In praise of Tintin

tintin1A piece of mine I’m republishing, having just been reading some Tintins again!

Tintin of the ageless quiff and boundless enthusiasm, from the gorgeous comic books by the Belgian author and illustrator Herge has turned eighty-six this year ! Of course I have every single volume of his adventures, some in French, some in English, as well as quite a few associated books, including a gorgeous book of travel narratives and photographs retracing the steps of Tintin and his friends in such countries as Tibet, Scotland, the Congo and ‘Syldavia’, compiled by the French magazine Geo. This curiosity, along with Tintin encyclopedias, dictionaries, diaries and several figurines of Tintin and his friends, action figures, bookend the scruffiest, most loved-to-death collection of the Tintin adventures, which we never get tired of rereading.

The Tintin adventures are the books most often pulled out of the groaning family shelves when any of my kids come home to visit. When anyone’s feeling tired, discouraged, or simply at a loose end, Tintin is the prescribed remedy—a remedy of freshness, fun and escape that never fails to work. And when I canvass many of my writer friends as to favourite childhood reading, Tintin comes up again and again.

Translated into the world’s languages, over the four generations and more since his birth in the pages of an obscure children’s journal, Le Petit Vingtième, the immortal little reporter has proved remarkably adept at transcending all kinds of barriers of nationality, culture, religion, class, race, sex, ethnicity, age, whatever you will. The brainchild of the renowned Belgian cartoonist Hergé(his real name was Georges Rémi—and his pen-name comes from the phonetic French rendition of RG, his initials spelt backwards), Tintin’s now reached an iconic status. You rarely hear anymore the snobby, narrow-minded assertion that it’s not right for kids, because it’s—shock, horror!– a comic. Yes, some of the early work is very dated and patronising (my least favourites, for this reason, as well as incoherent story, are the early Tintin in the Congo and Tintin in America). But mostly, the Tintin corpus has aged remarkably well, because at the heart of Herge’s work is a realistic, amused but compassionate view of human nature, and a strong feeling for justice. Along with the social comedy and the crisp dialogue, there is also a horror of cruelty and bullying, and a tenderness for the ‘ordinary’ aspects of human life, as opposed to those who would have us valuing ideas over people.

Hergé very much kept up with what was going on in his times, something that is clear in the Tintin adventures. Yet it’s a curious fact about the Tintin stories that they’re both timeless and very much of their time. With consummate artistry, in both gorgeous pictures and crisp words, Herge managed to both document the realities of the twentieth century, and create his own world. The archetypal characters, social comedy, jaunty pace, inventive language, extraordinary command of line and colour, exciting, suspenseful plots, and clever dialogue of the books are all handled with the lightest of touches that belied the author/illustrator’s painstaking care with his work, both visual and written, and the immense amount of research he did to create such a seemingly effortless, pleasurable result. He combed dictionaries for words that could be used for the ever more colourful and bizarre invective of Captain Haddock; read umpteen atlases, books of science, folklore, geography and history to get exactly the nuances of the various places Tintin explores. Like Shakespeare, he did not visit the places he set the stories in, preferring to document himself in libraries and museums, but his own city of Brussels features anonymously many times at the beginnings of Tintin adventures.

The Tintin books have been highly influential in pop culture. Writers and film-makers have been greatly inspired by them. When I was compiling a series of columns for a book magazine a few years ago, on the favourite childhood books of several prominent children’s writers, Tintin came up many, many times as a major influence. Tintin has also helped to make the extraordinary art of comic books acceptable to a wide range of people(incidentally the massive success of such European books clearly shows that it’s certainly not just the US that calls the cultural tune).

But the Tintin alchemy has not yet been totally successfully distilled into decent film versions—of the abortive 1970’s cartoon series, the less said the better(indeed Herge himself, who had had no control over them, hated and despised them). The recent Steven Spielberg film was okay, but no more. It doesn’t matter We Tintinophiles have all those gorgeous stories to read again and again; a mixture of cinema and storytelling right there in front of our eyes, in a perfect blend of word and image.

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