Sunday, January 11, 2009

Happy Birthday, Tintin

Tintin is celebrating his 80th birthday. On January 10, 1929, the first episode of his adventures appeared in the Catholic Brussels weekly, Le Vingtieme Siecle as Tintin headed off the Russia. His creator, Herge (Georges Remi), wrote 24 books featuring his intrepid reporter, which have since been translated into more than 50 languages and sold over 200 million copies.

The books and their author have been accused of many things over the years: anti-Communism and anti-Semitism charges have been levelled at Remi for decades; charges of racism made headline news in 2007 following the publication of Tintin in the Congo in the UK (in 2005), propelling the book to bestseller-dom; and a lighthearted look at Tintin's sexuality by Matthew Parris was picked up by the tabloids and the story touted as some kind of international incident.

The following article appeared five years ago when Tintin was celebrating his 75th anniversary. Five years on there's not much that needs changing: the Tintin movie is still mooted, but has suffered one or setbacks in recent months because DreamWorks has had problems getting the finances together. Things now seem to be back on track with the recent announcement that Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are to play the characters Thomson and Thompson, with Andy Serkis previously announced to play Captain Haddock. The original choice to play Tintin, a young actor named Thomas Sangster who had previously appeared in Love Actually, has subsequently dropped out.

This is five years old, so add five years to everything.

Seventy-five years young

He may not have filed a story for 25 years, but the intrepid Belgian reporter Tintin is still one of the most famous journalists in the world. Recently Tintin celebrated his 75th birthday and stole the headlines of almost every newspaper in Western Europe. In his native Belgium, the newspaper La Libre’s front page was dominated by the headline “From zero to 75”. Two other papers went one step further and illustrated every story with a cartoon from one of other of Tintin’s dozens of hair-raising escapades. In France, Le Figaro, published a special 114-page pullout with 250 illustrations and the image of the quiff-haired reporter was celebrated on a silver 10 Euro coin created at the Belgian Royal Mint.

The popularity of Tintin never seems to fade. Already translated into some 60 languages and with sales of 200 million, the 23 ‘Adventures of Tintin’ books continue to sell 2 million copies a year around the world twenty years after the death of their creator, Hergé. Tintin remains the centrepiece of the Belgian comic strip museum, the Centre Belge de la Bande Dessine and exhibitions dedicated to the character can be found everywhere, from Japan to London. For the next six months you will be able to visit “The Adventures of Tintin at Sea” exhibition at Britain’s National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, a retrospective look at Tintin’s nautical adventures which has already had a hugely successful run in Paris. A similarly themed exhibition is being held in Barcelona under the more colourful title “Llamp de Rellamp” – the Catalan equivalent of Captain Haddock’s explosive curse “Blistering barnacles!”

The appeal of the stories is not hard to pin down. Although Tintin himself still wears the same pair of baggy golf pants he donned in 1929 and his early adventures with Prohibition-era gangsters is from a distant age most children have never learned about, the clean line artwork, the slapstick comedy and frenetic action can be understood in any language. The look of Tintin is as iconic as Mickey Mouse but, better still, the boy has character! Intrepid, resourceful and brave, Tintin is still the kind of boy we would all want to be. Although he was only in his mid-teens, Tintin was already a “courageous reporter” from the moment he stepped onto the page. Having a youngster so experienced was no great leap for the comic strips original audience back in the days when children left school at fourteen. The attraction was not so much his youth but his independence. Only once did we see Tintin ever actually do any reporting. For the rest of his career he seemed to be completely independent of any ties – no parents, no money worries, no boss complaining about him running up expenses gallivanting around the world by plane, train and automobile. Although Hergé made Tintin a global traveller simply to set his stories an exotic locations, the passing years have meant that children are now trapped in school for more years than ever and the idea of Tintin’s freedom to come and go as he pleases is more appealing than ever.

Tintin was also largely responsible for the success of the comics industry in Europe. The idea of collecting comic strips into albums was a new one in 1930 but Tintin’s first storyline proved such an immediate success that Hergé’s publishers quickly reprinted the series in book form. The books proved so popular that Hergé signed a deal with one of Belgium’s top publishers, Casterman, in 1932. This gave the books a much wider distribution and the third book was also promptly reprinted in France, where Tintin’s adventures were also appearing in the pages of Coeurs Vaillants. The strip was already well on its way to making Tintin, and his creator Hergé, a global success.

