May 22, 2019 marks the 112th birth anniversary of George Remi, aka Herge, whose premier comic book creation, The Adventures of Tintin, has entertained children and adults in more than 100 countries. The stories of the Belgian journalist Tintin have been translated from the original French into more than 60 languages.
However, in recent years, Hergé, who died in 1983, leaving one incomplete Tintin adventure, has been criticised for the colonial perspective of his stories, many of them replete with examples of racism. Specifically, the books have been called out for their portrayal of non-White characters and non-White spaces. How do these aspects of Tintin’s adventures actually manifest themselves in the comics?
The white saviour
For a comic book series with one-third of its narratives set in regions not primarily populated by White people, the number of major non-white characters are few and far between. Only four of them – Chang Chong-Chen, a young Chinese man, Sheik Mohammed Bin Khalish Ahmed and his son Abdullah, and the Maharaja of Gaipajama appear in more than one comic. Even with these characters present, it is Tintin who is the white male hero.
Chang, for instance, is saved by Tintin on both the occasions they meet – from drowning in The Blue Lotus, and from the Himalayas where he goes missing after an air-crash in Tintin in Tibet. In The Land of Black Gold, Tintin saves Abdullah, Sheik Mohammed’s son. As for the Maharaja of Gaipajama, Tintin comes to the rescue when the opium trade mafia try to assassinate the ruler of the fictitious kingdom of Gaipajama in India, who is opposed to them.
Herge’s depiction of non-white characters is often built around prejudices and stereotypes. Chang is the honest son of poor (and presumably dead) Chinese parents who is adopted by a rich man, while Abdullah is spoilt by his wealthy Arab father’s indulgences. Neither of them display the distinctive personalities that Tintin’s white compatriots like Professor Calculus and Captain Haddock have.
For the sake of appearances
The differences in depiction are also evident in the ways the characters are drawn. All individuality by way of unique clothing and features is reserved for the white characters. From Haddock’s maritime garb to Calculus’s overcoat, from Tintin’s own trademark jerseys to Thomson and Thompson’s bowler hats, not to mention opera singer Bianca Castafiore’s gaudy gowns, the attention paid to the attire is evident.
The non-Whites, however, often have generic appearances and garments. The Black characters are seen with unusually black skins, almost as though they’re using blackface make-up. The Indian characters sport turbans, while most of the west Asians wear the traditional thawb or tunic. The Chinese characters are all seen with long pointed noses and white “Chinese” collar shirts. The colonial gaze is clearly prominent in Hergé’s illustrations.
The material goods seen to be available in White and non-White spaces are a palpable signalof the inferior position of the latter. “White” countries display clear signs of scientific and technological innovation. The Shooting Star features a discovery of a meteor, whose exploration involves an expedition to the North pole and involves ships that cut through glaciers and an amphibian plane. Similarly, Red Rackham’s Treasure includes a personal submarine, a vehicle still not available to civilians. The submarine is central to the plot and is highly efficient. The book also features sophisticated underwater viewing equipment.
In the two-part series, Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon, a complex space travel sequence is depicted, with a rocket and space suits, nineteen years before man landed on the Moon. But this kind of scientific innovation is completely absent in any of the comics set in non-white spaces. On the contrary, the elements that are highlighted there are either mysterious artefacts associated with ancient civilisations or objects associated with primitiveness.
For example, the only mechanised items in Tintin in Congo are the ship, the train, the car, the camera and the gun; all of them introduced by colonisers. They are also used only by the White characters, most prominently Tintin himself. He even fixes a whole train system, which the “natives” are unable to repair out of ignorance.
Cigars of The Pharaoh is lavishly illustrated with images of mummies and pyramids, invoking an old civilisation that has been unable to keep up with modernity. Indeed, the landscape of non-White spaces are inevitably shown to be poorly developed. When Tintin finally steals a plane and lands in India, it is in a jungle, from where he travels on an elephant.
In The Blue Lotus, which is set in China, Tintin is seen to walk a lot more than he does in a comic set in the West. The only developed urban space portrayed in these two comics is the city of Shanghai, which was largely controlled by Europeans. Even the weapons used to injure and kill are primitive compared to those from the West – poison and hanging, for instance. In The Red Sea Sharks, the difference is stark because camels and dirt paths appear as soon as the narrative shifts from the West to Asia.
While many of these elements may not be consciously noticed by very young readers, in a world that is increasingly sensitised to discrimination and racism, these differences in depiction do put a question mark over Herge’s position as the creator of an undisputed cultural icon of modern literature.
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