A Writer’s Adventures with Tintin: Episode One--In the Land of Stereotypes

I forgot to warn you. If it’s your first time reading Tintin; don’t begin at the beginning.

In fact, I recommend that you pretend that these first two (or three) books I’m discussing don’t even exist. Move along. Nothing to see here. Skip right on over to Cigars of the Pharaoh. Once you’ve read the 20 (or 20½) books in the canon two or three times, come back and we’ll talk. We’ll see if you’re ready for In the Land of the Soviets and Tintin in America. In fact, I, lifelong Tintin fan as I am, have never actually read the one book not listed on the back covers, Tintin in the Congo. One, because it was never actually published in the United States and as such was difficult to find before the days of Amazon and eBay, and, two, because I have always feared that it would sour my admiration for Hergé permanently.

I won’t detail the specific flaws of these first albums here, for they are legion—and Wikipedia articles do a fair job of contextualizing their failings—but a fresh read has given me several takeaway lessons I can use as an author.

Lesson #1: Write your own way

Tintin had a less-than-auspicious beginning as a tool of propaganda.

In the late 1920s, George Remi (Hergé) was a young aspiring cartoonist and illustrator, eager to create a regular strip for a newspaper. He was taken in by Norbert Wallez, a priest and editor of an extremely right-wing, if not downright fascist, Catholic newspaper in Belgium and given a chance to work for the paper’s weekly children’s supplement. While the characters of Tintin and Snowy seem to be Hergé’s creations, their initial adventures were not of his design. Wallez directed Tintin closely, choosing his destinations and dictating his politics—viciously anti-Communist, anti-Semitic, anti-capitalist, and patriarchal. Like many upstanding Catholic Belgian men of the time, Hergé accepted these ideas as a matter of course. Tintin’s overt politics weren’t necessarily controversial, nor did Hergé include them unwillingly, but without Wallez standing over Hergé’s shoulder, I’m sure that Tintin’s beginnings would have been much different. I believe that Hergé wanted to entertain, not to preach or to spout ideology. I’m certain, given his later, more researched, work, that Hergé would have preferred for Tintin to explore the world, to investigate, and to learn from its people, and not to venture forth with a closed mind and unshakeable assumptions.

Wallez’s hand is particularly evident in Soviets. Young reporter Tintin sets out from Belgium with the sole aim to expose the evils of the Stalinist revolution and regime in the USSR. Fine, yes, they were evil, but the misadventures that befall Tintin expose nothing of the true situation. They paint everyone as either wholly evil or wretched victims. There is no middle ground, no attempt to reflect reality. Soviets was the only Tintin adventure that Hergé refused to redraw and color in his eventual classic style for publication. He himself called it embarrassing propaganda. I think this reflects a possibility that he knew that the work wasn’t exactly his. It had been his pen on the paper, but it was not what he would have written.

As an author I feel pressure from many fronts—from my wife to random Internet commenters. And it seems like everyone has some idea of what type of book I should write. “That Dave Barry is funny, you should write like him.” “Fifty Shades of Twilight, but set in a beachfront town in North Carolina.” “Must your characters swear so much?” “…and then there should be a zombie attack!” But if I were to write solely to appease any of those voices, or heaven forbid, all of them at once, the result would not be my work. I doubt it would have much merit. And I wouldn’t believe in it. I have to write the books that I would want to read. My own books, in my own voice.
What would Tintin’s first adventures been like if Hergé had been able to work without Wallez’s hand on his shoulder?

Lesson #2: Stereotypes are lazy

Critics have long savaged Hergé for the excessive use of stereotyped characters, if not outright racism. The first two (three) Tintin albums are full of them: from bomb-chucking, trigger-happy Bolshevik devils; to money-obsessed, hook-nosed Jewish shopkeepers; to half-naked, fat-lipped, childish Congolese natives; to hatchet-burying, rain-dancing Native Americans. But I don’t think Hergé was intentionally trying to spew misinformation or foment hatred; he was simply naïve. He was a product of his generation, trying to please his employer, and probably on tight deadlines that gave little time for research. He used what he knew of far-off places and people, which unfortunately was very little and was sourced from such unworthy sources as Hollywood movies and propaganda pamphlets. Hergé stereotyped the countries Tintin visits as well, and the end results are more checklist-style travelogues than real stories. And as such, these first books barely fit with the others.

Beginning with Cigars of the Pharaoh, but especially with The Blue Lotus, (and not coincidentally around the time that Wallez was removed as editor of the newspaper) Hergé began to do a great deal more research. He began to talk to natives of the places he intended to write about. And he began to attempt to reflect the character of the locations more accurately. He paid attention to real modes of dress (later lampooning his earlier tendencies by dressing the Thompson Twins in ridiculous and assumptive native costumes). He began to add background, wherein a city would be populated with realistic locals going about their daily business. Villains were given actual motives such as greed, lust for power, or valid political disagreements and were not portrayed as innately evil. Hergé no longer depicted the locals as naïve simpletons desperate for Western enlightenment, but neither were they treated with kid gloves. They became people, some educated, some not, some poor, some rich, some helpful, some malevolent, and many simply indifferent to Tintin’s adventures. Tintin had moved from a fantasy into the real world.

Stereotypes are easy to write. We all have a ready storehouse of such characters. But stereotypes are insulting to readers, offensive to those portrayed, and, in my opinion, a mark of lazy writing. And, if one absolutely must make a political point, there are many other less ham-handed methods. Not every character I write gets a complete dossier, but as I haul my main cast around the world I try to consider the lives of the various people they touch. From the taxi driver with a four-word speaking part to the acquaintance who shows up for a whole chapter, I try to give each character a little depth, considering gender, age, family background, intentions, what kind of day they’ve been having, basically whatever might be relevant. This takes a little time, and perhaps a little research, but I’ve found that such consideration can create a believable human interaction, and I believe this depth fleshes out the world I’ve worked so hard to create. I absorbed this lesson from Hergé at an early age, and it has always stuck with me. Even as a child, I sensed that his stereotypes were jarring and empty. But when he began to treat everyone as an individual, Tintin’s world became tangibly and emotionally real.

Lesson #3: Action wins the battle…

So what did these books get right? Why didn’t these racist, fascist comic strips get pulped into history with the rest of Wallez’s newspaper? Why am I reading them still, 84 years later?

My guess: They were exciting. Hergé had undeniable talent. Even the crude sketches of Soviets show great promise. The book includes a power-boat chase that might as well be the storyboard for the Venice boat chase in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. And the action is relentless. Tintin never quite escapes any peril, jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire on every other page, until he is left with only his wits, his mettle, and his dog. Like Saturday matinee cliff-hangers, Hergé kept readers dangling for next week’s strip. Will he…? How will he…? Wow.

A writer’s lesson if I’ve ever heard one. Make every scene matter. Up the stakes. Make the situation just that much more hopeless. Take away one more escape route. Kick your character down just one more time. Whether you’re writing bonnet-rippers or war stories, the lesson applies; only the volume of blood varies.

Lesson #4: …but story wins the war.

Soviets and In America both end with Tintin getting a ticker-tape parade. But I have always been left wondering, “What for?” All he’d done for 60-odd pages is to trip almost accidently from one stereotypical scene to the next. Sure, his life was usually in danger, but like I said before, the adventures read more like travelogues. And once all of Hergé’s (or Wallez’s) boxes had been checked, Tintin at last escaped, or finally caught the gangsters, and that was that. Hurrah?

As a sci-fi writer, this kind of checklist tourism is a real temptation. I invest a great deal of time inventing the world of my stories. I’m not careful, it’s easy to want to take my characters everywhere and explore every detail. Otherwise, what’s the point, right? My first full draft of Legitimacy was over 500,000 words, most dedicated to this very thing. As a child, Teague lived in the Bangkok of tourists, not residents. I took characters on actual guided tours of the inner workings of space stations. I spelled out exactly how vat-grown meat gets from the factory to an asteroid colony’s freezers. (Don’t ask why.) I described every technical detail of Gwen’s spacecraft. (I even have the blueprints if you want to see them. No surprise: They bear a stylistic resemblance to Hergé’s blueprintsfor the rocket in Destination Moon.) I outlined the rules of zero-G wallyball. Some of these scenes were vaguely exciting and most told a lot more about certain fringe characters. But in the long run, was any of it interesting? Perhaps tangentially, but little of it drove the story. It diluted the problems and buried the conflict. It may have been messy and cluttered as real life, but it wasn’t anything anyone would want to read. The story matters more than any technical detail, no matter how dear to my heart. And the ticker-tape parade at the end means little if not supported by the rest of the book.

It says a lot to me that, for the rest of the books, Hergé did away with the parades. Tintin returns from his subsequent adventures with little fanfare, maybe just a newspaper headline or two. I think Hergé understood that Tintin didn’t go on adventures for the fame and accolades. And he must also have realized that people didn’t read Tintin to just casually bear witness, but to journey with him, no matter how difficult, and somewhere in there is what story is all about.

Next time: Cigars of the Pharaoh: The Devil is in the Details