Hergé started drawing his comics series The Adventures of Tintin in 1929 for Le Petit Vingtième, the children's section of the Belgian newspaper Le Vingtième Siècle, run by the abbot Norbert Wallez, an avid supporter of social Catholicism, a right-wing movement. During World War II, Tintin appeared in the Brussels daily pro-German Le Soir; after the war he appeared in his own magazine, Tintin (founded by a member of the Resistance, Raymond Leblanc) until Hergé's death in 1983.
As a young artist Hergé was influenced by his mentors, specifically the abbot Norbert Wallez, who encouraged Hergé to use Tintin as a tool for Catholic propaganda to influence Belgian children. This shows in his earlier works within the Tintin series. As a result, European right-wing stereotypes pervade Hergé's early catalogue. A breakthrough came in 1934, when the cartoonist was introduced to Zhang Chongren, a Chinese student, who explained Chinese politics, culture, language, art, and philosophy to him, which Hergé used to great effect in The Blue Lotus. From this point onward, the artist developed ideologically, amidst the collapse of his country and the Second World War, and so did the series, becoming more progressive and universalist — till the final album, when a certain cynicism can be detected.
Nonetheless, the anti-totalitarian theme of this first book would persist throughout the series.
Hergé wanted the second album to take place in the United States, which fascinated him. Wallez disagreed: he distrusted the USA, the country of protestantism, liberalism, of easy money, and of gangsters. Instead, he asked Hergé to draw an album about the Belgian Congo: the colony needed white workers at the time.
Tintin in the Congo reflected the dominant colonialist ideology at that time. As put by Hergé in a later interview, "This was in 1930. All I knew about the Congo was what people were saying about it at the time: 'The Negroes are big children, it's fortunate for them that we're there, etc'".
Later, for the 1946 color edition of the album, Hergé toned down or removed some of the worst excesses: for instance, the Belgian history class given by Tintin to black students was changed into a mathematics class.
The paternalistic description of the indigenous people of Belgian Congo was more naiive than racist, and Hergé developed an important theme of Tintin in this album: international trafficking.
Even more striking is the fifth album, The Blue Lotus (1934-1935), set in China. For this story Hergé was put in touch with Zhang Chongren, a Chinese student then studying in Brussels, whose name may have been the basis for the name of character Chang Chong-Chen. Hergé was very concerned to portray the country accurately, and the adventure can be read as anti-imperialist. It criticizes Japanese and Western involvement in China, including the international concessions and the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, and shows with great disapproval Westerners making racist or ignorant remarks about the Chinese. The Japanese themselves are portrayed with little sympathy; most of those shown are soldiers or government agents involved in the invasion of Manchuria.
The Broken Ear (1935-1936) is set mainly in the fictional South American republic of San Theodoros and takes a critical view of western businessmen conspiring to provoke a war over what they think will be profitable oil fields. They go about this using bribery, corruption, and the sale of arms to both sides. It then simply requires a border confrontation to be blown out of proportion in order to begin the conflict, much like the Mukden Incident shown in The Blue Lotus. The war over the Grand Chapo oil plains was based on the Chaco War of the early 1930s. It also depicted the Shuar indigenous people, famous for their tsantsas ("shrunken heads"), according to the classic barbarian stereotype.
At first glance, The Black Island (1937-1938) is a simple thriller with Tintin in pursuit of money forgers, with the chase to Scotland giving it a feel of Alfred Hitchcock's recent movie version of The Thirty-Nine Steps.
Despite the fact that Hergé was in favor of the neutrality of Belgium, King Ottokar's Sceptre (1938-1939) was obviously anti-Nazi: Musstler (a possible contraction of MUSSolini and hiTLER) is the leader of a conspiracy that seeks to merge the kingdom of Syldavia with its old enemy Borduria. The story is directly based on the Anschluss in Austria in 1938.
The early and unfinished version of Land of Black Gold (1939-1940) alluded to the mobilization of Nazi war power. This unfinished adventure is set in the British Mandate of Palestine with British soldiers and officials. The beginning of the war and the defeat of Belgium prevented Hergé from finishing this version, though it did come out in 1950. He later rewrote it, setting the action in the fictional Arab Kingdom of Khemed and replacing the conflict between Arabs and Jews by a civil conflict between two Arab factions.
