Tintin and the Moral World of Hergé

This column was published on June 4, 2007 on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality forum.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007 was a day that came and went without too much incident nearly two weeks ago. This much I remember: I took my son to work with me so that my wife could recover from a minor bit of outpatient surgery and I had a relatively productive day despite the fact that my son is just a month shy of his second birthday and likes to climb bookshelves.

I wish I had known that May 22 of this year was the centennial anniversary of the author who, more than any other, has shaped my moral character.

Georges Remi, the son of a children’s clothier, was born a hundred years ago in Belgium. He began his literary career working for a fascist magazine where, under the nom de plume Hergé, he introduced the world to my childhood hero—OK, I should be honest here: he’s still my hero—Tintin.

That the comic book hero penned by a Belgian Fascist can inspire the dreams of a granola-eating Presbyterian child of rural Northern California is testimony to the complex mysteries of what happened to the human family during the twentieth century. Hergé’s work made an impact on me in part because he didn’t remain a Fascist (by 1935, while he was working on his fifth Tintin adventure, The Blue Lotus Herge’s friendship with the Chinese artist, Zhang Chongren inspired Hergé to work toward an embrace of cultural sensitivity and away from the racism and colonialism that is embarrassingly present in some of his earlier work, and in part because modern printing, translating, and distribution gave me access to the adventures of Tintin. But more than anything else I was formed by Hergé’s work because it was so incredibly good, both artistically and morally.

The goodness of Hergé’s art is self-evident—he pioneered the “Ligne Clair school of art, he inspired both Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol and permanently changed the look of comic book art. This year the Centre Pompidou in Paris held a Hergé retrospective.

Less observed is the moral vision of Hergé’s world.

Hergé’s protagonist, Tintin, travels the world doing good. He fights drug smugglers in North Africa (The Cab With the Golden Claws) and across Asia (Cigars of the Pharaoh), he thwarts gun runners and slave traders in the Red Sea (The Red Sea Sharks), frustrates the nefarious designs of greedy Middle Eastern oil profiteers (Land of the Black Gold), and he topples the dictator of a Latin American banana republic in a bloodless coup (Tintin and the Picaros).

What’s wonderful about Tintin’s altruistic daring do is that it is apolitical. Tintin has no nationality. His only allegiance is to goodness. The same fictitious Balkan nation that knights Tintin for saving the life of its king (King Ottokar’s Scepter) and sends him to the moon (Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon), also kidnaps Tintin’s dear friend, the bumbling and hard of hearing Professor Cuthbert Calculus, on the shores of Lake Geneva in a nefarious effort to steal plans for a super-sonic super weapon (The Calculus Affair Commenting on politics in the real world, Hergé, laments the evils both of European colonialism and Japanese imperial ambition in Nationalist China (The Blue Lotus). While Hergé’s troupe of players tend not to be religious, they encounter various religious traditions respectfully.

And through it all, Tintin has fantastic adventures. He travels around the world and through space. He climbs mountains in Tibet (Tintin in Tibet) and in Peru (Prisoners of the Sun). He hunts for the sunken treasure of pirates on the Spanish Main (Red Rackham’s Treasure). He chases a shooting star (The Shooting Star) and takes a ride in a UFO (Flight 714).

Wherever he goes, Tintin is accompanied by a band of friends, who were described in a recent New Yorker article as being “disturbingly weird.” Chief among Tintin’s companions is his dog, Snowy and the alcoholic seadog, Captain Haddock, who make up a sort of bicameral yin to Tintin’s yang. As the stories progress Tintin gathers unto himself other comrades, including Thompson and Thomson, a pair of nearly identical detectives (who, incidentally, inspired the name of an 80’s New Wave band, the Thompson Twins), the abovementioned Professor Calculus, an Italian diva named Bianca Castafiori, a faithful butler named Nestor, an insurance salesman named Wagg, and an Arab prince named Abdullah. It’s a goofy lot of friends, but faithful and really funny.

The moral imperative of this universe is simple: do what is good, go on adventures and have strong friendships. It worked for me as a child and it still rings true for me as an adult. There’s nothing wrong and a lot that is good about people who do what is right, go on adventures and have friends. For those prone to over analysis, Hergé’s morality even could be construed in Trinitarian language: Tintin manifests the goodness of Christ, the adventurous mystery of God the Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

Or a person could just read Hergé’s corpus of Tintin adventures for what they are without question: great comic books for children of every age, and so long as my son continues to climb bookshelves, I hope he finds my stash of Tintin books. It will do him a world of good.

4 thoughts on “Tintin and the Moral World of Hergé

  1. Ben,

    You have given me more material for my endless reading list! I have been aware of Tintin and Herge for decades, seen some of the graphics, but never indulged. I am a bit of an adventurer at heart and in history. I am a fan of some comics, manga and modern graphic novels. Given your endorsement, I am intrigued.

    As I recall the onomatopoeia for a dog’s bark in Chinese is “tin tin.” I wonder if there is a relation?

    Cheers,

    Randy

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  3. Randy,

    You should read Tintin. It’s great stuff. As far as the name goes, I don’t know if there is a Chinese connection, and I kind of doubt it, and here’s why. There is (for Tintin nerds like me) a famous and well documented event in Hergé’s life when he let it be known that he was going to send Tintin to China. A Catholic Priest found out about it, and convinced Hergé to meet a Chinese artist living in Brussels in the hope that Hergé would not present China with racist and colonial stereotypes as he had when he sent Tintin to the Congo and, later, to America where Tintin meets some Indians and the results are not so great (tho’ they are no worse than other contemporary portrayals of Indians).

    So Hegé met with this Chinese artist and it changed his life. Among other things, Hergé encounter with the Chinese artist was the start of a lifelong fascination with China. Which is a long way that I think The name Tintin predates Hergé’s interest in China. But I’ll check and get back to you.

    Ben

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