Coming to Terms With Tintin

The scrappy Belgian reporter was my childhood hero. Reading his books as an adult is a little more complicated.

Little, Brown

One of my earliest memories is of walking in a city that’s no longer mine, hand-in-hand with a man who’s no longer alive, to a library long-since closed, where I'd borrow comics whose spines adorn my bookshelves to this day. At the age of four, I was captivated by the adventures of Tintin, the boyish reporter, who—accompanied by his dog, Snowy, and an array of supporting but no less endearing friends—traipsed all the way around the world, and even to the moon.

Few things in my life were permanent at that time. We moved every year from one far-flung part of Bombay, as the city by the sea was known then, to another: moves forced by parental job changes and familial instability that meant new homes, new neighbors, new schools, and new friends. Tintin, though, stayed the same. I read and reread the albums we had; I beamed when my father, whose love for Tintin I inherited, bought a new album home from the A.H. Wheeler bookshop at Churchgate station for the princely sum of 18 rupees. And I counted the days until we visited an uncle who owned the entire collection and guarded it jealously in a locked cupboard, to be retrieved when I visited upon the condition it was treated carefully—a condition I’m happy to say I satisfied. My favorite in those days was Tintin in Tibet, a comic whose final frame still makes me emotional. The yeti’s longing for permanent friendship mirrored my own; Tintin’s friendship with Chang was the kind I wanted.

Over the years, my favorites changed, as did the things I saw in them. Flight 714, a story I loved when I was younger, possibly because of the UFOs, hasn’t aged well for exactly that reason; Castafiore Emerald, dull when I was a boy, is now among my favorites, precisely because it’s about nothing. The serialized books—Red Rackham's Treasure and Secret of the Unicorn, Seven Crystal Balls and Prisoners of the Sun, and Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon—are still appealing, more now for how different they are than for their narratives. But what continues to appeal to me most about Tintin is what attracted me to the series in the first place, the common thread that runs through all the albums: friendship, loyalty, adventure, and, to use a word seldom used anymore, honor. With age, I could add one more thing: familiarity.

Still, idols rarely age well. As I grew older, I learned more about Hergé, Tintin’s creator whose name adorned the top of every album (the name is a play on the inverted initials of his name, Georges Remi). His work on a wartime newspaper allied with the Nazis is well documented, as is the fact that some of his earliest Tintin books disseminated far-right ideas to children. The first two comics are the most controversial: Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, first serialized in 1929, is so transparent in its anti-communist propaganda that Hergé himself tried to suppress its publication in later years. In 1930’s Tintin in the Congo, the Belgian hero’s adventure takes him to his country’s former colony where he “civilizes” the natives (who are portrayed with a combination of paternalistic racism and inferiority), and slaughters animals as a big-game hunter.

Neither comic was available in English until decades later, and it was then that I read them with a mixture of horror, amusement, and embarrassment. In one frame in Congo, an African tribe worships Tintin. In another, he resolves a dispute over a straw hat, leading a member of the tribe to say: “White master very fair. Him give half hat to each one. Him very good white.”

There’s certainly irony in a child of the former colonies idolizing a character who might be dismissed by casual critics as a proxy for the white-man’s burden (and by more serious ones as a racist). But I couldn’t entirely disavow the series. What those comics taught me was that heroes, even boyish, never-aging ones like Tintin, are deeply flawed, and if you ruminate on something long enough, even a cherished childhood memory, you will inevitably see those flaws clearly. There were things that I loved about Tintin that made it easier to reject those things I did not—without ignoring them altogether.

Rereading Tintin also provides a much more complicated image of Hergé. Tintin, after all, works against Imperial Japan and European dictatorships, befriends Chang, fights slavers, and defends the Roma. In short: He comforts the afflicted, and embodies the values of honor and loyalty to friends.

Years later, before the medium fell on hard times, I found myself working at a newspaper.  It's hard to say whether Tintin played a direct role in my choice of career, but the books certainly influenced me enough to want to read and write for a living. Still, I couldn’t help but compare my own work schedule—defined as it was by a demanding editor, deadlines, and ever-shrinking budgets—with Tintin’s. Yes, he’s nominally a reporter, but he rarely seems to file, he travels the world at the drop of a hat, and he engages in the kind of advocacy that would tarnish any contemporary journalist’s reputation. Tintin, I came to realize, is the idealized man-boy, a permanently adolescent European version of Bertie Wooster. Unlike Wooster, though, he is a hero whose superpower is his wit alone, and whose adventures are made possible by his friends and timeless values. In short: the perfect kind of person to appeal to young readers.

When I left Mumbai for the U.S. in 1998, I bequeathed my old, dog-eared, tattered collection—by now almost complete—to my younger brother in a moment of largesse. Those volumes had been amassed carefully over years in newspaper-recycling shops that doubled as used bookstores (a casualty, alas, of the post-paper era). Giving them up, along with my Asterix comics, books on cricket, and volumes of fiction was, at the time, wrenching. Still, I expected to be back. Tintin and the others would await my return. But when it became apparent I’d be in America far longer than two years, I set out to rebuild my library. 22 Tintin albums, bought all-new, were among my wife’s first gifts to me. (Keeper, that one.) We decided to skip the first two.