Hergé was the pen-name adopted by Georges Rémi. For the majority of older fans, the first time we heard anyone pronounce the name Hergé was the opening credits of the cartoon series where the actor loudly intoned “Her-jay’s adventures of Tin-tin” The author’s name was actually pronounced “Air-shay” which the cleverer French students might have realised was a phonetic version of Rémi’s initials reversed, R.G.

Rémi had been born in Etterbeek, a suburb of Brussels, on May 22, 1907, and later recalled that he took to art at a very early age because his parents would give him a pencil and paper to keep him out of mischief. He was educated at the Institure Saint-Boniface where he joined the Catholic Scouting Federation. Eventually he became the leader of the Squirrel Troop and was known as ‘Curious Fox’. Scouting took young Rémi to Spain, Australia, Switzerland and Italy and gave him his first taste for adventure. He also developed a deep interest in the culture of the American Indians.

His first published artistic endeavours were for the school magazine for which he drew illustrations, including a travelogue of the school trip to Tyrol in 1922. In 1923, René Weverbergh of the Belgian national scouting magazine Le Boy-Scout, invited Rémi to contribute some illustrations and after a while Rémi adopted the name Hergé. On the recommendation of Weverbergh, Hergé was hired by the Catholic newspaper Le Vingtième Siècle (The Twentieth Century), edited by an entrepreneurial and enthusiastic priest, Abbott Norbert Wallez. At first he worked in the subscription department, but his career was interrupted by military service. Even in the army, Hergé continued to draw for Le Boy-Scout Belge (The Belgian Boy Scout as it was now called) and created the character of Totor, a brave scout leader of the Beetle Troop, very much an early version of Tintin. Hergé was influenced in his drawing style by the work of Alain Saint-Ogan, whose ‘Zig et Puce’ had recently begun in the French newspaper Le Dimanche Illustré, and by American newspaper artists whose work he saw thanks to Léon Degrelle, the American correspondent of Le Vingtième Siècle.

In 1928, Norbert Wallez asked Hergé to edit a weekly children’s supplement, Le Petit Vingtième, fashioned after the comic supplements in American newspapers. Hergé drew ‘Les Aventures de Flup, Nenesse, Poussette et Cochonnet’ in the early issues, but with issue 11 (January 23, 1929) he began writing and drawing a new strip about a young cub reporter who works for Le Petit Vingtième and his fox terrier Milou (Snowy) who are sent to the Soviet Union to report on conditions.

“Tintin au pays des Soviets” was a little crude as Hergé was still learning his craft but his talents for storytelling developed very quickly. By the time the story ended, Tintin and Snowy had become the characters that we would recognise today, even despite the black patch that Snowy sported over one eye. The story is somewhat clichéd: as Tintin tries to make his way to Moscow, the GPU try to stop him in a variety of ways. As he travels he discovers the horrors of Bolshevism and the sad and hungry lives of Soviet citizens. After escaping the Red Army, he stumbles across the secret entrance to a hidden vault where he finds the treasures of Russia, looted by Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin before returning to a heroes welcome in Belgium.

As a publicity stunt, Hergé ended the story in May 1930 with the announcement that the young reporter would be returning to Brussels by train. A young boy was dressed up to look like Tintin and, alongside Hergé, he emerged at the railway station to be greeted by a thousand screaming fans.

Tintin was immediately launched into a second adventure which took him to the Congo and perhaps the low point of the whole series. The book was little more than propaganda for Missionary work of the kind extolled in the pages of Le Vingtième Siècle, with Africans depicted as child-like and in desperate need of the White Man’s leadership. Tintin teaches a class of children that Belgium is their motherland and, by the end of the story, the heathens are worshipping Tintin idols.

These first two stories were not reprinted for many years after their initial publication in book form and it was with the third book, serialised in Le Petit Vingtième in 1931-32, that Tintin really began his adventures. Tintin’s arrival in crime infested Chicago seemed to inspire Hergé. The story itself was rambling as Tintin battles Al Capone, then Bobby Sands, then a syndicate of other gangsters with a lynching and Indians thrown in for good measure. The artwork was a leap forward and the quality of the writing vastly improved, poking a great deal of fun at go-get-‘em businessmen. In one scene, Tintin discovers oil on an Blackfoot Indian reservation and within seconds is offered $100,000. When he reveals that he doesn’t own the land, the Blackfoot chief is offered $25, his tribe marched off their land at gunpoint and a whole city built around the site within 24 hours. Elsewhere, a small bank is robbed and one of the bank clerks explains to the police “I raised the alarm and we hanged a few fellers right away… but the thief got clear.”

