I don't have kids but I know why people have them: to conduct social engineering experiments on them. I've conducted my own behavioural experiments on other people's children. But to come to empirically arrived conclusions, one needs a 24-hour sub-adult human to tinker with.
So when I heard that Steven Spielberg's cinematic take on Tintin has been released in town, I was desperate to steal a six-year-old, take him or her to the cinema and make copious notes in between asking him or her pertinent questions. After all, Tintin, unlike say, Harry Potter, has been an elemental hand-me-down for a long time now. I was keen to know what a kid of today would make of something I grew up with and loved.
Parents not only re-live their own childhoods when they pick up spanking new (and horribly expensive) copies of Tintin comic books, but they also expect their kids to react in the same way they had years ago. Essentially, they look for signs of themselves in their children through agents like Tintin.
Having no kid — not even on a short lease this week — I decided to do the second best thing: remember my early reactions to Tintin. I remembered my first meeting with him when I was five and came across The Shooting Star, first published 34 years earlier, in a library where my mother had plonked me while she went off to shop. I also remember that the first Tintin I owned was a copy of The Land of Black Gold bought by my grandmother a couple of years later (I'm still fascinated by overflowing beards). But apart from these two 'memories', I drew a blank.
One of the reasons for me not having any personalised 'I came rushing back from school to encounter the ultrasonic transmitter weapon in The Calculus Affair for the first time' kind of moments is that Tintin comics — unlike, say, Bahadur or Garth or even Phantom — never went off the radar. They just kept being there, uninterrupted as if Hergé aka George Remi, the Belgian artist-writer who created Tintin in 1929 and died in 1982, was churning out new books for the next conveyor belt line of children.
So with no kids to conduct Tintin experiments on, and having no frozen yoghurt Tintin moments, all I've been left to do is look at the books as an adult. And as I ruffle through the pages of all the Tintins in my possession, I realise that I don't like the goodie two-shoes, perennially hair-gelled Tintin at all.
The Tintin stories, rich in detail, accurate to the real world in which they are stewed, actually are obstructed by this underage, neutered, Mahatma-like reporter who never seems to have filed any news stories for his newspaper, or dealt with his bosses, or had any issues related to having a ceiling on his expense account. And look at his face: it's really a slightly over-developed emoticon.
Which is why my hero, the one who's not only flesh and blood but has character without just being a character, is Captain Haddock. Behold the man!
Tintin's first readers were introduced to Archibald Haddock (Herge's first wife had apparently suggested the name over dinner describing haddock as "a sad English fish") in the James Bond-sounding The Crab With The Golden Claws. He is there tilting an empty bottle in his ship's cabin, whining to his first mate that he's run out of booze. In the previous frame, the very same first mate, responding to a sailor who's told him that the captain is looking for him, says, "Captain? What does he need now? He's a full-blown drunk!" Haddock, even before anyone meets him, is a pathetic figure whom the Christ-like Tintin will befriend and save.
Over the years, Haddock provides us with many other shades to his character. He is irritable, loud, short-tempered (his 'billions of blue blistering barnacles' is a much more tangible image for me than Wordsworth's 'host of golden daffodils'), funny, kind, unreliable and delightfully flawed. The mini-morality plays showcasing an Angel Haddock vs a Devil Haddock, the former telling him to restrain from glugging whisky while the latter eggs him on, is pure Hamlet-meets-Hemingway.
It is Haddock — and not the bland, Clark Kentish Tintin — that is the real hero to a 40-year-old reader of Tintin books like me. Let the kids discover his charms once they grow up. And their kids too.