Who says comics are for children?
They are often contemporary, political and make fun of stereotypes, as Tintin and Asterix comics show. Even otherwise, comics cover whole range of literature from crime thrillers to science fiction
Are comics really a “waste of time and money” as some parents and a few teachers believe?
Comics originated in the US, and along with Japan and its manga, still holds the top position as far as their proliferation--and its adaptation by other media--goes. But for comics used to portray stereotypes and evoking humour, we must turn to another tradition--the Franco-Belgian, and its two most famous characters--the diminutive but doughty Gaulish warrior Asterix and the intrepid and globe-trotting boy reporter Tintin.
With their well-researched and meticulously drawn plots and characters and abundant wordplay, Frenchmen Rene Goscinny and Albert Uderzo and Belgian Georges Remi alias Herge not only elevated the form to literature, but made Asterix and Tintin the world’s most well-known Frenchman and Belgian, respectively.
Let us begin with Tintin, whose fans included Satyajit Ray, Steven Spielberg and Charles de Gaulle, who considered Asterix to be his only serious rival. And then, our hero, in his lunar visit, also made a “discovery” (lunar ice) that was scorned then, but would be validated by India’s Chandrayaan half a century later.
The two dozen instalments of the series have sold hundreds of millions of copies in more than 70 languages they have been translated into, and the reason is not difficult to ascertain. The engrossing, well-researched stories deal with social and political themes: crime, wars, drugs and slave trade, racism, political subversion and regime change, fuel crises and so on. Tintin is even shown doing yoga.
Emerging out of a weekly cartoon strip in the children’s supplement of a Belgian Catholic newspaper, the initial two adventures--set in Soviet Russia and the then Belgian Congo--were not very refined, being unabashed anti-Communist attack and an unashamed justification of colonialism and the “White Man’s Burden”, respectively. It was from the third instalment that there was a change to a more multiracial-tolerant setting.
Featuring Chicago gangster boss Al Capone-- the only prominent reallife character appearing in the series, apart from a brief appearance by the creator himself much later-- 'Tintin in America' combines all current perceptions of the US in a blistering denunciation of capitalism, consumerism, and criminality, not to mention racism and exploitation of indigenous people.
Tintin’s adventures next take him to Egypt and India (‘The Cigars of the Pharoah’, where the blundering detectives Thompson and Thomson come onstage -- and so do cow vigilantes!) in a struggle against drug smuggling, which is continued in 'The Blue Lotus' set in China. The latter was unprecedented in a depiction of Chinese people far removed from the racist stereotypes prevalent in then Europe though the Japanese, who were more westernised, don’t come off so well.
The Japanese aggression against China, particularly the self-engineered Mukden incident, that served as a pretext for the occupation of Manchuria, is rendered with starkness and led to an official complaint from the Japanese embassy in Brussels.
‘The Broken Ear’, set in two fictional South American countries, combines crime and high politics, while satirising the frequent (violent) regime changes in the region, backed by foreign interests, seeking to spark war between countries-, and supplying both with weapons.
King Ottokar’s Sceptre’, with its political subtext chronicling contemporary happenings, was unexpectedly not banned by Nazi censors in occupied Belgium, but Herge played it safe and the next half-dozen odd instalments, from ‘The Crab With the Golden Claws’ (where Captain Haddock makes his appearance) to ‘Prisoners of the Sun’, abandon political themes for pure adventure. In the 1950s Herge returned to contemporary happenings: the Cold War, the arms race, political subversion, human trafficking can all be found.
Tintin also had a therapeutic effect on Herge. He even consulted a psychologist and was counselled to leave his art, but rejected the advice and found expiation of sorts in drawing the desolate landscapes of ‘Tintin in Tibet’.
‘Tintin and the Picaros’, the last completed adventure, is full of political intrigue, and messaging, down to its final panel: a new regime, but slums still filled with wretched people with the only change seen being in the uniforms of the apathetic police and names on the victory signs.
Asterix and his extremely well-built (never call him fat!) friend Obelix, created by writer Goscinny (1926-77) and illustrator Albert Uderzo (1927-), have regaled the world since his first appearance in French comic magazine Pilote in October 1959, before branching out to his own series of albums, as well as films, both animated and live action. The series survived Goscinny’s death and the 2008 retirement of Uderzo, who had taken both roles, with his assistants nominated to carry on with it.
Apart from local adventures, Asterix and Obelix go out on missions in other parts of Gaul and what are now Belgium, Britain, Germany, Switzerland as well as to North America, Middle East, and India.
There is a lot of bashing up of Romans, pirates, assorted barbarians or whoever else comes in their way, but the series is not mere slapstick. Its humour, typically French, works on more subtle devices --witty dialogue, puns, running gags, caricatures, the accurate, tongue-in-cheek but affectionate stereotyping of various peoples, who are depicted like their contemporary counterparts: the proper, reserved British, the clean and hospitable Swiss, and the rule-obeying Goths (Germans).
(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday.)