The Adventures of Tintin: Prisoners of the Sun ]1949]
I will begin by saying that I love The Adventures of Tintin comic albums. They are exciting and entertaining stories. I lived in Brussels for some time, and that is the place to be if you want to be converted into a fan of Franco-Belgian comics (for example, there is a Tintin shop in Brussels and murals depicting Tintin adventures). Even though I realise that the comics are products of their time, and are supposed to be fun, light-hearted stories not to be taken seriously, I still find Herge’s Prisoners of the Sun a problematic one, especially in what it ultimately suggests and implies, as well as in the main message it sends out in the end (for other articles hinting at the comics’ problematic nature, including allegations of racism, see here and here).
<<This opinion will contain spoilers>>
In Prisoners of the Sun, Tintin is in Peru, searching for his friend Professor Calculus(Professeur Tournesol) with Captain Haddock. Professor Calculus is allegedly kidnapped, and Tintin will do anything to rescue his friend. That adventure takes him aboard a mysterious ship, as well as to the snowy mountains and treacherous jungles of Peru, until finally he discovers the ancient Inca civilisation that still lives according to ancient superstitions and beliefs.
Tintin is a European boy (like American Indiana Jones for kids) who travels around the world, uncovering secrets. The first worrying aspect of Prisoners of the Sun is that, in the story, almost all native people of Peru (except a native boy who looks similar to Tintin) are portrayed in a negative light (at least at some point). The police in Peru are depicted as being lazy and inefficient, and native people on the streets of Peru are evil and mean who are there to make fun of, and hurt little boys, perpetuating abuse. In that light, Tintin acts as a “saviour” coming from a developed, “civilised” country, who is there to restore order to the chaos and bring a sense of justice to that backward country. The problematic aspect of this is that it does promote unfair stereotypes, and even the conductor/worker of a train in Peru in the story is portrayed as ignorant. This line of reasoning is showcased through the following extract from Prisoners of the Sun, where Tintin stands up for a native boy who is being bullied by two native men.
Ignoring this and moving forward, unfortunately, other problematic aspects emerge. When Tintin and Captain Haddock make their way through the Peruvian jungle, they encounter all sorts of dangerous animals, including crocodiles and a giant snake. Obviously, as they intervene into the fauna of the jungle, animals will be disturbed, will react, and Tintin and Captain Haddock will have to defend themselves. However, the way it is sometimes presented hints at the idea that Tintin and Captain Haddock are outsiders who are set to kill animals whose only natural instinct is to react to those trespassing on their natural habitat. There is one picture in the comics where Tintin continues to shoot at the crocodile when there is no longer the need to do so because Captain Haddock is already save and sound on the ground, and there is no danger to them anymore. Captain Haddock then exclaims in a fit of rage: “I am going to kill all of them” (crocodiles in the river), and Tintin nonchalantly replies: “No, leave them, do not waste your ammunition (we need to save our ammunition)”. The impression is that it would have been a good idea, then, to kill all the crocodiles in the river who no longer pose danger IF they had more ammunition. Captain Haddock then says something along the lines: “what a shameful country“.
Near the end of Prisoners of the Sun, Tintin “saves” himself, Captain Haddock and Professor Calculus by acting and pleading with the Sun to hide itself and then re-emerge. In the story, it is assumed that the Inca people do not know about solar eclipses and Tintin uses this knowledge to make the people believe as though the Sun obeys him. Awed by Tintin’s “powers”, the Inca let their prisoners go free. This is the most problematic aspect of the whole story for many reasons. The whole situation is nothing less than showing complete disrespect to the ancient knowledge and advancement of the Incas, but it is also correct to view this comics segment as an unfair literary assault on the whole advanced knowledge and skill gathered by the ancient civilisation, and on the Incan heritage. The comics segment above ridicules the Incan ignorance, which is simply disrespectful and culturally insulting knowing how advanced the Incas really were and what knowledge they really possessed. There is evidence that the Incas had some advanced knowledge, including on the topics of astronomy and planetary movements (see the article here). In all likelihood, the Incas KNEW about solar eclipses and Tintin’s trick would not have worked in real life. In that way, who is ignorant here is not the Incas, but the comics. This is especially so since some speculate than the Incas used Temples of the Sun to predict eclipses, something which surely required more skill than Tintin reading about when they would occur in a newspaper.
The comics’ purpose should have been to instil in young readers a sense of wonder and respect for another ancient culture, but what it did was to portray the ancient culture and population as backward, silly and completely ignorant – as people who do not even know how their main deity – the Sun – behaves sometimes. That adds insult to injury.
Throughout the series, llamas have funny altercations with Captain Haddock, and it is funny to see them spitting on Captain Haddock throughout the story (it is their natural behaviour when they are provoked or angry). However, finishing the comics with the picture of Captain Haddock taking his revenge on a llama is like putting the last nail in the coffin. After the comics has already shown the Incas as ignorant and backward people (that do not even know such a natural phenomenon as solar eclipse), the comics finishes with Captain Haddock, a white European man from a “civilised” country, spitting on a llama, the proud symbol of Peru. Nothing more needs to be said, is there?