A silly season blog: Tintin and Human Rights

by Sarah Joseph

So the new Tintin movie, The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, opens in Australia on Boxing Day. As a die-hard fan of Tintin, the creation of Georges Remi known as Hergé (1907-1983), I will have to see it, though I have serious doubts that the movie can remotely match my expectations given it originates from books by that are amongst the most favorite in my life. This Guardian review doesn’t fill me with hope either, though David and Margaret are more positive.

Like most Tintinophiles, I have read all of the books over and over – even the unfinished last book consisting only of scrubby drawings, Tintin and Alph-Art, and the earliest book available only in black and white one, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets (though I confess that I have only just heard of an abandoned Tintin book from the late 1950s, Le Thermozéro). As a kid, I remember fondly the delight of finding, in Collins bookstore in Woden Plaza in Canberra, a new Tintin book. The first one I owned was The Red Sea Sharks (or maybe it belonged to my older brother), and it sat by itself on the shelf for a few years. Then, around the age of 8 or 9, I rediscovered it. It is one of the classic Tintins, a rollicking adventure riffing on the themes of arms trading, coups de tat, and the slave trade, which includes almost all of the classic characters: Tintin and his white terrier Snowy (of course), the bad tempered but brave Captain Haddock, the absent-minded but brilliant Professor Calculus, the incompetent but self confident Thomson and Thompson, Nestor the butler, the irritating Jolyon Wagg, the evil but bumbling Rastapopoulos, his sinister second in command Allan, the overbearing but indefatigable Bianca Castafiore, cameos by villains Dr Müller and Dawson, memorable minor characters like Captain Skut, Cutts the butcher and Senhor Oliviera da Figueira, and even Tintin’s questionable dictator mates, General Alcazar, Emir Ben Kalish Ezab and his exasperating spoilt brat of a son Abdullah.

My second book was an odd one, The Castafiore Emerald, one for the aficionados, and probably adult ones at that. I was confused by it as a kid, as not a lot happens in it: it’s not very “adventurous”. It is instead a perceptive and clever satire on celebrity, the media, and the ridiculousness of human nature.

But I persisted, and of course most Tintin books followed the adventurous line, with Tintin, a resident of Belgium (though he lives in “Europe” in the English translated versions), charging around the world to the Middle East, Scotland, the US, the USSR, the Congo, Tibet, China, Nepal, Peru, Jakarta, the South Pacific, Geneva (where I have stayed in the real Cornavin hotel where Tintin, Snowy and Haddock stayed in The Calculus Affair), the fictional Syldavia and its fascist enemy Borduria (somewhere in the Balkans), the fictional San Theodoros and Nuevo Rico (somewhere in the Amazon), and of course the moon (over a decade before human beings actually got there).

Tintin v Asterix

I had the majority of Tintins before I got my first Asterix book, Asterix in Britain. It took me a while to warm to Asterix after the raw and relatively realistic adventure of Tintin (no magic potion in Tintin). Furthermore, I have always loved the art and detail of Tintin – the clean lines and Herge’s clear love of modern art, design and architecture, and realism (eg the perfect depiction of the Hotel Cornavin in Geneva). Asterix is rougher in style and line, though there are some marvelous caricatures (eg a young Jacques Chirac, the Beatles) and brilliant tributes to famous artists (compare this panel with Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa) from the illustrator Albert Uderzo. Furthermore, Asterix, at least when written by Rene Goscinny before his untimely death in 1977, is clearly more politically astute and clever than Tintin (eg. check out the critique of capitalism in Obelix and Co). There are more jokes for adults in Asterix, but, regardless, Tintin remains my favorite, probably just because he came first in my life.

Human Rights

Tintin is normally fighting crime, for example in the form of the international drug trade (Cigars of the Pharaoh, The Blue Lotus, The Crab with the Golden Claws), forgers (The Black Island), gangsters (Tintin in America, Tintin in the Congo), murderous thieves (The Broken Ear, The Secret of the Unicorn), kidnappers (Flight 714, The Calculus Affair), revenge seekers (Tintin and the Picaros), greedy industrialists (The Shooting Star) and saboteurs from hostile foreign powers (Land of Black Gold, Destination Moon, Explorers on the Moon). Sometimes Tintin battles circumstance rather than a particular “bad guy”, such as frustration (Red Rackham’s Treasure, The Castafiore Emerald), the Incas (The Seven Crystal Balls and Prisoners of the Sun), and the yeti in Tintin in Tibet.

