Ampton Reads: Tintin in the Land of the Soviets

Tintin originated as a black-and-white adventure strip in a far-right magazine in Belgium and somehow spread from there across the world, becoming a cultural icon and an enduring hero to absolute shitloads of children, myself included. I grew up reading the English, colourised books that had been purchased for my father and uncle and had sat at my grandmother’s house ever since, awaiting the arrival of the next generation of children who would find these books to be brilliantly timeless and full of joy and adventure.

I was banned from reading at the dining table because I was not found without a Tintin book. I also watched the 90s cartoon show, cringing every time Tintin’s Canadian accent became too obvious. I owned a VHS copy of Tintin in Tibet, still my favourite Tintin book, and the childhood monster I was most afraid of was the humble yeti. Considering that the point of Tintin in Tibet was that the yeti was actually a chill dude, I was probably too young to understand the story itself.

My current theory about the yeti fear is that since my vision was absolutely awful before I got glasses, every unfamiliar human appeared vaguely yeti-shaped, and when people walked past my bedroom door at night, I could only assume that the yeti had somehow teleported from the Himalayas to my house just to fucking murder me.

Apart from the unfinished Tintin and Alph-Art, I have read all the Tintin books. Tintin in the Land of the Soviets and Tintin in the Congo I read only a month or two ago in preparation for this read-through. I was happy to find that both of these books were in the adult comics section of my library rather than the kids section, and that both books contained a foreword detailing that the books are essentially far-right propaganda and contain some wildly racist depictions of the Belgian Congo. Even with the warning, it was still appallingly racist. Hergé himself was disappointed in both books and regarded them as a childish embarrassment. I’m inclined to agree.

It was Belgium, post World War I. The country was heavily Catholic and conservative, deeply opposing everything that was happening in the USSR. Le Vingtième Siècle itself was edited by a abbot named Norbert Wallez who was in fact so pro-fascism that he kept a little signed portrait of Mussolini on his desk, a trait that would age like milk sitting in the sun. Wallez figured that the best place to start people off hating communists was in childhood when people were pretty amenable to any line of thinking, and approached his illustrator Hergé  to edit a Kidz Bop version of his magazine, which would be called Le Petit Vingtième. Part of that would involve getting Hergé  to draw a new adventure strip about a boy reporter. It would be based off some ludicrously biased leaflets about how bad Russia was. Hergé  didn’t have time to do any more research than that and just integrated information straight from the leaflets.

Tintin in the Land of the Soviets was not Hergé’s first comic project. He had been working as an illustrator at Le Vingtième Siècle for some time, producing uninspired comics about mischievous children. He had also been a regular contributor to Belgium’s national boy scout magazine with the character of Totor, who was pretty similar to Tintin. But now was his chance to take on a proper project that could utilise innovations from other comics, especially American comics, which used speech bubbles to create narratives without any accompanying text. The speech bubble had not actually made it to Europe before Hergé began writing Tintin.

Hergé’s marvellous knack for writing tightly plotted stories with vibrant characters had not even remotely developed at this stage. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Land of the Soviets is rambling and borderline incoherent, and the best part is that Hergé would agree with me. Le Petit Vingtième was published on Wednesday evenings and he often hadn’t drawn that week’s strip by Wednesday morning. That, plus the fact that every strip needed to end on a cliffhanger to keep people interested, basically turned the story into a constant, erratic cycle of build-up and cop-out with some stuff about how the USSR sucks in between.

So, starting January 1929 (90 years ago this month!), Tintin in the Land of the Soviets was rolled out. It was presented to the readers as photographs sent back from the reporter’s journeys in the USSR, although the illustrations were absolutely not of photographic quality. I’ve seen this compared to how old novels always have a preface explaining how the author came across this story (which serves to legitimise the tale and pretend that it is non-fiction) and that’s pretty accurate.

At the time, Hergé was full of enthusiasm, but lacking in creative freedom. His life was pretty good. He was getting married, making money, slotting neatly into Belgian society despite his irregular career path. Writing Tintin weekly would prove exhausting, but it forced his artistic abilities to improve in leaps and bounds, and it was the start of a career that would make Hergé more famous than he could ever imagine, and give him more money that he could ever want.

AMPTON READS:

We get the introduction claiming that the story represents authentic photos of Tintin. Cameras in 1929 were massive, unwieldy, and had long exposure times, so the idea of these being in-action images is almost goofy.

And we get our first look at young Tintin and his accompanying dog, who I will call Snowy because that’s the name I know. I’m aware other English speakers still refer to him as Milou, but, hey, I don’t.

He doesn’t look much like Tintin, aside from the circular head and button nose. His quiff is not yet formed and Snowy is sporting a tiny seagull on his head or maybe a monobrow. Still, I like the art style, it’s cute and distinctive.

