03 May 2009

Tintin Uncloseted (Part Two)

Tintin In Tibet


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.

Archibald Haddock was surely one of the most interesting comic strip characters ever created! I read him as a discreetly Gay sea captain who'd been manipulated, possibly in a sexual way, by his crooked former first mate Allan. His exceedingly gruff exterior masked a soft, sentimental nature (see him burst into tears after Chang tells his story at the climax of Tintin In Tibet). Dude loved drinking whisky. Like Tintin, he respected women, but showed no sexual interest in them. Swearing came as second nature to him, but he somehow always managed to avoid using any dirty words! Dude loved drinking whisky.

He was exceedingly clumsy. He liked the smell of rhododendrons. Dude loved drinking whisky. He was given to putting on country squire airs. He hated badly-sung opera, especially the renditions of international diva Bianca Castafiore; yet he secretly harbored opera star ambitions himself, judging by his tendency to bellow excerpts from "The Jewel Song", Castafiore's trademark aria. Did I forget to mention that dude loved drinking whisky?

In addition to the champagne boy mirage and its nightmare reprise, the Golden Claws adventure includes a bird's-eye-view panel of Tintin and Haddock walking through the desert hand-in-hand. In retrospect, it seems to have been Hergé's way of saying his junior Sherlock Holmes had found his Dr. Watson. It's a provocative image, but not half as provocative as the dream sequence he later drew for his 1949 book Prisoners Of The Sun. In it, Tintin queries Haddock: "Excuse me, señor . . . but have you a license for that gun?" The rifle he's referring to serves the same phallic symbol function as the champagne bottle of the earlier dream. The young man's loaded question brings fires of heavenly retribution down on his head amid cries of "Sacrilege! Sacrilege!" (Sinful penis jokes punished by God . . . I can't help feeling there's something awfully Catholic about that!)

Dreams that fairly dripped with Gay double entendre. Fear of divine punishment. Hand-holding with a man he’d only just met. It doesn’t take a psychoanalyst to figure out what Tintin's issue was! Obviously, he was grappling with homosexual feelings on a subconscious level. What’s amazing about these sequences isn’t that they appeared in a 1940s comic book series, but that they were so true-to-life! Many Gay boys do get their first clues about themselves from dreams; I certainly did. What’s more, many of us feel our first pangs of desire for grown men, not boys our own age.

How Hergé, by all accounts a heterosexual male, became privy to these developmental stages is anybody’s guess. Yet he does seem to have known about them, and how frightening they are to go through. Realizing you’re a Gay man isn’t an overnight process! It takes weeks, months, sometimes years of getting used to. The metaphors Hergé put in the aforementioned stories may point to same-gender sexual attraction, but that's an attraction most real-life adolescent boys would resist acting on. For sure!  That's why my answer to the question "Was Tintin Gay?" is a qualified "yes". My qualification is the closet he never left!

By 1952's Destination Moon, the Belgian boy detective had begun co-habiting with the Captain and Professor Calculus at Marlinspike Hall, the Captain's sprawling ancestral estate. Two older bachelors and a teenage boy, sharing a mansion? Even today, an arrangement like that would generate gossip. However, this was a children’s feature, so there couldn't possibly be any impropriety, right?

Actually, here was another parallel with the lives of 20th century Gay men: The act of forging family out of a group of friends, often to replace one that had either been lost (estrangement from our parents was fairly common back then) or that had never existed. To be sure, there was a family dynamic in the house: You could see Tintin as the mother figure, the unifying force, while Haddock was the grouchy father, Calculus the feisty grandpa, and the Captain's cat and Tintin's dog Snowy stood in for the children. It was like a marriage, only without the sex and romance.

Homoerotic dreams notwithstanding, for years there was little to suggest that the bond between Tintin and Haddock went beyond camaraderie. But then, just as he did with the Thom(p)sons, Hergé allowed himself to get a little bolder. Tintin is shot by a spy in Destination Moon and hospitalized, prompting a highly distraught reaction from the Captain. He is so upset that he rips a wooden chair apart with his bare hands! Then he insists on spending the night by his friend's bedside. Hergé may not have realized it at the time, but with this sequence he was setting a stage for the aforementioned Tintin in Tibet, a groundbreaking 1960 book.

