“Billions of blue, blistering barnacles!”: When eroticism in the world of Tintin is parody

Return to News — Tuesday 22 June — 2021 by  Morgan Schaaf

When one thinks of Tintin, one thinks of the adventures of the world's most famous reporter and the comics of Tintin, Captain Haddock, Snowy, Thomson and Thompson or Castafiore -among others-, created by the Belgian Hergé in comics that have marked many generations.

However, thinking about Tintin does not mean thinking about love stories or rose-coloured novels, and much less about the sexuality of the characters. In fact, the world of Tintin stands out for the good fellowship of the characters -without any kind of attraction-, as well as the absence of female characters, due to the author's own will not to caricature the image of women.

This question has been precisely the subject of an interesting French judgment, handed down by the Tribunal Judiciaire de Rennes, in relation to an action for infringement of copyright and unfair competition brought by the company MOULINSART (the company responsible for the exploitation of Tintin´s rights) against the Breton artist Xavier Marabout, for his work Hergé-Hopper, in which he depicts the troubled sentimental life of the reporter in a universe of the famous American painter Hopper.

In this regard, the claim brought by Hergé’s legal successors is based on the unauthorised exploitation and reproduction of the Tintin universe -and in particular, its characters- in works created by the painter Xavier Marabout. For his part, the Breton painter defended himself on the grounds of the lack of originality of the Tintin characters and the parody exception, as well as denouncing the acts of denigration carried out by the company MOULINSART, following injunctions sent to several art galleries which resulted in the removal of the allegedly infringing works.

After recalling that the copyright protection conferred on Hergé's work extends to all the characters of the Tintin adventures on an independent basis, the French court focuses its analysis on the exception of parody, in the light of the schizophrenic specifications laid down by the Code de la Propriété intellectuelle. Thus, a large part of the Judgment lies in determining whether Marabout's work (i) allows immediate identification with Hergé's work, (ii) is sufficiently different from the original work, as well as determining whether (iii) there is a humorous or critical intention of the original work.

While Hergé's successors claimed that Xavier Marabout's paintings did not provoke laughter - or even a smile - Xavier Marabout argued that the parody of his work resulted from the confrontation of the character of Tintin with situations unknown in Hergé's work, such as his representation in scenes with sexual connotations together with women in the universe of the painter Hopper, generally austere and antagonistic to Hergé's "clear line" style.

In its judgment of 10 May 2021, the French court followed the painter's position, considering that Marabout's work allows easy identification of Hergé's parodied work - insofar as it reproduces his protagonists in a recognisable manner - while at the same time being different from the Hergés's work, since the support is changed (painting vs. comic) and the characters are placed in an atmosphere and situations contrary to those of Hergé, in such a way that the public cannot be confused as to the authorship of the work.

Furthermore, the Court considers that there is a clear humorous intention on the part of the painter, based on the juxtaposition of characters from the Tintin universe in an adult world, leading the public to imagine them in sentimental and sexual situations which provoke a certain humorous effect. This jocular effect is accentuated by the incongruity of these romantic images in an atmosphere derived from the French artist's interpretation of the austerity and sadness of the atmosphere of Edward Hopper's work.

Furthermore, the Court considers that there is also a certain critical aspect to Hergé's work, which may also give rise to the parody exception. In that regard, and without showing explicit sexual content, the Court considers that Marabout's work invites the public to consider whether Tintin has addictions, whether he may be sad and depressed, or even what his sexual orientation is, in clear contrast to the vision of Tintin as a hero and a character with a fast-paced life shown in Hergé's work.

For this reason, the court dismissed in its entirety the claim of Tintin's successors, ruling that the use of Hergé's work without the authorisation of the right holders was justified by the existence of the parody exception. Moreover, these proceedings have turned against the company MOULINSART, as it will have to compensate the Breton artist for a total of 30,000 euros for the losses suffered as a result of the acts of denigration carried out towards art galleries with regard to his work, in addition to the costs of the proceedings.

This judgement is not final, so to be precise, it seems that this procedure will continue....