In Defence of Tintin’s Youthful Transgressions in the Soviet Union

Tintin in trouble, p. 39 [fair use]

Often dismissed and derided, Tintin’s first outing, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, was described by author Hergé himself as “a transgression of my youth”. He tended to lump it together with the problematic Tintin in the Congo but went even farther with Soviets and prevented its republication for years. Critics say that the plot is thin, the drawings crude, and that it is nothing but right-wing propaganda. That Soviets is, in all, not a worthwhile Tintin adventure.

Great snakes! This one really seems to be a dud for our brave hero.

Album number: 1
Serialised: 1929–1930
Collected: 1930 (black-and-white), 2017 (colour)

What do You Mean “Plot”? There is No Plot!

The plot of the story is indeed rather flimsy. It can be summarised as follows: Tintin takes a train to Soviet Russia. Mayhem and chaos ensues. Tintin outwits, escapes, and/or survives as appropriate, ultimately prevailing over his foes. The End.

Cover for the colour version [fair use]

Frankly, one is hard pressed to fundamentally disagree with the assertion that the plot is weak. However, that is missing the point somewhat. While later adventures are meticulously plotted, Soviets does not and was never really intended to have a plot. It is a series of more or less self-contained short stories and gags, where Tintin gets into and out of trouble, without an overarching storyline aside from the physical journey. One cannot judge a series of short stories on the same basis as a novel and in much the same way, Soviets needs to be assessed slightly differently than subsequent adventures. When Soviets is undertaken on its own terms, the importance of the plot — or, more precisely, the lack thereof — fades away. Sure, one can say that it should have had a coherent plot but that’s akin to finding fault with the lack of piano solos in the music of the Beatles.

This notwithstanding, it must be conceded that the plot, such as it is, is a weak element of Soviets’. Indeed, if a plot makes or breaks a Tintin adventure, Soviets is utterly broken and beyond all repair.

Crude? Perhaps, but oh-so Fun and Effective!

Again, this point must be partially conceded. Only 21 years old when he began drawing Soviets, Hergé’s abilities were nowhere near where they would be a few years later. Accordingly, his style is not as refined as it later became.

Action! From p. 7 [fair use]

However, the Defence contends that “crude” is too harsh a word to describe Hergé’s draughtsmanship.

Yes, the drawings are done in a straightforward and unpolished style that is indicates more zeal than skill but, even so, they are nothing if not effective. They are fun and endearing. There is an urgency and vitality to the drawings, and they deftly convey mood, excitement and humour. In particular, speed and motion is conveyed in a way that makes the action jump off the page — the chase with the German Police (pp. 7–11), Tintin outracing a burning trail of petrol (pp. 55–59), and his encounter with the Moscow Police (pp. 73–75) being cases in point.

Tintin and Snowy on p. 2 (left) and on p. 138 (right) [fair use]

It may all be rather simple and a tad unpolished, and it may not be Hergé’s flawless ligne claire of later years, but crude it is not.

As an aside, Hergé’s ability can be seen improving bit by bit as one turns the pages. The author is literally learning his trade before the reader’s eyes — just compare the images above of Tintin and Snowy sitting on the train at the beginning of the adventure (January 1929) and near the end (May 1930).

Mere Propaganda? Think Again, Comrade!

Hergé frequently explored political matters in Tintin’s early adventures, from his dim view on the treatment of Native Americans and the excesses of unrestrained materialism in Tintin in America, to the anti-imperialist and anti-fascist sentiment of The Blue Lotus and King Ottokar’s Sceptre. In Soviets, the Bolsheviks of the communist Soviet Union are the butt of his political critique. This critique has been dismissed as right-wing propaganda and has, along with the colonialist sympathies seen in Tintin in the Congo and other lesser missteps, been used as “proof” of the most unsavoury accusations as to Hergé’s views and character.

Cover for the black-and-white version [fair use]

It is true that Le Vingtième Siècle, the paper at which Hergé worked, commissioned an adventure to the Soviet Union with the express purpose of striking out at Bolshevism. It is also true that young Hergé was a conservative and no doubt held a negative opinion of the Soviet Union. As one reads through the adventure, however, one is hard-pressed to see the book as a mere vehicle for propaganda. It is, as noted earlier, mostly a series of gags and hijinks — only peppered, if liberally, with jabs at the Soviet Union.

Even if mostly shenanigans, the jabs make up an unflattering picture. There is oppression, poverty, attempts to silence reporters (namely Tintin), unscrupulous and violent government agents, deception of foreign visitors, and sham elections.

If all this sounds rather familiar, it is because this is what actually went on in the behind the Iron Curtain. The alleged propaganda is, broadly, spot-on. Yes, it goes a bit far on a few points but hardly far enough to merit the label of propaganda.

Unflattering it is, and it goes a bit far, but if we should we use the term propaganda for Soviets, we would have to label the aforementioned critiques found in Tintin in America, The Blue Lotus, and King Ottokar’s Sceptre the same way — along with most other expression of a critical opinion on anything. And that would be absurd.

Tintin witnesses Soviet elections, p. 34 [fair use]

The Defence has conceded that the plot of Soviets is thin and that the drawings are unpolished. Flaws to the critique of the Soviet Union have also been admitted. It will even be conceded now that the adventure is among the weakest of the series. Personally, I’d rank it second to last or last depending how you look at it; well above the rather bland redrawn Tintin in the Congo but slightly below the original version, warts and all.

Really, the Defence is going for a reduced sentence rather than an acquittal.

Regardless, this should not lead one to conclude that Soviets is a worthless entry to the series or no more than a best forgotten youthful transgression. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

When taken on its own terms, it is hard to deny the appeal of Tintin’s incursion behind the Iron Curtain. Its breakneck pace, its silly slapstick, its absurdity, the intensity of the relentless action. It’s a lot of fun.

Yes, there is, as has been discussed, the lack of plot, unpolished drawings and not flawless critique of the Soviet Union. And yes, it is naïve, drags on a bit over its 138 pages, and there are various tropes and deus ex machinas.

But it is still enormous fun. To be precise, it’s hilarious. It’s silly, in the best possible way. Even more precisely, it’s utterly and wonderfully daft. Most importantly Tintin in the Land of the Soviets is, despite its flaws, grandly entertaining.

The Defence rests.

Tintin and Snowy’s homecoming, p. 139 [fair use]

Further reading:
Hergé, Son of Tintin by Benoît Peeters
The Pocket Essential Tintin by Jean-Marc Lofficier and Randy Lofficier
Tintin: Hergé & His Creation by Harry Thompson
Tintin: The Complete Companion by Michael Farr

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Notes and musings from a misspent life. Travel. Music. Books. Films. And other good things too.

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Skuli Sigurdsson

Skuli Sigurdsson

Notes and musings from a misspent life. Travel. Music. Books. Films. And other good things too.

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