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In 2019, on the ninetieth anniversary of the creation of the Tintin comic book series, a “posthumous homage” to its author Hergé was published on a French right-wing website. Under the headline “Tintin dealing with our Islam-dominated times”, a pun-heavy article proposed an alternative title and short summary for each of the 24 Tintin albums, in a bid to give them a contemporary, far-right revamp.
In a series of racist swipes at Muslim immigrants, Land of Black Gold (Tintin au pays de l’or noir) was now set in France and titled Land of Black Chador (Tintin au Pays du Tchador Noir); The Black Island (L’Île Noire) had become Lille Black with Burqas (Lille Noir de Burqas), a reference to the northern French city of Lille – and so forth.
This kind of content is quite common on the francophone web as far right online communities have shown themselves to be among Tintin’s biggest fans.
With stories published over almost 60 years, translations in some 100 languages and hundreds of millions of copies sold worldwide, The Adventures of Tintin is probably the best-known Belgian comic series of all time. In it, the young journalist, his boisterous friend Captain Haddock, and his dog Snowy, travel to exotic countries, solve mysteries, and prevail over baddies. On the internet, the comic has also sparked a wide range of memes and apocryphal images: many of them just seek to be funny or original, with no particular agenda (not to mention a conspicuous amount of pornographic parodies); others rely on Tintin to convey political views and takes on current affairs. Nationalist, xenophobic, anti-muslim and anti-semite blogs and forums are a small but active niche within the French internet. On these platforms, Hergé’s creature has in recent years popped up time and again.
A recurring theme of these fringe Tintin memes is the supposed “invasion” of France by non-European migrants. In widely circulated images, selected frames from the character’s adventures in the Arab world are repurposed as covers of made-up issues with titles such as Tintin in France, Tintin in Toulouse, or Tintin in Molenbeek – a largely Muslim neighbourhood in Brussels which was home to several perpetrators of the 2015 and 2016 terror attacks in France and Belgium. The not-so-veiled implication is that European streets are increasingly looking like their northern African counterparts. In another frequently shared picture, Tintin in the Congo is turned into The Congo Comes to Tintin’s (Le Congo Chez Tintin) illustrated with a photograph purportedly showing a boat of African migrants crossing the Mediterranean.
Some have gone to much greater lengths to recruit the red-haired explorer to their xenophobic efforts. The Day Will Come is a seven-page apocryphal story reportedly created in the 1990s by supporters of the National Front, France’s main far-right party (now rebranded National Rally). In the album, available on eBay for about €10 (£9), Tintin and Captain Haddock witness France’s transformation into an “Islamist colony”. After their house is occupied by Arab-looking foreigners (relocated in their living room by the Parisian authorities) and their car gets stolen, Haddock heeds his younger friend’s advice and joins the National Front.
The exploitation of the series for far-right messaging is not limited to the immigration issue. A collection of drawings circulating online alter some of the original album covers by replacing the reporter with Dieudonné, a French comedian infamous for multiple convictions on charges of hate speech and anti-semitism. Another fake cover also features Holocaust-denier Robert Faurisson as the beloved character professor Calculus. The late Faurisson’s “unofficial blog” shared the image and thanked the author, adding the claim that “from a scientific and historical standpoint, revisionism has prevailed”.
According to Vincent Bernière, newsroom director at French comic magazine Les Cahiers de la Bande Dessinée which is currently working on a special issue on Hergé, these manipulations are a byproduct of the character’s essence. “Tintin is hollow, with no psychological profile; you can easily attach anything you want to him. It’s one of the reasons for his success,” he says. “The French far right couldn’t help but notice.”
And right-wingers do not necessarily have to tamper with Tintin’s images too much in order to promote their agenda. Rummaging through their forums and blogs, it becomes clear that many participants think that the series’s underlying worldview already chimes with theirs.
