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Ampton Reads: Tintin in America

I own a paper copy of Tintin in America that I’ve had since I was a little kid. It wasn’t my favourite, but I did like it for its offbeat tone and relative simplicity; it’s just Tintin in the wild west. Since I didn’t read the books in any particular order I didn’t realise that said simplicity was a result of Tintin in America being part of Hergé’s early period.

Since people had loved Tintin in the Congo, Hergé’s boss let him pick the site of Tintin’s next adventure, and of course Hergé picked America. It was where he’d wanted to go in the first place, given his boyhood obsession with Native Americans, which stemmed from his time in the Belgian boy scouts. It seems strange to me that the Belgian boy scouts had such a focus on playing at being Native Americans, but I’m from New Zealand and I never did boy scouts so maybe I’m missing something.

Either way, Hergé had a strong mental image of Native Americans as a noble and spiritual people, and he wanted Tintin to go over to America and show how much better they were than the white thieves of their homeland. This didn’t really align with Abbot Wallez’s interest in propaganda, which is why Tintin’s visit to the Blackfoot tribe doesn’t occupy as much of the book as Hergé would have liked. Instead, Abbot Wallez’s angle was showing how America was a country overtaken by capitalism and excess, and Hergé agreed with that well enough. Abbot Wallez firmly held the belief that only a grouping of European nations (perhaps in some kind of European Union) would be enough to outdo America and the British Empire. This belief probably rubbed off on Hergé, explaining why many Tintin villains were British or America, and why The Shooting Star features a European group of scientists facing off a group of bastardly Americans.

So, the book order was simple: Native Americans, Al Capone, and showing that America was shit. That’s pretty much what we get out of it. Tintin in America is a more developed piece than the two that came before it, but Hergé hasn’t quite hit the rhythm of storytelling that would come in the next few volumes. It does mark the first volume where Hergé did his research; he devoted a lot of time to getting his portrayal of Blackfoot people accurate, at least in terms of aesthetic. Certainly he writes with more sympathy that he could muster for the Congolese.

The version that I have to read is the redrawn version that Hergé put together in 1945, when he was redressing his earlier works for republication. It’s a pity I couldn’t get my hands on the original, but I don’t think that it ever made it into English. The original serialisation of Tintin in America was between 1931 and 1932 when Al Capone was in jail and probably had better things on his mind than murdering Hergé for depicting Tintin defeating him with ease. The version I’m reading seems to date to the 70s, and it’s the British version. This is important because the American version is different, softening the worst jabs at America and also removing all the African-American background characters. Yep, the American publishers demanded that all the black characters be drawn out so as not to promote racial integration. In the 70s. Hergé was not happy about it.

Without much further ado, here’s the book.


Goon on the left not looking so great.

We kick off with Al Capone giving his goons a pep rally on how great Tintin is. He’s ‘world reporter number one’, and I reserve my right to be sceptical because he’s, like, 12, and because he never does any goddamn reporting.  Be that as it may, as soon as Tintin arrives in Chicago he’s trapped in a fortified taxi and abducted, so that he never even has the chance to hunt down any crimes.

Tintin’s solution? To pull out the hacksaw he was keeping in his briefcase and saw a hole in the car exterior while the driver has stopped to repair a flat tyre. Good to know Hergé hasn’t quite grown out of his ass-pull stage of conflict resolution. I explained this set-up to my boyfriend and he spent a while telling me that it’s impossible to saw your way out of a car with an ordinary hacksaw. I know, sweetie, that’s why it’s funny.

Tintin calls the cops and hunts down the driver of the taxi to get information from him.

The driver of the taxi is then KOed by what appears to be a shoe insert but is actually a boomerang. In the subsequent car chase, Tintin is T-boned by another car sent by Al Capone and is hospitalised.

The second this poor bitch leaves the hospital he falls in a hole. The really amazing part is the existence of the trapdoor; presuming that it was installed just for catching Tintin, they only had a few days to do it while he was in hospital, and they were banking on him walking in a straight line out of the hospital and across the room. A daring gambit, and it pays off.

Al Capone appears. In the original black and white version, Hergé went to great lengths to obscure Al Capone’s face, always having him appear from behind or with some item of clothing covering his face, but in the redrawn version he just showed Al Capone. It’s not a bad likeness. Hergé wasn’t likely to fear reprisal at that point, as Al Capone had been suffering from syphilitic dementia for some time and wasn’t the king of anything.

Tintin is saved from certain death by Snowy, who knocks out the man keeping Tintin captive while Al Capone is out of the room. He takes this opportunity to knock out Al Capone and bunch of his lackeys and attempt to hand them over to the police, who assume he is insane because no one goes up against Al Capone and lives to tell the tale.

