On Tintin’s 90th anniversary, here’s a look at others of his fraternity
At the start of the 90th year of the birth of comic book sleuth Tintin, meet the others of his fraternity.Updated: Jan 10, 2018, 08:17 IST
The year is 1985. The story, A Dagger in Istanbul. In one of the most dramatic entries in the world of comics, Dieter Lumpen is shown in full flight across a few panels when a bullet hits a wall – peng! Thus begins the fruitful collaboration between writer Jorge Zenter and cartoonist Rubén Pellejero, and its result is Dieter Lumpen, a dare-devil sleuth with the side profile of a young Gregory Peck.
In contrast, how does Dieter’s most famous predecessor Tintin, whose 90th birth anniversary we mark this year, make his entry?
Tintin, the boy reporter, had a sedate opening even though the environment around him becomes unstable, almost immediately after his entry. On a cold January morning in 1929, he boards a train from Brussels heading east towards Moscow, the capital of the then Soviet Union. He is settling into his seat when a blast ruptures the peace. This first adventure of Tintin, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, was born on January 10, 1929, for Le Petit Vingtième, the youth supplement of a Belgian newspaper. Created by Belgian cartoonist Georges Remi, more famous as Hergé, his pen name, Tintin became a full-fledged comic book in 1930.
As with successful film franchises, three things are necessary for sustaining sleuth-centric comics -- hero entries, heroic characteristics and good plots. Created nine decades after Tintin, other European comic-sleuths that have instant recall because they fulfil these three categories are Gil Jordan, Blake and Mortimer, Freddy Lombard and Jerome K Jerome Bloche. And of course, Dieter Lumpen.
Just like Tintin, all these characters speak French. But it took some time before the Anglophone world was charmed. In continental Europe, most of these characters enjoy the same stature as Tintin or Asterix. In India, they do not have the same fan following simply because few Indians know about them. Gil, Dieter, Freddy, Blake and Mortimer, and Bloche also do not enjoy the same following as of Rip Kirby, Phantom, Batman or Wolverine, all American comic book heroes. But they should.
Many of the post-Tintin comic-book artists such as Edgar P Jacobs and Bob de Moor, who continued Jacobs’ series after his death had, in fact, emerged from Hergé’s studio. They had collaborated with him in creating some of the most popular Tintin adventures.
In 1946, Jacobs, a cartoonist, launched his own pair of adventurers -- British MI5 agent, Captain Francis Blake, and British nuclear scientist, Professor Phillip Mortimer. They appeared in the first issue of the Belgian weekly, Le Journal De Tintin, on 26 September, 1946. The serialised story was built on an epic scale. Titled Le Secret De L’Espadon and translated into English as The Secret of the Swordfish, the adventure ran for almost three years, till 1949. The work established Jacobs as one of the greats of Belgium’s golden era of comics. The cartoonist, interestingly, based the look of Blake and Mortimer’s arch-enemy, Colonel Olrik, on himself.
Jacobs followed Hergé’s ligne claire, or clear line drawings, to draw his adventures against a realistic background. His work is marked by verbose speech bubbles. Surprisingly, they do not interfere with the pace of his works. His most popular work is The Yellow “M”, the tale of a villain terrorising the city of London. The popularity of the work can be gauged from the fact that France came out with a postage stamp featuring this work in 2004. Jacobs completed 11 comic-books with his swashbuckling heroes; 13 more Blake and Mortimer books have appeared after him.
Jacobs died in 1987. Since Jacobs, other authors have continued the series – most recently, Yves Sente and Andre Juillard in 2016. The adventures have a sci-fi tinge to it with the duo using scientific ‘theories’ and mentioning advanced machines (such as the Telecephaloscope in The Yellow “M”) in the stories. Fans of the red-bearded, pipe-smoking Mortimer and the blonde elegant Blake followed their every move. Bad man Olrik was very popular with readers; it was his escapades and his giving the detectives the slip that kept the series alive.
When Jacobs’ detectives were chasing villains on the pages of Le Journal De Tintin, Maurice Tillieux, another master in the detective genre, was dreaming of his famous creation Gil Jordan. Jordan, a Parisian private detective, his secretary, Miss Midge, Jordan’s sidekick, Crackerjack, and Inspector Hannibal Crouton catapulted Tillieux to the same stature as Hergé. The first editor of Tillieux’s works in English, Kim Thompson, considered his 16-book series an “ultra-classic”.
