Politics In the World of Tintin and Asterix

 

 

(Courtesy: Socialistworker.org)

 

Ramray Bhat examines the similarities and vast differences between two of Europe’s most beloved comics.
It came as a bit of a surprise to me when a dear friend of mine, tenured at one of America’s premier universities, an authenticated Francophile and a cultural postmodernist to boot, had never heard of the adventures of the two Gauls, Asterix and Obelix written and illustrated by the French artists René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo. My astonishment turned to incredulity when he claimed an equal ignorance of the globetrotting exploits of Tintin, the investigative journalist brought to life in comics by the Belgian cartoonist Hergé. After all wasn’t Tintin the darling of young intellectuals worldwide and why not? Born in 1929, two years after Brussels hosted the first meeting of League against Imperialism, Tintin seemed to carry forward its spirit in his adventures during the fifties and sixties, long after the league was faded into irrelevance.
Interestingly both comics have garnered a good deal of negative publicity: Asterix albums have been accused of peddling violence, and a belligerence that smacks of fascist tendencies. Hergé, on the other hand, has been accused of anti-Semitism and sympathy toward colonialism, which is difficult to square with his apparent anti-imperialistic stance in several later albums (a contradiction which we will dissect in the following passages).
The connecting threads
Tintin and Asterix share a bond in comic culture and fandom: one cannot be dealt with without mentioning the other. Though set in very different ages, there are unmistakable similarities between their narratives. Tintin is disdainful of totalitarian and brutal regimes. This is evident when he takes on the entire apparatus of Bolshevism (Tintin in The Land of the Soviets), the Bordurian secret service led by Colonel Sponsz (The Calculus Affair) and the police under General Tapioca (Tintin and the Picaros). Tintin’s adversaries are not always gubernatorial; they could be criminal syndicates, such as the Chicago cliques led by Al Capone and Bobby Smiles (Tintin in America), and even multinational nexuses such as the one between the rogues of the Shanghai international settlement, Japanese secret agents and the opium cartel in The Blue Lotus.
Asterix, a warrior from Armorica (ancient Brittany), a province in Gaul (ancient France) belongs to the last century BC when the Roman empire under Julius Caesar stretched across Europe extending as far as Egypt in the south and Britain in the west. The only piece of land within the European continent that resists the writ of the Romans is the village Asterix inhabits along with a bunch of oddball characters such as his best friend Obelix, the druid Getafix, the bard Cacofonix and the village chief Vitalstatistix. The Gauls frequently fight to assert their independence, but also make it a point to challenge the Roman might whenever they go abroad on their adventures. Like Tintin, they dislike anybody who is cruel and dominates other peoples. Asterix and his friends therefore undermine the barbarous plans of Metric (Asterix and the Goths), Olaf Timandahaf (Asterix and the Normans) and Ødiuscomparissen, the chief of the Vikings (Asterix and the Great Crossing), all of who operate outside the realms of the Roman Empire. Both the series portray with remarkable candor the means through which colonialists pursue their designs of oppression. Julius Caesar, the recurring villain in the Asterix series, personally or through his minions, assaults the independence of the Gauls. In one story he does this by creating an imaginary demand for the valueless Gaulish menhirs (large standing stones), hoping that market competition would ruin cherished friendships among the frenzied menhir-manufacturing villagers (Obelix and Co). In another story, he employs a professional rabble-rouser to sow discord (Asterix and the Roman Agent), and in a third, puts up a Gaulish chieftain who embodies Homi J. Bhabha’s colonized mimic to the letter, in order to challenge the chief of Asterix’s free village.   The choice of Romans as the chief antagonists is in keeping with the narrative era, but there could be another temporally relevant reason: Uderzo’s parents came to France barely escaping the clutches of Mussolini’s Fasci. It was therefore fitting that the delusional sense of superiority and entitlement of the Fasci found expression in the Roman soldiers in the Asterix strips. Tintin’s world, post-First World War, is a bit more advanced and its geographical canvas is broader. The race to gobble up what Vijay Prashad calls “the darker nations” has begun. Oil has become the new gold and the connivance between autocrats, arms dealers, corrupt bureaucrats, oil industry and mercenary outfits is brazenly up for display. Like Asterix, several imperialist plots alluded to in Tintin comics are thinly veiled depictions of historical incidents committed by real vested interests. The blowing up by the Japanese of their own rail track in China, followed by an orchestrated sense of outrage and invasion by their army refers to the 1931 Mukden incident that was followed by the Japanese invasion of Manchuria (The Blue Lotus). Another brilliant example is the manipulation of the regimes of two neighboring South American countries by two oil companies, leading to a war between them, only so that one of the companies could grab an oil field that borders the two countries (The Broken Ear). Ironically the same arms dealer who profits from the warmongering supplies the arms and ammunition to both sides. Both album series serve as excellent chronicles for the events that occurred, and mindsets that were prevalent, in the 20th century. This is laudable for the Asterix series, given that it would be particularly difficult to fit contemporary phenomena within a backdrop set in an ancient era.
