Tintin: The Blue Lotus
Medium: comic
Year: 1936
Writer/artist: Herge
Keywords: Tintin
Format: 62 pages
Website category: Comics
Review date: 16 April 2021
I'd been looking forward to getting my hands on this. It's the one where Tintin goes to China and fights villainous Japanese, which some people have called racist. (Apparently it's in part how Herge draws them.) At the same time, though, it's also the book where Herge first started doing research, here with the help of a Chinese art student (Zhang Chongren) who wrote lots of the Chinese posters and shop signs you can see throughout. Until then, Herge hadn't actually known any more about China than he had about the Congo or the Soviet Union (which wasn't much). He'd put Chinese characters in two of his earlier books (Soviets and America) and in both cases relied on negative stereotypes.
Here, that changed. Herge and Zhang became close friends, in Zhang's words "akin to two brothers". Zhang taught him Chinese artistic styles and some Taoism. As a result, even today, this book seems progressive. (The British got sniffy about it, since it's putting the boot heavily into Western attitudes in and towards China, and Methuen didn't publish it until 1983, the year of Herge's death. They also got three Scottish thugs changed into Sikhs in the 1946 redrawn version.) This is pretty amazing for 1936 and especially so from the author of Tintin in the Congo five years earlier. There are some interesting discussions. Meanwhile, Zhang wrote all the Chinese signs, shop names, etc. and inserted lots of anti-Japanese slogans like "Boycott Japanese products", "Abolish unfair treaties" and "Down with Imperialism". Japan's diplomats stationed in Belgium issued an official complaint and threatened to take it to the Hague.
It's a remarkable portrayal of China. What about Japan, though?
I was impressed, actually. The most important thing to note is that being anti-Japanese in 1936 is right and correct, since the Japanese government of the time was evil. (Herge was, though, out of step with the mainstream Western press, which supported Japan because they were potential allies against the Soviet Union.) Admittedly the story's main baddies are merely drug runners, but we still have reasonably accurate adaptations of the Mukden Incident and Japan quitting the League of Nations once its role in that was exposed. This is way, way more political than you'd expect in a jolly adventure comic that even Herge basically saw as for children. It's not a natural fit for the plot, which is why it's so impressive. Herge's kicking down the fence, not sitting on it. He's shouting loud and clear that Japan were bastards.
There are also references to the city of Nanking. The Nanking Massacre took place a year after this book was published.
As for how he writes and draws Japan and its people... well, there are slips. "Fujiyama" is said repeatedly, which is a classic foreigner's mistake. (It's "Fuji-san".) Mitsuhirato utters proto-Haddock exclamations that would sound weird in Japanese. ("Kamikaze" is a particularly unfortunate word choice, which I presume was added post-WW2 by insensitive English translators.) There's also a character called Yamato, although admittedly groanworthy names are a staple of this series.
I'm fine with how Herge draws most of his Japanese characters, though, especially in the context of his art style in general. Look at Rastapopolous's nose. He only gets lazy when drawing that Japanese photographer on p49. He also avoids the most obvious cliches, i.e. no one has yellow skin and the Japanese soldiers are much taller than Tintin.
Tintin himself is relatively bland again, but he'll defend Chinese people against racists, he won't deal with the devil even to spare himself from execution and he's extraordinarily tough. You wouldn't think twice if he looked like Schwarzenegger, but he's a small, baby-faced reader insert figure. Nonetheless, he can put three big thugs in hospital even when they gang up on him.
As for Herge's art... well, I'm reading the 1946 version, which has replaced its predecessor. To be honest, I'd have preferred to read the black-and-white original. Herge does, though, manage to create atmosphere on a spiral staircase on p59.
Is this book good? Yeah, sure. Is it great? No, it's Tintin. I like the political angle (which is almost as savage on the Westerners as it is on the Japanese) and the portrayal of China, but a Tintin book is at heart a fun runaround. It's comfortable. It's good children's entertainment. It has life-threatening situations and offscreen can even be gruesome (e.g. a seppuku!), but it won't really feel dangerous. This one's got some good jokes, though, while being a fun but subversive (for 1936) way to pass an hour or so.