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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.