Al Capone had an interesting relationship with the Chicago police force and with the people of Chicago. Since he had a tendency to get his money from the wealthy and pour a lot of it into charity, the people of Chicago tended to view him favourably, up until he orchestrated the Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929 and brought down the mood. He had significant control over Chicago politics and this allowed him some security from the police. All of this had fallen over by the time Hergé wrote this book, as Al Capone was in jail for tax evasion. When it was hard to gather evidence and witnesses against a powerful crime boss, arresting them for tax evasion was a good technique, as you only had to prove that they had a shitload of money they weren’t declaring, and crime bosses usually flaunted their wealth. If I was a police officer in Chicago in the 1930s, a random youth with a gun telling me he’d tied up Al Capone would be genuinely ridiculous.

Snowy frees himself and chats with Tintin. This is the last actual conversation the two of them have; Snowy still interjects with thoughts or witticisms in the future, but Tintin can’t hear him. Over the course of the series, Snowy actually becomes more doglike, losing his fine sense of reasoning and his powers of speech. His comic role gets taken over by the cast of characters that Hergé builds up.

Tintin finally checks into his hotel, days late, only to have a letter from Al Capone telling him to leave town immediately. In order to foil an assassination attempt, Tintin climbs out the window, giving us this fantastic illustration:

How far Hergé has come from Land of the Soviets! I wish I had the original black and white to compare it to, but the colour version has spread around the world a lot more.

Tintin apprehends the would-be assassin and attempts to hand him into the police, but he is intercepted by gang members once again, who are capable of impersonating the police. I’d believe this, given the climate in Chicago at the time.

We meet Bobby Smiles, the gangster, who I would argue is the first developed antagonist Hergé has put together. Consistent and distinctive personality, clear goals, genuinely threatening. Tintin tries to shoot him and is incapacitated for his efforts, getting thrown into Lake Michigan to drown. The water wakes him up and he circles around to apprehend the people who threw him in.

This is just funny.

Fearing reprisals for arresting Smiles’ men, Tintin fakes his own death to free himself up for hunting down Smiles. He puts together a sting and arrests most of Smiles’ lackeys, but Smiles himself escapes to the wild West, which Hergé had no doubt been itching to do anyway. Tintin hunts him down, stopping at a Native American town to pick up the trail.

This is one of the only original panels I could find, which is comparing the serialised version of Tintin in America to the coloured English translation. You can see that Hergé originally featured a fairly blunt political statement, but changed it to something less inflammatory in the redrawn version. Hergé’s sympathetic depiction of Native Americans was somewhat ahead of its time and definitely went against popular thought. This is the forerunner to later works like The Blue Lotus and The Broken Ear, where Hergé was making political statements that received international backlash, but more on that later.

Tintin hunts down Smiles on horseback, but his inferior cowboying skills mean that Smiles gets away. Smiles runs into a group of Blackfoot people and convinces them that Tintin is a terrible person, prompting them to prepare to kill Tintin.

While Hergé has more respect for the Blackfoot people than he did for the Congolese, his writing is still patronising, acting as though these people are childishly gullible, and it’s clear that he’s based his depiction off of other adventure stories. I just find it hard to believe that the Blackfoot people would blindly believe some random white dude who galloped up to them, but hey, it makes the plot work.

I actually like this bit. It shows the chief relenting on his grandiose way of speaking to reveal that he normally speaks in standard English, giving us a little bit of character comedy that makes it clear that Hergé is writing with more empathy than in previous books.

The Blackfoot people hunt Tintin down and tie him up. Since Tintin was informed that they were peaceful, he doesn’t realise he’s in danger, and reacts to the whole thing with jollity.

The people tying him up are like: this dude is smiling and chatting, he’s clearly not a pussy, why are we killing him again? Tintin manages to incite the whole tribe into fighting just by flicking bits of resin at the chief, and I can’t tell if this is patronisingly racist or just a typical Tintin ass-pull. But it works, and he sneaks out of his bindings. While fleeing from the Blackfoot people and Bobby Smiles, he falls over a cliff to certain doom, except for the part where he lands on a ledge safe and sound.

He escapes from the ledge by finding a little cave, digging around, and striking oil.

We’ll play a game of spot the difference. This image:


90 years separation and the USA is still up to the same bullshit. American publishers demanded that Hergé removed this section from the story for being too politically inflammatory, but he refused. It’s aged pretty well; the only difference is that now Americans are doing this to other countries instead of to their own.

Bobby Smiles escapes the new town on a train and Tintin responds by stealing an entire second train to chase him down, consequences be damned. One of the panels from this chase is famous enough to be hanging in train station in Brussels:

I love this picture for how dynamic it is. I actually think the redrawn version lacks some of its magic:

Being in Hergé’s later, more static style, it loses some of the energy and intensity of the original.

Tintin fails to catch up to Smiles and ends up destroying the entire fucking train by ramming into a cart of dynamite. No one ever holds him responsible for this. I don’t know what the going rate for an entire steam engine was back in the 30s, but Tintin owes big. He sets out across the desert to avoid debt collectors or something, and when he sleeps, a bank robber steals his shoes and replaces them with his own. This causes him to be hunted down by the police of a nearby town and lynched.

No real jokes here. The townsfolk attempt to lynch him, twice, and he only narrowly escapes, forced to flee back into the desert. Finally, he finds train tracks again and aims to follow them back to civilisation, only to be caught by Smiles and tied to the train tracks like a damsel in distress.

He is saved by deus ex machina, and hunts Smiles down to his mountainside cabin, where he has been sitting around thinking about crimes. Finally, with the help of his trusty gun, Tintin is able to apprehend this motherfuck who he’s chased halfway around the southern states. Since Smiles was the primary antagonist, you would probably expect the story to end here, but just like Tintin’s inexplicable animal killing spree at the end of Tintin in the Congo, Hergé had more pages to fill.

Snowy gets kidnapped from Tintin’s room, and a private investigator turns up to help Tintin solve the case. I believe this is important because it was the first true appearance of a bumbling detective, probably the embryonic form of the creature that would become Thompson and Thomson, bowler hat and all.

In the process of recovering Snowy, Tintin manages to arrest a bunch more bad guys and free several other kidnapping victims. As a reward, he is invited to a meat processing plant, a concept that Hergé pulled directly from one of the books he had read about America, Georges Duhamel’s Scènes de la vie future. Bizarrely, the meat processing plant led to a bunch of unforeseen translation issues.

The original version had the meat puree be sold as hare pâté, but this was corrected to salami for British audiences. They also changed the spices being added here to make it seem more like salami, switching out garlic for mustard. Why bother? I don’t know, but evidently the salami issue was important to someone. In any case, Tintin ends up in the meat grinder and only survives because the workers are on strike. Unionising is important, kids. He then takes down the guy who was trying to kill him.

The gangsters have a big meeting and discuss how Tintin has pretty much destroyed their whole way of life in the last two weeks. In the meanwhile, Tintin goes to a rich person dinner to celebrate how cash money he is.

And we see Rastapopoulos for the first time, hanging out with other rich people, not doing anything evil just yet. I don’t even know if he was intended to be Rastapopoulos or just shares a similar design.

Tintin is abducted from the dinner and tied to weights in order to drown him in Lake Michigan again. It’s a wonder no one just shoots him in the head. Certainly it would be my choice given how wiley he is. The weights he’s tied to have been switched for ones that float, so he survives, but he’s picked up by a gangster boat.

I wish I could do that with my mouth.

So, he’s able to apprehend them, and drags them back to the cops too. He’s done such a good job mopping up Chicago that he gets a ticker-tape parade.

And then he heads back to Europe, ready for his next adventure, which would be Cigars of the Pharaoh. Hergé had already sent Tintin north, south, and west, and wanted to send him to the east next.

Tintin in America suffers from the same flaws as its predecessors as far as having a choppy plot and limited characterisation goes. It was stuck in a transitional phase between goofy adventure story for kids and the mature writing that Hergé would become known for in later years. I personally don’t like Tintin in America much; the transitional feel of it means that it’s missing the magic of true Tintin stories, but can’t quite commit to being as ridiculous as the first stories. It lacks both, and ends up falling flat, in my opinion.

Since he felt he had not quite done them justice, Hergé did consider sending Tintin back to visit Native Americans in the 1950s, but elected to write Tintin in Tibet instead. His fascination with their way of life had persisted over the intervening decades, and in the 1970s he made a trip to Pine Ridge in America to spend time with the local Sioux, who had influenced his life and career so much. The people he met had been beaten down by colonisation and imperial rule and were depressed, alcoholic, and listless, nothing like the noble people he had envisioned. I suppose he had spent so much of his life fighting for the little guy that being faced with the fact that the little guy had lost this round was too much to bear. It deepened his depression at the time.

But back in the 1930s, when Hergé was still fresh-faced, things were going great. He had married his first wife and he had managed to make a career out of his illustration, no easy feat. His next book was to prove his best yet and force him to develop increasingly impressive storytelling powers. He was about to start writing Tintin in the East.

– Aмртоп


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