Don Knotts & Jim Nabors, 1964
My first reaction when I encountered Tintin, was to be put off by that vacant, rather stupid, non-reactive persona. He didn’t provide clues, positive or negative, so I put my own spin on it and decided he was dumb. Ah! Intelligence must be important to me. Lack of it was the first cognitive state I assigned Tintin. His empty face became a mirror reflecting back my own insecurities and prejudices. (This embarrassing insight came much later.)

I continued reading, mainly out of curiosity. Why is he so beloved by a wide public? Tintin is not my cup of tea. I’ll never be a fan. But, like others, I discovered that Herge’s plots are fun, the jokes are comfortably predictable, the characters are amusingly wacky. The story is a pleasant diversion. Suddenly Tintin was not stupid, but clever and resourceful and brave in his cartoon way. Without my knowing it, Tintin lured me into filling his emotional blanks so I could better enjoy the story. Tintin sucked me into a strange codependency, where I supplied his missing affect.

As an invested reader, I won’t allow Tintin his perpetually empty neutrality. That would make him uncanny, otherworldly, non-human. Instead, I look past his wonderment and flatter myself that I know him. But Tintin has nothing internal to know. He wears a mirror into which I gaze approvingly and interpret my own reflection.

The human brain is wired to interpret … something, anything. We crave meaning, which we invent by looking for patterns. Perhaps this yearning is the reason neutral surprise lasts such a brief spell. Our neediness doesn’t tolerate unasked, unanswered questions. The insatiable monkey mind of the brain insists on judgment. It cannot balance on a peak of pure, numinous wonder, but slides into emotionally charged reaction.

Tintin takes a sex holiday in Thailand.
The mirror of Tintin’s bland face can be anything to anybody, which makes him ripe for parody, some of it ugly and pornographic. Unhappy, damaged people (or post-modern, ironic hipsters) project onto Tintin as easily as does any other reader, which means that all is not going to be wholesome in Tintin-land. He may be blond, apple-cheeked and wide-eyed, accompanied by a spunky dog, but there is darkness in his holy fool act.

Paul Ekman has more to say about the “surprise” facial expression. Of all the emotions, it is the easiest to fake and the easiest to use for deception.
  • Surprise can be used to mask any other emotion. For example, if you are told of someone’s misfortune and are supposed to feel sad but really feel glad, you may mask with surprise. In fact, some people habitually react with apparent surprise to any piece of information to avoid showing their immediate emotional response... The clue that the surprise expression is a mask should be timing. It must be prolonged to succeed in concealing, but as we explained earlier, surprise is a brief emotion. If it is prolonged, it is likely to be false. (148)

The ever-ready expressor is the label Ekman gives to a person who chooses one safe facial expression and hides other emotions behind it. Ekman could be describing Tintin when he writes, “An ever-ready expressor might, for example, show a surprise face to good news, bad news, angry provocations, threats, etc. No matter what happens, surprise is his initial expression.” (156)

Herge, the comic artist, chose wisely when he masked Tintin with surprise. He masks himself as well. He becomes the neutral narrator, the invisible story-teller, the clever spinner of adventure tales for a universal audience. If he has an agenda it is masked along with Tintin’s emotions. If an unfortunate bit of agenda leaks through (like an anti-Semitic joke), it can be corrected (redrawn or excised) without major loss of face.

Herge dodged politics during a time when politics meant life or death. He maintained neutrality during the occupation of a brutal enemy. I want to say he stayed neutral beyond what is ethical. But I am a poor one to condemn Herge, having never faced such danger.

The hopeful among us can call it a tribute to human nature that Herge survived blacklistin
Lovis Corinth "At the Mirror"
g after World War II. Readers looked into the mirror of Tintin’s face and saw goodness rather than deceit. That means more people are wholesome and virtuous than are suspicious and evil-minded. Right?

Or ... perhaps it’s a tribute to human gullibility. Herge’s popular success could mean that too many people are naive dupes eager to grin at themselves in any mirror. After all, psychopaths lure victims this way. The con-artist acts the part of a charmed looking-glass, reflecting back to the mark his or her own earnestness and sincerity. Oh, dear. Perhaps Herge was just a comic con-artist.