In 1986, I had my first major tryst with the life-changing power of reading, ironically during a period when I was laid low by a rough bout of chickenpox. Anticipating the boredom and restlessness of the weeks-long quarantine and recovery, my parents got the six-year-old me a bunch of Tintin comics to keep me occupied. Although I was an early reader, I couldn’t quite keep up with everything that transpired in Hergé’s breathless panels, especially with Captain Haddock’s age-inappropriate vocabulary and drunken outbursts and Snowy’s wry sarcasm. But there was always enough and more in the visuals, in Hergé’s iconic ligne claire style, to keep a pesky little boy away from scratching himself silly.
I have been a loyal fan of the Tintin comics for over 35 years now but the novelty of my first encounter with the young Belgian reporter has steadily become blighted as the years have gone by. Times change, so do tastes, and standards of propriety. From Enid Blyton to Roald Dahl, some of the most iconic writers who lit up childhoods have been displaced from their once hallowed pedestals. In recent years, the outrage over Tintin In The Congo (first published in 1930-31), one of Hergé’s earliest and most controversial comics in the series, has left more than a bad taste behind.
Revisiting the imagery and text in the light of political and social upheavals, scholars and activists have highlighted the damaging potential of such a work on young, impressionable minds. Rightly so.
From frequent instances of casual and gratuitous cruelty towards wildlife to Tintin’s cavalier treatment of the Congolese, almost every page of Tintin In The Congo reeks of racist or imperialist stereotypes. Sample this: In a scene from the early version of the comic, which has now been expunged, the boy reporter drills a hole into a live rhino, fills it with dynamite and then blows up the poor animal. Even by the standards of the 1930s, this level of inventive atrocity is uniquely evil-minded. The less said about the depiction of the humans of the Congo, the better. They are invariably treated as half-wits, with sneering disdain, not only by white men, but also by Tintin’s white dog, Snowy.
So, it was with some misgivings that I reread two of my favourite Tintin comics this month. The Seven Crystal Balls and Prisoners Of The Sun, published in 1948 and 1949, respectively, form a linked unit (like The Secret Of The Unicorn and Red Rackham’s Treasure) in terms of themes, plot lines and characters. At 75, these books still shine through for the sheer clarity of Hergé’s visuals and fast-paced storytelling. But if you read the Tintin comics chronologically, you will notice a distinct evolution of artistic style in this period as well. The panels become more realistic, with a noticeable increase in background detail, and the themes become more outward-focused.
Such changes were precipitated by Hergé’s decision to team up with fellow cartoonist Edgar P. Jacobs, most famously known as the creator of the Blake And Mortimer comics, in 1943, the year Prisoners Of The Sun started being serialised in Le Soir magazine. But the 1940s were also turbulent for Hergé personally. Working with Le Soir, which was controlled by the Nazis during the German occupation of France and Belgium, he was forced to check himself from exploring overtly political themes in his work, especially those pertaining to Euro-centric crises.
In mid-1944, The Seven Crystal Balls went into a hiatus as Hergé’s health declined. By the time he was back at work, the Allied forces had liberated Belgium and employees like Hergé, who had worked under the Nazi regime, were penalised as “collaborators’’. The Seven Crystal Balls would eventually be revived in Tintin magazine in 1946 and appear as a book in 1948.
Inspired by British Egyptologist Howard Carter’s famous excavation in 1922, which revealed the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb, The Seven Crystal Balls takes the reader into the far-flung corners of South America, into the heart of the Inca and Aztec civilisations. As the story begins, Tintin is on a train, reading about an eerie expedition to the Inca ruler Raspar Capac’s tomb. One by one, each of the seven members of the team that had breached the tomb is being struck down by a strange illness. The men go into a deep coma as soon as a crystal ball is shattered before them by an unknown assailant.
Even as Tintin is processing this news, a fellow passenger, reading over his shoulder, shares his full-throated disapproval of what the explorers had done. “What’d we say if Egyptians or the Peruvians came over here and started digging up our kings?” he says, much to Tintin’s consternation. The price of the infraction is not only paid by the seven travellers but also by Professor Cuthbert Calculus, who is kidnapped to Callao, in Peru, for committing sacrilege, even though he didn’t mean to.
In Prisoners Of The Sun, the sequel to The Seven Crystal Balls, Tintin and Captain Haddock get embroiled in dangerous adventures trying to save their abducted friend. Hergé brings in a menagerie of exotic animals into this volume as well. As the intrepid duo treks through the treacherous wilds of South America, accompanied by Zorrino, the Indian boy, they face a roll call of predators. Apart from the ubiquitous llamas, which soon become the bane of Captain Haddock’s existence, we have tapir, bear, ant-eater, python, alligator, even a condor that tries to make a meal out of Snowy. It’s not exactly Tintin In The Congo all over, but quite a crazy romp through the natural history of the Andes.
But the most lethal enemies Tintin and Captain Haddock face in Prisoners Of The Sun are not quadrupeds. Rather, it’s the Indians, affronted by the assault on their civilisation by white men, who pose the biggest threat to our heroes’ lives. In the end, even as Tintin and Captain Haddock are about to be burnt at the stake, the young reporter’s quick, and clever, thinking saves them.
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And yet, in spite of the suspense and craftiness with which Hergé plots the hair-raising denouement, there is a whiff of superiority. It’s his way of tilting the scales of intelligence in favour of the Europeans over the native Indians, blinded by ancient beliefs and superstitions. An excited child’s innocent eye may have glossed over such troubling nuances but an informed adult’s gaze, especially from the vantage of 2023, will not.
Somak Ghoshal is a writer and an editor based in Delhi.