When I was young, I read through just about every single comic in The Adventures of Tintin series by the acclaimed Belgian cartoonist Hergé. Since the Tintin movie just premiered in theaters, I thought it appropriate to review one of the comics where it all began. The only collection of Tintin comics I actually own is The Blue Lotus, one of the slightly more controversial and difficult to find titles. It had been almost a decade and a half since I last read a Tintin comic; how did The Blue Lotus stack up when viewed from an adult perspective?
Originally serialized in Le Petit Vigntième in Brussels between 1934 and 1935, Le Lotus Bleu, as it was first known, details Tintin’s adventures in Shanghai during 1931. It was a turbulent time in the Far East: the Empire of Japan began its colonial expansion in earnest, while Western powers still vied for trading rights across China. In the midst of it all, China faced political upheaval, almost powerless to resist the coming foreign forces. But enough of the history lesson, let’s talk about Tintin!
Tintin, a young Belgian reporter, leaves India at the beginning of The Blue Lotus after receiving a message that he is needed in Shanghai. In the previous Tintin story, Cigars of the Pharaoh, the intrepid lad helped tackle a party of opium smugglers, though he was unable to capture their leader or discover the secret of Rajaijah juice, the deadly “Poison of Madness” and the smugglers’ weapon of choice. Tintin leaves for Shanghai with his dog, Snowy, but all the while they are pursued by assassins working for this illegal drug cartel. They soon learn that their main foe is Mitsuhirato, a Japanese spy and opium dealer who hopes to cement his nation’s foothold in China. Tintin teams up with Wang Chen-yee, an elderly Chinese man and leader of the Sons of the Dragon, a secret society that works to protect Shanghai from the deadly influences of opium. Tintin soon becomes a wanted man, with both European officials stationed in Shanghai’s international settlement and Japanese military men attempting to take him down. Can Tintin prevent the dastardly activities of these drug smugglers before he ends up facing his execution?
The Blue Lotus is an enjoyable read with enough suspense and action to hold the reader’s attention while still paying attention to key story details. A lot of greater humor is injected into the story, such as when three tough thugs enter Tintin’s jail cell to beat him, but the next scene shows all of them on the ground, stars circling their skulls as Tintin dusts his hands off and walks out a free man. Though the story follows from a previous Tintin comic, a nice summary at the beginning makes it easy to know what is going on and dive right in without having read any other arc in the series; Hergé writes well enough that one can become well-acquainted with Tintin after only reading a few pages. Ultimately, the writing is great, though not without its share of controversy.
Before I address some of the less appetizing choices Hergé makes in The Blue Lotus, one must remember the context of its writing that I gave earlier. I won’t, however, make the “it was a different time” excuse as there are a few key things to note: for instance, Hergé himself was known to be a Nazi-sympathizer and even faced charges for possessing Nazi paraphernalia. It is thus little surprise that the Japanese characters are presented in a more stereotypical fashion, though they are the villains of this story and given the negative actions of the Japanese empire during the ’30s and ‘40s it is easy to see why they were selected for this role. Interestingly enough, the Chinese characters are shown in a very positive light, and there are even some hints of forward-thinking on Hergé’s part: early in the comic, Tintin prevents an American businessman from beating a Chinese worker who bumps into him, and later it is shown how poorly Westerners treat the people of Shanghai on the grounds that Europeans are more “civilized” and thus have a right to “educate” foreigners however they see fit. This line of reasoning appears later in the comic when Tintin notes to his friend, Chang, “different peoples don’t know enough about each other.” Clearly, Hergé acknowledges that both sides hold prejudices and that neither is free of blame, but tries to note that cultural understanding is necessary for peace; he even appears to place more blame upon the Europeans. One could, however, argue that this is a case of a Westerner trying to “educate” another culture, but personally I think that is not the case and here it is a legitimate case for mutual comprehension.
Another controversy that has seen The Blue Lotus pulled from library shelves is the use of opium. As I’ve already mentioned, opium smuggling is the key conflict in this story and thus it’s almost a given that opium use will feature in the story. The titular Blue Lotus is actually the name of an opium den where Mitsuhirato meets with his contacts to assign their missions. Tintin himself goes to the Blue Lotus, though, of course, he only pretends to engage in opium usage. I, personally, do not think this is that big of an issue: the comic never shows or says a single positive thing about opium and, if anything, demonizes the drug as not only bad for the body but also as a force of political damage to Shanghai. Thus, while I understand drugs don’t have a place in a children’s story, in this case their presentation actually can serve to warn children about not only the immediate negative effects of drug use but also the long-term and overarching problems of drug dealing.
Now I can finally progress to The Blue Lotus’s art. Hergé’s style is simple and subdued, yet he conveys much within his panels. The character’s faces hold amazing amounts of expression, and the use of symbols floating around the heads of the characters to explore their feelings. The panel placement in The Blue Lotus is clever as well: Hergé often ends a page with a shocking or suspenseful scene, building the reader’s excitement as he or she turns the page. The art itself, however, is nothing amazing: there is a decent amount detail in the background of most panels, but the penciling is far from exceptional. I, however, still like the art for its almost whimsical simplicity, the story not requiring complicated spreads or intricate designs: instead, the bare bones of the story are portrayed and nothing is overlooked. I think some people may dislike the artwork for that reason, but I personally find little fault with it though I cannot say it impresses me. I’ve already addressed the potential controversy surrounding the way the Japanese are drawn, but as I have said before I think the choice is moreso because of their position as villains rather than for any racist reason; I will not, however, defend Hergé and understand those who find fault with his choices. I must note again, however, that the Chinese characters are portrayed in a positive manner and they are not drawn in as offensive or stereotypical a manner. Thus, while the art is imperfect and unimpressive it is not terrible.
The Adventures of Tintin: The Blue Lotus is an enjoyable read for anyone seeking a tale of international travel and intrigue. It may not be a story that sticks with you, but it’s something that nice to check out at least once in your life. As I’ve already noted, much controversy surrounds it but ultimately does not take away from the central narrative. I think most people could derive enjoyment from it, and anyone who likes tales of globe-trotting adventure will like it. So, in case the movie isn’t your cup of tea, or if you’d like to learn more about the world of Tintin, or even if you’ve never read Tintin and want to find out what he’s all about, then The Blue Lotus may be for you.
Brett Simon is a twenty-two year old comic enthusiast. He realizes Tintin must be pretty skilled to speak the language of just about every country and culture on the planet.
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