1978: The Shooting Star

It’s the spider I remember. In The Shooting Star, boy reporter Tintin is investigating an apocalyptic threat, a star on a collision course with our world. He visits an observatory, hoping they can tell him what’s going on. They can: the world is doomed. He is led to the telescope and through it he sees a colossal spider, clinging to the star.

The beast is only on the telescope lens. And the world is not doomed. But I was entranced. By that, by the panic in the streets, by the race to reach a new island formed in the wake of the star’s passing, and by the grotesque exploding mushrooms our hero finds there. Tintin is the first comic I can remember reading, and The Shooting Star is my first memory of Tintin. In many ways, I wish it was almost any of his other adventures.

Tintin had a special status in our family. My Dad and his brothers and sisters grew up in the 50s and early 60s in Switzerland as well as Britain, as their father worked for the UN. Tintin was part of their childhood, followed in his own magazine, and with each new volume a bestseller. Those albums, in their original French, followed my Gran to England when she and Grandad divorced. I learned to read French by following my Dad’s translation of L’Ile Noire and Tintin En Amerique, at his knee. He bought me Tintin in English, the Methuen paperback editions. Some of those sit on our shelves now, creased, faded, and over-loved, supplemented with newer copies.

I am not the only person who holds Tintin in special affection. There are creators who establish the visual grammar and expectations of a whole style – a whole marketplace, in some cases. Kirby, Tezuka, Herge, and so on. To encounter them young is to be taught a language. Comics writer Kieron Gillen described Watchmen (which we’ll be meeting in 1986) as a comic that teaches you how to read it. Tintin, in its discreet, precise way, is a comic that teaches you how to read comics.

It does so almost invisibly. Herge never draws attention to his storytelling decisions: like his famously economical line, they are artefacts of impeccable design. A Tintin book is never flashy, never ambiguous or confusing – it is a gorgeously smooth reading experience, a user interface Apple would envy. It is not, however, cinematic – The Shooting Star is full of two-panel sight gags and payoffs that are utterly comic-y, relying on the sharp division of frames, not the fluidity of film or animation.

Take the first three panels of the book, a slapstick gag about Snowy walking into a lamp-post. In a cartoon, it would be very hard not to introduce the lamp-post before the collision, making the joke one of anticipation. On the page, lamp-post and collision can appear simultaneously, with Snowy’s forward motion suggested by the force of impact. Our eye has been tricked upward by Tintin pointing out the star, so it feels like Snowy paying the price for our misdirection.


(Meanwhile, for new readers, the panels introduce a lot of information: Snowy can talk, he is the comic foil for the observant Tintin, it is unnaturally hot, and – for the sharp-eyed – there is a huge new star in the middle of the Great Bear. That last is the one thing you might miss, so Herge includes it as exposition next panel while leavening any dryness with another joke – verbal, this time. This guy is tight, basically.)

Two other things stand out about Herge. First, he plays very fair. The vocabulary of adventure comics is one of tight squeezes and narrow escapes. There are lots of ways to convey peril like this – having the characters talk about it, most crudely, but also using foreshortening or dramatic cutting to heighten the imminence and narrowness of the danger while also drawing out its resolution. Herge’s approach is a more honest one: he establishes the physicality of a location precisely and doesn’t amplify it to make peril seem greater, relying on that clarity to make the danger more vivid. For instance, there’s a great scene in The Shooting Star where Snowy is on the deck of a pitching and tilting ship, in danger of being swept away. In quick cuts across half a dozen panels, Herge establishes Snowy’s presence on the deck, then a hole in the deck wall through which water is hurtling, then a surge of water which moves Snowy nearer the wall, then – oh no! – he’s half out of the hole before being grabbed by Tintin. It’s so basic that pointing it out seems insulting. But I will remember reading it for the rest of my life – the solidity of the wall and hole, the force of the spray exploding through it.

