tintin and Snowy. Blistering barnacles!
Tintin was introduced to young Belgian readers in the pages of Le Petit Vingtième, a youth supplement to a Roman Catholic newspaper of rightist tendencies. Hergé had made of Tintin a commercial success in France and Belgium by the time Germany occupied both countries in 1940. Without much soul-searching, apparently, the artist kept his head down during the Nazi occupation and continued to publish Tintin in the semi-official daily Le Soir.
Apostolidès indicates rather subtly how, in this period, Hergé carefully moved Tintin away from his prior engagement with global trouble spots--the Anschluss-inspired "King Ottokar's Sceptre" (1939), for example--to a more detached realm of fantasy. Interestingly, it is a pair of these wartime albums--"The Secret of the Unicorn" and "The Crab with the Golden Claws," involving pirates, sunken treasure, and Haddock's swashbuckling seafarer ancestor--that Dreamworks will transform for the first Tintin movie.
Hergé was arrested at the end of the war in the Belgian épuration, but never charged with anti-Semitism. Within two years he had been rehabilitated and bankrolled, and Tintin was re-launched in a publication the author controlled. But his wartime opportunism haunted him ever after. He went back and -purified his earlier books, deleting racist pidgin and paternalistic Belgocentrism, changing names too obviously caricatural, and suppressing altogether the first tale, "Tintin in the Land of the Soviets," because of its rude anti-communism. (It also wasn't any good.)
As Apostolidès helps us to understand, "Tintin au Tibet" (1960) was the apotheosis of Hergé's quest for redemption and the culmination of his humanist reprogramming. Tintin goes to the Himalayas to rescue a young Chinese boy, Chang, whom he had befriended in the prewar "Blue Lotus." Chang was based on a Chinese artist of the same name whom Hergé knew in Brussels and who introduced him to Chinese art and to a more sophisticated reading of Chinese culture and society.
Apostolidès on the Tibet adventure:
Regressing from the oedipal stage of the bastard to that of the foundling, Chang finds himself confronted with origin fantasies, engulfed by an all-powerful immaculate nature, always virginal because no one can master her. . . . To save his twin, Tintin takes a similar route back to his former self.
While there is much here to make one stare upwards in disbelief, it helps to remember that this book is also--like Tintin, in a way--a period piece. In a too brief preface to the new English edition, the author acknowledges that his use of scholarly and psychoanalytic language was less familiar to readers in 1984, and thus today
the vocabulary might seem heavy or outdated. If that is the case, I ask your pardon. However, in a study I intended to be entertaining, I was still very much concerned with showing that a domain typically consigned to children is indeed amenable to legitimate scholarly interests.
I can't disagree, but Apostolidès's interpretive faculties are a good deal more developed than his ludic ones. Given Hergé's genius for the human comedy and the systematic slapstick that lards Tintin's adventures, the author could have permitted himself--and given the rest of us--just a wee bit of zaniness. Surely Spielberg and Jackson get this.
Charles Trueheart is director of the American Library in Paris.