Tintin, America and Gangsters
Tintin in America is very much an early work of Herge but marks the end of the first phase of his creative life. The artwork is much improved (especially after it was redrawn in 1945) and the story telling is more organised. The level of detail and how the countries are depicted are becoming more sophisticated. However when writing this in 1931-32, Herge had very limited material to base his work on. Consequently the book still contains many sterotyped images.
Tintin is still very much a reporter, something that becomes less and less important in the later books. But in Tintin in America he is there to investigate the gangsters that dominate the city of Chicago. At the time Herge was writing, Al Capone was still untouchable and prohibition had another two years to run. In far off Belgium, the glamour and excitement of the gangster business must of made an tempting subject for Herge.
Our hero’s problem with gangsters starts from page one where he is kidnapped on his arrival. Even for Tintin, this marks a quick start to the adventure. As the story progresses we see a real oddity: A gangster using a boomerang. This is truly incongruous. Maybe Herge had just found out about boomerangs and decided to use one in Tintin in America?
Tintin’s adventures continued as he subjected to repeated kidnapping and assassination attempts. Herge’s dry wit shines through in one of them. On page 14 of Tintin in America, a hitman’s relationship to the gangster who hired him is casual. Almost as if he was a plumber come to fix a leaking tap. The hitman cannot hang around to chat because he has three more jobs to do that morning. Clearly in Herge’s Chicago, life is very cheap and the gangster are organised like a Chamber of Commerce.
Tintin goes West
Tintin’s hunt for Bobby Smiles, one of Chicago bosses leads him to Redskin City. Here, Tintin in America changes from the stereotypes of pulp-novel gangsters to the stereotypes of pulp-novel Westerns. Though Herge is not without sympathy and understanding of the native American’s plight. On page 16, panel 8, Tintin takes a photo of a Indian. In the original, the Indian had a begging bowl though it was removed in later editions. Herge had some understanding of how hard life was on the reservation.
On the same page of Tintin in America, we see Tintin getting kitted out in cowboy dress with the tailor advising him that this year’s fashion is for the cartridge belt to be slung on the right. Another expressions of Herge’s humour and understanding of human nature. Then later, we see Tintin entangle himself, Snowy and his horse by trying to use a lasso. This type of visual gag with Tintin as the butt of the joke is replaced in the later books. With Captain Haddock, and especially Thompson and Thomson, Herge has far better fall guys than Tintin. Consequently in the later books we see Tintin becomes a lot more competent, making very few of this type of error. Also, without Captain Haddock to provide an avenue for Herge’s word play, other characters have to fill in such as Bobby Smiles’ habit of using prison names as swear words.
We get a clue of where Herge had in mind for this part of the adventure on page 19 when Bobby Smiles meets up the Blackfeet Indians. These indians straddle the border between Montana, US and Alberta, Canada. Their reservation borders the Glacier National Park. Though this location fits most of the clues, there are some counter-clues. We see Saguaro cacti that commonly appear in Western films but it is limited to parts of Arizona, Mexico and California. Some of the background scenery has the character of Monument Valley and the Colorado Plateau. Again common in Westerns but located in the south-western part of America. The indistinct geography and mixed clues in Tintin in America is typical of all of Tintin’s books.
There is more support for Blackfeet reservation as Tintin in America’s location in the style of the indian’s dress. The classic feathered headdresses were used by the Blackfeet as depicted by Herge. Also the indian chief makes reference to Great Manitou. Manitou is a general word for spirit in the Algonquian indians, of whom the Blackfeet are part of, and Gitche Manitou, means great spirit. Herge’s use of Great Manitou may be a portmanteau or something that got altered in the translation.
The discovery of oil on the reservation and the Blackfeet being moved out by the army is one of the most noted political statements by Herge. Whilst he exaggerates for comic effect the speed of which the Indians are driven off the land, the sentiment is certainly true. Custer’s Last Stand was a result of prospectors going after gold in the Black Hills Reservation. The area now called The Glacier National Park was once part of the Blackfeet reservation but it was sold when prospectors thought there were great mineral deposits. We see in Tintin in America the growth of Herge’s awareness of other cultures and the impact of colonialism.
Having escaped the indians and survived a train crash, Tintin’s bad luck fails him again as he is wrongly accused of bank robbery. Herge humour is again plain to see in the scene where the bank robbery is discovered and the old local tells the police “I raised the alarm and we hanged a few fellows straight away but the thief got clear…”. Later, a report on the radio has a similar line about hobos being lynched.
Sweet Home Chicago
Having delivered captured Bobby Smiles, Tintin returns to Chicago where, for a change, it is Snowy who gets kidnapped by a business venture called Kidnap Inc. This is a play on the name Murder Inc, a notorious group of gangland killers from the 20s and 30s. This last third of Tintin in America, is weaker than the rest of the book. Having caught a major gangster, most creators would of finished the story. However Herge continues with Tintin’s adventures with Snowy’s kidnapping and subsequent hunt for those behind it. This leads to further adventures but in a typical Herge fashion, he wraps up the book quickly with a bit of exposition. The book ends with Tintin sailing home from New York having been responsible for the capture of most of Chicago’s gangsters.