03 May 2009

Tintin Uncloseted (Part Three)

The Red Sea Sharks

1958: THE RED SEA SHARKS

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.

Up until the last installment in the series, there really wasn't anything in the narrative to suggest that Tintin reciprocated the Captain's feelings. On the contrary, his nightmare about Haddock's intentions toward him suggested the opposite, as did his discomfort at having the seaman linger at his bedside. This was strictly a one-way infatuation, and I think that's as far as Hergé wanted to take it. The unrequited nature of Haddock's attraction to the boy detective gave their relationship a unique dynamic.

Would that dynamic ever have changed, though? In the final adventure, 1976's Tintin and The Picaros, there is evidence that the Quiffed One's arm's-length policy toward Haddock had begun to thaw. After initially refusing to accompany the Captain and Professor Calculus on a South American trip, he suddenly appears mid-adventure. When Haddock inquires about what changed his mind, Tintin says rather mysteriously: "Let's say I was missing you, Captain . . ." and Hergé doesn't allow us to see his face when he says it. Was there a happily-ever-after in their future after all? A long-delayed consummation? A Holy Union with La Castafiore on hand to serenade the guests? I seriously doubt it! However, once the series had ended, such possibilities were left up to the reader's imagination.

The image of Tintin and Haddock snuggling naked together in bed obviously isn't one Hergé wanted to leave with his young readers! He wouldn’t even have conceived a scene like that, much less submitted it for publication; but there's no evidence that he wanted to project a skirt-chaser image of them, either. Absolutely none! The author could've introduced female love interests for either character anytime during the series' 54 year run. There's a reason why he didn't, and anybody who reads between the lines of Tintin In Tibet will know that reason!

Yet if you dare suggest that the Belgian boy detective may not have been heterosexual, both Tintin fans and the heirs to Hergé's legacy start foaming at the mouth like mad dogs. God forbid anyone suspect this cultural icon of being Gay! Gasp!  Never mind the homoerotic doubles entendres, the lack of interest in girls during puberty, the obsession with Chang. Explain it all away by calling him heterosexual but "chaste". Just neuter a fictional hero if you can't pin him down! Or just divorce yourself from the facts. Outraged by speculation raised in a London Times op-ed, one French commentator opined: “At (Tintin’s) age, the hormones are usually asleep.” Better the hormones than the logic, n’est-ce pas? A representative of the Hergé Art Studios was equally ludicrous, telling the Belgian press: "Tintin is not at all Gay! He was very macho, in fact."

Sure he was, sugar. Dressing his dog Snowy in a frilly winter bonnet in The Shooting Star? Macho. Crying at having to leave Chang in The Blue Lotus? Macho. Noticing that a hunky Latin man was "quite well-built" in The Red Sea Sharks? Shrieking like a girl when a yak frightens him in Tintin In Tibet? Gushing that he "simply adores" a certain record album in Tintin and The Picaros? Macho. Dreaming about phallic symbols (Cigars Of The Pharaoh) and penis-baiting Captain Haddock in his sleep (Prisoners Of The Sun)? Mucho macho! And Tintin's habit of dancing daintily with other men when overjoyed . . . surely the butchest thing I've ever seen! "He has many friends who are boys," the oh-so-observant studio rep continued, "but they are not boyfriends!" In other words, being homosexual means you have to knock boots with all your buddies? Since when does the average Gay man sleep with every guy he knows? Even promiscuous Gay men don't do that! Monsieur's ignorance is showing!

There's absolutely no doubt in my mind that Hergé deliberately created a same-gender-loving aura around some of his leading players. Why would he do something so unusual? It's a legitimate question. Why risk the popularity of an internationally famous comic strip? Why invite accusations of corrupting children?

