Tintin Geographies: A glimpse of the past

Tintin, a young Belgian investigative journalist who travels the world and has amazing adventures, is one of the most successful comic book characters ever made. Originally starting off as a weekly installment comic strip in the Belgian newspaper Le Petit Vingtieme, it was such a success that it was later created into a series of books have sold overs 250 millions copies worldwide, and translated into 80 languages.

The creator of Tintin Georges Prosper Remi known as Hergé , created what is considered one of the seminal works in comic strip cartoons. His stories captured the imaginations of generations. Hergé, a self-taught artist, was 21 when he created Tintin, and despite so many of the adventures he created took place around the world in a multitude of exotic locations in reality Hergé never really left Brussels apart from a few brief camping trips with the Scouts. This is suprising as Hergé was known for his attention to detail and his usually very accurate depiction of places.

For Tintin in the land of the Soviets he is thought to have used photographs to inspire his drawings, though there would have been few photographs reaching Belgium from Soviet Russia at the time. One source of information and images thought to have inspired Hergé have been attributed to the French photojournalist Robert Séxé who was among the first reporters to bring images of Russia to the western media. He is known for travelling the length of Russia on his motorbike, and documenting what life was really like in Bolshevik Russia. Jean-Paul Schulz has been researching the links between Séxé and Hergé and claims that it is Séxé who would have provided the photos that sparked the imagination of Tintin creator, even suggesting that the motorbike often depicted with Tintin is inspired by Séxé’s choice of transportation the Belgian Gillet-Herstand. Given that the first Tintin adventure created in 1929, four years after Séxé publicized his motorbike journey across Russia, the link is plausible. Further to this, Séxé is known to have travelled across the Congo and America, which happen to be the next two books in the Tintin series.

Tintin’s first adventure, Tintinin the Land of the Soviets, is more than just a journey in Russia, but a political story of some of the conditions that were present in Russia in the 1920s. In this story Tintin travels from Brussels, to Berlin and onto Moscow. Shortly after its publication the book vanished for around 40years as Hergé was unhappy with the book, feeling it was rushed and not thoroughly thought through. Nevertheless it is still the first book in the Tintin series and was recently the subject of a documentary by Frank Gardner from the BBC, who traced the adventures from book.

Tintin in the land of the Soviets

As in every Tintin adventure the starting point was Brussels, the home of Tintin and Hergé. The story goes that Tintin had been sent by an editor to Russia to find out what the Bolshevik Regime was like in there at the time (1920s). He travelled overland via Berlin, arriving in Moscow having been continually tailed by the Russian secret Police. Tintin and Snowy (Tintins faithful sidekick, Snowy the dog) are successful in uncovering the secrets of the Bolsheviks and they are stealing foods from the Soviet People, rigging elections and murdering political opponents (which is exactly how the Russian regime was depicted in the European press). This should be considered alongside the historical context of the time. The Russian revolution had taken place 12 years before the 1st pages of Tintin were ever created. Stories of Soviet oppression and fear of communism were frequent features in the Belgian media. Tintin was commissioned by Hergé’s boss at the time, Abbé Norbert Wallez, not only an editor but a Catholic Priest and Fascist (displaying a portrait of Mussolini on his office wall). Wallez sent Abbé Norbert Wallez a brief to create a cartoon character to expose Russia as an evil empire to the children of Belgium. Little did he know that the children of the world were to become acquainted with the young adventurer. He even gave Hergé a piece of anti-Bolshevik Propaganda to guide him. The document was entitled ‘Moscou Sans Voiles ‘or ‘Moscow Unveiled’ written in 1928 by a former Belgian Consul who lived in the USSR, Joseph Dueillet.

So Tintin sets off from Brussels via train on his way to Berlin, meanwhile he is being followed and the Russian secret police make attempts to blow him to pieces. It is in Berlin that one of the most important events in the adventures of Tintin occurs. He jumps out of a tree into a car and the wind causes his hair to shape into a quiff, his trademark hairstyle for the rest of the comics. Another place in Berlin featured in the comic is the Tempelhof airport where the police take off to undertake an aerial attack on Tintin as he heads for Russia. Tintin is on his way to Russia, but in the meantime crashes his car into a train en route. Once arriving in Moscow Tintin found a population in despair, queuing for bread, and living in poor conditions.

It is this part of the story which is overtly political. There were tales of food shortages and conditions of poverty Russia at this time in the Belgian Press whoc were quick to point out the failings of the soviet system. Uniquely Hergé brought these dark stories of a Russia ruled under an iron fist, to young people through a comic strip except in the story, starving children had Snowy to come to the rescue.

Tintin and the Land of the Soviets was published 12 years after the October Revolution, Lenin was dead and Josef Stalin was beginning to exert his stern rule over the country. Socialists from around the world, travelled to Russia to see for themselves how the first Revolution in the world where state power took control of everything was taking place all the way from agriculture to the production of energy. Even this was evident in the Tintin Adventure. There is a scene were English trade Unionists paid a visit to a Russian state industry factory which evidence has shown did actually take place. English trade unionists were keen to see what a collective labour movement could look like.

However, in the story Tintin is not taken in by the propaganda of the factor and investigates the country further. Tintin’s oppostition to the Russian rule made him public enemy number one and so of course he quickly finds himself in jail, a fate shared by many who denounced the Soviet state. Hergé is likely to have drawn on reports from the Belgian Press that under Stalin’s many people were taken prisoner or simply disappeared if they were found to be against the ruling party. The reporter then travels to the countryside where he comes into contact with the Kulaks. The Kulaks were the former small landowners who were now being forced to give up the produce of their land to the government. In the story Tintin helps the farmer hide his corn from the Bolsheviks but in reality there would have been little to Kulaks could have done to stop this kind of thing happening.

Hergé even included relatively contemporary events in this story. In January 1930 one month before the book was published, General Kutepov was abducted in Paris by Russian secret service as it was believed he was behind a plot to overthrow the Bolshevik regime. This story would have received a lot of attention in the press so Hergé added some details to his Tintin adventure,. In reality Kutipov died during his abduction but in the comic Tintin escapes gets his kidnapper arrested and is given a reward for saving Europe from Bolshevik oppression. There were very few journalists in Russia in the 1920s, and considering Tintin was essentially a comic for children it did a tremendous job of exposing children at the time to quite adult themes. I think it shows a cartoon strip can be an extremely powerful political tool.

While Hergé is known to have reflected on this book and criticized it himself for being flawed, his next book Tintin in the Congo (1931) was criticsed by others for racist colonial attitudes. Hergé then vowed from then on to thoroughly research the countrys he sends Tintin off to, properly mapping out his adventures in advance.

In Brussels today there is a £30 million museum as a tribute to the comic books and their creator Hergé. It is home to much of the original artwork, and manuscripts. Many of the pages are so valuable that they have to be kept in a bank vault.

Tintin went on to have many wonderful adventures across the globe and in the next post I will be exploring some ideas about how to incorporate some of adventures into classroom teaching. Why not get your students to create their own comic strip to show an adventure: how about a hero to save the Eurozone, or a character that experienced the Japanese earthquake and tsunami?

This entry was posted in Europe, Exploration, Film, Just interesting, Teaching and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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