Some of the themes of Tintin also resonate with human rights (see also here). For example, The Red Sea Sharks draws attention to the arms trade and the modern day slave trade, while Tintin battles fascists in King Ottakar’s Sceptre, the imperialistic Japanese in The Blue Lotus, and the evils of Soviet communism in Tintin in the Land of the Soviets (though the latter is in fact pretty lame anti-Soviet propaganda, dismissed by Herge as a transgression of his youth). Tintin helps his friend Alcazar regain power in Tintin and the Picaros on the strict condition that Alcazar refrain from reprisal killings, much to Alcazar’s chagrin. Herge also mocks the contemporary murderous practice of lynching in Tintin in America.

Tintin and the Nazis

Infamously however, there are some negative human rights connotations in Tintin. Under Nazi occupation Tintin was published in a pro-Nazi paper, Le Soir. The Shooting Star, first published during the occupation of Belgium, has a Jewish villain, a wealthy industrialist called Blumenstein. All of the “good guys” come from Nazi-occupied countries while the villains apparently come from Allied powers. In the initial publication (which I have never seen), one panel depicts two Jews welcoming the end of the world (caused by an asteroid smashing into the earth) because they will not have to pay off their creditors. They were removed from the later edition, while Blumenstein was renamed Bohlwinkel from the fictional state of Sao Rico.

Beyond The Shooting Star, politics did not otherwise intrude into the wartime Tintin books, such as The Crab with the Golden Claws. It may also be noted that the first version of Land of Black Gold takes place in the British Mandate of Palestine, depicting conflicts between Jews, Arabs and British troops. The portrayal of Jews is not apparently anti-Semitic (though I confess that I have never been able to get my hands on one of these early serialized editions to see for myself). That storyline ceased in 1940, and was not included when the book was rewritten and finalized in 1950.

After the war Herge was arrested several times for alleged collaboration, but he was never charged. In contrast, the editor of Le Soir was tried and executed. While one can fairly think ill of Herge’s gutless stance during the war, he was not alone amongst artists who kept their heads down under Nazi occupation.

Tintin and Politics

On politics, Herge’s pre-war King Ottakar’s Sceptre does have a poke at fascism, with one villain (unseen) named Musstler, an apparent combination of Mussolini and Hitler. Communism is slammed in Land of the Soviets and totalitarianism in The Calculus Affair. In The Black Island, first published in 1937-38, the villain is German and the British are good guys, in contrast to the allocated nationalities in The Shooting Star.

Rampant capitalism is satirized in Tintin in America and is demonized by the war-mongering multinational oil companies in The Broken Ear and Land of Black Gold. Respectable and powerful businessmen are revealed to be drug smugglers in The Crab with the Golden Claws and The Blue Lotus, and a slave trader in The Red Sea Sharks. The respective multi-millionaires in Flight 714, Laszlo Carreidas and Rastopopoulos, compete in a memorable scene over who is the most evil. Finally, Alcazar’s rebel Picaros in Tintin and the Picaros are sponsored by the International Banana Company, perhaps an ironic nod to the manipulative role played by multinational fruit exporters in Latin American unrest, for example in Guatemala and Honduras.

Democracy is not necessarily promoted in the books. The benevolent Ottakar was still an absolutist monarch. Tintin also became good friends with two dictators who ruled with an arbitrary and bloodthirsty iron hand, General Alcazar and Emir Ben Kalish Ezab. The rule of these characters is hardly preferable to that of their eternal rivals, General Tapioca and Sheikh Bab El Ehr. However, Herge clearly acknowledged the failings in Alcazar and Kalish Ezab. Memorably, there is the classic denouement on the final page of his final completed volume, Tintin and the Picaros. Earlier in that story, Tintin and his friends fly into San Theodoros, where people live in devastating poverty under heavy policing with a sign towering over them, “Viva Tapioca”. As Tintin flies out, having successfully engineered a bloodless coup by his friend Alcazar, the same people languish in the same poverty in the same police state, the only change being the sign, “Viva Alcazar”.

The Blue Lotus, first published in 1936, portrays China prior to and during the Japanese imperial invasion. The set of panels where Japan engineers the Mukden incident as an excuse to invade China, and its staged walkout from the League of Nations, are masterpieces.

Tintin and Racism

Herge’s sensitivity to the Chinese people in The Blue Lotus was ahead of its time, most evident when Tintin and his young friend Chang laugh at the racist and ridiculous stereotypes ascribed to Chinese people by Westerners. The book is also scathing in its representation of arrogant Westerners in the Shanghai International Settlement. Many decades later, Herge repeated the dose in his respectful portrayal of Tibetan monks in Tintin in Tibet.

Similarly, Prisoners of the Sun was ultimately sympathetic to Inca Indigenous culture, threatened by Western plundering of its treasures (though one might think that sun worshippers would understand an eclipse of the sun). Furthermore, there was acknowledgment of the mistreatment of Indigenous people in Tintin in America, ahead of its time in 1931, when they are pushed off their lands by unscrupulous oil speculators. Finally, Herge highlighted the instinctive racism suffered by the Roma in The Castafiore Emerald, who are forced to live on a garbage dump and are automatically accused, wrongly and without evidence, of the theft of a precious jewel.

Yet Herge was not, unfortunately, immune from racist stereotypes himself. Tintin’s early excursion to South America in The Broken Ear (first published in 1937) brings him into contact with a primitive cannibalistic jungle tribe. However, the inner dignity of the Arumbaya tribe may be acknowledged by the fact that the “lost” explorer Ridgwell has abandoned his modern Western lifestyle in favour of living with them. While he is sympathetic to the Chinese in The Blue Lotus, the Japanese fare very badly.

Tintin in the Congo vies with The Shooting Star as Herge’s greatest literary sin. First published in 1930, it depicts an arrogant Tintin gallivanting around the Belgian Congo chasing gangsters, dispensing his patronizing white man’s wisdom to stupid and lazy monkey-like natives. Also notable is Tintin’s bloodthirsty attitude to wildlife, blowing up a rhinoceros, shooting about a dozen antelope, and skinning a chimp to disguise himself.

While Tintin in the Congo is a colonial rant, it is undoubtedly a creature of his time. One cannot doubt that the book would have largely reflected contemporary Belgian attitudes to its colony, and a prevailing absence of concerns for animal welfare. However, should this dinosaur of a racist book be freely available today? In response to anti-discrimination complaints, some libraries and booksellers in a number of countries have removed the book from children’s sections (see, eg, here). The strongest argument against its broad availability is probably not that the book will promote racism, but that it will provoke feelings of inferiority amongst children of African descent.

I find it impossible to be objective on this issue. I did not read Tintin in the Congo until I was an adult, as its translation into English was delayed until 1991 due to its controversial nature. I do remember being very annoyed as a kid that I could not access this last, final book, and even borrowed a French language version from a library to get the general gist of the story. I certainly disliked the censorship. But, then again, my ethnicity was not offensively targeted by the book. In conclusion on this point, I note that, ironically, Tintin in the Congo is reportedly the most popular Tintin book in the Congo itself.

While Tintin in the Congo may be seen as a creature of its time, the same excuse is not so easily applied to The Red Sea Sharks, first published in 1958. One main plotline involves Tintin commandeering a ship engaged in the slave trade, with villains having tricked African Muslims into boarding with a promise to transport them to Mecca. While the book seems to have good intentions, reinforcing that slavery is evil and still affects African lives, the Africans are still portrayed as extremely naïve, subservient and in need of the help of white men. Having said that, every Tintin book ultimately portrays its white hero as smarter and more resourceful than everybody else, many of whom are very stupid indeed, such as the Thomson twins.

Tintin and Women

Women are almost absent in Tintin’s world. Alcazar’s wife in Tintin and the Picaros is a bullying harridan, a classic misogynistic stereotype. The only major female character is Bianca Castafiore, a domineering opera star, who drives Captain Haddock mad with her demanding self centred nature and irritating affections. Yet she is also brave, resourceful and loyal, as seen in The Calculus Affair and Tintin and the Picaros.

Tintin’s world of men is not unique. Men dominate twentieth century adventure cartoons, including for example the earlier Asterix books.


So, decades on from my compulsive collection of Tintin books until there were no more to collect, I have sadly learnt that neither the messages in the books nor its author were entirely savoury. Furthermore, Herge’s legacy is preserved by a foundation which plays an unnecessarily heavy hand on copyright, such as to even threaten the cartoon portrayal of Kevin Rudd as Tintin when he was Opposition Leader.  Its ferocity helps to explain why I have not included pictures in this blog. But it seems that little can taint my continued enjoyment of the Tintin books even if I have grown up to become a human rights lawyer: they are buried too deeply into my childhood joy.

Tintin spanned six decades from the late 1920s (though he will never die, and will presumably gain a new lease of life after the movie). He is unapologetically a creature of the Western world of the twentieth century, even when some apology is needed. After all, the books addressed colonialism, the rise of the USSR, organized crime, capitalism, the drug trade, the prelude to World War II (though the war itself is somewhat absent), alcoholism, racism, coups de tat, multinational corporations, the Cold War, the arms race, the space race, the modern slave trade, the arms trade, the fight for control of oil, the growth of commercial air travel, and even the rapacious media obsession with celebrity. In that regard, the Tintin books are a masterpiece chronicle of the last century.

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