Essay: Situating Tintin at 95
From references in classic films to kids nicknamed after the Belgian boy detective who roamed the world, a certain generation of Bengalis were fascinated by Herge’s comic book creation. Revisiting the Tintin phenomenon
Before Japanese manga or larger-than-life Marvel comics held sway over urban Indian readers, there was Tintin.
An investigative reporter with a Belgian newspaper called Le Vingtième Siècle (The Twentieth Century), the comic book protagonist, with a distinctive quiff and dressed in plus-sized pants, travels the world accompanied by Snowy, his white fox terrier.
One of the most popular comic book characters of the twentieth century, Tintin first appeared in Le Petite Vingtième (The Little Twentieth), the young readers section of the aforementioned Belgian newspaper, on January 10,1929. That means he has just turned 95. Over this span of time, Tintin comics have been translated into 110 languages, including Bengali and Hindi. Tintin has visited India more than once – in 1934 and in 1960. His stories have been adapted into plays and movies and Tintin merchandise became much more successful than his creator, Hergé (the nom de plume of cartoonist George Remi), ever imagined.
The official Tintin site notes that Remi’s pen name was drawn from the French pronunciation of RG – his initials inverted. The name Tintin too has a back story. Before Tintin, Hergé had created an adventurous scout called Totor and the series based on his deeds ran for three years in Le Boy Scout Belge. Elements in Totor’s characterisation later went on to define Tintin. Hergé even toyed with the idea of making Tintin the younger brother of Totor. According to all the literature on Hergé and Tintin, the character eventually turned out to be a mix of the traits of the cartoonist himself – he too wore loose pants – and that of his younger brother, Paul.
Herge was creatively inspired by the work of American animator Winser McCay, who often drew imaginary landscapes and surreal creatures in a series called Adventures in Slumberland that featured Little Nemo. He was also influenced by French illustrator Benjamin Rabier (now best known as the artist who designed the logo of Laughing Cow Cheese) whose Tintin-Lutin (1898) featured an impish boy with a pet dog. It’s no surprise then that Hergé’s series made frequent references to both imaginary (San Theodorus, Borduria) and distant lands (the moon) and that his character looked a lot like Tintin-Lutin.
In January 1929, the cartoonist, who was fascinated by Hollywood, was keen to set his first Tintin in America. But his boss, Abbé Norbert Wallez, the editor of Le Vingtième Siècle, a proponent of the Belgian far right and an ardent fan of Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini, who used the publication to critique socialist and liberal ideas, insisted it be set in the erstwhile Soviet Union. the idea was to expose communist corruption and cruelty. And so The Adventures of Tintin, the Reporter, in the Land of the Soviets emerged. 270 million copies of Tintin comics have been sold worldwide since (data till 2019 per Tintin.com).
For much of his existence, Tintin’s exploits were viewed purely as a curious reporter’s adventures in a world that still held its mysteries, where geographical distances were huge and cultures markedly different. Contemporary readers, however, are quite often struck by the underpinning Orientalism and the exoticisation of the non-European “other”. Surprisingly, even the “other” became fascinated by Tintin.
The Indian Rendezvous
Cigars of The Pharaoh (1934), the fourth in the series and a huge commercial success, is significant in many ways. With this volume, Casterman Publishing House became Tintin’s official publisher. It was also the first comic that Hergé wrote without interference from Wallez, whose own ideology resulted in the heavily politicised In the Land of The Soviets,Tintin in Congo, and Tintin in America. It was also the year that Hergé met Chinese student Zhang Chongren, who went on to become an influential sculptor. Their association convinced Hergé of the importance of research and a tight storyline. Incidentally, one of the central figures in The Blue Lotus is based on Chongren. Readers were also introduced to a set of recurring characters: the clumsy police detectives, Thompson and Thompson, Senor Olivera, and antagonist Rastapopulos, among others. And it is in Cigars of The Pharaoh that Tintin lands in India for the first time.
A little on how Tintin gets here: cruising in the Mediterranean, he meets Rastapopulos, a film producer, and the Egyptologist, Sophocles Sacrophagus. He ends up chasing a drug cartel that smuggles opium across Asia. En route from Arabia, his plane runs out of fuel and he’s dropped in an Indian jungle. Next, Tintin treats a sick elephant – a kind gesture that contrasts with his cruel act of blowing up a rhino in Congo (Hergé, apparently, was a supporter of big game hunting). He then has a chance meeting with an eccentric holy man and finally with the Maharaja of Gaijapama. Eventually, the smugglers are caught, the Rajah and Tintin celebrate and the boy wonder reveals how cigars were used to smuggle opium. From references to Hindu knives, exotic Maharajahs, snake charmers, fakirs and talking animals, the book, which was published in 1955, is stuffed with the usual Indian cliches. Tintin returns to the country in 1960 with his friend Captain Haddock, he of the blue blistering barnacles in Tintin in Tibet. En route to Tibet, he stops by Delhi to visit the Qutub Minar and the Red Fort.
Interestingly, Tintin’s biggest fan base in India is in Kolkata, where the comics were first published in Bengali in 1975 in Anandamela, a magazine for young readers. This was the first Indian translation of Tintin and was followed by Hindi 35 years later (2010). The curious Bengali, already familiar with various detective characters like Byomkesh Bakshi and Feluda, took immediately to Tintin and in no time, the Belgian reporter gained cult status.
For the average Bengali, Belgium was not a familiar place; nor did it have any tangible Bengali connection. Why then were these comics so popular? Why did Hergé get so much fan mail from Kolkata? Such was the cultural impact that Satyajit Ray himself references Tintin in Tibet in his detective novel Kailashey Kelenkari (A Disgrace in Kailash). In it, Feluda’s sidekick Topshe is a Tintin fan. Then, in the Ray film, Sonar Kella (The Golden Fort, 1974), Topshe is shown reading, Land of Black Gold.
Naturally, many Bengali kids were nick named Tintin and their pet dogs were named ‘Kuttus’ (Snowy was called Kuttus in the Bengali version)!
By the first decade of the 21st century, as satellite channels and television viewing boomed, Tintin’s popularity seemed to wane. However, he continues to hold a special place in the collective heart of Indian Gen Xers. Why this is so despite the complicated representations and the semiotics is an enduring mystery.
As Tintin turns 95, should readers deconstruct the work of an illustrator who began his journey working for fascists, or should they revisit the comic book series? Remembering the excitement that Herge’s red haired boy detective brought to so many entertainment-starved young readers in pre-liberalisation India, this writer, at least, resolves to curl up once again with a copy of Tintin in Tibet.
Nilosree Biswas is an author, filmmaker, columnist who writes about history, culture, food and cinema of South Asia, Asia and its diaspora.