This book is the third comic book by Hergé after “Tintin in the land of Soviets” and “Tintin in the Congo,” (not the river dummy, the Belgian colony, even if we do not use the article in front of this country name any more). In the bonus material they do not quote this second comic book to avoid the debate that was raging at the time and still is about the racism of Tintin essentially based on this second volume. We must remember we are in the late 1920s and the early 1930s. The first book was strongly anti-Soviet. The second book was strongly in favor of colonialism, and this third book is strongly in favor of the end of prohibition and the incorruptible war on gangsterism via the fight against the selling of alcohol, prohibited by a constitutional amendment and the Volstead Act, in other words in favor of Roosevelt and Eliot Ness, the first one still to come since Roosevelt was elected the first of four times in 1932 and Al Capone was convicted and sentenced to a long term in prison on October 17, 1931, exactly twelve months before this comic book was published in October 1932 (though it was serialized starting just before the sentence against Al Capone). That’s the first characteristic of Hergè’s work at the beginning of his career: he stuck to the news and was inspired by what was happening in the world. Surprisingly enough the bonus documents forget to quote the election of F.D. Roosevelt in 1932 who is the one who had the 21st amendment passed in Congress and ratified by the states in 1933 repealing the 18th amendment that had instated prohibition. That absence is amazing and deserves being noticed and noted. There is no reason what so ever for this absence of an essential fact called New Deal.
The second characteristic is that Hergé is Belgian and as such he has little to invest his Tintin who is going to remain young for so many years u=in Belgium itself and thus in Belgian adventures. These might come but later in his life. He chose at the beginning of his professional life to invest Tintin in the world and, mind you, in the whole world. These books are definitely written for a young audience and were published in magazines for young people originally. In this case it was published by “Le Petit Vingtième” from September 1931 to October 1932. That explains why Tintin will remain young all his life and why he is getting involved in adventures that take him far away in many countries and cultures. Young people after WW1 and even before liked exotic adventures and discovering foreign countries and civilizations. Tintin was a typical young man of his time, a young man who represented the young people who were emigrating to the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and going in the various colonial empires to build a presumably better world. At the same time that young Tintin reflects the human and humane values of his own time: education, sobriety, the refusal of any criminal activity, the love of the people, democracy too. The bonus material is clear about the first serialized and then full editions of the comic book. It was published by “Le Petit Vingtième” and they clearly indicate it was a Catholic magazine for children and young people attached to the Catholic publication “Le Vingtième Siècle” under the leadership and editorship of Father Wallez. Hergé will remain attached to Catholic principles all his life though he hardly set any Catholic events in the comic books. The principles are truth, justice, equal treatment, education, universal perspective.
It is on that last line we can find debatable situations and remarks in these early books. They will be justly corrected, some of them at least, and vastly compensated in later volumes when he will deal with international gangsters who loot historical and archaeological heritage in various countries and exploits people in all possible ways, particularly black people, though he will keep a strong anti-Arab though not anti-Muslim stand till the end. He apparently never liked the oil-barons of Arabia who have little to do with Lawrence of Arabia and his Tintin-like ideals. In this book he was criticized, and he did correct some of the questioned pictures, for his clichés on the verge of stereotypes about black people and Indians. One example is the Cactus and Petroleum Bank page 29. The concierge, if he is a little more than a doorkeeper, is no longer black. In this situation we must understand that the connection Hergé had with the Catholic Church made him dependent on some realities. For example in the ex-Belgian Congo education was entrusted either to Flemish Catholic priests and missionaries or to Wallon (French speaking) Catholic priests or missionaries. It was rather amazing to find out in 1968 still that this country was artificially divided between the two colonial languages and the two Catholic churches that were one in a way but worked in two different languages. Flemish was of course on the wane but it was still there, its proponents more or less practicing bilingualism rather than plain French.
And yet at the same time this oil episode shows the craziness of America that is able to build a city in one night – slightly like the Soviet in a previous comic book, though in that case it was make believe constructions. Yet we feel there is some humor behind this episode as if America may have the business spirit it takes to be successful on the market but they don’t seem to have any mental depth. They are shown as rather non-human, grown up children who are playing with life and nature as if it were a game of skip rope or hopscotch, but they also seem to believe that it always ends in Heavens.
