Should I ever find myself competing on Mastermind, I have long thought that I would choose as my specialised subject Hergé’s adventures of Tintin. I first came to this conclusion at an age when I knew pretty much nothing about anything apart from the adventures of Tintin, so it wasn’t a very difficult decision. It still has a number of advantages, however: not least that Tintin’s world, despite appearances to the contrary (he travels to every continent on earth and flies to the moon), is in fact rather small and easily knowable in its entirety.
Hergé was the pseudonym of Georges Remi, derived from his reversed initials, ‘RG’. He was born in Brussels in 1907. During the 1920s his drawings were printed in Le Boy-Scout, the magazine of the Belgian Catholic Scouting Federation. Tintin first appeared in January 1929, in Le Petit Vingtième, a newspaper supplement for children. A 75th anniversary exhibition, The Adventures of Tintin at Sea, is at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich until 5 September. On show, in descending order of interest, are several of Hergé’s original drawings, some of the sources that he drew on (and drew), a portrait of him by Andy Warhol, and various seafaring artefacts.
The boy reporter’s first assignment was to Russia. The strips from Le Petit Vingtième were collected in a book published in 1930, Tintin au pays des Soviets. The Bolsheviks are fantastically evil: in one of the pages exhibited in Greenwich, a couple of Communists lounging by a river decide to pass the time by throwing Tintin’s dog, Milou (Snowy), into the water with a rock tied to his neck, just for the evil-Bolshevik hell of it. In Tintin au Congo (1931), our hero brings down astonishing quantities of big game, including a rhino which he kills by drilling a hole in its back and shoving in a stick of dynamite.
In 1934, Hergé met a young Chinese artist, Tchang Tchong-Jen, who made him aware ‘of a kind of responsibility to his readers’ to make sure that the people and places in his drawings were depicted as accurately as possible. Tchang’s avatar appeared in the next adventure, Le Lotus bleu (1936), set in Shanghai during the Japanese occupation. Dupont and Dupond (Thomson and Thompson), the blundering bowler-hatted detectives, identical except for a slight difference in the curl of their moustaches, first appeared in Les Cigares du Pharaon (1934), determined to arrest Tintin for drug smuggling. They regularly ‘disguise’ themselves in the stereotypical national costume of the country they’re visiting, which of course only makes them more conspicuous. Their regular garb is stereotypically Belgian: dark suit, heavy shoes, Magrittean bowler hat.
The stories Hergé produced during the Nazi occupation of Belgium were, necessarily, not concerned with high politics. He has often been accused of collaboration, though he was investigated and officially cleared after the war. In L’Etoile mystérieuse (1942), originally serialised in Le Soir, a paper controlled by the Germans, an enormous meteor (metaphor?) hurtling towards earth threatens annihilation. It misses, but a chunk of it breaks off and lands in the Arctic Ocean. Two rival ships set out to investigate the meteorite. On board one of them are Tintin, his steadfast companions Snowy and Captain Haddock, and a group of scientists from Fascist or fascisant countries. The other expedition is financed by a Mr Blumenstein (his name was later changed to Bohlwinkel). The curator of the exhibition in Greenwich, Kristian Martin, defends Hergé on the grounds that he had clearly displayed his hatred of extreme politics in the 1930s, and continued to work during the war in order to keep Belgian morale up with a bit of escapism.
Throughout his fifty-year career – his inglorious war record aside – Tintin was instrumental, time and again, in effecting or averting regime change in the world’s many trouble-spots, especially in the Middle East and South America. As a story begins, the volatile region in question is heading towards meltdown; 62 pages later, the world is once again safe for democracy. It makes you wonder whether Tony Blair isn’t an old Tintin fan, still harbouring fantasies of emulating the plucky young Belgian and implementing the 62-page solution wherever it’s required (though his recent visit to Libya – undermining his ‘Saddam was a bad man’ justification for going to war in Iraq – suggests he may have recently become more of a realpolitiker).
In the last Tintin adventure that Hergé completed, Tintin et les Picaros (1976), Tintin – by this time an almost insufferable prig – helps his old friend General Alcazar reclaim power in San Theodoros from his old nemesis, General Tapioca. The plane in which the Europeans arrive in San Theodoros is shown flying over an impoverished shanty town. A pair of Tapioca’s policemen swagger past destitute children and a sign that says ‘Tapiocapolis’. When they leave, their plane is shown flying over an impoverished shanty town. A pair of Alcazar’s policemen swagger past destitute children and a sign that says ‘Alcazaropolis’. Plus ça change, as they say in Belgium.