As a young artist, Hergé was influenced by his mentors, specifically the abbot Norbert Wallez, who encouraged Hergé to use Tintin as a tool for Catholic propaganda to influence Belgian children. This shows in his earlier works within the Tintin series. As a result, European right-wing stereotypes pervade Hergé's early catalogue. A breakthrough came in 1934, when the cartoonist was introduced to Zhang Chongren, a Chinese student, who explained Chinese politics, culture, language, art, and philosophy to him, which Hergé used to great effect in The Blue Lotus. From this point onward, the artist developed ideologically, amidst the collapse of his country and the Second World War, and so did the series, becoming more progressive and universalist — until the final book, when a certain cynicism can be detected.
The first Tintin book, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, was crafted on the orders of Hergé's superiors, to be anti-Soviet propaganda of limited outlook. Nonetheless, Hergé worked willingly: "I was sincerely convinced of being on the right path," he said later. His only source was Moscou sans voiles ("Moscow without veils"), a book written in 1928 by Joseph Douillet, former consul of Belgium in the USSR. In this book, appearing not much more than a decade after the October Revolution, Douillet denounced the communist system for producing poverty, famine, and terror. The secret police maintained order and the propaganda deceived foreigners. Nonetheless, the anti-totalitarian theme of this first book would persist throughout the series.
Hergé wanted the second book to take place in the United States, which fascinated him. Wallez disagreed: he distrusted the USA, the country of protestantism, liberalism, of easy money, and of gangsters. Instead, he asked Hergé to draw a book about the Belgian Congo: the colony needed white workers at the time.
Tintin in the Congo reflected the dominant colonialist ideology at that time. As put by Hergé in a later interview, "This was in 1930. All I knew about the Congo was what people were saying about it at the time: 'The Negroes are big children, it's fortunate for them that we're there, etc.'"
Later, for the 1946 color edition of the book, Hergé toned down or removed some of the worst excesses: for instance, the Belgian history class given by Tintin to black students was changed into a mathematics class.
The paternalistic description of the indigenous people of Belgian Congo was more naive than racist, and Hergé developed an important theme of Tintin in this book: international trafficking.
Turn-around from Tintin in America (1931-1932) to The Black Island (1937-1938)
At last, with his next book, Hergé could send Tintin to the United States. Tintin in America (1932) represents a significant change in tone. Of course, this story was, like the previous ones, very caricatured, because of Hergé's limited knowledge of the country: America was the land of Al Capone, cowboys, gigantism... But Hergé also took the defense of the American Indians, blacks and blue-collar workers. He criticized lynching, the theft of Indian lands, and American business rapacity.
Even more striking is the fifth book, The Blue Lotus (1934-1935), set in China. For this story Hergé was put in touch with Zhang Chongren, a Chinese student then studying in Brussels, whose name may have been the basis for the name of character Chang Chong-Chen. Hergé was very concerned with portraying the country accurately, and the adventure can be read as anti-imperialist. It criticizes Japanese and Western involvement in China, including the international concessions and the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, and shows with great disapproval Westerners making racist or ignorant remarks about the Chinese. The Japanese themselves are portrayed with little sympathy; most of those shown are soldiers or government agents involved in the invasion of Manchuria.
The Broken Ear (1935-1936) is set mainly in the fictional South American republic of San Theodoros and takes a critical view of western businessmen conspiring to provoke a war over what they think will be profitable oil fields. They go about this using bribery, corruption, and the sale of arms to both sides. It then simply requires a border confrontation to be blown out of proportion in order to begin the conflict, much like the Mukden Incident shown in The Blue Lotus. The war over the Grand Chapo oil plains was based on the Chaco War of the early 1930s. It also depicted the Shuar indigenous people, famous for their tsantsas ("shrunken heads"), according to the classic barbarian stereotype.
At first glance, The Black Island (1937-1938) is a simple thriller with Tintin in pursuit of money forgers, with the chase to Scotland giving it a feel of Alfred Hitchcock's movie version of The Thirty-Nine Steps. Though Dr. J.W. Muller is a German villain and could be read as a clear parody of the Germans at the time, the head of the criminal faction is Puschov, who is depicted in keeping with anti-Semitic caricature.
