Tintin turns 80 at the weekend as Steven Spielberg begins work on a Hollywood film of the comic book hero. He has long been a star on the Continent, but the cub reporter is almost unheard of in the United States and little more than a cult in the UK, writes Laurence Grove.
Tintin and Snowy: the intrepid duo
When, on 10 January 1929, Tintin first appeared in the children's supplement of Brussels' right-wing newspaper Vingtieme Siecle, the serialised adventure that was to follow could, at the time, have had all the makings of a transatlantic hit.
Tintin au Pays des Soviets was to portray a cruel and corrupt communist regime, where factories were cardboard cut-outs and those who spoke out against the Party were dispensed with immediately.
Unfortunately the boy scout may have ruined his chances of becoming an all-American role model in his subsequent adventures by belittling the natives in Tintin au Congo (1930) and then unveiling Mafia strangleholds and cruelty to native Americans in Tintin en Amérique (1932). Nonetheless, Europeans have largely forgiven him his flirts with Nazi sympathies (L'Étoile Mystérieuse, 1942).
So how come, as Tintin approaches 80, like Johnny Halliday, but unlike Jacques Brel, he's a famous Belgian who has not yet managed to woo the US?
Made in Britain
There is no doubting that Tintin is a Euro-hit: he has featured on stamps, phonecards and a range of products from underpants to edibles, and is to be the main subject of a new museum opening in Belgium this year. Although Herge, his creator (real name Georges Remi, 1907-1983), expressly forbade the series to continue after his death, related publications are a Rackham-like treasure trove for Moulinsart, the organisation known for its draconian enforcement of Herge's copyright estate.
RANDOM TINTIN FACTS
Despite being a journalist, Tintin is only ever seen once with a completed article
The now defunct chain of UK bookstores, Ottakars, was named after the Tintin book King Ottokar's Sceptre
The Thom(p)son twins weren't twins, despite looking almost identical
By comparison, recent albums of Tintin's comic-strip colleague Asterix, a relative whippersnapper at 50 this year, have, in France, outsold Harry Potter and the Da Vinci Code put together.
Even in the British Isles, Tintin's following tends to be cult rather than mass devotion. Although for many, it was the bequiffed boy's trip to Britain that sealed his longevity.
The 1938 album L'Ile Noire (The Black Island), which takes its inspiration from The Thirty-Nine Steps, is, for many Tintin's coming of age. It is this album that refines his trademark thrill-a-minute adventure format, and saw Herge perfect his clear-line style, which proved a major influence upon Andy Warhol and the pop artists. Arguably L'Ile Noire is to Herge what Macbeth is to Shakespeare.
Yet while Tintin embraced Britain, the English-speaking world never returned the compliment
Maybe he just came on to the scene too late.
The formula of a serial newspaper strip that each week had a cliffhanger ending was one that the US Sunday supplements had successfully exploited from the turn of the last century onwards. Herge in effect was doing little more than providing a Euro version of a US phenomenon.
More recently, Tintin can be seen as quite simply the Hollywood James Bond, but without the girls: he travels to exotic locations, mixing humour and gadgets as he battles the generic international baddie du jour.
Bond, like Indiana Jones, is a superhero without specific superpowers. And it is the idea of a Superman, or indeed a Wonderwoman, that has typically drawn North Americans to comics. In Britain a more self-effacing outlook has underlined the comic in comic, with heroes from the Beano or Topper traditionally making us laugh.
Ironically, when it comes to Tintin the person, it is perhaps his very internationality that is his undoing
The "bandes dessinees" that are the French-speaking world's equivalent have, however, been more ambiguous; a graphic creation - in France comic strips are known as the Ninth Art - on a par with New Wave cinema.
Ironically, when it comes to Tintin the person, it is perhaps his very internationality that is his undoing. Euro-characters who do well in the States - James Bond, but also those portrayed by Hugh Grant and Gerard Depardieu - often play on national stereotypes and foible-laden sophistication. Herge, however, went out of his way to deny Tintin any specific Belgicite, underlining rather his international features.
Hercule Poirot he is not. He lives in a French chateau, has no Belgian linguistic tics, and could not be imagined tucking into mussels, chips and fine chocolates. His friends and acquaintances evoke different aspects of Euroness, from the Thompson twins' bowler-hatted Englishness, Bianca Castafiore's hot-headed Italian traits, or Professor Calculus's Germanic scientific-ness.
