Rereading Tintin through Tintin Reading
This is the first (of hopefully many) artist features here on General Antagonism. Our first featured artist is olivier who I met through SAIC and first found out about when they wrote a feature on my books for the library there. What immediately struck me was the generosity in which they practiced a form of reading in which the archive becomes an active space of play and exploration. For them, it seems, notions of what is possible therein is limited not by the biographical, historical, and textual (although they consider these with utmost respect), but rather by one’s time imagining within that space. This piece in which they dive into their own life’s intersection with the comics of a Belgian artist that were released in the 20th century exemplifies this approach. Using Lichtenstein’s print they seem to tap into the chimeric and ever changing possibilities that lie behind the seeming solidity of straight-passing world. Gender here is fungible and I invite you all to spend some time with Tintin and past and present olivier to find what it is their telling us in the adventure that they weave.
olivier is a research-based artist currently pursuing graduate studies in the Department of Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. They attended the Academy of Visual Arts in Hong Kong Baptist University with a concentration in studio arts, and graduated with honours from Maine College of Art with a BFA in Painting and a minor in Art History.
They have lectured, performed, exhibited and published works in artist-run spaces, galleries and institutions in London, Hong Kong, New Hampshire, Maine, New York City, and Chicago. They have curated satirical art exhibitions with curators, held experimental residencies, and panels+workshops on critical ufology. olivier also has published critical essays and experimental writings on contemporary cryptozoology and ufology in relation to museology, anti-racist UFO research and critical theories.
Most recently, they are a recipient of the Clay Morrison Scholarship and the New Artist Society Scholarship.
olivier's Instagram is @xoliiviierx. Their projects and writings can be found here.
(written in 2020, edited in 2022. After two years of passing mostly as a gay man as a genderqueer person on HRT)
Tintin Reading (1995) by Roy Lichenstein got itself printed inside my brain while going through Tintin fan art in a quick Google search, and I was reminded how much Tintin from Les Adventures de Tintin had shaped my childhood and teenage years as a genderqueer person stuck in an all-girls convent school for 12 years. Reading both the print itself and Lichenstein’s title as a homage and witty criticism of the heteronormative culture in The Adventures of Tintin, this essay is an expanded approach to Tintin’s ambiguous gender identity in the comic series, branching from a long history of Tintin being seen as a gay icon. This essay also hopes to generate the idea of the power of readers through acts of rereading and reinterpretation as well as the importance of creating “fan art”.
In September 2017, French philosopher, Vincent Cespedes (1973-) made international news with the claim that Tintin from Les Aventures de Tintin (The Adventures of Tintin) is an asexual girl. Within a week, his own Facebook post became a spotlight shone by international news, and he ended up saying that it was merely a thought experiment and his original Facebook post clearly stated “fake news”.1 Although it is “fake news”, Benoît Peeters (1956-)—a Tintin expert and Lancaster University’s visiting professor in graphic fiction and comic art—suggested otherwise.2 He stated that, although officially Tintin is a 17-year-old boy, he believes that there is something neutral in the character and their depiction, hence girls can enjoy the comics as much as boys.
Through the hands of Georges Prosper Remi (1907-1983) (known by the pen name Hergé) Tintin is depicted as a shorter-than-average-height boyish character. They are a kind-hearted Belgian journalist who has international adventures with their white Wire Fox Terrier dog, Milou, and is on occasion joined by their friends, Captain Haddock, Professor Calculus, Thomson and Thompson, and Bianca Castafiore. For 47 years from 1929 to 1976, twenty-four Franco-Belgian comics were published (the unfinished Tintin and Alph-Art was later posthumously published in 1986), and Tintin’s character seemed to remain the same height, with the same facial features, and even the same age.
My first The Adventures of Tintin was an English version of The Castafiore Emerald (1962). When I was about the age of 5, with my limited English, through Hergé’s panels dedicated to Captain Haddock’s emotional and expressive gestures towards Madame Bianca Castafiore, I deduced Captain Haddock was repulsed by this talented opera singer. 5-year-old me translated this as Captain Haddock not being interested in women, and/or committed to his monogamous relationship with Tintin. At that time, I did not perceive Tintin as any gender. It was not until later, when I finally started watching the adapted cartoon series (1991-1992) with Colin O'Meara (1963-) voicing Tintin, that I finally put a masculine voice to Tintin.
