Culture  Tintin and the fleur-de-lys

Quebec's relationship with the controversial and creative Belgian comic

My first encounter with Tintin was in my grade four French class with my now favourite Tintin book: L’Île Noire (The Black Island). Although I could not understand the French text, the glossy pages of pictures depicting Tintin and his wire fox terrier Milou trying to take down a gang of counterfeiters got me hooked on the series for years.

Created as a serial in 1929 by Belgian writer Georges Remi (pen name: Hergé), Les Aventures de Tintin – which details the international escapades of the young Belgian reporter, and Milou, his constant companion – has become a global phenomenon. With over 230 million copies sold in over seventy languages, Tintin has become a worldwide favourite among all ages. Here in Quebec, Tintin is found in every children’s bookstore and on the walls of Frite Alors! franchises. Given the character’s ubiquity, I wanted to explore how and why Tintin manages to transcend time, language, and culture.

Tintin connects with young readers because of its emphasis on themes of friendship. Tintin’s relationships with Captain Haddock – an old whisky-loving sailor – and Professor Tournesol – the brilliant though distracted scientist – provide examples of comradeship that transcend age and survive many obstacles. Tintin’ s relationship with Milou also does this – but with species as the barrier.

Produced before the advent of television, Tintin’ s adventure series, which featured detailed pictures of world cultures and regions and often explored themes of a historical and political nature, was both educational and entertaining – albeit at times rife with imperialist racism. Taking place all across the world, Tintin’s adventures functioned as exciting surrogate journeys for readers and gave them a peek into parts of the world they could otherwise only find in photographs. It also gave them glimpses into relevant historical debates and realities, as in 1954’s On a marché sur la Lune (Explorers on the Moon) – a clear reference to the space race of 1950s.

Though the plots of Tintin often valourize minority groups pitted against wealthy European villains, the comic bears the racist mark of its age. Hergé’s representations of Jewish people, Japanese people, and above all, African people were grossly stereotyped and have come under harsh scrutiny in recent years. In response to pressure from Congo nationalist Mbutu Mondondohas, the particularly crude Tintin in the Congo may be banned in Belgian bookstores this year. This controversy over racial stereotypes continues into criticism of Tintin in America, Cigars of the Pharaoh, and Tintin in the Land of the Soviets.

The adaptability of Tintin’s character to new cultures is no doubt another reason why the series has become popular in so many countries. The name “Tintin” refers neither to an established first name or surname, but was invented by Hergé himself, giving it the same currency in any language. According to Hergé, the name Tintin was simply meant to embody all the virtuous and heroic qualities of man. For that reason, Tintin was thought to have the ability to translate easily into cultures and represent a universal ideal.

Tintin didn’t always succeed at this, however. In L’Étoile mysterieuse (The Shooting Star), published at the height of the Second World War, Tintin and a team of Europeans from neutral countries raced against a team of Americans to be the first to land on a meteorite. The comic, which both portrayed Americans negatively and played up racist Jewish stereotypes (something Hergé had done before), garnered substantial criticism in the international community when it was published. As a result, in later versions of L’Etoile mysterieuse Tintin’s American competitors were replaced with characters from the fictional country of Sao Rican, and all explicitly Jewish characters were removed.

In Quebec, it is clear that Tintin has had a profound cultural impact. Maxime Prévost, a French literature professor at Université d’Ottawa who just finished co-editing a volume of contributions with Études françaises about Tintin – Hergé reporter, Tintin en contexte – explained that by the 1950s, the majority of French speakers in Quebec had devoured their favourite Tintin stories, relishing in the adventure and heroism of the boy reporter. As he explained in an email, “[Tintin] is a cultural denominator, one of the rare works which you can allude to in any discussion or any forum and be certain that your interlocutors actually know what you are talking about.”

Sociologist Yves Laberge, adapted the Tintin volume Coke en stock (The Red Sea Sharks) into Quebec French. Laberge explained that even though French Canadians understand perfectly the French (and original) version of the stories of Tintin, Laberge wanted to adapt or transform some elements into a more typical Québécois and Canadian reality. He added, “It was not a translation but a cross-cultural experience, an adaptation…to demonstrate how the Québécois talk.” However, this adapted version has been met with criticism for belittling Québécois readers, echoing the Tintin debates of past decades. Prévost explained that Hergé wrote the French version of Tintin for an international audience, and thus wrote French that was clear and concise. This is precisely why Tintin is used as a learning tool in French classrooms and for students learning French as a second language. Prévost felt that it was unnecessary for Laberge to transform the version with Quebec-isms, and that Hergé himself would have disapproved of the adapted version. Moreover, he disapproved of the inclusion of Quebec curse words such as “tonnerre de brest” and “mille sabords” in these editions – which French audiences might still recognize – as opposed to the innocent nonsense curses used in the original.

Despite the many controversies that Les Aventures de Tintin has incited over its eighty years, its continued popularity – not only as a comic series, but also as a worldwide commercial and cultural phenomenon – makes evident Tintin’s timeless and borderless appeal.