Roundtable: Tintin!

Since Hergé’s The Adventures of Tintin first appeared, serialized in 1929 and published in an album (or essentially a graphic novel in today’s understanding) in 1930 with Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, these charming adventure stories have been beloved by generations of readers.  As one of the most visible and popular examples of Belgian comics and the Francophone comics art industry (the other being Asterix) and especially exemplifying the spare, bright ligne claire style.

In recent years, although undeniably popular, Tintin has been challenged as racist and colonialist (especially the earliest volumes, including the no longer available in English second volume Tintin au Congo, which was the only challenged book relocated to closed stacks at the New York Public Library).  Some parents and librarians choose to use Tintin as a way to talk to their children about historical context, but there’s always a debate about how much the kids who love Tintin and Snowy will be able to process the fact that these comics are a product of the time and place they were created.

With Steven Spielberg’s computer animated Adventures of Tintin (based on The Crab with the Golden Claws, The Secret of the Unicorn, and Red Rackham’s Treasure) there’s an opportunity to create even more fans worldwide, although the more realistic style, the use of motion capture technology, and the implementation of 3D have caused a few raised eyebrows.

Today at NFNT, we’re taking a look at the comics and the legacy of Tintin from a fan and librarian point of view.  I’m acting as the moderator here, as I have read less Tintin that many of my colleagues, but I’m happy to learn more about Tintin from everyone.

Robin: How  were you introduced Tintin?  Did you read the series as a kid, or later?  How have your impressions of the series changed, if at all, over the years?

Little Nemo in Slumberland

Russ:  I first read Tintin after finding it at the library somewhere around age 10.  Over the last summer I went back and read through the series in anticipation of the movie.  I came away impressed at Hergé’s amazing draftsmanship.  It was the same sort of feeling that I got from my first extended reading of Winsor McKay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland – a sort of awe at his ability to seemingly be able to convey any sort of architectural style, or vehicle, or terrain, on either a grand or minute scale.  There’s an incredible amount of detail packed into his deceivingly simple line.

Jennifer: Tintin (and Asterix) were my introduction to the world of graphic novels – and the only ones I read until I was in college. I loved the crisp, clear art and easy to follow action, but mostly I loved these for the stories – funny, exciting, weird, and always enjoyable. Re-reading them as an adult, as I frequently do, I find myself still enjoying Hergé’s humor and exciting plots and the art always seems fresh to me.

Sheli: A few months ago I heard about the movie’s release date, and that spurred me to look into the books. Our library ordered the set, and I’ve been picking up volumes one by one. So I’m spanking new to Tintin! But between my reading and the movie, I’m pretty enchanted with the guy.

Robin: Tintin is incredibly popular, and is usually kept in Children’s collections in public libraries.  Do you think that correctly reflects the readership for the comics today?  Would you give the series to any kid in your library?  What kind of kid does Tintin appeal to?

Jennifer: Tintin is not hugely popular at my library, compared to say, Babymouse or Marvel Adventures. However, they do check out regularly. I shelve them in the juvenile graphic novels section which covers easy comics like Owly through tweens, like Amelia Rules!. I have found the biggest audience for Tintin is parents wanting to introduce the books to their children and I also recommend them frequently to parents whose kids desperately want to read comics, but the parents want them to read “real” books. The dense text of Hergé’s work reassures the parents and the kids love the classic comic panels and adventure stories. We do not have Tintin in the Congo or Tintin in the Land of the Soviets – I consider those early works titles for collectors and if we had them would put them in the adult section.

Sheli: Mostly I’ve been letting the books trick the kids. We ordered the new set of seven books and they’re on display in my library. The books go out, sometimes because of parent interest, some because of the movie, and others just because they’re shelved in the “New” section. Kids don’t want to hear me talk about how old and respectable the books are, so I talk about how adventurous they are. They have the promise of a quest like Indiana Jones, but supplement the violence of that franchise with slapstick. And Snowy. Tintin has Snowy, which is always a plus. Kids that are picking up series like Geronimo Stilton or 39 Clues might be inclined toward Tintin, if the anachronisms in the books don’t bother them.

Russ:  As a Young Adult guy, I don’t get the chance to personally recommend Tintin nearly as much as I’d like!  But as the resident comics/graphic novels guy, I’m often asked what would be a good title for boys whose parents want them to read something besides superheroes or Dragonball Z – and that’s when I offer up Tintin.    They’re not as popular as newer titles like the ones both Jennifer and Sheli mentioned, though as I said in a ‘What’s Making Me Happy’ column I have seen an increase in their circulation due to the movie.

