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

Tintin Uncloseted (Part Two)

Tintin In Tibet

1960: 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.


1936: THE BLUE LOTUS

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!