Some of the material produced by Hergé (pen name of Georges Prosper Remi) and certain aspects of his life are certainly well-suited to please today’s fasciosphère. Born in Belgium in 1907, Hergé published Tintin in the Belgian right-wing paper Le Vingtième Siècle and was strongly influenced by the outlet’s editor, ultra-conservative abbot Norbert Wallez. He was also close to Léon Degrelle, founder of Belgium’s fascist Rex party and a Nazi sympathiser; Hergé never disavowed the friendship, which continued after the war. Certainly, Hergé wasn’t as politically naive as Tintin. “In the 1930s he was a rexist [a supporter of the Rex party], there’s no doubt about it,” says Bernière, who also points out that Hergé worked under German supervision for the paper Le Soir while Belgium was under Nazi occupation.
His first albums bear all the hallmarks of the political environment they were conceived in. Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, published in 1930, is an anti-communist propaganda book for children: the Bolsheviks burn bundles of straw inside empty factories so that the smoke can fool visitors about the country’s productivity; a poll held at gunpoint inevitably results in the pro-regime list being elected with 100 per cent of the vote. Tintin in the Congo, written the following year, is an anthology of racial and colonial stereotypes. The locals are portrayed as lazy and uneducated, and only young white man Tintin can lift them from their pitiful state. Hergé also pandered to the worst antisemitic prejudices, such as in an early version of the 1942 story The Shooting Star, which featured two grotesquely villainous Jews.
By today’s standards, these works have aged terribly, but many far right fans love them. When a new colour edition of In the Land of the Soviets was released in 2017, far-right websites brimmed with enthusiasm. One commentator, after accusing the publishing house of waiting too long “for fear of backlash from the lefties”, gloated that children would again “learn very early to hate bolshevism, Lenin and Trotsky, identifying with Tintin”.
As for Tintin in the Congo, the book isn’t only the source of numerous memes; far-right platforms have also repeatedly jumped into the never-ending debate over the album’s racist content. After a Congolese citizen filed a complaint in 2007 demanding the album be banned from sale in Belgium, right-wing forums reacted with fury. Some members insulted the plaintiff with racial slurs, while others lamented the African people’s supposed ungratefulness. “Here is what we get for handing them civilisation on a platter, just like in Algeria,” reads one post. Many also styled themselves as the standard-bearers of free speech in the battle against political correctness gone mad. As one put it on a white-power platform: “If you take this path, you’ll end up burning all pre-1945 literature; obscurantism and witch-hunts are back.”
But while Hergé clearly wasn’t a man of the left, the fact that the far right is mostly interested in just a couple of albums out of 24 also suggests how shoddy this appropriation attempt is. According to Benoît Peeters, a Tintin specialist who has authored various books on the series and its creator, after his youth Hergé moved towards “what can be defined as a form of liberal humanism”. The examples aren’t hard to find. In his later adventures, the reporter learns to understand and appreciate other cultures, embarks on a humanitarian trip to Asia, and stands in the way of post-coup violence in Latin America.
Perhaps because of this evolution, Hergé’s creature has been borrowed, adapted and used well beyond the far right; the Internet is also full of Tintin memes on issues associated with the left, with many drawings denouncing global warming. Everybody wants Tintin on their side.
Hergé himself did not live long enough to know the digital age, but he would not have been impressed. “He didn’t want Tintin to be manipulated for political goals, every time such attempts occurred, he opposed them,” says Peeters; the racist apocryphal material would have left him “hurt and shocked”.
Today’s neo-fascists and xenophobes may be trying to claim Hergé as one of their own, but they can only do so because the cartoonist is no longer around. For Peeters, these unsavoury reinventions are a just a sign of the series’s popularity, whose overall values hardly reflect the environment Hergé flirted with in his youth. “Tintin is by no means a prisoner of the far right,” he says.
Updated 16.08.2020,10,00 GMT: this article has been amended to correct the date of the Belgian court case against Tintin in the Congo : it started in 2007, not 2008.
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