I first heard of Tintin through my friend Trevor. Trevor was pale and chubby (I was chubbier, but less pale), and the kids at school called him “Albamster,” which was short for Albino Hamster. I was at Trevor’s house, and he showed me these comic books (it may be fair to call them graphic novels) starring Tintin, a teenage reporter who goes on adventures and solves various crimes and mysteries. I thought Tintin was really cool, so I started reading voraciously, and I still go back and read Tintin now and then, because the stories bring a comforting sort of entertainment. Not in the way that I can identify with any of the characters, but because the stories are so engaging in their own ridiculous way. When I was in France and feeling lost and alone, I bought French versions of Tintin…. since I knew the stories so well, they were really easy to read, and I had the added benefit of being able to read the not-imported-into-the-US volume entitled “Tintin au Congo,” in which Tintin goes to Africa and befirends the natives, who are drawn as hairless monkeys. At the end, they decide Tintin is their god and they build a totem pole with his face on top. It’s pretty much the most pro-colonialist thing I’ve ever read. At least Herge, Tintin’s creator, apologized about it later in his life. Anyway, this blog will chronicle the weird things about Tintin, some of which didn’t hit me until much, much later in my life. If this sounds boring to you, go reread one of my older blogs (because that will be more boring, and then this one will seem better).
1. Unlike the famous comic book heroes, Tintin is not a meek guy who transforms into a super hero. He’s completely comfortable with his place in life as the most talented reporter in history, and he’s totally undaunted by anyone bullying him around. He faces evil mobsters, evil Native Americans, evil Peruvian indigenous folks, evil millionaires, evil South American rebels, and more, and he never really gets scared. In times of dire darkness, he plots totally implausible ways to escape, and then he sees them through to fruition with a calm coolness. There is never any mention of Tintin’s parents, although he is only supposed to be around 15. Who were these people who raised a brilliant, unflappable son and then totally disappeared from his life? It’s the ultimate contrast to something like Spiderman, where you know about Peter Parker’s life when he’s not Spidey… Tintin is and has always been Tintin (“reporter,” as he is always identified, although he almost never does anything remotely close to writing or researching news stories), and you just need to accept that and keep reading.
2. Tintin’s companions are his dog Snowy, Captain Haddock (an alocoholic sailor who loses a considerable amount of weight over the course of the series), and Professor Calculus (called “Professor Sunflower” in the French version, he’s an insane professor who has a knack for developing devices that get him kidnapped by people). Tintin never seems lonely, and I suppose one reason is that his dog (who is also an alocholic and drinks at every opportunity) is always around. But really, does he have that much in common with a sea captain and a mad scientist? I suppose this is part of a larger perplexing issue, which is that Tintin relates to every person he meets with a polite detachment that suggests profound sadness underneath his surface. He never associates with anyone his age, and he has no problem engaging professors, heads of state, military generals, and other such figures in polite conversation.
3. Tintin never gets mad at his own destiny. Many of the books start with a declaration that he’s taking a vacation, at which point something un-vacationy happens, and he is thrust into a new, dangerous adventure (sometimes so complex that it requires two issues to resolve). Interestingly, he never seems to mind… the most irritated he gets is when he says something like, “Here we go again, Snowy!” But, he says it with a smile, not at all in a grumpy way. Honestly, I can’t really imagine what Tintin’s vacation would be like… probably just relating to people with polite detachment, but with less scheming and intrigue. Or maybe he’d finally crack.
4. In German, Tintin is called “Tim.” Why do they have to be so efficient?
5. Tintin is totally asexual. I don’t think he’s gay (although he may be), I just don’t think his adventures involve him with women at all (save for the elegant Italian opera singer Bianca Castafiore, who is more interested in the alcoholic sea captain than in Tintin). He sometimes befirends young boys, but it doesn’t seem like he does anything funny with them. I mean, the time he saves his friend Chang from the Yeti’s cave, he doesn’t even hug him when they reunite at the end. There is a novel about Tintin coming to terms with his sexual side (obviously not written by Herge), although I could never get into it. Great subject though. I wish at some point Tintin would meet a girl his age, just to see what would happen. Obviously, he would greet her with polite detachment and go about his scheming, but maybe then he’d notice her pert breasts and well-shaped behind and feel something he hadn’t previously felt. I guess the world may never know. But seriously, is there any 15-year old in the world who is never, not one time, occupied with the thought of sex? Oh Tintin, you curious boy.