Even the names must have seemed entirely alien to an American audience.
Indeed Tintin's sophistication is of a very different kind: Le Bijoux de la Castafiore (1963), an album in which nothing happens, plays with notions of degre zero writing. Tintin au Tibet (1960) considers the evolving status of the post-colonial Other. And the posthumous Tintin et l'Alph-Art (1986), a book about artistic creation, is essentially a work of meta-fiction.
Tintin's creator, Herge, stripped his character of Belgicite
It is easy to see how, from afar, Herge, let alone Cuthbert Calculus, can be seen as indulging in traditional French-style philosophical beard-stroking.
Such intricacies may have worked against Tintin, with Steven Spielberg having had his planned movie on ice for years since he bought the movie rights in 1983.
The project's shortcoming was apparently US puzzlement at Tintin. One rumour suggested there were problems with an adventure hero whose only love interest appeared to be a fox terrier, to the extent that at one stage making Tintin into a girl was not out of the question.
The situation may however be changing, as filming is finally to start on a Tintin movie, to be produced by Spielberg and Peter Jackson, apparently a mixture of animation and "real-life" with extended 3-D effects.
Tintin certainly has evolved since the days of his politically incorrect misadventures, and so too has America. Perhaps in the brave new world of Barack Obama there will be more room for this white European octogenarian.
Laurence Grove, is head of French and senior lecturer at the University of Glasgow. He is also president, International Bande Dessinee Society.
Here is a selection of your comments.
I am surprised at your statement that Tintin was denied his Belgian characteristics. In the original stories, not only does he very clearly live in Brussels, but the various foreign nationalities he meets (whether central European or South-American) speak in very clear Brussels dialect!
Peter Leeson, Milton Keynes, England
Well of course, Herge never took off in the UK - he was always more of a French nationalist than a Belgian patriot and, as such, he hated the British. In the Euro-versions of The Blue Lotus and The Red Sea Sharks, this is stated explicitly - though removed from the UK versions.
Alex Clarke, Brora, Highlands
I wouldn't say "unheard of in the US". Serialized animated Tintin cartoons were quite popular on Chicago television when I was a lad.
Stephen Wenzel, Woodstock USA
I was an avid reader of the Tintin books growing up in England, but here in the US I doubt many people have even heard of the character, probably because as mentioned in the article, Americans like foreigners who clearly fit their national stereotype, Speedy Gonzalez, Pepe LePew ect.
Rob Hunter, Miami, USA
There's mention Tintin being popular in Europe and not being so popular in the US. But you have forgotten the the other side of the world - India. I grew up reading them and so did most of the people of my generation. And you can take it from me that Tintin is big in India so much so that Tintin's now available in several regional languages. So you cannot blame me for suggesting that Mr. Spielberg should probably have the premiere of his upcoming work in India. The people would love it.
I can't believe Tintin isn't more loved in the UK, having enjoyed books and television adaptation from my childhood. One of the things I love about the series is how translators have found appropriate word plays for each language; ie. Thompson and Thomson from Dupond and Dupont. I'm hoping that the US realises how great he is, or the trilogy that Spielberg has in mind, may be reduced to a single film if box office returns have anything to do with it!
Captain Haddock (not even mentioned in the article although he appears almost as much) lives in the Chateau with his butler - Nestor, although Tintin does visit. I do wish people would stop reading too much into Tintin. He is not a misogynist nor is he gay!!!
Sue Davies, Sully, near Cardiff
As an American who moved here in 1980 I'm surprised by your claim that Tintin is virtually unknown in the US. I grew up in the 60's with the cartoons on TV for years. Loved his adventures. Will have to see how I feel about Spielberg's version though.
Cindy, Bracknell, England
I understand how America would have not connected to Tintin. But here, as children growing up in the French culture, you would have found these books in every child's library including ours. We collected all the books and read them over and over with the same pleasure. We still hoard some of those original copies after almost... 50 years! But we may have trouble relating to a Spielberg version "en Anglais" which would place us in the same position as the Americans in connecting to this character.
L.Guttadauria, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada
I beg to disagree with the assumption that Tintin is almost unheard of in the States. I grew up with Tintin, have seen Tintin books displayed prominently in major bookstores around the country, and encounter Tintin on the bookshelves of American children often enough to make me think that there has been a strong Herge following for many years. Having lived in England for a short time as well, I find the British assumptions (presumptions) about Americans and their culture laughable.