Herge is a creator you trust, then. And the second reason you trust is his attention to detail. A famously scrupulous researcher, his settings and vehicles are created with the precision of an Airfix modeller and then rendered with the satisfying plastic simplicity of a Lego builder. So, reading The Shooting Star, I knew that were I to ever see a seaplane, it would look like a Herge seaplane. (Tintin is full of seaplanes.) I knew that if I ever saw a Norwegian dock in the 1940s, it would look like the dock Captain Haddock stops in to refuel. If I ever clung to a lamp-post to watch rats surge through the streets… well, the lamp-post would be Hergeian too. He was scrupulous about this: apparently he fretted for years afterwards that Tintin’s ship would not in fact be seaworthy. But if I was ever on a ship looking for a crashed meteorite, I would expect it to look like Tintin’s ship, the Aurora.

And if I summon to mind a corrupt financier, surely he would look like the corrupt financier, Bohlwinkel.

bohlwinkel Which is something of a problem. Because Bohlwinkel looks like – well, he is well-fed, balding, dark haired, with a long curved nose, fleshy, smirking lips, and beady, leering eyes. He looks like a caricature Jew, in a comic written and published in Nazi-occupied Belgium, in 1941. The very economy and exactitude, the trustworthiness, of Herge’s cartooning is suborned by a racist stereotype.

It gets worse. Herge uses his command of the techniques of comics to continually remind us that Bohlwinkel is an alien presence, a foreign body within his story of scientific adventure. The rest of The Shooting Star is – as ever with Tintin – a world of detail: streets, docks, and crashed meteorites rendered with beautiful parsimony, always just enough to be real, never a line more. But Bohlwinkel’s panels are empty of background: he sits, leaning eagerly in to hear the radio, in a yellow space whose sharp, sickly vibrancy contrasts with the less jarring palette Herge uses for his outdoor action. He is an interruption in the story, never physically active, listening and manipulating. The heroic characters never meet him. His plots wither on contact with the real world, foiled by the camaraderie of sailors, the derring-do of Tintin, and the decency of the unnamed man on the rival ship who prevents Tintin being shot.

Bohlwinkel is the symbolic spider at the story’s centre, mirroring the physically monstrous spiders on the telescope and later on the meteorite-island. Of course the association, then and now, of Jews with spiders is an anti-Semitic commonplace. But you needn’t buy that parallel to grasp the role Bohlwinkel is playing. He incarnates the ancient prejudice of the Jew as schemer, string-puller, the secret conspiracy behind misfortune. He is considerably more than just a caricature, let alone an accidental one as Herge later hinted – everything about his role in the story and the symbolism it’s associated with is nakedly and purposefully anti-Semitic.

Herge pointed out that there are plenty of comic stereotypes all through Tintin – spoiled Arab brats, drunken Englishmen, nutty professors, and so on. He was, you might say, an “equal opportunities” satirist. He had even spoofed the Nazis themselves, in an earlier book, and deserves credit for that. But only one of his satirical targets was the simultaneous victim of organised state oppression, then genocide. Did the good, worried folk of Charleroi and Liege, presenting their papers and going about their daily lives under the Nazis, understand what was happening to the Jewish-owned businesses in their towns? What speculation reached them? They could, at least, open up Le Soir and escape with Tintin into a world that reassured them that whatever prejudices Europe’s Jewry faced, they had to a degree brought it on themselves. The Mysterious Star ended its run in May 1942, with an expression of comic horror on Bohlwinkel’s flabby face as his schemes are found out and he learns the authorities are on his trail. That same month, the Jews of Belgium were given a star of their own to wear.

Why has the anti-Semitism in The Shooting Star not destroyed its reputation? Tintin In The Congo, the boy reporter’s notoriously racist first adventure, now comes in shrinkwrap, with a stern warning to librarians. The Shooting Star is simply part of the canon. Part of it, I think, is that Herge shields Tintin himself from Herge’s own casual anti-Semitism. Congo is repulsive not just because of Herge’s gross caricatures of black people, but because Tintin is so explicitly the voice and hand of colonial power. Without racism, and the racial horror of Belgium’s Empire, there is no story in Tintin In The Congo. (There’s not much of one in any case.) In The Shooting Star, though, the main plot is of a race between international science and private enterprise for control of knowledge – with Tintin, sympathetically, on the side of science. The story requires a cheating capitalist. It does not require that capitalist to be a Jew.