6. Tintin doesn’t age, but his fashion evolves with the times. By the end of the series, he’s stopped tucking his calf-length pants into his socks and has donned bellbottoms, as was the fashion in the 70’s. The bellbottoms look weird at first… you can’t tell what’s different about him, and then you realize. Boy’s got some style. The kind of style you need to help a drunken guerilla army in South America kick the liquor and mobilize to overthrow the despotic General Tapioca, reclaiming Tapiocapolis for the people. Oh man, that’s a great adventure. At the end, they surprise General Tapioca at the big carnival by dressing up as the “Jolly Follies,” a group of dancers in interesting costumes. You never really learn what the real Jolly Follies were going to do, but in those costumes, you knew it was going to be good.
7. Tintin is supposed to live in the real world, yet he does things that are clearly impossible. In one adventure, he’s stranded in the jungle with only elephants as his company (elephants to whom he relates with polite detachment). To communicate with them, he picks up a tree branch and handily uses a pocketknife to carve it into a giant trumpet that he then uses to approximate the sound of elephant speech. (Aside from the impossibility of approximating elephant speech, there is also the obvious difficulty of hollowing out a 4-foot solid branch of wood using a two inch pocketknife.) The scene where he asks the elephant to spout water out of its trunk so he can shower under it has to be seen to be believed. Also, he showers in his boxers, presumably because Herge didn’t want to show nudity. But is there a bigger secret being hidden here? In another episode, he kills an ape, cuts off its head, and puts its skin on like a suit in order to blend in with the other apes. And it’s not supposed to be gross at all. Gross.
8. Tintin is totally unfazed by incredible violence. This is the part that most leads me to believe something dark is going on beneath his sheen of polite detachment. I mean, he still expresses emotion, but mostly it’s the emotion of being mad at bad guys for not respecting the law. But he has no problem doing things that cause immeasurable pain or death to people that are out to get him. Yeah, he’s acting in self-defense, but he doesn’t even flinch. He’s like Leon in The Professional, but that guy is a grizzled old French hitman who wears his rough life in the wrinkles on his face. Tintin is a fresh-faced teenager who watches people die without it really seeming to affect him at all. Perhaps the most bizarre instance of this happens when Tintin and the crew make the first manned journey to the moon, where they find water (see #7). On this extremely dangerous journey, a member of the crew helps some hijackers stow away in the rocket. After the hijackers are found out and then killed, Tintin and the Captain tie their accomplice in the hold and wonder how they will get back to Earth without enough oxygen. Wracked with guilt, the accomplice writes an apologetic suicide note and jumps out of the spaceship. Tintin is moved by this show of sacrifice, but not that much. And by the time the rocket lands, the guy is an afterthought. All I can say is that when I was 15, if I were on a mission to the moon and a member of my crew who had aided hijackers committed suicide by jumping out into space, just so I would have enough air to breathe to get back to Earth alive, I’m pretty sure I would have needed at least a little therapy afterward.
9. No one questions Tintin in any way, and everyone takes him completely seriously. If Tintin were a normal comic book, his main struggle would be getting the world to take him seriously. But when he meets the President of Peru and tells the President that he’s going to rescue Professor Calculus from the crazy People of the Sun, the President of Peru acts as if nothing at all bizarre is going on. (He even offers the Captain and Tintin a round of the Peruvian national liquor, which is far too strong for the Captain, who prefers Loch Lomond whiskey). Or, when Tintin faces the evil mobsters in Chicago, they never make any remarks to the effect of: “What, this guy’s just a KID, and he killed Mugsy?!” In fact, offing Tintin is their top priority, because the recognize how difficult he’s going to make their lives when he decides to come to Chicago to clean up the town and free it from Capone’s (yes, that Capone) iron grip.
10. Tintin gets gassed all the time. Seriously, it seems like at least once per adventure, he ends up in a closed room where he gets gassed.
11. There’s the hair. I’m going to sign off on this totally irrelevant and probably mind-numbingly boring blog by commenting on the hair, which just doesn’t make sense. Even if I understood everything else about Tintin, there’d still be the hair.