It was with “Les Cigares du Pharaon” (Cigars of the Pharaoh) that the Tintin series really got underway and the first of Tintin’s regular cast of characters was introduced. Agents X33 and X33b, a.k.a. Dupont and Dupond but better known to English-speaking fans as Thompson and Thomson. Thomson has the upward curl to the corners of his moustache whilst his almost twin Thompson (“with a p, as in psychology”) has the smoother moustache and is always getting his words tangled (“To be precise, dumb’s the word. That’s our motto”).

The book was at heart a mystery which starts with the search for the lost tomb of the Pharaoh Kih-Oskh. Inside the tomb, Tintin finds a box of cigars, is gassed and thrown into the Red Sea, has a run in with gun-runners, and eventually unmasks a fakir and the leader of an opium-smuggling ring. The mysterious leader falls into a chasm to his death.

Or did he? British fans presumed so because twelve years separated the translations of Cigars of the Pharaoh (1971) and The Blue Lotus (1983). The latter had originally appeared in 1934-35 and with it Hergé had taken another important step forward. Knowing that it was to be set in China, Hergé was contacted by Father Gosset, who was chaplain to the Chinese students at the University of Louvain and introduced to Tchang Tchong-Jen, a student at the Fine Arts Academy of Brussels. Tchang not only helped Hergé with his research but also drew the Chinese ideograms that appeared in the comic strip. In the story, Tintin continues on the opium trail and is kidnapped in Shanghai by the Sons of the Dragon, meets a young orphan boy named Tchang, and eventually thwarts the activities of the nasty Japanese agent Mitsuhirato and a corrupt Chief of Police at the International Settlement. In the end, Mitsuhirato reveals the name of the leader of the Kihj-Oskh conspiracy to be Rastapopoulos, a criminal mastermind who would pop up in later Tintin books.

The pro-Chinese elements of the latest books caused a diplomatic protest to be lodged by the Japanese Consul in Brussels and Hergé was asked by the new editor of Le Vingtième Siècle to change the storyline. Hergé refused.

Tintin and the Broken Ear, The Black Island and King Ottokar’s Sceptre were each serialised in Le Petit Vingtième between 1935-39 and Hergé was 58 pages into a new story, The Land of Black Gold, when Belgium was overrun by the Germans. Called up for duty with the Belgian army, Hergé had been released in April 1940 on health grounds, but the invasion in May brought an end to Le Petit Vingtième and Hergé found work with the evening newspaper Le Soir. His arrival prompted the publication of a children’s section, Le Soir Jeunesse, and in October 1940, Tintin returned in a new adventure, The Crab with the Golden Claws. A paper shortage meant that the strip was reduced to half a page by May 1941 and Le Soir Jeunesse itself folded in September. Tintin was moved to the parent paper as a daily strip and continued to appear in these reduced circumstances until 1944, during which time Hergé wrote The Shooting Star, The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham’s Treasure.

Whilst working on The Seven Crystal Balls, Belgium was liberated and Hergé was forced to stop work.

During the occupation, the Nazis had banned Tintin en Amérique as well as L’Île Noire (The Black Island) because of their settings (America and England respectively) and Hergé had been questioned by the Gestapo about the activities of his brother, a lieutenant in the Belgian army and a member of the resistance. Now, in September 1944, Brussels was occupied by the Allies and the entire staff of Le Soir were fired and investigated as possible collaborators. Hergé was arrested and questioned several times but never charged.

The war years were not easy for Hergé’s publishers. In 1942, Casterman were also suffering from the paper shortage and asked the artist to reformat his work so that the books could be reduced to 62 pages. The first title, L’Étoile Mysterioeuse was perhaps the cause of Hergé’s later problems. Not only had he been working as a journalist under the Nazi occupiers but the strip, later translated as The Shooting Star, was said to show a distinctly anti-American, anti-Semitic stance. Catholic and conservative, Hergé had already poked fun at the Americans previously, especially in Tintin in America, but had also attacked the communists, the fascists and the Japanese to which list you might also add that all scientists were barmy, most officials were corrupt, virtually every law enforcement officer was an idiot and all sailors were drunks. When it came to insults, Hergé certainly did not limit himself to one race or creed.

In 1944, Hergé entrusted the reformatting of his strips to Edgar P. Jacobs and was even considering giving up Tintin. Salvation came in the shape of publisher Raymond Leblanc who proposed the launching of a new weekly children’s magazine to be called Le Journal de Tintin. This was launched in September 1946. The interrupted serie Les Sept Boules de Cristal was revamped and published in full from issue one as Le Temple du Soleil, later issued as two books.

