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Tintin: Tintin in America (Review)

In the lead-up to the release of The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, I’m going to be taking a look at Hergé’s celebrated comic book character, from his humble beginnings through to the incomplete post-modern finale. I hope you enjoy the ride.

Tintin in America was the earliest Adventures of Tintin book I read as a child, and I owned the entire collection from this point on (for obvious reasons, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets and Tintin in the Congo were not recommended childhood reading). That said, I’ve always regarded Tintin in America as one of the weaker entries in the series, perhaps because my childhood imagination yearned for something relatively more exotic than a trip to North America, or perhaps because the saturation of American pop culture made all the elements Hergé was spoofing seem like old hat. I’m not entirely sure, but I have to admit that the story hasn’t improved too much on re-reading.

America, %&#! Yeah!

Basically, Tintin in America pits the young reporter against Al Capone… and a whole rake of other interchangeable gangster types, while crossing the American cultural landscape from Chicago to an Indian reservation to an industrial plant to the railroads and so on. It really is the point at which we begin to see more of the conventional Tintin formula emerge, as the character is written with a clear and precise purpose, rather than acting as a reporter who stumbles from plot point to plot point. Although he’s still clearly a reporter here, one can sense Hergé beginning to blur the line a bit and turn his lead into a more dynamic and heroic character. Confronted with a bribe, he declares, “Just remember I came to Chicago to clean the place up, not to become a gangster’s stooge!” And here I was thinking Tintin came to the city to report… what with being a reporter and all.

While, with the exception of Snowy, Tintin’s supporting cast is yet to fall into place around him, you can see a lot of the tropes coming into use, including the author’s painstaking research, and his attempts to coopt popular culture into his stories, along with the occasional ridiculous death traps, numerous botched assassinations and a huge amount of dumb luck for our heroes. You could argue that these were present in the two earlier stories (and they were), but they feel more firmly established and cemented here. I regard this story as the one that crystalised The Adventures of Tintin into their well-known format.

Tintin needs to cop himself on...

However, while nowhere near as blatant as the uncomfortable racism of the book that came directly before this story, there are still a few moments that read a bit awkwardly. Dealing with an unruly child, a Native American chief declares, “Do that again and I’ll have your scalp!” A Mexican pops up briefly as a bandito (dressed pretty much as you’d expect), and exclaims in an awkwardly written Mexican accent, “If he wake, if he move, I shot heem.”

More than these little awkward moments, I get the sense that Hergé kinda doesn’t like America. There are some brilliant moments of social satire (the drunken sheriff during prohibition or a gentlemen’s club that declares itself “bootleggers to the White House”), but Hergé has a truly strange fascination with lynching and with kidnapping as defining characteristics of the American cultural experience. Consider this overheard news report:

Here are yesterday’s facts and figures from the City Bureau of Statistics: twenty-four banks have failed, twenty-four managers are in jail. Thirty-five babies have been kidnapped.. forty-four hoboes have been lynched. One hundred gallons of bootlegged whiskey have been seized: the district attorney and twenty-nine police men are in hospital.

Tintin sure has the bottle for his assignment...

Much like the bank manager’s observation that “we hanged a few fellers right away” following the robbery, the more recent versions of the text have been edited to remove the casual racism. In the uncensored original drafts, Hergé seemed intent to argue that lynching African-Americans was something of an American pastime. Still, it represents a rather large improvement over the last instalment, and the sanitised versions of the story manage to avoid being quite as offensive.

On the other hand, there are some great moments of social and political satire, like where an impromptu labour dispute saves Tintin’s life, or where Tintin’s accidental discovery of oil immediately gets the Native Americans herded off their land. Moments like these help underscore the author’s rather keen political eye, and they reward me when I return to the books years after being swept up in the adventure for the first time.

American History, eh?

Tintin in America isn’t quite the series at its stride, but it’s getting there. There’s still just a little bit too much historical baggage, but there’s also a hint of the sharp wit that Hergé would bring to later instalments. The author’s plotting is still relatively weak, with the adventure feeling like a bunch of random things that happened rather than a single plot, but – once again – things are improving.

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