Thompson, the late founder of comic-book publisher Fantagraphics Books, described Tillieux’s work as existing “at some perfect midpoint between Hergé’s clear-line abstraction and André Franquin’s [another Belgian cartoonist] cartooniness. Tillieux had a spectacular sense of mood, for old dilapidated houses and seedy bars and foggy docks and such, and his sense of narrative breakdown was unimpeachable. He specialised in snappy, casual, screwball dialogue”.
Gil Jordan’s adventures were serialised in the famous Belgian comics magazine, Spirou, in the 1950s. Though translated into other European languages, Gil Jordan adventures were translated into English only in the 2000s. Jordan catches the popular imagination with its second series. Tillieux’s comic timing was an absolute treat; most of the time, it is slapstick. The bow-tie wearing Gil, constantly looking at money to be made from cases, is a hardboiled detective in a comic setting. Even the villains he chases are comical. The scenes with car chases remind the readers of Tintin. Despite addressing more or less the same set of readers as Hergé, Tillieux could distinguish himself from his illustrious predecessor by peppering his narratives with gags, which later turned out to be crucial clues to plot changes.
Tintin is no doubt the most popular comic-book sleuth to have emerged from Europe. Since his first appearance, Tintin has been translated into more than 70 languages and has sold more than 230 million copies worldwide. The reporter, his dog Snowy, his friends Captain Haddock, Professor Calculus, detectives Thomson and Thompson and others continue to regale millions of fans even today. The boy reporter is estimated, by some Tintin researchers, to be 15-17 years old. But how would he have looked as a grown-up?
The answer is: Yves Chaland’s Freddy Lombard. Before dying in a tragic car crash in 1990, Chaland, a French cartoonist, churned out five adventures of this unabashedly Tintin-lookalike in a short span of four years. Freddy is an out-and-out Tintin clone. In fact, he is Tintin without a dog.
However, apart from physical resemblance, there are is not much kinship between Hergé and Chaland’s stories. Freddy Lombard stories are meant for a mature audience. The plots are somewhat loose; the stories fizzle out at the end. Unlike Tintin’s friends, Captain Haddock and Professor Calculus, Chaland’s three main characters -- the beautiful Dina, the muscular Sweep with a bald pate, and Tintinesque Freddy Lombard – cannot be called morally ‘upright’.
The story that gave Freddy fame is Holiday in Budapest, set in the time of the Hungarian uprising against the Soviets. In 1985, when Chaland was giving Freddy his creative wings and Dieter was being chased at a bazaar in Istanbul, Alain Dodier launched Jerome K. Jerome Bloche. Named after the British humourist and the writer of the classic, Three Men in a Boat, the Paris-based Jerome, in his early twenties, is a red-head who works as a translator of detective novels and dreams of becoming a great private eye.
His very first adventure, L’Ombre qui tue, or The Shadow Killer, caught the imagination of French comics fans, and has had an uninterrupted run for more than 30 years. Wearing a trench coat and a floppy hat, Jerome in round glasses riding his motorised bicycle is more like an incurable romantic than a serious sleuth, especially when his fiancée Babette is around. His awkward way of going about solving the cases with sudden bursts of inspired guesses made him a darling of his readers. Jerome is designed to look like Humphrey Bogart but his befuddled looks bring him closer to Robert Mitchum. Dodier’s storytelling is tight and the art is superb. Jerome is a worthy torchbearer of the genre.
From Hergé to Dodier, the European tradition of building a series around a single hero has been challenging. One of the greatest impediments is reader interest. The cartoonist, too, may find it daunting or be bored at the prospect of going to work with the same guy over weeks, months and years. Bill Watterson certainly felt it in 1995 when he discontinued his Calvin and Hobbes strip at the height of its fame after running it for a decade. Comic book fans, however, should thank Hergé, Jacobs, Tillieux, Chaland, Zenter-Pellejero and Dodier that they did not follow Watterson’s example and give up.
Debkumar Mitra is a Kolkata-based writer and an editor of Longform, an anthology of graphic narratives to be published by HarperCollins in 2018
Iconic comic character Tintin inspired several other European sleuths in comic books. The collage of different characters and images used in the story is a mere creative representation for editorial and
non- commercial purpose only.