Many scholars have addressed that The Adventures of Tintin is a comic series lacking women characters, and that when depicted these women characters are often problematic. Bianca Castafiore was drawn in seven comics and mentioned in three, remaining as the only major women character. While Hergé did address that his racist and colonialist caricature of Africans in his Tintin au Congo (Tintin in the Congo) (1931) was due to him being fed the prejudices of Belgian bourgeois society during his time there,3 4 he seemed to refuse to address his sexist portrayal of women. Hergé’s reason for his all-men adventures was that this was a comic series dedicated to men's companionship, but he has also stated, “pretty or not, young or not, women are rarely comic characters”.5 With Hergé’s problematic depictions and attitude towards women, readers might find comfort in his contrastingly “feminine” characterisation of Tintin.
Throughout my childhood and teenage years (not realising I was trans) I found these “boys’ club” adventures tempting. They let me escape from my daily life at the all-girls convent school I attended from the age of 5 to 17. Being raised as a feminist in a very strict Catholic school by a majority of women faculty, I have always understood the cliche of “girls” having the power to do the things “boys'' do. But identifying as genderqueer (even though I hadn’t realised it yet), and juggling gender roles while under a pressure to be a strong lady/powerful woman,6 while pretending to be a tomboy in order to blend in (and later pretending to be a butch lesbian), finding my own gender expression and sexuality was rather hard. On top of relating to Tintin wearing their iconic outfit like a uniform throughout the whole series as a kid who had to wear a uniform with white socks and leather shoes everyday, I could cast my ideal self7 into Hergé’s ambiguous character and was very comfortable doing it. The comic was a place where I had no pressure to be any gender and no pressure to find my sexuality (or to like girls).
Like a lot of conservative heterosexual men, Jonathon Van Maren’s “No. Tintin isn’t gay.” tried to “debunk” a queer reading of Tintin by accusing historians and post-modernists of a hypersexualised climate. He attacked gay activists like Matthew Parris by saying “Like the rest of the sexual revolutionaries, he [Matthew Parris] is trying to hijack beloved characters from children’s literature to further his sexual agenda.” I feel sad for Van Maren primarily because he is still stuck in a problematic ideology that says gay people have a “sexual agenda”, and that gay people are hijacking characters that were already sequestered away by the heteronormative society. But what struck me the most was his idea that,
Pre-schoolers don’t need to be introduced to homosexual puppets. These activists need to leave sex out of childhood and stop trying to force their lifestyles into the whimsy and innocence of children’s stories.
The lack of queer representation in children’s culture not only leads to children’s internalised transphobia and homophobia but also bullying in schools with children using gendered or sexual insults to each other.8 More than once as a teenager I was accused of being “too feminine” to be a butch by my lesbian-identifying and queer schoolmates. To this day, those comments blow my mind. Children are always already exposed to heteronormative sexualities and genders.hey are not “protected by innocence” like how Jonathon imagines. On top of that, every reader deserves to have their own interpretations. Hergé was very strict about having no one continue his comic series, and the Hergé Foundation’s heir, Nick Rodwell—also known as “the least popular man of Belgium”9— abuses his power over the reproduction of visuals of the comic series stating Tintin is not public domain at all.10 What we readers have left are the underground and/or unpublished fan art and the ability to interpret the originals in our own personal intimate ways.
I found Matthew Parris’ “Of course Tintin is gay. Ask Snowy” adorable, witty and funny, and not at all suggesting Tintin is certainly gay, but in fact, raising important problems among our heteronormative society. Parris pointed out his BBC radio guest Nick Danziger, an international photojournalist who had nominated the life of Tintin, and Michael Farr, a Tintin expert who wrote more than 15 books on The Adventures of Tintin, had never even had the thought that Tintin could be gay. Parris also light-heartedly referred to gay culture and joked about Tintin moisturising in order to look young throughout the whole 47 year series. He ended his article by saying we will never know if Tintin is actually gay, but “Snowy [Milou] saw everything; Snowy knows all. And Snowy never tells.”11
If Snowy really will never tell and Peeters says there is something neutral about Tintin is this a good time to suggest Tintin could be nonbinary/genderqueer/gender non-confirming/genderfluid? Couple this with my argument that there is a power in readership to interpret as we wish, why not? One hint we have of Tintin’s general queerness is there being no trace of Tintin’s biological family, something Parris points out as common in gay men, which is also fairly common for genderqueer folks who come out to their families and are subsequently estranged from them.