The Second World War
Several stories were influenced by the menace of a second world war, and then by the war itself and the Nazi occupation of Belgium.
Despite the fact that Hergé was in favor of the neutrality of Belgium, King Ottokar's Sceptre (1938-1939) could be read as anti-Nazi: Müsstler (a possible contraction of Mussolini and Hitler) is the leader of a conspiracy that seeks to merge the kingdom of Syldavia with its old enemy Borduria. The story could have been influenced by the Anschluss in Austria in 1938. As it was written in 1938, the story may reflect the annexation and invasion of neighbouring states by Mussolini's Italy and Nazi Germany. However, at this point in time Mussolini had not attempted to annex a European state. Müsstler is the head of the Iron Guard. The name implies that it is a pro-fascist paramilitary group, similar to the SA or Blackshirts, which were common in Europe between the wars. An actual fascist and anti-Semitic group called the Iron Guard was very active in Romania in the years leading up to the Second World War . The Romanian Iron Guard was often in violent conflict with the King of Romania, King Carol II, who they accused of corruption and being influenced by his Jewish mistress. In fact the year the repression of the Iron Guard commenced was 1938, the year King Ottokar's Sceptre was first serialised. The leader of the Iron Guard, Codreanu, was executed shortly thereafter for treason by the Romanian government. The Iron Guard briefly formed the government in 1940 under Horia Sima after the King's abdication but Hitler ended up backing the more conservative General Antonescu in January 1941 and the Iron Guard was eliminated from government and purged. Thus, in the foreign policy of the Third Reich the Romanian monarchy and other authoritarian figures were supported over the local fascist party. These historical complexities and ambiguities may explain why the story was not censored by the German occupation authorities.
The early and unfinished version of Land of Black Gold (1939-1940) alluded to the mobilization of Nazi war power. This unfinished adventure is set in the British Mandate of Palestine with British soldiers and officials. The beginning of the war and the defeat of Belgium prevented Hergé from finishing this version, though it did come out in 1950. He later rewrote it, setting the action in the fictional Arab Kingdom of Khemed and replacing the conflict between Arabs and Jews by a civil conflict between two Arab factions.
During the war, Hergé worked for Le Soir, a newspaper which collaborated with the German occupiers. To avoid controversy during the Nazi occupation of Belgium, Tintin's adventures now focused mainly on non-political issues such as drug smuggling (The Crab with the Golden Claws), intrigue and treasure hunts (The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham's Treasure), and a mysterious curse (The Seven Crystal Balls).
Somewhat controversial though, was The Shooting Star, which was about a race between two crews trying to reach a meteorite which had landed in the Arctic. Hergé chose the subject to be as fantastic as possible, to avoid trouble from the censors. Nonetheless politics intruded in that the crew Tintin joined was composed of Europeans from Axis or neutral countries, while their underhanded rivals were Americans. Tintin also flies in a German plane in the book (an Arado Ar 196).
Most damaging of all for Hergé was that these stories were published in Le Soir, a collaborationist newspaper. After the war he and other members of its staff faced lengthy investigations into their wartime allegiances. Hergé expressed his regrets in an 1973 interview: "I recognise that I myself believed that the future of the West could depend on the New Order. For many, democracy had proved a disappointment, and the New Order brought new hope. In light of everything which has happened, it is of course a huge error to have believed for an instant in the New Order."
The post-war stories are less controversial, developing several recurring themes:
- Humanism and anti-racism in The Castafiore Emerald, which takes the side of the Roma;
- Totalitarianism: The Calculus Affair is anti-Stalinist, but also shows the lengths to which both sides of the Cold War went to acquire weapons of mass destruction;
- International trafficking and slavery in The Red Sea Sharks;
- Oil multinationals and their influence in Land of Black Gold (and previously in The Broken Ear); and
- The arms trade in The Red Sea Sharks and Flight 714. Here, millionaire Laszlo Carreidas is obviously based on French aircraft industrialist Marcel Dassault. As Dassault was born Jewish, the album has been considered as anti-semitic by some, but there is no reference to the religion of Carreidas. In The Broken Ear (before the war), Hergé had already caricatured a real arms merchant, Basil Zaharoff.
