In comic books created over the course of six decades, a young Belgian reporter named Tintin travels the world, embroiling himself in investigations and adventures. From Soviet Russia to Egypt to China, Tintin’s adventures took him to many exotic locales and into sticky situations with people of countless cultures. The comic has been translated into about 60 languages, and is now a major motion picture by Steven Spielberg, out in U.S. theaters this week. But despite its internationalism, Tintin’s creator, a Belgian artist with the pen name Hergé, famously hardly ever visited any of the settings of his character’s adventures. For the past year, budding “Tintinologist” and comics researcher Nadim Damluji has been traveling around the world, retracing Tintin’s steps to see these places firsthand. He’s trying to understand the often huge differences between the realities on the ground and the representations in the comic, but also to explore Tintin’s enduring popularity in these wide-spread countries.
In his grant-funded year-long travels, Damluji spent four months in Belgium and France, another four months in the Middle East, and another four months in Asia, just some of the many settings of Tintin’s adventures. Damluji documented his studies and tour on his website, Tintin Travels. Through this journey, he spent a lot of time looking at how the interpretations of these settings contradict their realities, and how the comics have influenced the ways readers understand the world.
“I was able to confront my own preconceptions,” Damluji says. “I think my first images of China were based on the marketplaces you see in [the fifth Tintin book] The Blue Lotus – this hustling, bustling city.”
Hergé was famous for his attention to detail, doing extensive research of photographs of locations, buildings and vehicles to create an accurate look, a realism furthered by his ligne claire, or clear line, drawing technique. But for all his focus on the visuals of these foreign places, Hergé paid less attention to the intricacies of their cultures, which often created stereotypical or even racist depictions of people.
The worst example most critics cite is the second book, Tintin in the Congo, which includes some outrageously racist scenes featuring Africans in their native culture. Another example is the Hergé-created Arab country of Khemed.
“It’s this faux-Saudi/Emirates place where all of the guys are in their turbans, they’re all in the desert, they’re really quick to get angry, and they’re always the punchline,” Damluji says. “They never really have three-dimensional qualities.”
This oversight is part of what got Damluji interested to visit the subjects of Tintin’s stories.
“The one thing he didn’t really have to think about is the people of these places. It’s one of the things you’re afforded by never confronting these places,” says Damluji. “If you’re just imagining them, you can dehumanize them in really easy ways.”
In his own travels, Damluji was trying to better understand the impacts of that dehumanization.
“When you’re made to confront a city versus imagining it, it’s just a completely different experience. It’s more holistic and more totalizing and more complicated than would fit in 60 pages of ligne claire artwork,” Damluji says. “But what I’m interested in is how much of Hergé’s representation of others is not just Hergé. It’s not just the case of one man being racist, but how does this reflect the time in western Europe and how it looks at the world?”
By talking with fans and comic artists in these varied locations, Damluji explored this lens, but also those places’ interpretations of themselves, through Tintin and comics in general. Damluji is American-born but spent his childhood in Lebanon, where like many children he was exposed to Tintin comics as a young child. Through his year-long study, he examined how different readers of Tintin had been influenced by the comic in their interpretations of foreign places. In much the same way that Hergé captured a skewed idea of what these other places were, readers of Tintin developed their own skewed visions of the outside world. And yet, because of what Damluji calls Tintin’s non-descript characteristics, readers in countries like Egypt and India and China could see themselves in the Belgian reporter.
“What was really fascinating is that Tintin is really embraced in all these different places as one of their own. Even though in Brussels they read him as a Brussels hero. He’s very much from Brussels,” Damluji says. “But at the same time, I’ll talk to people from Egypt and they have fond memories of Tintin from their childhoods the same way I did in Beirut and the same way they do in China. He’s this blank slate that the children of the world can read and travel through.”
Damluji’s now back in the U.S. and working on a book about his travels and studies, mainly focusing on Hergé, Tintin and the Arab world. “It will look at Tintin in the Middle East, Hergé’s imagination of the Middle East and the Middle East's imagination of itself, in terms of comics,” Damluji says.
And that’s just the start. He’s also thinking about other books looking at Tintin’s connection to some of the comic’s other settings, including Asia, India, and South America. Through this work he’s hoping to create a deeper connection between comics like Tintin to the places they’re set – and hopefully to separate the truth and falsity within those connections.