As this story begins, Tintin receives a letter from Chang, his Chinese companion in the 1936 Blue Lotus adventure. Chang is coming to Europe for a visit. Tintin's joy at the news has a strangely disquieting effect on the Captain ("When's he coming, then . . . your . . . er . . . Son of Heaven?"). The look of dismay in Haddock's eyes speaks even louder than his odd choice of words. Tintin's unusually elated reaction to Chang's impending visit (he dances giddily with both Professor Calculus and his dog, Snowy), followed by utter dejection at news of his apparent death in a plane crash, followed by obsessive determination to find him alive also speak volumes. Suddenly, innocent male friendships are beginning to look like something else!

Tintin and Haddock's subsequent trek through the Tibetan mountains is notable not for the death-defying perils they face, but for the nuances of their interaction with one another. Never before has that interaction been so fraught with angst! The Captain struggles not only with his famous alcohol addiction, but also with the knowledge that Tintin obsessively loves another man instead of him. There's no hope for the romantic involvement he secretly craves. So does he abandon Tintin as he searches for Chang, or help him brave the dangers of that search while his own heart is breaking?

We know instinctively what decision Haddock will make, but it's awfully touch-and-go for awhile. "No, you shan't go!" he thunders at one point after Tintin insists on continuing the apparently futile quest. "Neither alone, thundering typhoons, nor with me . . . there's been enough skylarking! I won't have any more! You'll come home to Marlinspike with me, blistering barnacles, and there's an end to it!" His rant proves useless, but again, it speaks volumes. Significantly in this adventure, Hergé allowed the Captain to hug and kiss Tintin, albeit in a slapstick sequence involving untied shoes. This was the closest he ever came to letting Haddock express his love in a physical way.

The final panels of Tintin in Tibet are arguably the most poignant to be found in the entire strip. Haddock hangs several paces behind Tintin, his unrequited love, who returns to civilization side by side with Chang, the young man who has obviously captured his heart. Simultaneously, the monstrous Yeti watches from a distance as Chang, whom the beast has come to love in his own way, rides away forever. Two cases of unrequited love, playing out at once! To me, it brings to mind the heart-wrenching final moments of the 1942 wartime drama Casablanca, as Humphrey Bogart watches Ingrid Bergman, his forbidden lover, fly out of his life. Of course, Tintin didn't disappear from Haddock's life; but as a love interest, he remained as unattainable as ever.

When a Gay man like myself reads Chang's final statement about the Yeti ("I hope they never succeed in finding him. They'd treat him like some wild animal . . . from the way he took care of me, I couldn't help wondering if, deep down, he had a human soul"), he's tempted to see Tintin in Tibet as a plea to society for tolerance of homosexuality. The parallel is there to be drawn: Gay identity was and still is seen as an "abomination" in most of the world, and the Yeti is widely known as the Abominable Snowman. That's probably too ambitious a reading, but this story is unquestionably a love story, with an unambiguous theme of love between men! Readers too bigoted to see the motivation for Captain Haddock's behavior and recognize what he's going through reap the consequences of that bigotry! They miss most of what this extraordinary graphic novel has to offer.

Something else of a delicate nature bears discussing here: The Captain's romantic interest in the context of Tintin's tender age. According to calculations Hergé himself made when asked how his boy detective had aged over the years, the Quiffed One was about sixteen when he met Haddock. Haddock's age was never estimated, but he always looked decidedly middle-aged to me.

In the United States, we call it pederasty when a grown man gets sexually involved with a boy of sixteen; in Europe, such relationships are viewed much the same way, although attitudes can be more liberal over there. I'd be lying if I told you the idea of a mature man dating a teenager didn't bother me. It does bother me! However, pederasty isn't at issue here. Hergé never implied a sexual involvement between Tintin and Haddock. He only implied an attraction between them, an attraction that was much stronger on Haddock's part.

How many fathers have ever felt attracted to some of their daughters' older teenage girlfriends? If the men act responsibly and keep their hands off those girls, what's the problem, really? Some teenagers look very sexy when they're on the cusp of adulthood; it's not abnormal to lust after them. Lusting in your heart after teenagers and sexually exploiting them are two different things, though! One thing need not lead to the other.