During the war, Hergé worked for Le Soir, a newspaper which collaborated with the German occupiers. To avoid controversy during the Nazi occupation of Belgium, Tintin's adventures now focused mainly on non-political issues such as drug smuggling (The Crab with the Golden Claws), intrigue and treasure hunts (The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham's Treasure), and a mysterious curse (The Seven Crystal Balls).
Somewhat controversial though was The Shooting Star, which was about a race between two crews trying to reach a meteorite which had landed in the Arctic. Hergé chose the subject to be as fantastic as possible, to avoid trouble from the censors. Nonetheless politics intruded in that the crew Tintin joined was composed of Europeans from Axis or neutral countries, while their underhanded rivals were Americans. Tintin also flies in a German plane in the album (an Arado Ar 196).
In a scene which appeared when the story was being serialised in Le Soir, two Jews are shown watching Philippulus the Prophet harassing Tintin. They actually look forward to the end of the world, on grounds that it means that they would not be obliged to settle with their creditors.
Most damaging of all for Hergé was that these stories were published in Le Soir, a collaborationist newspaper. After the war he and other members of its staff faced lengthy investigations into their wartime allegiances. Hergé expressed his regrets in an 1973 interview: "I recognize that I myself believed that the future of the West could depend on the New Order. For many, democracy had proved a disappointment, and the New Order brought new hope. In light of everything which has happened, it is of course a huge error to have believed for an instant in the New Order".
Hergé was however criticized for his depiction of the black victims in The Red Sea Sharks; in the first edition they speak pidgin French and seem rather simple-minded. He rewrote their dialogue in later editions.
The last controversial album is Tintin and the Picaros, which has been seen both as left-wing and right-wing. In it, Tintin goes through profound changes. For the first time, Tintin seems to be flesh and blood, and perhaps even has weaknesses; for instance, he is at first uncharacteristically unwilling to travel to San Theodoros, where his friends have been accused of war crime based on false charges. At the end he intervenes dramatically through revolution. But there are no good guys and bad guys in the political background here: Gen. Alcazar is financed by an international conglomerate and his rival Gen. Tapioca by the para-Stalinists of Borduria. In the very last panel of his very last finished album, Hergé shows police patrolling the slums, wherein the inhabitants are no better off and no worse than before the coup d'etat, indicating that all that has changed are the uniforms and the names on political placards.
Hergé himself denied being a misogynist, saying that "for me, women have nothing to do in a world like Tintin's, which is the realm of male friendship...".
Other reasons were because he believed that sentimentality had little to do in Tintin's stories, which are mainly about men getting into all sorts of "misadventures rather than adventures", and wherein "mocking women would not be nice". He also felt that a man slipping on a banana skin, providing he does not break a leg, is much funnier than if it happened to a woman. As a lady interviewer put it, "It has nothing to do with the misogynist world of the boy scout" , referring to the fact that Hergé was a scout in his youth.
Before the war, there were some instances of sinister Jewish-looking figures in Tintin's adventures. In The Broken Ear (1935-7), Tintin interrogates a shopkeeper who is selling copies of the fetish he is looking for; the man wears a kippah, speaks in broken French, has a sinister expression on his face and rubs his hands with "invisible soap". However, readers must note that this man is selling the copies at a considerably lower price than that of a previous shop encountered by Tintin. In The Black Island (1937-8), gang leader Wronzoff (Puschov in the English version) wears a huge beard, implying that he is a Jew; he is, however, only one of a variety of criminals including a White Russian and a German. As the war began, the first version of Land of Black Gold (1939-40) was being published. This version was set in the British Mandate of Palestine and featured Jewish terrorists led by a Rabbi.
The most serious instance of anti-Semitism, however, featured in The Shooting Star (1941), which appeared during the German occupation. In a scene that appeared in Le Soir on 11 November 1941, two evil-looking Jewish men, Isaac and Salomon, watch Philippulus the Prophet inform Tintin that the end of the world is nigh. One of them, in broken French, looks forward to this as it means that he will not be obliged to pay off his creditors. In addition, the sponsor of the rival expedition sent to find the meteorite is called Blumenstein, is given the appearance of a stereotypical Jewish businessman and uses underhand and potentially lethal methods to delay Tintin's ship. His bank is located in New York and his crew attempts to plant the American flag on the meteorite.