Hergé was however criticized for his depiction of the black victims in The Red Sea Sharks; in the first edition they speak pidgin French and seem rather simple-minded. He rewrote their dialogue in later editions.
The last controversial album is Tintin and the Picaros, which has been seen both as left-wing and right-wing. In it, Tintin goes through profound changes. For the first time, Tintin seems to be flesh and blood, and perhaps even has weaknesses; for instance, he is at first uncharacteristically unwilling to travel to San Theodoros, where his friends have been accused of war crimes based on false charges. At the end he intervenes dramatically through revolution. But there are no good guys and bad guys in the political background here: General Alcazar is financed by an international conglomerate and his rival General Tapioca by the para-Stalinists of Borduria. In the very last panel of his very last finished album, Hergé shows police patrolling the slums, wherein the inhabitants are no better off and no worse than before the coup d'etat, indicating that all that has changed are the uniforms and the names on political placards.
Hergé has also been accused of sexism, due to the almost complete lack of female characters in his books. The only woman character of importance is Bianca Castafiore, who is herself shown to be foolish and nearly oblivious to all negative reactions to her behaviour — though she does show loyalty, presence of mind and quick wit when hiding Tintin and Haddock from Colonel Sponsz in The Calculus Affair.
Hergé himself denied being a misogynist, saying that "for me, women have nothing to do in a world like Tintin's, which is the realm of male friendship...."
Other reasons were because he believed that sentimentality had little to do in Tintin's stories, which are mainly about men getting into all sorts of "misadventures rather than adventures," and wherein "mocking women would not be nice," He also felt that a man slipping on a banana skin, providing he does not break a leg, is much funnier than if it happened to a woman. As a lady interviewer put it, "It has nothing to do with the misogynist world of the boy scout," referring to the fact that Hergé was a scout in his youth.
Tintin and the Jews
Some aspects of Tintin's adventures have resulted in accusations of anti-Semitism being levelled at Hergé, accusations that are often connected to his work during World War II for Le Soir, a newspaper that collaborated with the Nazis during the Second World War.
As the war began, the first version of Land of Black Gold (1939-40) was being published. This version was set in the British Mandate of Palestine and featured Jewish terrorists led by a Rabbi. The story was suspended due to its political nature, but completed after the war.
"The most serious instance of anti-Semitism, however, featured in The Shooting Star (1941), which appeared during the German occupation. In a scene that appeared in Le Soir on 11 November 1941, two evil-looking Jewish men, Isaac and Salomon, watch Philippulus the Prophet inform Tintin that the end of the world is nigh. One of them, speaking in very twisted French, looks forward to this as it means that he will not be obliged to pay off his creditors. In addition, the sponsor of the rival expedition sent to find the meteorite is called Blumenstein, is given the appearance of a stereotypical Jewish businessman and uses underhand and potentially lethal methods to delay Tintin's ship. His bank is located in New York and his crew attempts to plant the American flag on the meteorite.
After the war and the exposure of the Holocaust, Jewish people became noticeably absent from Tintin's adventures. Land of Black Gold was redrawn at the request of Hergé's British publishers who felt that it was out-of-date now that the state of Israel had been established. The terrorists in the Middle East were replaced by Arabs. The scene with Isaac and Salomon was left out of the book editions of The Shooting Star, while "Blumenstein" was renamed "Bohlwinkel" and relocated to the fictional country of São Rico. According to Hergé, both the original and the later name were honest mistakes: he thought Blumenstein was a common American name, and chose Bohlwinkel because it sounded like "bollewinkel," a candy store.
Hugo Frey has argued that anti-Semitism continued in the post-war Flight 714. Tintin's old nemesis and the mastermind of the plot in the book is the evil Rastapopoulos, who Frey argues is an example of anti-Semitic caricature, though other writers argue against this, pointing out the way that Rastapopoulos surrounds himself with explicitly German-looking characters: Kurt, the submarine (or u-boat) commander of The Red Sea Sharks; Doctor Krollspell, whom Hergé himself referred to as a former concentration camp official; and Hans Boehm, the sinister-looking navigator and co-pilot, both from Flight 714.