Here's my answer: I think Hergé loved flawed characters. He must have, judging by the large number of them he created: Haddock the drunk. Castafiore, the vain diva. Calculus, the deaf genius. Alcazar, the two-bit despot. Crass insurance salesman Joylon Wagg (who slyly baits Haddock on his sexuality in The Castafiore Emerald). The clueless Thom(p)sons. His strip was practically a showcase for human imperfections! I think he wanted all of his characters to display them, Tintin included. In the 1930s, '40s and '50s, most Straight people perceived homosexuality as an imperfection. (Truth be told, most of them still do!) Coming from a Catholic background, Hergé almost certainly shared this mindset. But if his thinking about Gay men was limited in that way, it was surprisingly progressive in others!

His Gay men were a diverse lot. The Thom(p)sons could accurately be described as flamboyant, but they weren't over-the-top stereotypes. His closet love for "The Jewel Song" notwithstanding, Captain Haddock was rarely flamboyant; he was a bonafide macho archetype, a classic curmudgeon. As for Tintin, he was about as well-rounded a homosexual character as you'll ever find: Sensitive but scrappy, athletic but refined, compassionate but stern, aggressive but decidedly not macho. Hergé, noted for his painstaking research, evidently understood enough about homosexual men to realize that portrayals of them didn't have to be like La Cage Aux Folles!  What's more, it occurs to me that he may have viewed Gay men as ideal comic strip characters. Dude wasn’t exactly a Straight ally, but the evidence of his work shows he was far ahead of his time.

It's been reported that, during the final years of his life, a French news outlet invited Hergé to deny mounting rumors about Tintin's sexuality. He allegedly did so, and some fans point to this denial as conclusive proof that the character is heterosexual. Ridiculous! There's nothing conclusive about it at all. What was Hergé going to do . . . admit to writing homoerotic subtexts into his stories and risk having his books tossed out of children's libraries all over the world? Not hardly, sugar! Even if he were alive today, I doubt he'd admit to anything about Tintin, or Haddock, or even the Thom(p)sons. The media set a trap for him, but he was smart enough to not fall into it!

Hergé didn’t have to be media savvy to understand how ugly attitudes toward homosexuality were in his day. Sad to say, those attitudes haven't changed much! In certain genres like children's literature, in order to touch on topics related to same-gender human sexuality, an author still feels pressured to resort to camouflage. Tintin's creator camouflaged homoeroticism with humor, but only up to a point. He left Gay themes exposed just enough so that sophisticated readers could decipher them. He did so at great risk to his livelihood, but it certainly paid off in richness of characterization! Tintin In Tibet, a fiction masterpiece, is proof of that.

I said this at www.tintinologist.com, and it's worth repeating: I've got nothing invested in proving that any character featured in The Adventures of Tintin was Gay. I didn't write this essay for that purpose. Believe me, I've got more important things to worry about! If a majority of Tintin fans choose to think he was a James Bond 007-style womanizer out of panel range, let them indulge that baseless fantasy to their hearts' content. I couldn't be less concerned about it!  What does concern me is the vicious anti-Gay mindset that all too often triggers such fantasies.

When I researched The Adventures of Tintin, I saw nary a trace of that mindset in its author. Instead, I saw that a great Belgian cartoonist had found men like me sufficiently interesting to depict prominently in his famous comic strip. I saw how those depictions made his comic strip better. I saw, not for the first time, evidence that a world history which seems to have forced LGBT folk underground actually may have had us in plain sight all along!

What a pleasant surprise it was, too. Gay characters in Depression-era comic strips isn't such a far-fetched concept after all; I'll be less skeptical in the future. I'm glad that, on the 80th anniversary of his début, I took time to lessen the stink of heterosexism around Hergé's beloved creation. Wicked good stuff, that nitty gritty . . . disinfecting with it gets the job done every time!


This essay was written as a long-overdue antidote to both the bigotry of some Straight  Tintin fans and the smugness of Gay agents provocateurs eager to label the iconic boy detective "queer".  Hergé had more sophistication in his pinkie finger than all the hetero-bigot Neanderthals and RadiQueer buffoons combined!  All Tintin images are copyright ©Hergé/Moulinsart. Opinions expressed in this essay do not necessarily reflect those of the copyright holders . . . but hopefully, that will change someday!