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.