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Tintin: The Blue Lotus (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.

The Blue Lotus is regarded as something of a turning point for Hergé’s boy reporter. The cartoonist, apparently urged by those close to him, decided that – rather than basing his depiction of China on a collection of pop culture stereotypes (as he had done in Tintin in America) – he would undertake a considerable amount of research in order to ensure that the story was as respectful and faithful to Chinese culture as might have been possible. Indeed, the Chinese boy who Tintin befriends, Chang Chong-Chen, is named in honour of one of the students who helped him in coming to understand the Far East.

East of Eden...

One senses that Hergé has turned a bit of a corner since the unfortunate incident that was Tintin in the Congo. Here, Tintin intervenes to stop a Western from beating a rickshaw driver who accidentally bumped into him, with the reporter warning the man, “Your conduct is disgraceful, sir!” This is a clear step forward from the character who insisted that a bunch of Africans hoist a train he derailed back on to the train tracks. Irate, the man mutters with indignation, “Trying to stop me beating a native… intolerable!” It’s a nice acknowledgement of the sorts of racist attitudes that were all too common in polite society, and it’s nice to see that Tintin (and Hergé are becoming increasingly aware of it). There’s a great sight gag where Thomson and Thompson’s stereotypically Asian disguise turns them into laughing stocks, an allusion to the perils of researching through popular perception.

In fact, there’s a nice sequence where Tintin and a young Chinese boy he just saved are talking about what they might have been raised to believe about one another, and Hergé dismisses the types of propaganda that was being produced around the time, the fiction of the “yellow peril” and all that nonsense. It’s a genuinely touching interaction between Tintin and Chang Chong-Chen, who would appear in later stories, especially the reflective and spiritual Tintin in Tibet. In any other series, and – perhaps – later in this one, the conversation might seem heavy-handed or ham-fisted. Here, however, it fits as the perfect repudiation of some of the more unsavory aspects of earlier stories.

And den there were fewer...

Of course, all this is more than slightly undermined by the fact that the Japanese are portrayed in quite a stereotypical manner, with most major Japanese characters possessing the sort of pronounced teeth one expects from racist caricatures of Far Easterners. It actually seems quite strange that Hergé, having seemingly learned his lesson, would opt to present one nationality like that. I mean, I can understand why the Japanese are the bad guys in this story, but it seems disappointingly racist to revert to such a stereotypical display.

It’s funny returning to these books as an adult, having read them as a child. The political subtext was probably something I glossed over as a child, but it’s probably the most fascinating element of the book for me today. Clearly drawing on the origins of the conflict between China and Japan that erupted in the 1930s, Hergé offers a fairly clever fictionalisation of the events, with a certain level of wry cynicism that holds up remarkably well in context.

Masters of disguise...

In particular, his scathing criticism of the League of Nations as an ineffective talking shop (“and once again, Japan has fulfilled her mission as guardian of law and civilisation in the Far East,” the Japanese ambassador declares after a staged attack on Japanese forces, and the League eats it up). Of course, Tintin’s intervention sees the conflict resolved in a relatively idealistic manner, forcing the world to intervene and take action, but it’s all the more tragic that real life never played out in such a fashion. Of course, I imagine I’ll probably pick up on a lot more of this sort of subtext as I return to these stories as an adult, and it’s a credit to Hergé that his stories hold up so well without ever seeming heavy handed.

We also see some of the series’ continuity beginning to develop, right in front of our very eyes. The adventure is a direct sequel to Cigars of the Pharaoh, much as Tintin in America follows on from Tintin in the Congo, but the connections feel much stronger, with Tintin attending the movie he interrupted, for example, or the presence of several recurring cast members and the madness-inducing poison from the earlier story. It’s a sign that Hergé is really starting to build and develop a world, sketching the rough outline of a fictional universe that would be developed further in stories to come.

The adventures continue...

That said, I’m not quite as fond of The Blue Lotus as I am of Cigars of the Pharaoh. It seems to be missing a lot of that pulp fiction charm, perhaps as a result of Hergé’s attention to detail. However, that might be a good thing – one can imagine how big of a nightmare a trip to China based around popular European perception of the region might be. More than that, the simple fact that Hergé is trying to be more faithful and respectful to foreign cultures is something that deserves credit and recognition.

I said that Cigars of the Pharaoh was the series finding its form, but The Blue Lotus proves that it can keep that form, and it wasn’t a flash in the pan. I think things are really starting to kick off, and although there’s a minor misstep or two (the portrayal of the Japanese), it’s a sign that Hergé is an artist keen to improve his craft. And that’s genuinely exciting.

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