Robin: The art style of Tintin is incredibly distinctive. What do you like about it?  How do you think it compares to today’s comics and graphic novels?

Russ:  I touched a bit on this before, but I love Hergé’s clean, crisp linework.   He has an ability to boil a bit of scenery down to its essence so it’s immediately recognizable to the eye without the reader even really noticing.  I think this also helps him as he packs so many tiny panels onto one page, which is probably the biggest difference from a more modern approach.  Aside from the occasional splash page, his layouts usually have four rows of panels, allowing the story to rip along at a fast pace.  Other artists would need twice as many pages to cover the same ground, or if they tried to match the density he achieves per page the individual panels would likely be very hard to understand visually.

Jennifer: I love the expressions – the characters are caricatures, but that doesn’t stop them from displaying emotions beyond surprise, horror, etc., especially in the more serious stories like the two Moon adventures. What I really love in comics is adventure and humor and Hergé puts both in his artwork. The text is great, but you can follow the story just with the movements of the people and their faces.

Sheli: Hergé is really good at exercising Tintin as the everyman character. Tintin isn’t overly detailed, no big noses or ornate clothing, which allows the readers to step into his shoes easily. Aiding that effect is the well-rendered environment. Nothing is photo-realistic, but like Russ said, the reader knows exactly where they are. By combining a simple character with detailed environment, Hergé immerses his readers into the story with no problems. So despite how easy the designs may look, it actually betrays the skills of a great craftsman.

Robin: Given the controversy over Hergé’s depiction of race, ethnicity, and colonialist attitudes, what do you think of those charges?  How do you handle them, if at all, in your library or with individuals?  Have you ever had anyone challenge them belonging in your collection?

Russ:  So far (knock on wood), this has never come up for me.  Personally, I did have a couple of ‘cringe moments’ when I saw how Asians and Native Americans were portrayed.   But for all that, as I continued to read I was thankful the the characters in question were not lampooned as acting any more stupidly than any other character in the stories and indeed, in the case of the Native Americans, managed to get one over on the villains.   I also found to my surprise that the Arabic culture and ethnicity actually fares quite well in the works, with many varied character and body types.  In this regard Hergé possibly is actually a step ahead of their depiction in today’s media.

Jennifer: I wouldn’t stock Hergé’s first two titles, considering them historical curiosities for adult collectors/fans, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect kids to be aware of the historical stereotypes – I have older/classic fiction on my shelves that contains historical perspectives that are no longer accepted/appropriate and I have no intention of weeding everything published before a certain date, whatever that would be determined to be. If you read any of the biographies of Hergé, he clearly had an abiding interest in and respect for other cultures, although that was filtered through the lens of his time. According to Michael Farr’s biography, Hergé felt he portrayed Native Americans too naively and would have liked to update those adventures, after he had learned more about their culture. I expect parents who have reservations about this to either choose not to allow their children to read these titles or to discuss them in context.

Sheli: Since we have Tintin in the kid’s collection, this hasn’t come up for me. So far no kids have asked me to defend the imperialist perspective of Herge (mostly because they don’t see it). Even if challenged, I’d never remove the books from our collection. Even the stories we do own, if our patrons’ voiced they felt inappropriate for kids, the items would probably just move to the Adult collection. But as Russ and Jennifer shared, Hergé is not writing with a racist intent. The stories shared are about Tintin, and the depictions of races were in the fashion of his time. It’s also worth noting that this one of the largest barriers to American appreciation of Hergé. Tintin is beloved worldwide, because most countries understand or embrace an imperialistic history since their country was either colonized or the colonizers. It’s easy for them to jump into the mindset of Tintin, because it’s part of their countries history. Then you get Americans, those rapscallions that shook off their rulers, and you can see why the USA is one of the smaller markets for Tintin.

Robin: Following on that last question, do you think the more objectionable Tintin titles should be kept behind closed doors or not purchased for libraries?  Why or why not?

Russ:  This will probably not come as a huge surprise, but I certainly would be against limiting access to any of the currently available editions.  There simply is not enough evidence of a maliciously racist viewpoint in them, in my opinion.  And I’m not sure how much of what is in there as a product of the time would be immediately evident to a young reader without an adult reading over their shoulder and highlighting the issue, thereby drawing just the sort of attention to it that they are trying to avoid.  As a point of context, the library branch I currently work for serves a primarily African American population and we have D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation available right with all the other DVDs.  It checks out quite a bit, and the patrons I talk to about it all say the same thing:  they wanted to see how it advanced the art of cinematography and not because of its glorification of the Ku Klux Klan.  If a publisher was ever brave enough to make an American edition of Tintin au Congo, I’d want to read it – and make it available for check out – for much the same reason.

