Great snakes! Tintin is 91
On January 10, 1929, readers in the city of Brussels woke up to a new comic strip. A young man of indeterminate age with an unflappable quiff and an earnest boy-scout demeanour, accompanied by a white fox terrier, boarded a train to the Soviet Union.
As a reporter for Le Petit Vingtième — in a dextrous stroke of verisimilitude this was also the name of the paper in which the weekly strip appeared — his assignment was to keep his readers informed of the events in the Bolshevik state. By the second week, readers thought the young man who went by the name Tintin, and his talking dog Milou, had died after a Russian planted a bomb on their train to prevent “the dirty little bourgeoisie” from “reporting what’s happening there”. The following week, they thought he was certainly done for after the police arrested him on suspicion of planting the bomb.
Watch: Tintin's Bengali connection
Tintin didn’t die, though he came close to it several times over the course of the five decades that his creator, Georges Remi — who reversed his initials to form his pen name Hergé (say RG and you’ll see the connection) — drew him.
Back in ’29, Hergé’s comic style was new: albeit in black and white, the lines he drew were clear and well-defined (an aesthetic that came to be called the Clear Line); the noses were inspired by American cartoonist George McManus of Bringing Up Father fame, by Hergé’s own odd admission; and, in another trans-Atlantic export, all conversation took place in neat rectangular boxes within the comic panels, themselves separated by a wide gutter.
Tintin became very popular very quickly. In a year, the comic strips began to be published as books (or albums, as Casterman, the publisher of The Adventures of Tintin from 1934 onwards, called them). The albums came out in colour, and Tintin became more well-defined, down to the orange line that outlined his red hair. Snowy (as Milou was called in the English translation) stopped talking, but his heroics continued: he saved Tintin’s life in countless ways, including in one memorable strip in The Broken Ear, by biting the behind of a thief who had a gun to Tintin’s face.
Although Tintin was a reporter, we only saw him write a report in the first story, but he referred to himself as one several times: “I don’t believe everything I hear. Call it reporter’s instinct,” he often said, before dashing off into an improbable situation to uncover a mystery.
The enduring appeal of Tintin was that he was many other things — a Catholic boy scout envisaged by Hergé’s pro-fascism editor, Norbert Wallez; an adventurous young man who knew how to pilot a plane, ride a motorcycle and steer a boat; an earnest do-gooder who fought evil with a mean right hook no matter its nationality; and a loyal friend to the cast of characters who came to inhabit the Tintin universe, including the potty-mouthed rum-loving Captain Haddock, the hard-of-hearing brilliant scientist Professor Calculus and the comical policemen twins Thomson and Thompson.
Pre-war Belgium, with its pillarised society meant that Hergé — who himself attended a Catholic school, joined the Boy Scouts and did a year of military service— started out with an unselfconscious style of racist and paternalistic stereotypes of Jews, Africans, and natives of the Ruritanian lands that the comics were often set in. His second book, Tintin in the Congo, for instance, is a textbook case of racist depiction of African people as sub-human, and has remained stuck in the craw of readers through the ages.
Tintin travelled far and wide, and with him, Hergé evolved as a comic artist. In Tintin in America, which came out in 1931-32, we see the landscapes transform in a surrealist fashion from town to metropolis as Tintin encounters the gangster Al Capone, meets tribes of American Indians ejected from their land as soon as oil is discovered below it.
In 1934, Tintin reaches India and is a guest of the Maharaja of Gaipajama, whom he has to save from the poisonous darts of a fakir who can make a rope rise with his snake-charmer’s instrument. By the time Tintin came to India next, in Tintin in Tibet (1960), Hergé had sloughed off the stereotypes. Although New Delhi served as a stopover en route Kathmandu, Tintin and Captain Haddock took some time out to sightsee, and visited the Qutub Minar.
Hergé was certainly sympathetic to the monarchy, but he wasn’t a propagandist. When the Germans invaded Belgium in May 1940, Hergé suspended the Land of Black Gold storyline and left his country, but he returned soon after and joined Le Soir since Le Petit Vingtième had been shut down by the occupying force. Once a liberal paper, Le Soir had come to be commandeered by the German military administration.
As Christopher Taylor writes in the London Review of Books, Hergé’s biggest concern at the time was to work, though he knew he was seen as a traitor by the Resistance. Hergé wanted Tintin to reach as many readers as possible, especially as the competition — French and American comics — weren’t easy to come by.
And so, Tintin remained unaffected by the war: In ’39 and ’40, he saved the kingdom of Syldavia from being overthrown by a fascist coup d’etat, in King Ottokar’s Sceptre; in ’41, he travelled to the desert of North Africa to bring down an international opium empire with the help of his new friend Captain Haddock, in The Crab with the Golden Claws; the following year, Tintin navigated a surrealist dream-like landscape and rescued a piece of a meteor for the benefit of the international scientific community. The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham’s Treasure saw Tintin and Captain Haddock hit the high seas in swashbuckling battles.
Shortly after the end of the war, Hergé faced a wave of unpopularity (he was arrested four times and barred from publishing in newspapers), but that did nothing to diminish Tintin’s fame. In 1946, he launched the Tintin magazine with the help of a publisher; four years later, he started Studios Hergé.
Through his nervous breakdowns, depressive episodes and divorce, Hergé was prolific: Tintin was resilient, and grew an internal life. In Tintin in Tibet, he goes in search of his friend Tchang, though everyone thinks him dead in a plane crash in the Himalaya. Not even a snowstorm, a Yeti, or the abbot of a Buddhist monastery can keep him from his quest. Tintinologists — post-structural critics of post-war Europe, students of Tintin comics, biographers of Georges Remi — agree that this comic was a turning point for its emotional storyline and mystical plot points.
Hergé died in 1983, and the last Tintin album was released three years later. Tintin and Alph-Art aimed to describe the occult world of sects, and avante-garde art, something that Hergé had come to find himself increasingly interested in. The album contained sketches and scenarios, not the complete storyline at all. But it was enough for the collectors.
A few years ago, an edition of the first Tintin comic was auctioned for over 48,000 Euros by Sotheby’s. Studios Hergé, now a not-for-profit organisation, is engaged in archiving the works of Hergé (who made other comics too) and organising exhibitions. Moulinsart is a private firm that sells Tintin merchandise. As Tintin turns 91 (technically, he’s over a 100 if we factor in his actual age), his relevance hasn’t diminished.
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