After the war and the exposure of the Holocaust, Jewish people became noticeably absent from Tintin's adventures. The Black Island and Land of Black Gold were redrawn at the request of Hergé's British publishers who felt that they were out-of-date, especially the latter now that the state of Israel had been established. Wronzoff the crook remained unchanged, but the terrorists in the Middle East were replaced by Arabs. The scene with Isaac and Salomon was left out of the album editions of The Shooting Star, while "Blumenstein" was renamed "Bohlwinkel" and relocated to the fictional country of São Rico. According to Hergé, both the original and the later name were honest mistakes; he thought Blumenstein was a common American name, and chose Bohlwinkel because it sounded like "bollewinkel", candy store.
In his later work, Hergé showed more sympathy for oppressed minorities, such as the black African converts to Islam about to be traded as slaves by a fellow Muslim in The Red Sea Sharks and the gypsies of The Castafiore Emerald falsely accused of theft.
These attacks started as early as Tintin in America following the discovery of oil on land occupied by Blackfoot tribespeople. Tintin is then surrounded by businessmen offering him tens of thousands of dollars for the rights to the oil. When Tintin announces that it belongs to the local native Americans, the chief of the tribe is, in comparison, given a mere $25 and half-an-hour to vacate the premises. An hour later the Indians are forced away by soldiers armed with rifles and bayonets; by the next day a whole city has been built on the site. A factory that Tintin later visits produces tinned "rabbit" meat out of stray cats, dogs, and rats.
Oil also came into play in The Broken Ear. Western businesses like General American Oil and British-South American Petrol get the states of San Theodoros and Nuevo Rico to go to war over territory which turns out not to have oil after all. This part of the story was inspired by the real-life Chaco War of 1932-35. One of the businessmen, Trickler, uses bribery, corruption, and false evidence in order to get his way. Arms dealer Basil Bazarov, who sells weapons to both sides, is based on the real-life Basil Zaharoff.
Big business was also shown as a cover for illegal activities: Rastapopoulos for example is a respected businessman who mixes with people in high places, but is also the leader of major smuggling operations: opium in The Blue Lotus and slaves in The Red Sea Sharks. In The Blue Lotus is Mitsuhirato, a Japanese man who owns a fashion shop and an opium den, which cover his activities as a drug smuggler and saboteur. Rastapopoulos and Mitsuhirato have an Arabic counterpart in Omar Ben Salaad of The Crab with the Golden Claws.
The sponsor of the rival expedition in The Shooting Star is the head of a major banking organisation, who uses unethical methods to delay the progress of Tintin and Haddock's ship. These include sabotage with dynamite and fake distress messages. Controversially, in his original version, Hergé gave the man a Jewish-sounding name and had him based in New York. These were changed in later editions.
Following the war, Herge's attacks on big business was suspended as he focused more on espionnage (the Moon adventures and The Calculus Affair); but it returned with a vengeance in The Red Sea Sharks. In this story Rastapopoulos becomes the Marquis di Gorgonzola, a media baron, airline owner, and arms dealer, who entertains influential people on board his luxury yacht. This serves as the cover of his business as a slave trader. When Emir Ben Kalish Ezab threatens to expose this for personal reasons, Rastapopoulos engineers his overthrow in favour of the Emir's enemy Sheikh Bab El Ehr.
Tintin had the knack of meeting businessmen who would be friendly at first, but turned out to be far from ethical and could also be villains. Rastapopoulos and Mitsuhirato were two such examples; but there was also Laszlo Carreidas of Flight 714. At first shown as a friendly if eccentric person, Carreidas was revealed to be a cunning individual with a long history of unscrupulous behaviour not limited to the business world. A large part of his personal fortune was in a Swiss bank account under a false name and signature, presumably for taxation-related purposes.
Hergé's attack on big business and its interference in national politics went all the way to the final completed story, Tintin and the Picaros. In this adventure, guerrilla leader General Alcazar had the support of the International Banana Company. Hergé's notes also reveal that Alcazar's wife was on the board of a company that kept him supplied with arms; a fact that may explain his marriage. To counter the rebels, Alcazar's enemy Tapioca struck a deal with Loch Lomond whisky and parachuted large amounts of their brand into the jungle, making the rebels too drunk to stage a coup. Loch Lomond also sponsored the local carnival.