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Would Tintin appeal to American taste?

May 18, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 33 • By MICHAEL TAUBE
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The Adventures of Tintin

Collector's Gift Set

by Hergé

Little, Brown, $150

On January 10, 1929, Belgium's Le Petit Vingtième, a weekly children's newspaper supplement to Le Vingtième Siècle, introduced the world to a new cartoon hero, Tintin.

Tintin was created by the supplement's talented editor in chief, Georges Prosper Remi, better known by his pen name, Hergé. His protagonist was depicted as an intrepid young reporter with a love for adventure, mystery, and intrigue. Tintin's constant companion was his faithful dog, Snowy, and he was later joined by a memorable cast of characters: the crusty sea dog Captain Archibald Haddock, brilliant eccentric Professor Cuthbert Calculus, and the mirror-image (albeit unrelated) detectives Thomson and Thompson.

Tintin turns 80 this year--and still doesn't look a day over 17. Hergé died in 1983 but left behind 24 Tintin books--which have sold over 230 million copies in more than 80 languages. There have been animated films, live-action features, documentaries, biographies, and BBC Radio dramatizations--not to mention Frederic Tuten's superb novel, Tintin in the New World. And a new movie, The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn, coproduced by Steven Spielberg, is slated to be released in 2011.

Now, at last, a collector's edition can be added to the list. Little, Brown has unveiled an attractive, eight-volume set of hardcover books--rather than the traditional, oversized softcover comic strip albums--that could easily be displayed in a personal library. Sadly, it cannot truly be called a definitive collection. Three Tintin books aren't included: Tintin in the Land of the Soviets (the first tale), Tintin in the Congo (the second tale, which was removed from the gift set by pressure because of its less than salient depiction of Africans), and Tintin and Alph-Art (Hergé's last and unfinished work).

Yet the remaining 21 stories, plus a detailed stand-alone volume by the famed British Tintinologist Michael Farr, entitled Tintin & Co., are a joy to read.

For some Americans, this may be their first exposure to Tintin. At least, that's what the Economist noted recently. But probity cannot explain why Tintin became a cultural landmark in Europe, as important on his side of the Atlantic as Superman on the other. For, despite his qualities, Tintin has never been a big hit in the Anglo-Saxon world.

In Britain, he is reasonably well known, but as a minority taste, bound within narrow striations of class: His albums are bought to be tucked into boarding school trunks or read after Saturday morning violin lessons. In America, Tintin is barely known, which is unfortunate, since Hergé's third book was Tintin in America.

Now to be fair, Tintin was a fixture in parts of the Anglo-Saxon world. I live in Canada, I first read the comic strip in my public library, and I played the piano. Even so, Tintin's massive European popularity has, like The Adventures of Asterix, Rupert Bear, Beano, and Oor Wullie, still not made its way across the pond. Maybe that's not a bad thing; if nothing else, American readers will be able to start fresh and ignore off-the-wall rumors about the strip, such as Tintin being gay.

Matthew Parris, a homosexual and columnist (and former British Tory MP) for the Times, seems to think so, anyway. In a recent column he produced some pseudo-evidence for the prosecution:

A callow, androgynous blonde-quiffed youth in funny trousers and a scarf moving into the country mansion of his best friend, a middle-aged sailor? A sweet-faced lad devoted to a fluffy white toy terrier, whose other closest pals are an inseparable couple of detectives in bowler hats, and whose only serious female friend is an opera diva. .  .  . And you're telling me Tintin isn't gay?

And if you are wondering why Tintin has barely aged, Parris chalks that up to the fact he was "probably moisturizing."

But seriously, it's hard not to become completely enthralled when reading Tintin's fast-paced adventures. The storylines are intriguing, and Hergé's artwork is stunning: It's among some of the finest ever produced for children's animation. The panels are full of bright colors, highly detailed landscapes, and majestic buildings, which allows the strip to take on a unique, lifelike quality.

One notable example is an extended scene in The Broken Ear in which Tintin saves Snowy from a watery grave. Hergé's artistic talents come face-to-face with the fierce reality of the fictional Arumbaya River in South America--and the final product is a stunning image that harks back to classic comic strips like Little Nemo in Slumberland or The Yellow Kid.

Meanwhile, the memorable cast of characters continually plays off Tintin's heroic energy in a near symphonic manner. Farr accurately portrays Captain Haddock as "the exact opposite of Tintin: weak where Tintin was resolute, unreliable instead of dependable, choleric rather than calm." Meanwhile, Professor Calculus fills the role of "an eccentric, absent-minded professor type," complete with regular bouts of deafness and the heart of a hopeless romantic. Even Snowy is recognized as being more than a mere dog, but rather a "canine hero capable of seizing the initiative" to help Tintin survive the twists and turns he always seems to face.

There's also a similar formula in Tintin which was employed in classic Warner Brothers cartoons: The final product was made for children, but with adults in mind. This is especially true in terms of the link between Tintin's adventures and actual historical events. Students of history will appreciate the surprising bits of reality that Hergé regularly tossed in. For instance, Tintin in America led the intrepid reporter to an encounter with Al Capone. Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon enabled Tintin to beat Neil Armstrong by 15 years in the race for space. Even Tintin in Tibet contains references to political and social themes that can still be seen in print today.

The most profound influence on Hergé's work, however, was his friendship in Brussels with fellow art student Chang Chong-chen. He would be the inspiration for Tintin's friend Chang, a popular character in The Blue Lotus and Cigars of the Pharaoh. Farr notes that the friendship created a mutual period of discovery for both men: "Just as Chang remained a Westernized Chinese artist from his Brussels student days, so Hergé was profoundly orientalized by their encounter and drawn to Chinese philosophy and ideas."

Finally, a light political undercurrent in some books should please conservatives and libertarians. As noted by Harry Thompson in Tintin: Hergé and His Creation (1991), "Hergé's own beliefs leaned to the right," but "only in that it seemed more logical and functional to him to improve existing conditions by making them succeed on their own terms."

Tintin perfectly fits this bill: He constantly desires to right a perceived wrong, to help his friends at all costs, and to shift the equilibrium back to its natural order. If a treasure is stolen, a mystery is unsolved, or a criminal is on the loose, Tintin and his friends will be there to fix the problem, improve the situation, and ultimately win the day.

Tintin is one of the giants of European comics. Few comic strips have ever had its brilliant style, wit, personalities, and artistic merits. If The Adventures of Tintin can become the next big thing in America--held in the same breath as Superman, Bugs Bunny, and the whole Peanuts gang--there may be no stopping this juggernaut.

Michael Taube is a political commentator and former speechwriter for Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper.