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The Tintin Season: Tintin in the Land of the Soviets

September 16, 2009

In 1930, the first Tintin album was released, which had been previously serialised in Le Petit Vingtième, it was the start of a worldwide phenomenon that still lasts to this day. The first Tintin adventure, Tintin in the land of the Soviets is, from our 21st century perspective, a curio piece on European propaganda towards the former USSR. It is also a strikingly dull piece of work. A work that is plagued with implausibility and amateurism, but yet, the tropes of Tintin were, albeit crudely being sown.

Tintin was created without fanfare, in 1929, when George ‘Hergé’ Rémi, at the time editor-in-chief of Le Petit Vingtième; the weekly supplement of the Le Vingtième Siècle created especially for children, was 22. January 10th 1929 was the date of Tintin’s arrival. Yet, just three years earlier, Hergé had created Totor, the “ugly” brother of Tintin who no one remembers or cares about nowadays. However, Tintin was to be found in Totor as both of them had the intrepid spirit that Tintin would later be an exemplary of, in fact Totor was Patrol Leader of Les Hannetons in Le Boy-scout belge, a Belgium scouting paper.

It is no surprise that Tintin had the qualities of a boy scout, as Hergé had been one when he was younger. It was a movement that was close to his heart and one that is at the very essence of what made Tintin a success. Les Aventures de Tintin, reporter du Petit “Vingtième”, au pays des Soviets was published January 10th 1929, two pages at a time. It was a response to American comics that had speech balloons instead of the text and image separated which had been the norm in European comics. This style was seen as innovative and exciting.

Drawn in a rough and unrealistic style (two things that cannot be said about later Tintin adventures), Tintin in the Land of the Soviets depicts Tintin reporting on communist Russia and being subjected to an itinerary of troubles. It is presented as an anti-communist “report” where the Bolsheviks are portrayed as corrupt, letting peasants starve and making propaganda to show that the USSR was a healthy and rich country. This was the main target for the newspaper, the alleged economic success of the Soviet Republic. This was keeping with the political situation and the belief of Le Vingtième Siècle, a Catholic newspaper. Hergé said that his main source of information was Moscou sans voiles, written by Joseph Douillet’s a former Belgian consul.

There isn’t a plot of such, rather a simplistic and immature collection of events that show Tintin in the worst possible lights. Tintin has always been a character that survives by his wits and his ability to think rather than use his fists; brains over brawns, however, in LoTS he comes across an arrogant bully. He almost revels in dolling out punishments, reminding often of his superior nature. Of course, it’s not surprising as it is an anti-communist tract, so unfortunately propaganda mutated our loveable hero into an irritating nuisance.

However, we are able to see the character he would later become in these uneventful and crude beginnings. We see his precedent in helping the “little-guy”; in one scene, he gives a piece of bread to a child. These are in keeping with Tintin’s entire ethos of helping children and people being unfairly punished; Tintin is part of a bureaucratic enterprise and often helps monocracies in solving mysteries, see King Ottokar’s Sceptre. He is a part of the establishment, but he also defends the people who fall victim of it.

As the comic was originally serialised and released two pages at a time, it often comes across as structured in “mini-comic” form. It appears that there is almost a complete story, usually ending with a cliffhanger. It’s a rather ineffective way of storytelling, creating an episodic feel to the story. It has too many cases of implausibility and is riddled with dei ex machinis; in many cases, Tintin is thrown into jail and “conveniently” he escapes. In possibly the most ridiculous instance is when he is thrown into prison that is situated on water. The cell is empty but when he gets back from being tortured, although it is actually he who tortures the torturers, there is a diving suit. Who put it there? The big author in the sky? no one knows.

Tintin in the Land of the Soviets is a historical piece as much as a storytelling one. It is often seen, with Tintin in the Congo, as the awkward “teenage” years of Tintin; plagued with racism, the casual poaching of animals, it’s terrible, yes, but I think it’s important that they’re out in the market. They are part of Tintin’s history and also our history and we cannot hide them. I wouldn’t suggest reading them before you’ve read the rest of the series first. A first-timer should begin with Tintin in America, although it still has examples of poorly researched and the “white man good” mentality, it still has a memorable and exciting plot, more on that later.

Finally, Tintin had to go through some teething problems before the series would become something that is truly special and something that I love.

Coming up: Tintin in the Congo

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