Tintin at 80

Published: 9 January 2009

Eighty years ago roving boy reporter Tintin set off on his first adventure. Since then the comic strip legend and his loyal four-legged companion have been all over the world.

Eighty years ago roving boy reporter Tintin set off on his first adventure. Since then the comic strip legend and his loyal four-legged companion have been all over the world.

Throughout his travels, which have even included a trip to the moon, Tintin has gathered a huge following of fans.

In an article written for the BBC News Online magazine Dr Laurence Grove, senior lecturer and head of the French Section in the School of Modern Languages and Cultures, examines the continuing appeal of the character and whether Tintin can expand his traditionally European fan base across the Atlantic.

Tintin the Euro-Octogenarian

When, on the 10 January 1929, Tintin first appeared in the children's supplement of Brussels’ right-wing Vintième Siècle, the serialised adventure that was to follow could have had all the makings of a transatlantic hit. Tintin au Pays des Soviets was to portray a cruel and corrupt Communist regime, where factories were cardboard cut-outs and those who spoke out against the Party were dispensed with immediately. 

Unfortunately the boy-scout may have ruined his chances of becoming an all-American role model by belittling the natives in Tintin au Congo (1930 for the album) and then unveiling mafia strangleholds and cruelty to native Americans in Tintin en Amérique (1932). 

Nonetheless we Europeans have forgiven him his flirts with Nazi sympathies (e.g. L'Étoile mystérieuse, 1942), so how come, as Tintin approaches 80, like Johnny Halliday, but unlike Jacques Brel, he's a famous Belgian who has not yet managed to woo America?

There is no doubting that Tintin is a Euro-hit: he has featured on stamps, phonecards and a range of products from underpants to edibles, and is to be the main subject of a new museum opening in Louvain this year.  Tintin and Snowy

Although Hergé, his creator (real name Georges Rémi, 1907-1983), expressly forbad the series to continue after his death, related publications are a Rackham-like treasure-trove for Moulinsart, the organisation known for its draconian exploitation of Hergé's copyright estate.

By comparison, recent albums of Tintin's comic-strip colleague Astérix, a youngster turning 50 this year, have, in France, outsold Harry Potter and the Da Vinci Code put together, whereas the recent Times list of fifty best-sellers does not include a single graphic novel.  For the collector, the right edition of Tintin au Pays des Soviets can cost up to €15 000, thereby scuppering Pierre Bourdieu's notion that it is high culture that is linked to elitist monetary value.

Even in the British Isles, Tintin's following tends to be cult rather than mass hysteria.  Yet for many it is thanks to his trip to England and Scotland that he matured enough to reach eighty.

The 1938 album L'Île noire, the only one that Hergé re-formatted twice, takes inspiration from The Thirty-Nine Steps as our hero embarks on a high-speed car, train and plane chase, culminating in a loch-side castle.  For many it is in this album that refining his trademark thrill-a-minute adventure format, as well as allowing Hergé to perfect his clear-line style, one that emphasises primary colours and distinct divisions, soon to be a major influence upon Andy Warhol and the Pop Artists.  Arguably L'Île Noire is to Hergé what Macbeth is to Shakespeare.

Perhaps the English-speaking world has not, up to now at least, needed Tintin, as they can do it their own way. The formula of a serial newspaper strip that each week had a cliffhanger ending was one that the American Sunday supplements had successfully exploited from the turn of the century onwards.

Hergé in effect was doing little more than providing a European version of a US phenomenon. More recently, Tintin can be seen as quite simply the Hollywood James Bond, but without the girls: he travels to exotic locations — the Far East, the Moon, Scotland — mixing humour and gadgets as he battles the generic international baddy of the time.

James Bond, like Indiana Jones, is a superhero without specific superpowers.  And it is the idea of a Superman, or indeed a Wonderwoman, that has typically drawn North Americans into comics. 

In Britain a more self-effacing outlook has underlined the comic in comic, with heroes from the Beano or Topper traditionally making us laugh. The bandes dessinées that are the French-speaking world's equivalent have, however, been more ambiguous, a graphic creation — in France comic strips are known as the Ninth Art — on a par with New Wave cinema, one that raises questions those in search of a quiet chortle may not have wished to entertain

Euro-characters who do well in the States — James Bond, but also Hugh Grant and Gérard Depardieu — often play on national stereotypes and foible-laden sophistication. 

Hergé, however, went out of his way to deny Tintin any specific Belgicité, underlining rather his international features. Hercule Poirot he is not. He lives in a French chåteau, has no Belgian linguistic tics, and could not be imagined tucking into mussel, chips and chocolates. His friends and acquaintances evoke different aspects of Euroness, from the Thompson twin's bowler-hatted Englishness, Bianca Castafiore's hot-headed Italian traits, or Professor Calculus's Germanic scientific-ness. Even the names must have seemed entirely alien to an American audience.

Indeed Tintin's sophistication is of a very different kind: Le Bijoux de la Castafiore (1963), an album in which nothing happens, plays with notions of degré zero writing, Tintin au Tibet (1960) considers the evolving status of the post-colonial Other, and the posthumous Tintin et l'Alph-Art (1986), a book about artistic creation, is essentially a work of meta-fiction. It is easy to see how, from afar, Hergé, let alone Cuthbert Calculus, can be seen as indulging in traditional French-style philosophical beard-stroking.

Such intricacies may have worked against Tintin, with Steven Spielberg shelving his planned movie despite having gone to some lengths to obtain the rights in 1983. The project's shortcoming was apparently American puzzlement at Tintin. 

One rumour suggested there were problems with an adventure hero whose only love interest appeared to be a fox terrier, to the extent that at one stage making Tintin into a girl was not out of the question.  The situation may however be changing, as filming is finally to start on a Tintin trilogy, to be produced by Spielberg and Peter Jackson, apparently a mixture of animation and 'real-life' with extended 3-D effects.

Tintin certainly has evolved since the days of his politically incorrect misadventures, and so too has America.  Perhaps in the brave new world of Barack Obama there will be more room for this white European octogenarian.

See the article on BBC News online: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/7820247.stm

First published: 9 January 2009

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