Another ennobling commonality between the Tintin and Asterix series is a regard for indigenous cultures and historicist discourses. Although achieved mostly through stereotypes, both series ensure that their protagonists are in sympathy with the tribulations of the colonized, and the discriminated against. It is clear that Tintin is sympathetic to the Arumbaya Indian tribe from the rain forests bordering San Theodoros and Nuevo Rico (The Broken Ear), the Romani (Tintin and the Picaros) and the Chinese in the Shanghai International Settlement (The Blue Lotus). The Gauls on the other hand identify with the patriotism of Britons, the Spanish, the Egyptians and the Corsicans and their resolve to resist Roman imperialism. Tintin and Captain Haddock are involved in exposing a slave-trading racket being run by Rastapopoulos. Asterix and Obelix also take a stand for the independence and legal personhood of disenfranchised classes such as slaves and gladiators. It is therefore less surprising that these comic albums have enjoyed immense popularity in Asia. Its people were able to free themselves from their European colonialists only in the 20th century. The wounds of subjugation have still not healed. In fact they remain unhealed as a result of the neoliberal and imperial stranglehold that the first world still maintains over its former colonies, something that the Tintin comics portray very well as discussed above. Points of departure
In order to formulate an opinion on the politics of a comic strip, it is however imperative to look at the whole body of work and not cherry-pick albums and incidents. It is only upon doing this that intriguing contradictions in the evolving political world of Hergé’s Tintin come to the fore. In order to appreciate these contradictions better, it is important to peek into Hergé’s life in concurrence with the publication of the individual Tintin albums. The latter’s career began as a cartoonist and reporter for Le XXe Siècle, a conservative Catholic organ under the stewardship of Norbert Wallez, a devout priest who was sympathetic to the Italian Fascist cause. Wallez put Hergé in charge of Le Petit Vingtième, a supplement aimed at capturing young minds and coaxed Hergé towards targeting what Wallez believed to the enemies of the conservative European interests: the atheist Bolsheviks of the post-revolution Soviet Union, the colonized natives of the Belgian Congo, and a Protestant capitalist America. It was for these reasons that the first three comics of Tintin showcase these subjects (Tintin in the land of Soviets; Tintin in the Congo; Tintin in America) and are therefore the most controversial and least researched of the series.
In the first, Hergé’s and by extension Tintin’s apathy towards the communists is stark. Wallez played a major role in encouraging Hergé to set his first album as a propaganda-piece against the Soviet state. It is thus an example of the hostile attitude of the Catholic Church towards the practice of leftist politics before it became an official Vatican policy, such as during the Spanish Civil War, when it supported General Franco in his fight against the leftist Republican opposition.
Tintin’s dealings with Congolese Africans during his visit to the Belgian Congo is representative of the racist attitudes of the European colonial regimes as well as their rapaciousness towards the colonized land. The Congolese are portrayed as stupid, lazy, almost subhuman beings that survive on the carrots and sticks of their Belgian masters. This is the reason why this comic was hardly available all over the world, despite having undergone a series of revisions by Hergé decades after it was published.
In 2007, a Congolese student Bienvenu Mbutu Mondondo took the Tintin publishers to court over the album’s racist themes. The international publisher Egmont, UK now sells it with a protective band that warns prospective readers about its offensive content. It must however be said that the depiction was not even close to the horrific magnitude of suffering and torture the Congolese endured at the hands of the Belgians, especially under King Leopold II, only so that the latter could sell the rubber extracted out of the colony to an industrial world where an automobile revolution was in place and the demand for tires were skyrocketing.
The comics that followed the triumvirate were a departure in some ways in their politics. Hergé was immensely creative in infusing a good deal of symbolism and surrealism (the dominant movement in fine arts and films of that time, with a good deal of it happening in Belgium) in comics such as Cigars of Pharoah and The Broken Ear. The most interesting album of this period is The Blue Lotus, which the celebrated Tintinologist Jean-Marie Apostolidès opines as representing the point where Hergé departs from his right-wing leanings. In fact it is a harbinger of Herge’s future leanings towards Fascism. In 1935, when Hergé was scripting The Blue Lotus, the Third Reich was allied closely with the anti-communist Kuomintang regime in China. The Nazi party was also extremely contemptuous of finance capital, attributing its machinations to Jewish materialistic tendencies. It was thus not odd that in the comic Hergé pits Tintin and the Chinese on one side with the Japanese and American businessmen on the other. It was only a year later in 1936 that Japan and Germany signed the Anti-Comintern Pact laying foundation to the Axis.
Left: Asterix in Corsica. Right: Tintin In the Secret of the Unicorn.
Between 1940 till 1945, Belgium came under Hitler’s Germany and Le XXe Siècle was shut down. Hergé came to work for the French fascist newspaper Le Soir. Hergé tried to keep the Tintin comics of this period apolitical, neither toeing the Nazi line nor explicitly rebelling against it, but the vacillations over his political worldview nonetheless get exposed. On the one hand he makes his discomfort with the Nazi imperial designs evident by building up his plot in King Ottakar’s Sceptre along the lines of Anschluss (the annexation of Austria by Germany) with a fifth columnist named Musstler (a portmanteau of Mussolini and Hitler) representing the villain. On the other hand The Shooting Star has characters with Jewish stereotype shown in very poor light. There is some debate that even the villainous Puschov from the pre-war era The Black Island is drawn as an East European Jewish character.
Post liberation Hergé was branded a Nazi sympathizer. He strove all his life to clear his name, and in the process largely gave up on explicitly injecting any political tone in his subsequent Tintin albums. Attempts at self-redemption continued with the villains in later novels shown to have a Nazi connection (Dr Krollspell, a Mengele-esque Nazi doctor and Hans Boehm, both form a part of Rastapopoulos’s gang of mercenaries in Flight 714). Hergé’s general sense of disillusionment with politics of all colors is evidenced in his illustration of Marshal Kurvi Tasch as Stalin-esque whereas his Taschist (a play on the word Fascist) Borduria is more Third Reich-like. In later Tintin stories, the common man and his politics are completely nudged out and replaced either by statist political, or worse, apolitical mystical themes. The former is evidenced in The Calculus Affair, a remarkable cat-and-mouse espionage drama that can equal Hitchcock’s Topaz in its edge-of-seat thrills, plot twists and intrigue. The conspicuous absence in people’s politics can also been seen in the relatively inferior Tintin and the Picaros where palatial coups are shown to use revolutionary rhetoric as a façade and both the pre-coup and post-coup governments depicted as being out of touch with the unwashed masses. Mysticism and the occult are prominent especially in the later comics and are severely anticlimactic to the politically intoxicating beginnings of the stories.
Flight 714 for example starts with Rastapopoulos, Tintin’s omnipresent bête noire, matching his wits against the Lazslo Carreidas, an unscrupulous billionaire he’s kidnapped, but the story soon devolves into a confusing muddle involving extra terrestrial art, telepathic communication, and alien-mediated volcanic explosions. Even in the critically acclaimed Tintin in Tibet, the plot is inordinately accommodative of the exploits of Yeti, the abominable snowman. Sadly Tibet is painted with the same “clinically disinfecting” brush of realism that the Marxist film maker Ritwik Ghatak accused the auteur Satyajit Ray of using in his films: there is no sign in Tintin’s pristine white Tibetan snow, of the blood spilt by the brutal invasion of Tibet by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, almost a decade before the comic was written.
Therefore one can only conclude that in terms of political themes, Hergé bent with the wind. He defended his colonial attitude in the Congo adventure by saying that it was the fashionable stance of that period, although anti-colonial literature and positions had by then started to appear in Belgium. On the whole Hergé chose to play it safe by infusing at any given point of time, the concurrently dominant and fashionable political themes. There was however another undertone, which remained throughout his works. And that was a Catholicism-inspired moral value system, which was formulated first by the German Bishop Von Ketteler as well as an influential papal circular, known as Rerum Novarum, during the turn of the 20th century. The positions encapsulated within this circular find expression in Tintin’s attitude towards the dispossessed, as well as those who dispossess them. It is this morality that largely motivates the anti-capitalist austerity that is always a part of Tintin’s character. It is also responsible for the disconnect and impassiveness that readers find to be so typical of Tintin. I have seen both these qualities in the Catholic missionaries who serve the poorest of poor in third world cities, such as the one I hail from: Calcutta. These feelings seek merely to assuage the pain of the individual, with a disinterest in why the class as a whole suffers. In the overtly political Blue Lotus, Tintin reacts to the public beating and humiliation of a Chinese rickshaw puller by a British lout by breaking his stick and merely reproaching the latter for his “disgraceful conduct!” The shocking reference to African Muslims as “coconut heads” in The Red Sea Sharks may be more a judgment than racism, but what is forgotten is that these destitute black men are not stupid.
In Castafiore’s Emerald, Captain Haddock offers better camping grounds to a travelling Romani band not particularly because he is sympathetic to their condition but because it hurts his sensibilities to see people living near a garbage dump. Through this he seems to embody what the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton has called the ultimate and unquestionable value of goodness or decency (along with truth and beauty). Scruton, Hergé and the religious right invariably foreclose the questions beyond this “innateness” never seeking to understand the politics behind it.
This missionary undertone permeates through, and binds together, all the different phases of the Tintin series: from when he is a colonial father-figure to the mentally and physically “inferior” Congolese to when he fights the atheist Reds, and from when he opposes the capitalist nexuses of Jewish bankers and American gangsters, to when he realizes that replacing a cruel South American despot with a more forgiving empathetic leader will do little to alleviate the plight of commoners. Fans have opined that Tintin in Tibet can represent a departure from social Catholic subtext, but even here values such as sacrifice, caring for the vulnerable, respect for God’s creations are all present.
Of all the imageries that have been associated with Tintin, the imagery of an asexual austere teetotaller missionary is what seems to fit him the best. With a will to do good, and determined resolve to rebuke the villainous while helping the harmed, Tintin sets forth alone or with his loyal friends on untrod paths, falling headlong into mystery after mystery. Armorican anti-imperialism
In contrast to Hergé, René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo construct a structurally distinct mise-en-scene: the whole village of the Gauls is essentially the hero of those comics. Every decision is made through due consultation with all the villagers or with a select council that is a healthy mix of experience, youth and cunning. Asterix and Obelix are sent on their adventures only because the first is cleverer than the rest and the second, is simply strong. The Gauls do not possess the Catholic zeal of Tintin. Neither are they naive enough to jump needlessly into an adventure. They are well aware that they often have nothing to gain from any of their romps. Behind their jocular ways lies a very hard truth. They are kept constantly under siege by four Roman camps. In fact the Gauls have very little to gain from their journeys in a world overrun by murderous barbarians and conquering Roman armies.
In the Asterix comics we are treated to a wonderful mosaic of the culture, eccentricities, the history and the conscience, if you will, of peoples of different lands and countries. Asterix in Switzerland for example is replete with cultural references (as well as humorous takes on them) such as their political neutrality, their banking culture, Swiss cheese, fondue, Alp horns, Swiss watches, the lake of Geneva, their folk hero William Tell and even Hannibal’s great Crossing of the Alps. In Asterix in Corsica, its illustrators lampoon the stereotypical laziness, belligerence, and valor of the Corsicans. Chestnuts, Corsican cheese, and the maquis are referenced. In addition, there are references to famous Corsicans: Napoleon Bonaparte as well as the singer Tino Rossi. The makers of Asterix weave a rich fabric of a region by integrating its geography, history, social norms, as well as the jokes associated with the regional populace by outsiders. The effect, although couched in a frivolous tone, is an intimate and deep look at how people all over the world are different in their own little ways but their needs and desires, as well agencies that thwart those, are common. The political message is strong and honest.
In sharp contrast to Tintin, the dynamics of the interactions of Asterix and the other Gauls with the people they come across, is characterized by a deep empathy and a sense of duty towards making the world a more just place. Although Obelix is given to shoot before talking and symbolizes brute force, he is more often than not, kept in check by Asterix, who takes the diplomacy route when it comes to their first contact with unfamiliar civilizations. He shows a nuanced understanding and precautionary tact in handling the aggressive Normans (Asterix and the Normans), the competitive Belgians (Asterix in Belgium), the haughty Corsicans (Asterix in Corsica), as well as his own French compatriots painted with exaggerated provincial idiosyncrasies (in Asterix and the Banquet). There are several instances where the Gauls help the odd Roman who may be an enemy of the state, but is at heart an honest man (Asterix in Switzerland). This attitude along with a remarkable absence of any nationalistic or jingoistic subtext in the entire album absolves Uderzo and Goscinny’s creations from allegations of fascism. In fact Goscinny and Uderzo’s depiction of the exemplary show of Gaulish non-violence vis-a-vis Roman civilians in the Mansions of the Gods may well have been a veiled criticism of the increasing practice of armies deliberately attacking civilians, such as the American carpet-bombing of Vietnamese villagers. Another remarkable nuance in the Asterix comics is that those who specifically garner the help of the Gauls in their fight (such as the Britons in Asterix in Britain and Edifis in Asterix and Cleopatra) are never found wanting in courage or determination nor are they technically or intellectually inferior to the Gauls. It is only when the obstacle is impossible to overcome that they seek some ‘magic help’ from the Gauls. In fact right in the earlier albums such as Asterix and Britain and Asterix in Belgium, Uderzo and Goscinny show how the ‘magic potion’ is entirely dispensible for beating back the Romans. It is instead camaraderie, tact, self-confidence and valor which win people victories against expansionists: the potion acts as a placebo.
There are therefore subtle but distinct differences between the politics that comes out in the illustrations by Goscinny and Uderzo, and the Tintin series by Hergé. According to Tom McCarthy, author of Tintin and the Secret of Literature, the Asterix and Tintin series can be compared to the films of Quentin Tarantino and David Lynch respectively. The first one is “witty entertainment” with a “charming and funny” character but the second is “great art”, dealing with “technology, politics and deceit.”
The opinion of this piece disagrees vehemently with the above and comes to the opposite conclusion: The fact that Hergé sets his Tintin stories within the last century may seem to be more identifiable with what has gone right or wrong with our times, such as a pervasive post-industrial revolution infrastructure and anti-imperial and anti-capitalist themes in many of its later albums. A much more closer look at the entire canon however reveals a conservative “Othering” that pervades through the series and becomes a signature for Tintin’s “disinterested interest” in doing good for the oppressed who are showcased within the series. It is imperative to neutralize this mindset, even at the occasional risk of realizing and celebrating one’s pure strength (as the Asterix series has been guilty of doing) in order to achieve a world where people from diverse cultures, histories and social orders live, and help each other live, with mutual respect and on equal terms. The Asterix albums unleash the raw power of great art and manage to make a difference to our lives. Thanks Kusumita Rakshit for critical comments on the manuscript.
Ramray Bhat is a cell biologist at the Lawrence Berkeley Labs, California with interests in politics, culture, and music
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