In Paul Mountfort’s “Tintin, Gender, Desire”, published in 2020, he briefly laid the ground for Tintin as a nonbinary character. Mountfort uses Tom McCarthy’s idea of Tintin’s face as representing a typographic vanishing point beyond the limits of gender coding. In addition, Devin-Norelle’s statement about non-binary’s meaning is also suitable for such an ambiguous character: “...being nonbinary means breaking down what it means to be a gendered person in the world.”12 We will never know how Tintin identifies, but through the comic’s marrying of Tintin’s “feminine traits” (like crying for their friends) and “masculine traits” (like handling machinery) the comic celebrated Tintin as embodying and celebrating their comfort in their own gender identity. Tintin is committed to protecting their friends, some of whom live together, some temporarily living together, but always with their chosen family, just like a lot of queer folks have done throughout history.
Viewing Tintin in the light of gender fluidity, we can also explore Tintin’s sexuality in a much more fluid way. They could be an asexual girl as Cespedes said; they could be a gay man like a lot of fan-art depictions; they could be a bi-sexual person as some Tintinologists have suggested (Tintin tried to flirt with girls in the unfinished work of Hergé); they could be a straight man like most readers see them; or they could really just be a 17-year-old teenager living their best teenage life–travelling around the world and going on adventures, trying to be righteous, and being loving towards their chosen family, instead of growing up, falling in love, exploring and struggling with their own gender and sexuality like the rest of us do in our realities. Tintin, as an abstraction, is flexible and expansive enough for any of us to cast ourselves into them.13
While directors like Steven Spielberg (1946-) reproduce The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011) skillfully with newer technology, whilekeeping the problematic attribute of the original comic series, there are artists like Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997) with his Tintin Reading (1995) who open up the possibility of ambiguity in our personal readings of Tintin’s gender.
Lichtenstein’s print whimsically plays with signifiers, blurs boundaries of gender and sexuality, and reclaims an international character’s ambiguity through the power of “rereading” as a reader producing “fan-art”. In the print the reader’s view of Tintin’s body is obstructed by a blank (what we can only assume is a) newspaper.14 We cannot see the suggestion of any gendered clothing, or an adam’s apple, breasts, or penis– the newspaper has them covered (perhaps very purposefully blocked from the audience). Captain Haddock’s hat and a white shirt are draped over a small side table, suggesting he is around somewhere, perhaps topless? Perhaps they are living together? The reproduction of Matisse in the background shows two gender-ambiguous bodies, holding hands, perfectly cut off where Matisse invites the audience to join in the dance with the two hands that are yet to be connected. Are the viewers of this print invited to join Tintin and Captain Haddock’s life? Is this an invitation to reinterpret Tintin together with Lichtenstein? This peaceful homey scene is cut through horizontally by a dagger, which might be thrown out from the “crac” open door. This wavy dagger seems to represent (of course) danger in the context of the adventures of Tintin, but also a feeling of swiftness, a time to react, contrasted by the stagnant posture of Tintin reading and the frozen dancers in history. With the conceptual nature of Lichtenstein’s work, the suggestion of the print might merely beingfrom the original comic strip (although maybe not), is a perfect way to go against the heteronormative readers, Rodwell’s abuse of his copyright powers, and a way to embrace our personal interpretation of these comics. Who has the right to reproduce Tintin? Who has the right to interpret Tintin? In Licthenstein’s print its people who read Tintin, and in this case, Tintin themselves, who is also reading, catching up on the “news”.
May our newspapers always challenge the read of gendered bodies. May Tintin always be ever-changing, may they fit into any future gender terminologies, may they always evolve with our interpretations as our queer icon. And may we always be reading.
Flood, Alison and Sian Cain, “Is Tintin a girl? Philosopher says his theory was 'fake news”, The Guardian, September 25, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/sep/25/is-tintin-a-girl-philosopher-says-his-theory-was-fake-news
Cespedes, Vincent. 2017. “TINTIN : UNE FILLE ?!?” Facebook, September 19, 2017. https://www.facebook.com/VincentCespedesPage/posts/1446169705466334
Coxhead, Gabriel. “Tintin’s new adventures”, The Guardian, May 6, 2007, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2007/may/07/booksforchildrenandteenagers.features11
Hergé. Tintin in the Congo (Tintin Au Congo). Translated by Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper and Michael Turner. Tournai, Belgium: Casterman, 1931.
