5/12/09

"Tintin in the Land of the Soviets" by Hergé

I remember the first time I ever saw a Tintin comic. I was probably in first or second grade, and my grandmother had given me a subscription to Humpty Dumpty Magazine (with a tagline of "for little children"). Amidst the easy reader stories and sometimes confusing poetry and projects I spotted a crisply-drawn story of a young reporter and his white dog treking through the mountains of Tibet. I couldn't keep my eyes off the pages, but unfortunately the story was serialized and I would have to wait another month for the next installment. I remember gathering the

Humpty Dumpties as they showed up in the mail, wrapped in paper like a brown paper bag, and flipping through the pages looking for the distinctive comic strip. I don't think I ever finished the story of Tintin in Tibet in Humpty Dumpty because the subscription ran out, and my grandmother switched us to National Wildlife. The photos were nice, but no Tintin, dang it! So I kept the short stack under my bed and would re-read the Tintin storyline as he learned about stupahs (pass on the right!), searched for his friend Tchang, and had close calls with the Abominable Snowman.

Somehow my mom learned that I liked Tintin, and she bought me a hardcover copy of The Red Sea Sharks, which I still have today. That was published by Methuen, a British publisher, and had the price in pounds and pence, so I guess that in the early 70's Tintin was still fairly rare.

Over time I got more of the stories and continued to devour them, reserving a special place on my bookshelf for the oversize volumes. Later I visited France and picked up copies of "Le Secret de la Licorne" (The Secret of the Unicorn) and "Le Tresor de Rackham le Rouge" (Red Rackham's Treasure) and read the stories in the original language, which was when I discovered Thompson and Thomson weren't their real names, but rather Dupond and Dupont (Likewise, Snowy's French name is Milou, and Professor Calculus is Tournesol, which means Sunflower in French).

But my crowning Tintin discovery was a volume I found in a Virgin Megastore in Marseille on another trip to France. Everyone knew that in the US there had been 21 Tintin stories released, but in France they had also published Tintin Au Congo (Tintin in the Congo) which depicted the natives of the Congo, a French territory, in a racist and demeaning way. But this volume I found contained something more rare than that.

It was called Tintin en Noir et Blanc, and it contained all nine of the original Tintin stories drawn by Hergé for Le Petit Vingtième, a weekly comic insert found in the Belgian newspaper Le Vingtième Siècle ("The Twentieth Century") in the 1930's. The stories are

  • Les Adventures De Tintin Reporter Du "Petit Vingtieme" Au Pays Des Soviets
    (Tintin, Reporter for the Petit Vingtieme among the Soviets)
  • Tintin Au Congo (Tintin in the Congo
  • Tintin En Amerique (Tintin in America)
  • Les Cigares Du Pharaon (The Cigars of the Pharaoh)
  • Le Crabe Aux Pince D'Or (The Crab with the Golden Claws)
  • Le Lotus Bleu (The Blue Lotus)
  • L'Oreille Cassee (The Broken Ear)
  • L'Ile Noire (The Black Island)
  • Le Sceptre D'Ottokar (The King Ottokar's Sceptre)

The comics are in black and white and in a small 4"x5" format but they are in hardcover, and exactly as drawn by Hergé the first time he told the Tintin stories.

I hear you exclaim: "The first time?" Yes, it's a wonderful discovery. When Hergé (Georges Remi, Hergé is the French pronunciation of his initials reversed: RG) first drew for the Petit Vingtieme he was only 22, and he would have to draw a two page comic each week. The first ten pages of Tintin Au Pays Des Soviets is pretty rough, pretty soon he was drawing and writing Tintin consistently, and the boy reporter took on the features that most of the world would recognize: his slightly bulbous nose, his trench coat, the occasional pratfalls, and of course the distinctive cowlick. Hergé continued to draw Tintin in the newspaper supplement until the Germans invaded Belgium in World War II. After the war Europe was in chaos, and Hergé also had personal and professional troubles, but he eventually got himself back to work and his popularity was enough to create a workshop where the books were re-drawn and colorized...all except "Au Pays Des Soviets."


So, when I found a copy of Tintin Among the Soviets I was really excited. This was like the Holy Grail of Tintin comics (at least, of the ones I could afford), so I purchased it for 400 Francs -- about $60! -- which was a lot for an unemployed backpacker traveling Europe, and hauled it around in my pack for a month or so until I shipped it home to Portland, Oregon at another considerable expense.

For years I'd pull out the books and read them, but when I tried to get my kids interested in Tintin I also wanted to show them the original books. They were nonplussed, and I couldn't figure out why until I realized that my kids couldn't read French. So, I read the books to them, or read them myself, and then put them away.

Then, this year, I got another surprise. I was at the library and saw a full-size printing of the black and white Tintin in the Land of the Soviets. Apparently it was finally translated and printed in English (but in England) in 1999. The copy I had was published in the US in 2007.

As a Tintin story the book is pretty linear. Tintin goes to Russia to report on "foreign affairs." Hergé doesn't have a subtle view of the Soviets, and it shows in the story. The Soviet government is worried that a reporter will tell a slanted story about their country...which is that the rulers are living high on the hog while the people are starving. To stop him from reporting, Tintin is shot at, jailed, tortured, and bombed, but he always pulls through and makes monkeys out of the Soviets. Eventually he catches a plane and a train home to Brussels and the readers of the Petit Vingtiems are waiting at the station to give him a heroic homecoming.

It's a fun read, but it's more interesting to see how Tintin started out, and how strongly Hergé's political views influenced his stories -- at least at the beginning of his career.

You can see a PDF document of the book here. Or, you can buy the book from Amazon.

Here are two pretty good sites for Tintin information: The Cult of Tintin at Tintinologist, and apparently Steven Spielberg is working on a Tintin movie to be released in 2011.

Update: Also check out my essays on Tintin in Black & White, Part 1 - The Cigars of the Pharaoh, and Part 2 - The Crab with the Golden Claws.




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