The question to know whether this book was racist and is racist is just a fake question; First of all the author is not at stake, only the book. The book represents with quite a lot of humane sense the ideology of its time. In Europe in those days anti-black humor and stereotypes were not on our TV screen yet but on all our radios and on all our walls with Banania at the top and its black man saying with a strong African accent “Y’a bon Banania!” And we must not forget Josephine Baker dancing more than half nude on some Parisian stage dressed in bananas, let alone the numerous colonial international exhibitions and the use, overuse and abuse of Indians by Buffalo Bill in circuses all over the western world not so long ago. As for Indians once again Hergé is of his time but he avoids the extreme vision of anti-Indian literature or journalese ranting of a degenerate “race” that has to be either entirely assimilated or totally exterminated. He shows them with some naïve customs but in a way rather logical and persistent in what they think right. The main point here is clear: a white gangster is manipulating them and not with whisky nor with weapons, just with some words. The gangster is despicable as such and he is a liar with the Indians. The Indians are just naïve, easily manipulatable and manipulated. Luckily they are because otherwise Tintin would have been nicely, finely sliced up and bled to death. We must keep in mind Winnipeg that is accusing Tintin of racism is in Canada and in this country they are oversensitive about their original peoples and population, especially since they have a lot of guilt to compensate for and try to correct due to their extreme assimilation policy that forced for many decades Indians into a strict westernized acculturating mould.
But the funnier part of it is of course the persistence of the gangsters who are going to try, try again and still try a third time and a fourth time still again, maybe more, to get Tintin six feet under and they will fail systematically. The serial publication of this book can be felt still because every three pages you have a cliff hanger of some sort or other: The boomeranged gangster who has just killed a taxi driver is escaping the cops by talking their motorbike page 3 for a first one. What will come next? You’ll know next week, boys and girls, or rather next month if we consider the cliff hanger page 6. Tintin’s triumph is of course the only possible end and the pleasure of the audience does not come from that but from the successive cliffhangers that create suspense and every single time he gets out of it brilliantly even if many times thanks to a Deus ex Machina that comes from the pen of Hergé himself who is kind of God Almighty, the Creator of all things, at least here of all boxes and bubbles. The best episode is the twice failed hanging of Tintin who is accused of having robbed some bank. And Clint Eastwood was still very far in the distant future. Hergé was a sort of pioneer on the subject because practically no hanging ever failed for “technical” incompetence or reasons, be these hangings carried out for some stealing or for racial reasons. They were mob actions most of the time carried out by groups of angry citizens (posses with or without a sheriff, who was either elected by the people or appointed by the elected mayor, thus very sensitive to public opinion) or plain racist bigots (Ku Klux Klan). A small minority was nevertheless sanctioned by a judge’s ruling. But there were so few judges in the West.
I am afraid young people would lose something if that book were banned from public libraries and schools. Winnipeg is wrong, even though they are Canadian and are totally dedicated to the valorization and respect of Native Canadians, also known as Native Americans, though they were Natives for sure but neither Canadians nor Americans originally and had nothing to do with India and Indian people. The latest DNA studies show they are of mixed origins, Eastern European and Asian, meaning of the Sino-Tibetan stock because those two DNA stocks were mixed in Siberia where they came from, which is natural since the Sino-Tibetans and the Agglutinative-language-speaking Turkic migrated into Siberia (and the whole of Europe for the Turkic). At least those who are identified as Native Americans and Native Canadians, because we might have surprises if we went down south. But it is a basic human truth that you cannot prevent human mistakes even the most fundamental ones that reject culture, art, and plain human heritage, even if decades later or centuries later the same people or their descendants will have to go on their knees and apologize for their or their ascendants’ dumbness, narrow-mindedness and bigotry. Look for one example how Shostakovich’s music is finally rediscovered and revaluated, Shostakovich, that strong follower of Stalin, you know the leader who was taking over the land of Soviets in 1928-1929-1930!
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU