I admit I didn't really know anything about Tintin when we started in reading this. Oh, he's been whirling around the zeitgeist for a long while: my best roommate had a framed poster of Tintin in Tibet hanging in our living room, I've seen snatches of the tv show when I've checked them out of the library for the kiddies, etc. He's always seemed like a Belgian Scooby Doo, with less emphasis on Scooby, and less pot smoking by Shaggy. (Don't do drugs, kids!)
The Scooby Doo comparison is more or less apt in Cigars of the Pharaoh
. Tintin and Snowy have the same sort of chasy-chasy, slightly offensive/dated ethnic characterizations, lots of action, red herrings, slim escapes, unimportant mysteries and general mayhem as Scoob and Shag. Tintin is no coward though, and he is not afraid to handle a gun in children's cartoons. Everyone smokes and drinks, and there's even open discussions of drug trafficking and murrrrderrr, for those of you who want uncomfortable questions at bedtime. The plot skips around all over over the place. (My favorite line from the boy during this read: “If it's called Cigars of the Pharaoh
, why does most of it take place in India?) The boy and I had a smashing time reading this, especially me, because for some reason the boy let me read this aloud, something he is normally too worldly, at seven, to let me do. (I do great sound effects though, if I do say so myself. Rat-tat-tat, whoosh, bang!)
So I'm all prepared to come up on GR and have some kind of hand-wringing frenzy about this class of older children's fictions that are totally problematic in terms of how non-European cultures are portrayed, the adult themes, the violence, because I kind of feel like I should. But then I did myself a google of Hergé, and, like, all that bs fell away. Sometimes I think these sorts of conversations – it's racist and sucks! TEH CHILDREN. NO, NOT TEH CHILDREN!! Yo mama! It's still fun! You are the death of fun! SMASH SMASH – these arguments occur by rote. We just spool off the points – children are smarter than we give them credit for, or they need to be protected, or it's really about parental involvement, or too much freaking parental involvement, or what gets kids reading is important EVEN IF it's problematic, or whatever on on and on. I'm a little not up for it at the moment.*
What I am up for is freaking out about Hergé. I really thought that Tintin was first written in the 60s, like the eminent Mr. Doo and his human companion, Mr. Rogers. (Seriously, that's Shaggy's last name. His first name is Norville.) Wrong. Started in 1929 in the children's section of a Belgian newspaper, and continues on through the War
and past. Apparently, Cigars of the Pharaoh
constitutes the last of Hergé's early period, after which he's schooled by a chaplain friend of his about his casual ethnic stereotyping. A lot of that can be found in Cigars; so much so that the boy, who just went though a pretty serious Ancient Egypt phase, commented on the historical wrongness of several things. But then Hergé makes friends with a Chinese student, a Mr. Zhang Chongren, and produces The Blue Lotus, which makes fun of the ethnic stereotyping Hergé was relying on in Cigars
Then, you know, Nazis. Belgium is invaded; Hergé's Belgian publisher is shut down. Hergé is accused of being a collaborator due to the fact that he's still publishing under the Nazi occupation. Hergé produces a very seriously problematic episode of Tintin called The Shooting Star for a Nazi-controlled paper, which relies on antisemitic caricature for the baddies. He renounces after the War, of course, but lots of folk still give him the stink-eye. I cannot say one way or the other whether this is deserved. (Also, I totally admit that my source is wikipedia. You can shut up, Internet.) One of his last books is the aforementioned Tintin in Tibet
, which is, apparently, inspired by his nervous breakdown (!), and contains characters from the pre-War Blue Lotus
. Tintin in Tibet
comes back around to a non-judgmental view of culture, with even the abominable snowman not castigated for his abominableness.
All of this is blowing my mind a bit, and sending me out to order The Blue Lotus
from the library like nobody's business. All of this history is fascinating
, and I'm slightly unsure what to do with it all. We liked this book. We liked it a lot. The boy asked me to get more Tintin, and I will. We'll keep reading, because that is what we do, even if we don't always know where it's going to go. Maybe that is the point. Maybe not.
*Even though it's an important argument, maybe. I've asterixed** myself down here so I can keep up the fight for some reason, because this is a thing that keeps coming up for me while I read to the kids. I have ENORMOUS PROBLEMS with heavily didactic stuff like the Berenstain Bears, and other really message-heavy children's fictions, and I am no fan of bummertastic stuff that aims to teach children a vewy sewious message about shawing. But then I want to punch the living daylights out of Greg Heffley from Diary of a Wimpy Kid when my boy quotes back to me that he's “really more of an indoor person.” I love that the boy is so completely obsessed with Greg and his amoral exploits, but Greg is often a pain in my ass as a parent because he gives voice to and reinforces a kind of middle-school disaffection that sucks, even if it is true to life. This doesn't really have anything to do with ethnic stereotyping, except that I think underpinning the whole argument is the deeper argument about the aims of fiction and its responsibilities and consequences. I have no answers for that argument, and I'm leery of anyone who does, because it's a messy and crazy out there in the world, and it's messier and crazier in the fictive worlds of books. So there.
**Get it? Get it????