Written by Sam Ellis. Researched by Harry Ellis. Edited by Kathryn Robinson.
The Tintin comic books are now a collection read and loved around the world. It has become a major franchise with animated films, action figures and, of course, various editions of the graphic novels.
However like any other historical artefact they are products of an age, and the attitudes and ideas of that time are encapsulated in this literature. Written in Belgium by Georges Remi (under the pen name Hergé) between 1929 and his death in 1983, the Tintin books span the height and decline of Europe’s colonial power, and that colonial ignorance has made some of the comics difficult for the modern reader to
enjoy. Most infamous of these is Tintin in the Congo (1931), which is consequently missing from many fans’ collections. Whilst it’s important not to hide from the fact that these ideas of race existed in the not so distant past, many parents find this book unsuitable for their children.
In a sense, this article is concerned with how media and communication are represented within the media itself: Many young readers will have formulated an image of colonial society from the Tintin books. They will have had an impression of how colonists and indigenous people speak, act and even think thanks to the innovative use of thought clouds. The comics are one of the first series to use them alongside speech bubbles.
There is however more subtle pro-colonial propaganda than dialogue. Notably how people communicate.
Take for instance the completely fictional Arumbaya community who live in the Amazon. They appear in The Broken Ear (1937). The Arumbaya have no written word; they pass on messages verbally, and often incorrectly. It is as if their only form of communication is one big game of Chinese whispers. The comic fails to recognise that if Amazon societies were, and always had been, reliant on oral communication they might have got pretty good at it. In the end Tintin and his companion easily manage to escape capture by a trick of ventriloquism – impersonating a totem pole that orders their release.
That isn’t the only time Tintin escapes certain death by exploiting an indigenous society’s lack of communication. He, Snowy and Captain Haddock unwittingly stumble upon the Incas, who have been living in an enclave cut off from the rest of the world in Prisoners of the Sun (1948). Locked away in the stone vault, they are given the luxury of choosing their own execution date. Tintin discovers a newspaper within the vault and chooses to coincide their execution with a Solar Eclipse. When the fatal day arrives the sun worshipping Incas are aghast when the world plunges into darkness, and take it as a sign to release Tintin and the Captain, whose cunning ruse had paid off. The Incas are tricked by their lack of scientific knowledge, owing to their isolation. Yet it is never explained how a European newspaper conveniently found its way into the prison cell. The western media is powerful enough to reach the most isolated communities, but it is of no use to them and great use to Tintin.
This plotline, showcasing the global reach of western print, is also used in Cigars of the Pharaoh (1934). Tintin gets on amicably with Sheik Patrash Pasha, who in the middle of the desert has read all about Tintin. This frame was developed in the later editions, which benefitted from a revamp of the artwork from 1945 onwards. In the most recent version, the Sheik excitedly reveals the cover of another Tintin comic, Destination Moon (1952).
It is not only indigenous people whose infrastructure is represented by a failure to communicate. Post-colonial Central America is in turmoil with a series of farcical civil wars. Letters are used by top officials to deceive and impersonate; secret state documents are always being lost and found. Their inability to understand, or even hold on to, each others’ messages is an example of their perceived inability to run a country in the wake of independence.
This is at the the crux of the argument. The comics are written at the apex of imperialism. A post-colonial world was on the horizon, one of independence and self-determination. The European powers had never been so proud of their possessions, but they were also under mounting pressure. The colonies were expensive to keep and global politics had shifted. Questions were being asked about the legitimacy of colonial rule. There was a need to reaffirm that pretension in as many media outlets as possible. Hergé may not have been an imperialist but his comics were undoubtedly caught up in that dominant, European discourse.
The Tintin comics are fantastic books which have been enjoyed by generations, and should be by many more to come. It is however worth remembering that the far flung places Tintin visits and the people he meets are only ever fictional. Neuvo Rico and the Republic of San Theodoros don’t exist. Yes, they are a representation of real places but they tell us a lot more about how Europe perceived colonial society than about the colonial society and indigenous cultures themselves.