The Magazine

The Marvelous Boy

A way of looking at Tintin.

Dec 7, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 12 • By CHARLES TRUEHEART
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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.