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Tintin: Tintin and the Picaros (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.

So, here we are. Hergé’s last completed Tintin story. The month flew by reading and (in most cases) re-reading the stories that I grew up with. It’s interesting to return to the stories you read as a child, discovering new depth and complexity in what had previously been entertaining little diversions. Since The Red Sea Sharks, Hergé seems to have been toying with the popular franchise he has created, playing with and subverting a formula established over twenty-odd adventures. The Castafiore Emerald reads almost like a deconstruction of a typical Tintin adventure, with the a variety of threads that refuse to add up to a mystery. Flight 714 was almost a parody, relying on contrivance to the point of ridiculousness. And so, with his last complete story, Tintin and the Picaros reads as a criticism of the hero himself, poor and innocent Tintin, who proves to be quite an impotent little character.

Fly-on-the-wall look at San Theodoros?

Tintin and the Picaros is filled with supposedly heroic characters doing unheroic things. Professor Calculus decides to test his new medicine on Haddock, without the good Captain’s consent. Deciding to “cure” Haddock of his alcoholism without any regard for the Captain’s own opinion is rightly derided by Haddock as “a monstrous attack upon the freedom of the individual!” Similarly, it seems decidedly unethical to use the same drugs on Alcazar’s troops when their drunken behaviour threatens to prevent the coup from taking place – given Tintin’s supposed concern about executions after Alcazar regains power, it seems a bit hypocritical of him to treat Alcazar’s soldiers as human guinea pigs for a drug that has barely been tested, and without their consent.

Tintin himself seems a little more dubious than usual. Well aware that his friends are marching into a trap, the reporter opts to let them go on without him. This seems in pretty stark contrast to Haddock’s incredible faith in his friend during Tintin in Tibet. Of course, the lead character eventually repents and takes a later flight to join them, but it does feel strange to see Tintin essentially abandoning his friends to an ambush. There’s a sense that, like the series, this version of Tintin is older and a bit worn out. In fact, he’s traded in his trademark pants, with the bell-bottoms gone and a seam visible in the side. There was a time when Tintin would have leapt to the rescue of his old friends arrested overseas, but here he’s content to watch the matter sort itself out.

Tintin joins Alcazar's party...

Of course, the civil war we see in Tintin and the Picaros is one steeped in moral ambiguity. Tintin seems only to side with Alcazar because he knows the general personally. The rebel forces aren’t waging an ideological war or fighting for universal freedoms, Alcazar is just fighting to offer his wife “the pallis witch I’ve promist you.” [sic] The Picaros are bunch a drunks, readily to summarily execute Calculus for perceived crimes (“Kill the traitor! Hang him!”) without even affording him due process – not unlike the treatment that Castafiore and Thompson and Thomson receive at the hands of the authorities.

And Tintin himself doesn’t come out of this little adventure looking any better for it. We’re reminded that the character is a Boy Scout in all but title, as he refuses the countless vices that surround him. He doesn’t drink, he refuses a cigar from Alcazar. He won’t take the cut of the country’s wealth offered by the general in return for services rendered. However, it’s hard to treat his political meddling here with the same innocence we’ve seen before. There are quite a few stories which see Tintin arrive and interfere with local affairs, only to leave the country a better place for his meddling (The Land of Black Gold and King Ottokar’s Sceptre come to mind). However, you can’t really make that case here. There’s something rather meaningful in the image of Tintin and Haddack storming Tapioca’s balcony dressed as clowns – in a way, that’s all they are.

Carnival!

We get very little idea what life is like in San Theodoros, outside the political ruling class of power brokers that Tintin befriends. Hergé shrewdly reserves our experience of what “ordinary” life in the South American country must be like to two panels set in the slum. One as our heroes arrive, with armed police patrolling an impoverished little shanty town, and another as they leave. The only material difference is that the name on the sign has changed. Tintin and his friends have afforded little real change to the fictional country, hardly making any difference to the social injustice that so many of its subjects must experience day-in and day-out. As the trio fly over the slums, they are blissfully oblivious to the harsh reality of life in the slum. “Blistering barnacles, I shan’t be sorry to be back home in Marlinspike,” Haddock observes. Tintin replies, “Me too, Captain.”

Indeed, while Tintin can hardly be argued by a villain or even an anti-hero here, Hergé seems intent to mock him as a character too innocent for the harsh reality of the modern world. Reading about the involvement of “the International Banana Company” in the civil war, all Tintin can remark is, “A rare old mix-up, as you see!” He seems unaware of the implications of the involvement, which recalls the involvement of the United Fruit Company in a fascist coup in Guatemala in 1954. Similarly, Haddock is pretty much completely unaware that he is a prisoner in his villa, even with his manservant running around carrying a gun – it’s not until the clues continue to mount up that the good Captain twigs it.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss...

You might argue that Tintin did make a difference, that the boy reporter organised a bloodless revolution, which is quite an accomplishment. Of course, this all depends on Tintin taking Alcazar at his word. As is obvious to the reader, there’s nothing to stop the general going back on his word and executing the conspirators after Tintin has left. More than that, though, Tintin’s insistence that the opposition forces are kept alive is a very humanist idea, but also a very naive one. It seems almost inevitable that the forces will rise again, led from abroad by the surviving Tapioca. Despite his enthusiasm and optimism, it’s almost certain that Tintin has contributed to a long and continual cycle of violence.

In many ways, it feels strangely appropriate that this is the last Tintin story that Hergé completed, as it seems to be based on the idea that the world has moved on without our heroes. It’s worth nothing that televisions seem to be absolutely everywhere, from in Tintin and Haddock’s home to a rebel village in the middle of nowhere. It’s hard not read the ubiquitous presence of these television screens as a reflection on the possibility that the era of the comic strip has passed. Hergé seems to be contemplating whether the character of Tintin and The Adventures of Tintin are both outmoded and out-of-date. It’s rare to see that sort of introspection, and I do appreciate it, even if it lends the story a rather depressing air.

Poor Bianca, nothing gets pasta!

Hergé continues a theme he’s playing with for a while here, the logical evolution of Tintin, where the reporter gradually becomes the subject of the story. Older tales had Tintin randomly stumbling into a big conspiracy (something taken almost to parody in Flight 714), but Hergé’s later adventures increasingly make Tintin himself the focus of the adventure. He’s no longer passively observing and engaging with a random international incident, he’s very clearly the target of it – with Castafiore and Thompson and Thomson serving as bait for a trap aimed specifically at Tintin.

It’s an interesting evolution, and perhaps a suggestion at how the character has evolved. Tintin seems to have been intentionally designed as a bland hero, so as to allow the reader to accept him and embrace the story being told, allowing Hergé to explore the world. Perhaps Hergé is commenting on how Tintin’s fame has perhaps undermined that, turning what had been a vehicle for storytelling into a focal point. After all, barring the first three entries in the series (Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, Tintin in the Congo and Tintin in America), Tintin and the Picaros is one of only two books to carry the character’s name (Tintin in Tibet being the other one). It suggests the story is as much about Tintin as it is about the other elements.

Haddock can put that in his pipe and smoke it...

The story is very clearly set in the seventies, illustrating just how much time has passed since the character first appeared, almost fifty years earlier. The art and design of the story seem to foreshadow Hergé’s incomplete Tintin and Alph-Art, with a very stylish approach adopted. Notice, for instance, the sleak white television in Marlinspoke, Haddock’s neckerchief or event the artwork on the villa where Calculus and Haddock are being held captive. Barring the content of the story (with King Ottokar’s Sceptre obviously about the Second World War and The Calculus Affair about the Cold War), this is the first time the design aesthetic of the story has really dated a Tintin story for me, and I believe it’s intentional – an attempt by Hergé to illustrate just how out of time his characters are.

There’s no denying that Tintin and the Picaros is an effective send off for the cast of characters, as it tries to explore their relevance in a politically and morally uncertain world. Part of me wishes that the series might have ended on a somewhat happier note, or one that suggested that there was a place for this erstwhile cast of characters to be found in the modern world. Still, I do enjoy Tintin and the Picaros and appreciate the introspection that Hergé was willing to subject his characters to.

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