::Literate Blather::
Friday, July 07, 2006
Blistering Barnacles! It's Tintin!

“My only international rival is Tintin. We are both little people who are not afraid of big ones.”
- Charles de Gaulle

How to describe the pleasure of settling down with one of the many Adventures of Tintin comics?

There were 23 feature-length comic books published by Herge (a.k.a. Georges Remi) starring the intrepid Tintin, a young Belgian investigative reporter and world-renown adventurer. The first book, Tintin in the Congo, was published in 1931 and the last, Tintin and the Picaros, was published in 1976. In between, Tintin and his faithful dog, Snowy, searched for sunken treasure, traveled to the moon, foiled criminal conspiracies, and hunted for the mythical Yeti.

The Adventures of Tintin have been translated in 58 languages and more than 200 million books have been sold. The books have been wildly influential in the popularization of graphic novels (and on popular culture – Chandler Bing, a character on Friends, for example, wears a Tintin t-shirt in one episode and pop artist Andy Warhol claimed that Herge was one of his main artistic influences).

Yet, Tintin remains outside of the mainstream in the United States – his American fans mainly comic aficionados.

It’s a shame. There are lots to enjoy in a typical Tintin adventure – slapstick comedy, puns and word play, plenty of action and mystery, as well as beautifully plotted narratives. A typical adventure is like the Three Stooges, a Jimmy Stewart movie and an Indiana Jones adventure rolled into one. Not to mention that Herge’s ligne claire drawing style is magical in its vivid detail.

Herge was liberal with the booze – both Snowy and Captain Haddock (Tintin’s seafaring sidekick) both have an affinity for whisky – namely the fictional Loch Lomand brand – but even so the books are wonderful to share with children. That might be why in the movie Kramer vs. Kramer, Dustin Hoffman’s character is reading his son Red Rackham’s Treasure.

Tintin, the character, is a bit of an enigma. He is often criticized for being too vanilla – the bland hero among a cast of colorful characters. He appears young, yet he’s an expert pilot and soldier-of-fortune who works as an experienced investigative journalist (and who makes news more than he writes it). He’s an earnest young man, curious and intelligent, yet surprisingly ordinary in an everyman-hero kind of way.

In a BBC article in 2005, journalist Andrew Walker called Tintin a character who is carried along by events rather than being an actual protagonist. “Tintin’s apparently neutral manner – which has been criticized for being bland – acts as the perfect foil for the pomposity, foolishness and evil which surrounds him,” Walker wrote. He also called Tintin Europe’s answer to Mickey Mouse – a hideous comparison.

Tintin is more sophisticated than anything old Walt Disney developed for his mouse. The Tintin stories are epic in scope – meticulously researched and certainly one of the main inspirations for today’s surge in the popularity of graphic novels (which could learn more about levity from Herge – as most are darker than dungeons). Herge and Tintin were pioneers of a more serious, less commercial brand of art than Mr. Disney.

The real stars of the Tintin books are the other characters – notably Captain Haddock, who can curse better than a drunken truck driver and actually gets away with expressions like “Billions of bilious blue blistering barbequed barnacles!” Haddock is mercurial – able to move from gentle seaman to thundering pirate at the drop of a whiskey glass. There’s also Thomson and Thompson, a pair of unrelated police detectives who are identical except for the shape of their mustaches (Thomson describes himself as “Thomson without a P, as in Venezuela!”). They are thoroughly bumbling and incompetent in everyway.

My favorite character is the loyal (and occasionally inebriated) Snowy – a snow-white fox terrier and Tintin’s best friend. They travel everywhere together and Snowy – through his canine brilliance and bravery – has often saved Tintin’s life. They have a special bond (and Snowy can even talk, although it is unclear if Tintin understands him).

Do yourself a favor. Find one of the 200 million Tintin books. Curl up on that couch. Get ready to be delighted. Get ready to be carried away to a better place.

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