In other works, Hergé showed much sympathy for oppressed minorities, such as the black African converts to Islam about to be traded as slaves by a fellow Muslim in The Red Sea Sharks and the Gypsies of The Castafiore Emerald falsely accused of theft.
Much of Hergé's criticism was directed at big businesses and the ways they would affect the lives of ethnic minorities and the affairs of nations just for the sake of money. He also accused them of using unethical methods and being a cover for criminal activities.
These attacks started as early as Tintin in America following the discovery of oil on land occupied by Blackfoot tribespeople. Tintin is then surrounded by businessmen offering him tens of thousands of dollars for the rights to the oil. When Tintin announces that it belongs to the local native Americans, the chief of the tribe is, in comparison, given a mere $25 and half-an-hour to vacate the premises. An hour later the Indians are forced away by soldiers armed with rifles and bayonets; by the next day a whole city has been built on the site. A factory that Tintin later visits produces tinned "rabbit" meat out of stray cats, dogs, and rats.
Oil also came into play in The Broken Ear. Western businesses like General American Oil and British-South American Petrol get the states of San Theodoros and Nuevo Rico to go to war over territory which turns out not to have oil after all. This part of the story was inspired by the real-life Chaco War of 1932-35. One of the businessmen, Trickler, uses bribery, corruption, and false evidence in order to get his way. Arms dealer Basil Bazarov, who sells weapons to both sides, is based on the real-life Basil Zaharoff.
A similar situation occurred in Land of Black Gold, in which two rival oil companies, Arabex and Skoil Petroleum, separately support Emir Ben Kalish Ezab and Sheikh Bab El Ehr respectively.
Big business was also shown as a cover for illegal activities: Rastapopoulos for example is a respected businessman who mixes with people in high places, but is also the leader of major smuggling operations: opium in The Blue Lotus and slaves in The Red Sea Sharks. In The Blue Lotus is Mitsuhirato, a Japanese man who owns a fashion shop and an opium den, which cover his activities as a drug smuggler and saboteur. Rastapopoulos and Mitsuhirato have an Arabic counterpart in Omar Ben Salaad of The Crab with the Golden Claws.
The sponsor of the rival expedition in The Shooting Star is the head of a major banking organisation, who uses unethical methods to delay the progress of Tintin and Haddock's ship. These include sabotage with dynamite and fake distress messages. Controversially, in his original version, Hergé gave the man a Jewish-sounding name and had him based in New York. These were changed in later editions.
Following the war, Herge's attacks on big business were suspended as he focused more on espionage (the Moon adventures and The Calculus Affair); but it returned with a vengeance in The Red Sea Sharks. In this story Rastapopoulos becomes the Marquis di Gorgonzola, a media baron, airline owner, and arms dealer, who entertains influential people on board his luxury yacht. This serves as the cover of his business as a slave trader. When Emir Ben Kalish Ezab threatens to expose this for personal reasons, Rastapopoulos engineers his overthrow in favour of the Emir's enemy Sheikh Bab El Ehr.
Tintin has a knack of meeting businessmen who appear friendly at first, but turn out to be far from ethical and can also be villains. Rastapopoulos and Mitsuhirato are two such examples; but there is also Laszlo Carreidas of Flight 714. At first shown as a friendly if eccentric person, Carreidas was revealed to be a cunning individual with a long history of unscrupulous behaviour not limited to the business world. A large part of his personal fortune was in a Swiss bank account under a false name and signature, presumably for taxation-related purposes.
Hergé's attack on big business and its interference in national politics went all the way to the final completed story, Tintin and the Picaros. In this adventure, guerrilla leader General Alcazar had the support of the International Banana Company. Hergé's notes also reveal that Alcazar's wife was on the board of a company that kept him supplied with arms; a fact that may explain his marriage. To counter the rebels, Alcazar's enemy Tapioca struck a deal with Loch Lomond whisky and parachuted large amounts of their brand into the jungle, making the rebels too drunk to stage a coup. Loch Lomond also sponsored the local carnival.