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Review of The Metamorphoses of Tintin

By André Gilroy

Apostolidès, Jean-Marie. The Metamorphoses of Tintin: Or Tintin for Adults. Trans. Jocelyn Hoy. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010. Print.

To my young critical mind, the mid-80s marked the beginning of Comics Studies as we know it. Certainly critics and artists were theorizing the form before 1986—but the year, for me, is a landmark: DC publishes The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, and Speigelman releases Maus I: My Father Bleeds History to widespread acclaim. The world finally realized “Zap! Pow! Comics Aren’t Just for Kids Anymore!” (though it seems, based on the articles that appear every few months, writers are rediscovering this notion over and over).

Now, with a few more years of study under my belt and a few more books moved from the “To Read” to the “Have Read” pile in my office, I know Comics Studies is much bigger than America. Despite my “enlightened” state, it’s still shocking to think of Jean-Marie Apostolidès publishing Les Metamorphosés de Tintin in 1984. The surprise comes from the fact that not only does the book treat comics seriously, but Apostolidès treats a children’s comic seriously, on its own terms.1 It’s also a shock to discover it took 25 years for his book to be translated into English, especially considering, as the back-cover blurb tells us, Les Metamorphosés de Tintin is “the first critical study of the canonical Tintin cartoons.”

Reading this contemporary translation of an older scholarly work is a fascinating experience. One of the (if not the) earliest scholarly works written on Tintin, the book is at once obviously dated—it sometimes tries too hard to prove its worth, and its particular brand of psychoanalytic analysis is out of vogue—and at the same time somehow fresh, thorough, and convincing. The book is a simple pleasure to read, which is not often the case with translations of French scholars. The praise extends beyond Apostolidès—Jocelyn Hoy should be commended for the clarity and accessibility of her translation.

Apostolidès’s goal, as stated in his introduction, is to bring together what he sees as the two poles of Tintin criticism: “diachronic” readings that examine the stories in order and “[situate] them in the concrete context in which they appeared” (2)—and “synchronistic,” which reads The Adventures of Tintin as a whole body of work (a la Balzac’s Human Comedy) “in order to examine the internal development of this fictional universe” (3). His methodological experiment is a success. The chapters are laid out diachronically: each main storyline gets its own chapter, and Apostolidès summarizes and reads every single album in great detail. Like Benoît Peeters’s earlier work, Tintin and the World of Hergé, though far more thorough, Apostolidès’s book provides an album-by-album reading of the entirety of The Adventures of Tintin.2 In a particularly impressive feat, he manages to contextualize each book in a way that can appeal to a reader who might not have read every single Tintin album while also providing close readings with an eye for detail that is sure to intrigue the most well-versed Tintin fans.

While the immediate structure of the book is diachronic, the larger argument of the book is synchronistic—each individual reading comes together to tell a grand narrative that reveals the various metamorphoses of Tintin promised by the title. For Apostolidès, Tintin’s three earliest adventures (Tintin in the Land of the SovietsTintin in the Congo, and Tintin in America) reveal the hero in a “primordial” state. Good is absolute good (and closely linked to the nation and religion, especially in the first versions of the albums), and evil is likewise clearly defined. However, during his adventures in Egypt and China (Cigar of the Pharoahs and The Blue Lotus), Tintin reaches a sort of mirror stage and discovers the Other Tintin separate from his journalistic roots, leaving behind contemporary politics and world history to tell the story of Tintin’s “political and psychological development,” “in mythical form” (277).

But Tintin’s journey is only one metamorphosis (though it is achieved in stages, to be sure) in Apostolidès’s reading of Hergé’s oeuvre. Book by book, he reads Tintin’s personal journey to maturity and self consciousness, his movement from saintly avatar of the good to a complex hero, and the founding of his family with Haddock, Calculus, and finally Bianca Castafiore. Yet Apostolidès moves outside the world of Tintin as well, charting the metamorphosis of The Adventures of Tintin as a text, from its birth as a right-wing political tract for children to its new life as a fully realized mythic world. He gestures towards Hergé’s personal metamorphosis as well. Finally, as the English subtitle implies, he attempts to enact a metamorphosis on the texts himself by arguing the world of Tintin is not just child’s play, but a complex series of texts that can stand up to the intellectual rigor of academia.

Apostolidès’s readings are clearly stated and generally convincing. He particularly shines in the early chapters of the book, when he reads through Hergé’s changes to the early volumes.3 As the original publications are more difficult to find, his discussion of the ideological ramifications of the differences between the 1930-31 and 1946 versions of Tintin in the Congo are illuminating. There are moments when the readings feel a bit stretched—he falls prey to the tendency in psychoanalytic criticism, as in Marxist criticism, to have a pat explanation for everything—but those stretches never completely snap the flow of the argument.

One concern I have regards the organization of the book. Though Apostolidès prepares the reader for Tintin’s “metamorphoses” in the introduction, the first chapters feel more like separate readings of the albums than part of a larger story (in his terms, the first few chapters feel far more diachronic than synchronistic). This results in a sense of confusion about where the book might be going. However, once the trajectory of the book becomes clear (about three or four chapters in), this sense vanishes and is replaced, for myself at least, with an enjoyable guessing game: which book comes next? What do I remember about it? How will it fit in? Sometimes I guessed Apostolidès’s moves, sometimes he surprised me.

Overall, The Metamorphoses of Tintin: Or Tintin for Adults is a pleasure. It is fascinating as a piece of early comics criticism, especially considering the exponential growth of the field in the last ten years. While it may not be as rigorous as the academy demands today, it is well researched and presented with impressive clarity (again, Jocelyn Hoy deserves praise for her translation). Categorically, I would compare it to Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics—not quite an academic text, but a step above popular non-fiction. For this reason, it would be an excellent text to teach, particularly to higher-level college undergraduates. This past summer I taught Tintin for the first time and I was glad of my time with Apostolidès. I presented portions of his readings—of the Tintin in Tibet in particular, as well as the broader context of Tintin as a character and phenomenon—to my students. The conversation shifted; a roomful of young adults, most of whom had never heard of Tintin before, saw the album as more than just “kids’ stuff.” Monseiur Apostolidès: mission accomplished.


[1] In other words, Apostolidès uses a different technique from that which Ariel Dorfman does in his 1972 Para leer el pato Donald, which reads children’s comics seriously, but only as agents of colonial ideology.

[2] Apostolidès does not address Tintin and Alph-Art, which Hergé left unfinished at his death in 1983. The album was published (still unfinished) in 1986, two years after Apostolidès’s book was originally published.

[3] In the 1940s, Hergé returned to the early Tintin albums in order to re-draw and colorize them. Particularly in the early cases, he might also edit the stories themselves.

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