Tintin’s train ride is infiltrated by a Soviet goblin, who attempts to put Tintin out of his misery before he even arrives. I like the implication that allowing even one (1) non-Soviet journalist to get a look at the USSR will make the whole operation fall down.

The train is destroyed, leaving Tintin black-eyed and wondering what the fuck is happening. ‘Something funny must have happened.’ For sure. I love how there’s absolutely no explanation as to how Tintin wasn’t killed instantly. Bless him.

It’s never entirely clear whether Tintin can actually hear Snowy when he talks, but in any case, Snowy occupies the position of talking dog in the earlier Tintin stories. Later, he is cruelly robbed of his ability to speak in favour of letting the massive cast of human characters get a word in, so enjoy his snarky comments while you can.

He then promptly gets arrested for the potential murder of literally everyone else on the train, since he’s the only survivor. He’s legally charged with the disappearance of 218 people. Holy shit, dude. They lock him up in a metal room because he’s now a prolific mass murderer. Doesn’t stop him from beating up his guard and escaping in a comically oversized outfit.

I like the doggy salute.

He steals a motorbike and escapes the filthy Bolsheviks, crashes the motorbike, steals a car, car is blown up by a plane, car is hit by a train, Tintin rides the train, Tintin finally crosses the Russian border. An important part of this sequence is when Tintin’s floppy fringe is blown up by the wind and becomes his signature quiff:

It never did un-quiff.

I’ve cosplayed as Tintin a few times and one of the hardest parts is making the quiff stay up all day without looking stupid. He must have a very particular set of cowlicks to end up looking like this on the daily.

Once Tintin crosses the border, the Soviets vow to murder him and make it look like an accident. I’m not sure why they bother, really. Tintin himself, who looks like he ran afoul of a ride-on lawnmower, goes to find new clothes, all while another Bolshevik plots to murder him using a banana peel. He comically fails, naturally, and Tintin lives another banana-less day.

He must catch up to the train taking him to the heartland of the USSR, and in the process we get this lovely drawing:

The combination of the pose and blank facial expression is killing me.

That said, it’s already noticeable how Hergé’s art has improved over the course of the story. His lines are becoming thinner and cleaner, and Tintin is increasingly on-model and of the proportions he would have in later stories. One of the glories of this story being reproduced as it was in 1929 is that we can watch Hergé learn how to write and draw a story. Later stories, which were redrawn in colour, don’t afford us the same privilege.

Snowy wants us to look at the Soviet’s face but it’s Tintin’s face that is worth remembering.

And then Tintin kicks his ass. Yeehaw.

We get to a very interesting scene once Tintin reaches the big city. Tintin looks into a Soviet factory only to see that the seemingly productive factory is generating smoke by burning straw, and generating noise by beating sheets of metals with hammers. It’s a piece of propaganda taken right out of Abbot Wallez’s leaflets and it does remind us that this story was intended as an anti-Soviet piece. The Communist party of the USSR was indeed pushing for high production and the appearance of high production, and this led to skepticism from other countries about their supposedly huge outputs.

While it’s true the Soviets were bullshitting some of their productivity reports, and a horrifying number of people died under this regime, we don’t really know to this day exactly what was happening due to the efforts of the government to cover up the truth. This was confounded further by exactly how much people hated the Soviets; Land of the Soviets is part of a wider propaganda campaign aiming to smear the USSR. I would say the most notable recent publication along these lines is The Black Book of Communism, decently well-known in the USA. I’m not saying the USSR doesn’t deserve smearing, because they did, I’m just saying that this first Tintin book is saying nothing new.

Either way, I’m pretty sure that Hergé himself knew nothing about the facts of the USSR, and as a result, this book knows nothing too.

Tintin shares a meal with a beggar, who turns out to be part of the Soviet secret service, the OGPU, and we get this fantastic facial expression, which is almost reminiscent of Sweet Bro and Hella Jeff. It’s also a nice first indication of Tintin’s later flippant snarkiness.

This scene is followed up by another one that was taken directly from Abbot Wallez’s leaflets: the fake election.

It does feel strange to me, who is used to Hergé’s almost aggressive research and political commentary, to have him swallow the party line wholeheartedly, but it would take another few books before Hergé began breaking away from the original direction of Le Petit Vingtième.

This is also pretty much the only time we see Tintin, boy reporter … actually do some journalism. He sits his ass down and writes copy. I can’t think of another occasion where he actually does his job during the story.

After this, there’s a variety of farcical chases and confrontations in true early Tintin style. It’s the easiest way to do the cliffhanger-resolution cycle that the strip depended on. He gets captured again, and here we see another interesting scene:

The appearance of two possibly Chinese individuals, who are here to torture Tintin and who have succumbed to some kind of disease that makes them look like a racist caricature. As most Tintin fans know, Hergé’s friendship with Chinese art student Zhang Chongren a few years later would see him write The Blue Lotus, a surprisingly thoughtful piece of political commentary that portrays the Chinese as a sympathetic and culturally rich people. Hence, the image above is a testament to how far Hergé’s understanding of the world outside Belgium would be broadened in coming years.

Tintin ends up watching the Soviets be loudly stereotypical once again, as if we haven’t learned our lesson already about being filthy commies.

I picked the above image out in particular because I really love the posing work Hergé has done here. The pose is natural, with good proportions, but it’s still stylised in that particular Hergé  way that makes it Tintin. It’s so elegant.

Tintin gets to witness the Soviet army seizing corn from the richer peasants in order to prevent starvation and keep up their propaganda. He confronts the army and must flee into the night, giving us this lovely visual:

It reminds me of the spreads of later books, and it’s a good use of the monochromatic format. He’s starting to get a knack for a more cinematic way of laying out panels.

Also this panel. I’m trying to figure out if this is racist towards Polynesian people or if it’s complimenting them. I also had no idea that Polynesians being good at lighting fires was a stereotype that existed. Bless. Then he fights someone and I simplify it thusly:

He gets captured, escapes by stealing a plane. He’s like 12 and he knows how to fly a plane. Sure, he crashes it, but he was definitely in the air long enough to indicate that he knows how to fly a plane. Journalism school in the 1920s was a wilder place. Oh, and then he repairs the plane by cutting down a tree with a pocketknife and using said tree to make a new propeller, also using a pocketknife. Tintin is significantly more powerful than Bear Grylls.

He lands in Berlin and is mistaken for someone who was making an attempt at flying from the South Pole to the North Pole. Not bothering to correct them, he proceeds to get wastey:

Tintin gets drunk in later books too, and since I always ended up seeing him as 19 or so it’s kind of hilarious. That, and when he uses guns. It’s like watching a little brother behaving precociously.

Once again, the Soviets get ahold of him. They are quite pernicious! Snowy sets Tintin free by doing some crazy shit involving a tiger that looks like it escaped from the Hundred Acre Wood. Finally, he ends up on a train for Brussels, making it home in time for a huge celebratory parade.

This parade happened in real life, too. Tintin had become so popular in Belgium that when the comic was wrapping up, Abbot Wallez decided to actually hold this homecoming parade at the Gard du Nord in Brussels. He hired an actor and a dog who scarcely resembled their characters and the crowd went apeshit. Hergé had created a hugely successful comic; each week, the sales of Le Petit Vingtième spiked on Tintin day, and he somehow managed to seize the minds of the youth despite having no notable personality, plotline, or (sometimes) mouth. People immediately wanted more Tintin, and despite the fact that Hergé desperately wanted to set an adventure in North America, Tintin was banished to the site of one of the greatest human rights violations of all time: the Belgian Congo. More on that later.

As I said, Hergé was not proud of this work in later years. It was the one book he never redrew in colour (although he only did Tintin in the Congo very grudgingly) and he also stopped it from being republished in book form until the number of pirated copies grew too great. As a result, it wasn’t translated to English until 1989, where it met okay reception since a lot of people were displeased with Russia after the Cold War. Despite this, critics generally agree that this is Hergé’s weakest work, and I’m inclined to agree, although I find Tintin in the Congo harder to read because it’s so ludicrously offensive to me.

Thank you for reading this. Most of the information in this piece has come from common online sources like Wikipedia or from books such as Harry Thompson’s Hergé: Tintin and his Creations. I’m open to discussing my sources in more details and I’m even more open to being corrected by people who know more on the subject than I do. I’m just delighted that I’ve finished the first part of this series. All images were taken from the English translation for the 1989 Sundancer publication of Land of the Soviets.

I want to make this funky Tintin my mascot.

– Aмртоп

3 thoughts on “Ampton Reads: Tintin in the Land of the Soviets

Add yours

  1. Thanks for this excellent review!
    This was the last of the Tintin books I ever read – unlike the others, I didn’t read it until adulthood – and when I did, I understood why Herge never revisited it. I remember being very disappointed, especially by the character design of Tintin who has a blank expression throughout – he doesn’t even have a mouth in most pictures! Only a few action scenes (escaping from prison, stealing a plane) provide a few hints of things to come.

    Like

    1. I agree, and the only reason I would recommend this book to others is if they’re interested in the history of the series and seeing where Herge started from. Thanks for the read!

      Like

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