Despite all the problems that Hergé faced, the stories from this period were among the best of the Tintin adventures, especially once they had been condensed into the reprint format requested by Casterman which tightened the plots and helped the artwork shine thanks to the use of colour. The Crab with the Golden Claws had introduced Captain Haddock to the Tintin saga, a pathetic, drunken ship’s captain so stupefied by his addiction that he has no idea his vessel is being used to smuggle opium. As the story unfolds, Haddock’s actions under the influence almost get Tintin killed on a number of occasions but he redeems himself by the end of the story. In The Shooting Star, it is revealed that Haddock is the Honorary President of the Society of Sober Sailors, but drink is rarely far from his thoughts.

Haddock is probably best remembered for the stream of invective that he produces at the drop of a hat when he feels wronged. Over 220 words and phrases were turned into insults, over 60 in his first appearance alone, although “Blistering barnacles” is the favoured phrase he gave to the world.

Professor Calculus (originally Tryphon Tournesol), the deaf, forgetful but brilliant inventor, was introduced in Red Rackham’s Treasure. Calculus uses the proceeds from the patent of a submarine to buy Marlinspike Hall, Haddock’s ancestral home, and sets up a laboratory there. Calculus is at the centre of many of the later adventures—his moon rocket takes Tintin and Haddock to the moon (Destination Moon, Explorers on the Moon), he is kidnapped and taken to Peru (The Seven Crystal Balls, Prisoners of the Sun) and his creation of a sonic weapon sparks off The Calculus Affair.

Bianca Castafiore, an oversized Milanese Nightingale, had appeared even earlier, albeit briefly, in King Ottokar’s Sceptre and seemed to pop up in every country that Tintin visited after that—she was even aboard the boat that rescued Tintin and Haddock when they were lost on a raft in the Red Sea (The Red Sea Sharks).

Villains reappear throughout the stories: criminal mastermind Rastopopoulos, Haddock’s former ship-mate Captain Allan, General Alcazar and former Shanghai Chief of Police Dawson… all added to the sense that the Tintin stories all took place in the same universe, one that was slightly divorced from our own because the time frame was condensed. Tintin’s adventures stretched from 1920s America, skipping over World War Two, to 1960s revolutionary South America (Tintin and the Picaros) without Tintin aging a day.

Sadly, the stories had to come to an end. Only two new Tintin books appeared in the 1960s and one in the 1970s. Georges Rémi was slowly working on a new story, Tintin et L’Alph-Art (Tintin and Alph-Art), when he died on February 25, 1983. The rough layouts and pages of script notes were eventually published in 1986, Rémi’s widow having decided not to have another artist complete the book.

Of course, that was far from the end of Tintin: before he died, Rémi had seen Tintin translated into puppet television (way back in 1947), as animation (on Belgian TV, 1956-57), and in four full-length animated movies (Tintin and the Mystery of the Golden Fleece, 1961; Tintin and the Blue Oranges, 1964; Tintin and the Temple of the Sun, 1969; and Tintin and the Lake of Sharks, 1972). A superb run of 45 minute animated movies was produced in 1991 which brought 21 of the 23 books to life. Tintin has appeared on radio, on stage, and will one day appear on the big screen again. Steven Spielberg discussed a live action movie with Rémi shortly before his death and although negotiations are still underway at the time of writing the latest word is that it may be three movies based on some of the two-part or similarly themed albums (The Seven Crystal Balls + Prisoners of the Sun, The Secret of the Unicorn + Red Rackham’s Treasure and The Blue Lotus + Tintin in Tibet).

At seventy-five, Tintin still has a lot of life left in him.

(And I was proved right!)

(* The pic. at the top of the column is Tintin's first appearance in the UK was in August 1951 when Eagle began reprinting the story "King Ottokar's Sceptre"; the strip ran until May 1952 before giving up the centre pages to a home-grown strip, "Luck of the Legion".)


  1. HI,

    Nice post, but just to let you know that the Tintin at Sea exhibition at the National Maritime Museum was in 2004, so if you went today you wouldn't be able to see it. The information on the exhibition can be found here:

  2. That strip at the top of your (excellent) post is from King Ottokar's Sceptre rather than The Crab With The Golden Claws, isn't it?

  3. Garen (and others who wrote directly),

    Yep, my mistake. That'll teach me to trust my memory rather than digging out the books!

  4. hey what else do you know about this eagle press is it still available in the market???



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