Bohlwinkel is, of course, never named as such: when Herge put together the colour volume of The Shooting Star – the one we have now – he cut another anti-Semitic scene and changed his financiers name to Bohlwinkel from the more telling Blumenstein. He felt this defused the issue. But he did not redraw the man – and Bohlwinkel’s Jewishness exists as code, instantly obvious to most readers in Occupied Europe in 1941, blessedly oblivious but potentially insidious to a 5-year old boy in 1978.

Within Tintin fandom you can find all the strands of opinion you might expect – the loyalists who take Herge’s line that the book’s anti-Semitism is accidental; the majority who consider it a regrettable lapse in an otherwise fine book, or simply feel it doesn’t matter and wasn’t it all a long time ago. And a few who think the book is a blot on Herge’s career. (Those who feel it damns the entire Tintin enterprise are presumably not in the fandom in the first place.) How do I feel?

I read the book when I was five. Re-reading it now, its setpieces are as striking and resonant as ever. The comic is an outlier in the Tintin canon, one of the few books where the uncanny – always lurking in Herge’s work at the edges of adventure, in dreams or as implications or as a mystery to be solved – bursts through the skin of the story. The book starts and ends with wonder – a world burning, then flooded; and an island of transformed science which exists only for a few hours. Herge, for all the buttoned-down repression his cool lines suggest, could be the most psychological of cartoonists. His affinity for the quiet comforts of the bourgeois world, struggling with his storyteller’s instinct to breach them, made him unusually good at capturing disquiet and upset. No wonder his wartime books are so strange and strong.

Perhaps my lifelong attraction to the mood of a comic begins here, in the panels set in the glow of the meteor’s approach, where the solidity of Herge’s universe begins to literally melt: faithful Snowy becomes stuck on a road of liquefying tarmac; the light and line becomes starker and sharper, and the characters’ shadows themselves become sticky and treacherous. Comics have so many ways of capturing feeling like this, of conveying interiority through how they show the world’s exterior. The crisis passes, of course: Tintin learns the world is safe in the most comically bourgeois way possible, via the Belgian speaking clock. In the midst of upheaval, order prevails.

But that’s the danger of it. A common twentieth-century British fantasy – perhaps it still is one – was to imagine what we might have done ourselves under Nazi occupation. Nobody chose collaborator. Mostly we imagined ourselves in a heroic role, more or less – if not as an actual resistance fighter, then at least hiding Jews, sneaking messages to the Free British, weighing out butter and boiled sweets to the occupying troops with a very English frost. This last agrees with the grim statistical likelihood of occupation: resenters would have been far more common than dissenters. But what good do resenters do, really?

Herge was not a collaborator. But The Shooting Star is a collaboration: an acceptance – inevitable, its defenders would say – of the realities of occupation, a newly disturbed world. Certain prejudices become more acceptable. Certain ones become less so. Certain dreams endure – both sides loved their scientists, after all. The Shooting Star takes all of this on board – how pragmatic it is – makes a quiet bet on the status quo, and reflects it in its choice of villain.

That is its lesson. It’s a beautiful, exciting, seductive comic, which is also a reminder – because, thank goodness, it lost that bet – of how casual and thoughtless acquiescence is. Because it’s so beautiful and exciting, it isn’t an easy reminder. It’s not a Tintin In The Congo, an evil comic which is also a bad one, hence simple to deplore. The Shooting Star is a splendid comic, its evil a subtle ripple, an answer to a single question, who is my villain, that’s as much lazy as bad. The Nazis are gone. The question – who is my villain? – has not. I gave The Shooting Star to my five year old son to read – he adored it. Why wouldn’t you? Because he adored it, I write this, for him to read later.

NEXT: May 1979. Greed is good, Fleetway hits the Jackpot.