In their early formations, the Tintin comics were made out to be truth. Tintin was always being chased because the threat he posed was the exposure of truth. But what truth? Or more precisely, whose truth was being portrayed? Le Petit Vingtième, in which the earlier albums were serialized, had clear political ties with the right through its religious leanings. As Tom McCarthy points out in Tintin and the Secret of Literature, to be Catholic at the time also meant being antisemitic, a white supremacist, and a fascist. Yes! Yes! Yes! Tintin ticks all the boxes.
At least for a while, until he meets Chang in The Blue Lotus, often referred to as the most touching book of the series, one Hergé called “a homage to friendship.” For this reason, all the snippets in this Top Ten list come from the early albums when political correctness was a non-issue. This is hot off the press after a recent attempt (another one) at correcting the problem of the influence of the books.
The representation of the Jewish community is very much like anything else you might find throughout the media at the time: large noses, thick lips, physically unfit (glasses, overweight), scheming, moneylending, etc. Needless to say, when they appear, they’re the baddies like this financier here. Given Belgium’s ambiguous position in the war, things could be worse. The stereotype remains just that, and the group is racially defined by the physical characteristics, discussed above. While bad, the worst is yet to come.
This is just one instance where the strip clearly expresses the mission statement of Tintin’s first adventure: Soviets bad. Here, soviets bad = no freedom of choice, no freedom of speech, and oppression to the extreme. And there, in the left-hand corner, Tintin looks over them, puzzled. He comes from the better world, don’t you know? Where else would he look from but from above? And the communist citizens, poor things, bear the weight of their oppression, are constantly look down, and are hunched over and depressed. Of course! This is some wonderful reporting (incidentally, the only album where Tintin actually does write an article!).
Objectification. Simple as that! The image shows Tintin, well dressed in the vest and cap of someone on excursion, leans over the figure of a much older man in amazement, preparing to take a photograph. The man is clearly uncomfortable with being objectified by not only the foreigner, but also his dog! Not only that, but he is made to resemble the homeless of Europe, wrapped up in a sheet on the ground, leaning against a building. Tintin takes great delight in the authenticity of the “Red Indian,” largely exciting because it took “two whole days on the train” to get to “Redskin City” as the young reporter points out in the preceding frame. Segregation much?
When Tintin travels to the Congo, it is not as a reporter. He goes their to hunt the wildlife, humiliate the people, and be praised as a deity. He goes as a colonialist, more often referred to as a missionary. “Marvelous,” he says of the buildings and intrusion of Belgian culture and lifestyle on Congolese land. Even Snowy agrees, but he’s full of such sentiment. At the heart of it all, in the middle, what should one find but a chapel! Typical, given that Le Petit Vingtième was a Catholic publication. In the final panel, the black man requests education from the white man, as if inviting him to intrude.
Once the invitation is there, what sort of geography is taught? Belgian geography, of course, which Tintin insists is their country. This is a second appropriation of land. The first is very obvious and requires no explanation. The second instance is on a symbolic plane, denying the people their right of identifying their land as independent in any way. He is contributing to the normalizing of colonization and racism at large. Snide little Snowy has his jab at the students, beginning with the very sophisticated prefix, “I say…” Do you, Snowy? Really? And what about the oppressed? Will they get a voice?
The humanoid caricatures on the left are the torturers, presumably Chinese. Why, in this story set in Europe, need there be Asian undertakers? Is gruesome torture all too unbearable for the sensitive Western sensibility? Take it to the Orient, for they can handle the suffering of others easily. Have them look ominous and alien (in both senses of the word), and not only that but turn their threat — made very present in the array of torture utensils on the walls and floor — into slapstick! What silly men, this scene asks its readers to think. This is thousands of yards away from the character depth Herge gives to Chang in The Blue Lotus, where he finally starts doing some research on the countries and peoples Tintin travels to.
How kind of Tintin to give the “Pygmies” the benefit of the doubt. No, not really. He hadn’t done that at all. He had emasculated them, treated them as idiots, and denied them their rights. Well, at least he thinks he gave them the benefit of the doubt! Very easily, he reverts to judgement. So it is that the brave hero turns to face the violent other all on his own. This violent other is depicted as primitive to the core, with the stereotyped features that need no describing, their weaponry, and brutal insistence. Nothing positive can be extracted from this depiction.
This panel supports three typical colonial beliefs: that slavery is quite as natural as any hierarchical system, that non-Europeans never grow into the maturity of adulthood, and that they are more than a little slow although servile. No, no, and no — not that it needs saying any more. The Tintin of the early days never ceases to shock modern readers. This year, there has been a court case suggesting the banning of Tintin in the Congo permanently on account of its racism. The result: moving the album to the adult graphic novel section, sealing the content, and marking it with a warning label.
On top of everything else he had done to them, he leaves them as abandoned with an impression of his greatness as “all-powerful” — as the shrines to himself and Snowy in the top left-hand corner clearly illustrate. Rumours spread that “in Belgium all whites like Tintin,” that is figures that would impress and overwhelm to the point of being worthy of worship. So the Congolese finally get to speak and this is what they say! Well, this and that they can keep his photo camera if he doesn’t return within a year and a day. This is all too firmly based within a paternalistic conception of colonialism.
Not had enough stereotyping yet? What about this portrayal of nobel savages, incompetent and undignified in the Western get-up. On top of that, they’re a “lazy bunch” according to the persistently racist Snowy. The nobel savage is put in an awkward position: taught the ways of the gentry (which would not allow one to get one’s clothes dirty) with this conflicting request by the white man to help the dog. And what does the white man do in this situation. Ah, yes. Stands there scolding, hands on hips. He knows his place very well and expects the others to know theirs.