Mountfort, Paul. “Tintin, Gender and Desire,” February 23, 2020. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1080/21504857.2020.1729829.
Oeuillet, Julian. “Meet Nick Rodwell, Tintin heir and least popular man in Belgium”, The Sunday Morning Herald, October 30, 2015, https://www.smh.com.au/world/meet-nick-rodwell-tintin-heir-and-least-popular-man-in-belgium-20151030-gkmolr.html
Parris, Matthew. “Of course Tintin’s gay. Ask Snowy”, The Sunday Times, January 7, 2009. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/of-course-tintins-gay-ask-snowy-sc59s6tzqv7
Pignal, Stanley. “Fans of Tintin cry foul”, Financial Times, May 7, 2010, https://www.ft.com/content/15136c0c-58a8-11df-a0c9-00144feab49a
Renold, Emma. Girls, Boys, and Junior Sexualities: Exploring Childrens Gender and Sexual Relations in the Primary School. London: Routledge, 2005.
Sadoul, Numa. Tintin et Moi: entretiens avec Hergé (Tintin and Me: Interviews with Hergé). Tournai, Belgium: Casterman, 1975.
Talusan, Meredith. “This Is What Gender-Nonbinary People Look Like”, them., November 20, 2017, https://www.them.us/story/this-is-what-gender-nonbinary-people-look-like
Vincent Cespedes, 2017. “TINTIN : UNE FILLE ?!?” Facebook, September 19, 2017. https://www.facebook.com/VincentCespedesPage/posts/1446169705466334
Alison Flood and Sian Cain, “Is Tintin a girl? Philosopher says his theory was 'fake news’”, The Guardian, September 25, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/sep/25/is-tintin-a-girl-philosopher-says-his-theory-was-fake-news
Foreword in Hergé. Tintin in the Congo (Tintin Au Congo). Translated by Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper and Michael Turner. Tournai, Belgium: Casterman, 1931.
Lonsdale-Cooper and Turner also suggested that young Hergé’s idea of big-game hunting and attitude towards animals would also be due to his wrong understandings from colonial attitudes of his time.
Numa Sadoul. Tintin et Moi: entretiens avec Hergé (Tintin and Me: Interviews with Hergé). Tournai, Belgium: Casterman, 1975. (Translated by Paul Mounfort in his Tintin, Gender and Desire.)
Terms that my school always celebrated to train us to be future role models for young women.
When I was originally typing this piece, “ideal self” carried the meaning of gender and sexuality, but 2 years (of graduate school and pandemic) went by and I wanted to edit it to be “gender-related” self. But I now also realised ‘casting “ideal self” into Hergé’s ambiguous character’ also meant my ideal art practice– which includes my interest in a devotion to healthy relationships, allowing my people to be in my work, to collaborate, to be growing together in “adventures” with friends.
Emma Renold, Girls, Boys, and Junior Sexualities: Exploring Children’s Gender and Sexual Relations in the Primary School (London: Routledge, 2005)
Julian Oeuillet, “Meet Nick Rodwell, Tintin heir and least popular man in Belgium”, The Sunday Morning Herald, October 30, 2015, https://www.smh.com.au/world/meet-nick-rodwell-tintin-heir-and-least-popular-man-in-belgium-20151030-gkmolr.html
Stanley Pignal, “Fans of Tintin cry foul”, Financial Times, May 7, 2010, https://www.ft.com/content/15136c0c-58a8-11df-a0c9-00144feab49a
Matthew Parris. “Of course Tintin’s gay. Ask Snowy”, The Sunday Times, January 7, 2009. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/of-course-tintins-gay-ask-snowy-sc59s6tzqv7
Meredith Talusan, “This Is What Gender-Nonbinary People Look Like”, them., November 20, 2017, https://www.them.us/story/this-is-what-gender-nonbinary-people-look-like
Gabriel Coxhead, “Tintin’s new adventures”, The Guardian, May 6, 2007, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2007/may/07/booksforchildrenandteenagers.features11
Tintin is found reading newspaper in an armchair throughout the comic series.