03 May 2009

Tintin Uncloseted (Part One)

Crab With The Golden Claws

1940: THE CRAB WITH THE GOLDEN CLAWS

This post is dedicated to all the little Gay boys who read The Adventures of Tintin dreamed of having a Captain Haddock of their own someday.

Numerous male partners that are icons of popular fiction have been the subject of homoerotic speculation: Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. The Lone Ranger and Tonto. Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. Even, absurdly, Batman and Robin! What triggers this kind of speculation? Quiet as it's kept, some people (women in particular) are aroused by the idea of two handsome, heroic guys in love with one another. Another reason, in my humble opinion, is that people know these kinds of relationships exist, and they want their knowledge validated. Those are the explanations when there's absolutely no evidence of sexual interest to be found in the fiction. But what about when there is evidence?

Consider the classic European comic strip, The Adventures of Tintin. Its male companions are a teenage detective known for his distinctive quiff of red hair, and a crusty, alcoholic ex-seaman. About a year ago, a fan website called www.tintinologist.org opened a forum to discuss Gay themes in the series . . . only that really wasn't the purpose of the forum! Its purpose was to give fans hostile to Gay themes a place to vent their hostility. Serious consideration of those themes was neither expected nor desired! I didn't realize this when I decided to start posting to the forum, so I was unprepared for the onslaught of bile that came my way.

I was somewhat familiar with the Tintin series at that time. My childhood dentist, Dr. Myers, kept some of the graphic novels in his office, and I recall reading them there. I knew that Tintin's creator and author, Belgian cartoonist Hergé, had made his strip an almost exclusively male domain; his male leads had no female love interests during the entire 54-year run of the strip. Over the years, I'd also become aware of provocative dream sequences in certain Tintin books that lent themselves to homoerotic interpretations. So, naïvely, I put my two cents' worth into the forum. I opined that Gay interpretations might be valid when reading The Adventures of Tintin. Well, I mean to tell you . . . if I'd called the Virgin Mary a slut, I don't think the reaction could have been any more hostile!

Hell hath no fury like comic fans bent on protecting the manhood of their pen-and-ink icon! Where's your proof? raged one contributor over and over. I beg your pardon? I wasn't trying to prove anything. You're destroying a legend! another hissed. Actually, I was expressing an opinion. Don't call Tintin Gay, yet another fumed, just because he doesn't sleep with every woman that comes along! How he came by this newsy tidbit, I'll never know, since there's nary a sex scene to be found in the entire series; but I hadn't claimed that the Belgian boy detective slept with men or women. I hadn't yet come to firm conclusions about the sexual orientation of Tintin, Captain Haddock, Thompson and Thomson, Professor Calculus or any of the strip's other male regulars. Frankly, I found the concept of Gay characters in a Depression-era children's feature highly unlikely.

I mean, really . . . we were talking about a damn comic book series! The topic was hardly one of world-changing significance. Yet the level of acrimony got really intense. The more diplomatic I tried to be, the more enraged the forum contributors became. I was infuriated by insinuations that Gay people are degenerates, and that I myself might be a pedophile. When the forum host turned on me with veiled threats to ban my comments, I realized I was wasting my valuable free time on knuckleheads! I wrote a final post denouncing the forum for its bigotry, told them all to shove it, and logged out permanently.

The experience left a bad odor that hung around for a long time. Hot, steaming mounds of raw heterosexism tend to have that kind of odor! It was never a priority, but in the back of my mind I resolved to familiarize myself with the entire Tintin series. Just as I had done with the Bible, I wanted to get down to the real nitty gritty of homosexual content I knew was there. Days ago, I completed my review of all 23 completed adventures, spanning the years 1929 to 1976.

So, what did I find? I found a European comic strip that grew ever more sophisticated as time passed. I must say, there were times when it felt like I wasn't reading a comic strip at all! There was no comparing it to American strips of the period. Violence was depicted more realistically. Human vices like drug abuse and alcoholism were depicted in a matter-of-fact way. Nuance was the order of the day: Weakness, vanity, stupidity, and pettiness were displayed in heroes and villains alike. And yes, homosexual attachment was definitely a subtext running through the series.

As for that nitty gritty I spoke of earlier: Do I think any of the Tintin characters were Gay? If you're talking about the so-called Thom(p)son Twins, my answer is a most emphatic "yes"! In the early 1980s, their name was immortalized when a hit British Rock trio took it for their own, but it should have been honored long before then. The Thom(p)sons are very likely the first Gay male couple to ever appear in comics . . . and there still aren't that many!

Though they were based on brothers (Hergé's uncle and father), they were not related. They were Charlie Chaplin clones, an inseparable pair who worked together, lived together and dressed alike, often in the campiest costumes imaginable (dig their Mandarin look in The Blue Lotus, or my favorites, their Dutch sailor outfits from Red Rackham's Treasure). Hergé made huge fun of their outrageous fashion sense; he obviously loved designing their get-ups. He portrayed the Thom(p)sons as buffoons par excellence, dumber than dodo birds and even clumsier than Captain Haddock; but their comedy relief value had nothing to do with their subtly implied sexual orientation.

The time did come when Hergé decided to take a chance and not be so coy about their couple status; it happened in the 1954 book Explorers On The Moon. Looking furtively around to see if anyone is watching them, they touch palms and dance a tender ballet together in zero gravity. As if that weren't plain enough, Hergé laid it on the line even more explicitly two decades later in Tintin and The Picaros. During a climactic sequence where they face impending death, one asks the other for a goodbye kiss! By then, there could be no doubt about the nature of their sometimes testy relationship, but almost everybody was too busy laughing at their antics to notice.

Very few people noticed the dynamics of Tintin's relationship with Captain Haddock, either. Those dynamics were apparent from the very beginning, when the boozy Captain made his first appearance in a story called The Crab With The Golden Claws. In a rather shocking sequence from this 1940 adventure, Haddock hallucinates that Tintin is a giant bottle of rare champagne while both wander in the desert. He attacks the boy detective and tries to "uncork" him! It's hard to imagine a more powerful homoerotic metaphor than this, yet most readers missed it. They missed it, even though Hergé guarded against that possibility by having Tintin relive the incident. He does so in a nightmare which clearly symbolizes fear of homosexual desire.

Other than bouts of inebriation that sometimes led to dangerous predicaments, Tintin had nothing to fear from his new traveling companion, though. The good Captain followed him around the world like a besotted puppy, stumbling into mishap after mishap, falling afoul of exotic animals, complaining constantly about everything, but clearly devoted to his adolescent rehabilitator. Their relationship was the opposite of what you'd expect, given their ages: Tintin often acted as Haddock's nursemaid and caretaker. A scene from Tintin In Tibet where the Captain gets his beard caught in a sleeping bag zipper and the Quiffed One has to free him is all too typical. Tintin was an emancipated minor, often more mature than the people he associated with. As for Haddock, he was more mature than the Thom(p)son Twins, but that ain't saying much!


1949: PRISONERS OF THE SUN