Jennifer: I don’t think Congo and Land of the Soviets would go in my children’s section; as I said above, I consider them historical curiosities and the art and dialogue is inferior to Hergé’s later work. I don’t think kids would be interested and it wouldn’t be a good use of my budget. In the adult section, if you have fans/collectors, yes. Of course, our adult sections are not limited and kids could check the titles out there – just like they can check out League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or Sandman (although we do limit R rated movies and that’s a whole ‘nother discussion)

Sheli: Oh man, asking a librarian if they want to censor items? You can only get one answer: No way. I think the correct approach when answering this question is being smart about cataloging the item. Like Jennifer said, I would probably make the Congo and Soviet items Adult, to avoid any unnecessary grief with the patrons. It being in the Adult section clearly says who it is intended for, but the items would still be available to any interested party. Again, there’s no maliciousness in Hergé’s work, so hiding it behind locked doors doesn’t seem an even response.

Russ:  I think Sheli’s got the right idea.  Don’t hide the titles, but shelve them in the adult section where it should be obvious they’re there for a reason.

Robin: Another recent challenge I’ve heard about Tintin as a series (and in the film) is that it’s very much a boys club.  There are very few female characters, and those that are present are archetypes and cliches, not adventurers like the rest of the cast of characters.  Does this bother you?  Do you think readers notice it?  Do you notice if the readerships skews toward boys or girls or is an even mix?

Sheli: This is the comment that has been asked of me most frequently. Honestly, despite the myriad of different issues comics have with ladies, I’m giving Tintin a pass. Ladies, and really people, are not really in his world. From what I’ve read, the story comes off more as a boy and his dog against [insert caricature]. Tintin runs around with Snowy and possessing Encyclopedia Brown level detection and Three Stooges slapstick, uncovers and solves mysteries. Any other character, villain, civilian or otherwise, exist to provide a clue, or fall down a trap door (Tintin’s world has an amusing amount of trap door problems). It almost feels like asking Bugs Bunny where his date is, or questioning those same Three Stooges where their love lives went wrong. It’s entertainment sans love interest (c’mon, the globetrotter is only 16) and with just societal figureheads featured. You’ve got cops, mafia bosses, etc. to deal with, and when Hergé was writing this, our little adventurer would have only encountered men in most of these positions. Knowing the time this was written, I might find it very distracting to see women as police officers and the like.

Jennifer: I agree with Sheli. If Tintin was written today, I would expect to see more female characters, but at the time that was historically accurate and Hergé caricatures everyone, both men and women. Thompson and Thomson are just as ridiculous as Bianca Castafiore. I’ve never had a child (or the average adult patron) bring this up to me and I honestly don’t think they really notice (which is a whole other discussion…) I haven’t seen the film yet – it’s always difficult to present a historical work to a modern audience – but going by the books I wouldn’t say “the rest of the cast of characters” are adventurers. Really only Tintin – all the others are dragged along in his wake, often reluctantly. In that particular story, it would have been highly unlikely for a woman to be a sailor on the exploration ship. There are female villains in Crab of the Golden Claws – I hadn’t heard that was included in this movie, but does anyone know if they were kept in the film? As far as readership, in my library it’s almost always parents picking it out for their kids – both boys and girls. I will also say that my juvenile graphic novel and comics readership is very level (probably because we don’t have many) and both boys and girls read Babymouse, Tintin, Amelia Rules, Bone, Salt Water Taffy, Geronimo Stilton, etc.

Russ:  Well, I even sort of alluded to this in an earlier question when I said I recommended it to boys specifically!  Tintin is without a doubt a boy’s club, and unabashedly a boy’s adventure.  But I’m not sure there’s anything particulary wrong with that, and as the only guy in this roundtable I’m glad Sheli and Jennifer were able to answer this the way they did!  I don’t think I could add much to how they put it, and would not hesitate to recommend Tintin to any girl I knew liked adventure stories.

Jennifer: I honestly don’t remember ever caring that Tintin was a boy and most of the characters were males. I preferred Hardy Boys over Nancy Drew, because I thought the adventures were better and Nancy was always being rescued by somebody in the end, which annoyed me – bottom line, as a kid I liked adventure stories and didn’t really care about genders. In my experience, the tween age, which is mainly who I’d recommend Tintin to, doesn’t care much about the gender of their characters in the adventure genre. It’s older teen girls who start looking for strong female figures in fantasy/adventure. Not to say I wouldn’t like to see more girls in adventure gns! But I don’t think it’s an issue for the kids.

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