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December 9, 2010

Old School: Tintin

I remember when a friend introduced me to the world of Tintin. I can't remember exactly how old I was, probably about seven or eight, and he brought out what looked like comic books...but they were bound, and different from American superhero ones. (Basically these were my first graphic novels, though that term wasn't yet in use, and seems rarely applied to bound Europeans series like Tintin and Asterix anyway.)

I was blown away by the adventures, the humor, and the storytelling, and I also recall being a bit hypnotized by the exoticism—these were from Europe, and at the time were a little hard to find in U.S. stores. (Well, only a few stores carried them, at any rate.) I tore through them, as many of my schoolmates did the same, and there was a little competition among us to grab copies of the ones we hadn't read yet from the school library.

In the last year or so, our six-year-old has been pulling down the three or four Tintin books I still have, and so I've been rediscovering them as he discovers them for the first time. As many parents have noted through the years, they are of their times (the Belgian writer-illustrator HergĂ© created the bulk of his oeuvre between 1930 and 1950) in ways both good and bad. The bad causes occasional generational hubbub—I vaguely remember one from when I was a kid, and recently there was a controversy at the Brooklyn Public Library that put one early Tintin book in a locked room.

Yes, there is some offensive stuff in the Tintin books. Most of it involves a general (and typical of much European pop culture of the time, as anyone who's read Agatha Christie novels knows) patronizing attitude toward nonwhite peoples of the globe. Tintin is almost invariably defending these peoples against violently racist and venal Europeans who want to abuse/enslave/exploit the hapless third-worlders, but there is unquestionably an offputting sense of innocent, simple races that must be protected and treated kindly by their European betters. In a few of the books, Herge goes beyond this into awful stereotype. (His portrayal of a group of Africans whom Tintin rescues from being enslaved by the bad guys in The Red Sea Sharks comes to mind, in how he makes them both appear and speak).

This is a bit uncomfortable, and difficult to explain to a young child—but I also think the all-too-recent past of open racism is a subject they're going to encounter sooner or later, especially in classic literature, film, or television from the period. Tintin books are as good a way to confront it as any. Better, even, since Herge's plots often use real history as their backdrop—The Blue Lotus, for instance, is explicit about (and extremely critical of) Japan's move to dominate China in the 1930s. His drawings of Asians use upsetting stereotypes, and his "the Japanese are bad; the Chinese are good" message is obviously simplistic, but he does make the Japansese characters bad mainly because they demonstrably do bad things, not simply because they're Japanese.

But none of this is the reason you'll want to read Tintin with your kids. It's because these are some of the seminal Western adventure stories, drawing on a prior generation of European thrillers and unquestionably influencing those that followed. (Reading the Scotland-set The Black Island with Dash, I couldn't help noticing how many of the story elements turn up in Hitchcock films—for instance, there's a scene in which a biplane dives to attack Tintin on the ground, just like the famous one that chases Cary Grant in North by Northwest, which was filmed some years later.) The stories are riveting, true page-turners; the characters broad but unforgettable, and quickly beloved to kids and adults alike, from the plucky hero himself to his blustery sidekick Captain Haddock to the brilliant but absent-minded Professor Calculus to the bumbling near-twin detectives Thompson and Thomson. I sense Dash is on the cusp of flying through the entire series just as I did more than 30 years ago. And I can't wait myself.

I should add that there's one more reason to be excited about Tintin right now: Steven Spielberg's 3-D animation Tintin movie is scheduled to arrive in theaters next December. Based on The Secret of the Unicorn and featuring a voice cast that includes Andy Serkis (Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies) as Captain Haddock, Daniel Craig as villain Red Rackham, and Jamie Bell (Billy Elliott) as Tintin himself, it would seem to have a good shot at doing the books justice. You can bet we'll be there.

[Image: Courtesy of Little, Brown]

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