Tintin, the legendary ‘superchild’

When Tintin was created in 1929 by Herge, the myth of the conformist rebel was born with him. An adolescent hero who would never grow old, he reconciled two generations – the one that lived through the Great War and the one that was born after it – and bridged the gap between childhood and the world of adults, the nation and the rest of the world. For most people, Tintin, bound up with the culture of the French and Belgians and their obsession with comics, is just another hero, but for Jean-Marie Apostolides, professor of theater and literature at Stanford University, Tintin is a means of interpreting the ideology of the 20th century. In his penetrating essay «Tintin, le mythe du Surenfant» («Tintin and the Myth of the Superchild»), Apostolides make a radical analysis of the political, sociological and psychological aspects of Herge’s hero. Mammoth Comics have brought the book out in a Greek translation by Dimitris Karayiannis. Kathimerini asked Apostolides about his work on Tintin. What attracted you to Tintin in the first place? During my childhood in France (I was born in November 1943), Tintin was very important. I read it between 6 and 12, and then left it aside for many years. Later on, I wanted to understand it from a more «mature» perspective. In 1984, I published a first volume called «Les metamorphoses de Tintin,» one of the first studies devoted to Tintin. Since Tintin is so much a product of the 20th century, might he soon become outdated? Yes, it’s very possible that in the near future Tintin’s adventures will become outdated, just like Jules Verne’s novels. However, I’m convinced that this work will continue to be a strong testimony of 20th century European values. If the Great War changed the way people accepted norms and values, and engendered Tintin, why was there no major loss of interest in him after World War II? Curiously enough, Tintin’s success in Belgium and France was even more important after World War II. I don’t have a definitive answer to that question. It seems to me that a major factor of his success is due to the fact that Tintin is also an incarnation of heroism, something badly needed after WWII in countries such as France or Belgium. Was (is) Tintin accepted in the US as he was (is) in Europe? No. In the US Tintin is a marginal figure, compared to some comic-strip heroes. It is often read by the American upper classes. However, it should be said that (possibly due to an excellent translation), it is gaining visibility in the US. If a cinematographic adaptation is made of his adventures, Tintin could quickly become more popular. Did you aim to boost Tintin’s longevity? Not really. I just wanted to show that an «intellectual reading» of Tintin is also legitimate. It seems to me that such an approach can increase the pleasure of reading. I tried not to be too pedantic, but you know, I’m also a teacher… (deformation professionnelle, as we say in French!) Although Tintin does not embrace family values, he was often associated with a rather conservative and conformist world view. Or is this another myth? In many respects, Tintin is very traditional, even (sometimes) conservative. Before World War II, he was closely associated with rightist values and rightist political movements (Rex and Action Francaise). However, Herge changed after WWII and became gradually more open to a «leftist» sensibility. Above all, Tintin can also be read from different perspectives. In other words, his adventurous stature is strong enough, great enough to attract people from different political horizons. While many people would not consider Tintin anything more than a bright adolescent, you introduced the term «surenfant» («superchild»). Is it a term of reconciliation or a term of new understanding? It is both. I used this term «surenfant» to show that Tintin is a myth of reconciliation. This explains its amazing «universal» success. Allow me to say here that since I finished this text, I have found many examples of the «surenfant myth» in French culture. It seems to me that it is one of the most important myths of the baby boom generation in European countries such as France or Italy. I would like to devote a complete volume to this myth in the 20th century. (For example, the May ’68 rebellion in France is now a good example of this myth for me.) What are the major differences between Tintin and other heroes of the 20th century like Lucky Luke or Asterix? Both Lucky Luke and Asterix are very talented comic strips. However, Tintin seems more profound, more complex, and above all it is a myth. Whereas Asterix is an incarnation of France’s chauvinism in a period of cultural and political decline, Tintin goes beyond and has a sort of «universal» appeal. Could you please tell me more about yourself? Your origins and intellectual interests? My grandfather was born in Manissa and he went to high school in Izmir. He left his country to study medicine in France. However, for political and personal reasons, he could never come back to his native country and he died in France, far from his brother and sisters, who were settled in Greece. My father was a pediatrician in France. I trained in psychology and sociology but my real interests are in literature and drama. I left France in August 1968, first for Canada, later on for the USA. I’m married and have a 22-year-old son, Pierre. Are you writing a new book now? Currently, I am working on two leftist avant-garde movements, the Lettrist International (1951-1957) and Situationist International (1957-1972). Both of them are associated with the French philosopher and artist, Guy Debord. Do you have an answer as to why comics are so popular in France and Belgium? No. I’m just amazed by the fact that comic strips have recently become an autonomous art, no longer restricted to children. Some truly great artists are now attracted by comics. Don’t you think it’s positive?