Not many people know this, but in middle school, my dream career was that of a cartoonist. Not that I was much of one, but for the 6th grade, I wasn’t half-bad. Most of my stuff was simply re-drawn pictures of Snoopy and Garfield, but I did invent my own strip (sort of), and I was a great lover of the funnies. Since we lived overseas for most of my developmental years, I did not get to read most of my favorite strips. It was only for the generosity of Jeanne Rushton, an elderly lady that my dad used to pastor, that I was able to keep up with the Sunday comics at all. She would bundle several months worth of Sunday funnies, and mail them to us in a big envelope. These were treasured by my sister and I. We read and re-read them until the newsprint disintegrated.
Since American comics were scarce, I began to turn to more international fare, assuming it could be found in English. My first venture into the world of European comics was the immortal Asterix comics. The format was more what would today be called “graphic novels.” The unique blend of Looney Tunes action combined with antiquity proved to be quite intoxicating for an 11-year-old boy, and I collected several full books, all of which I still own today. I eventually read all of the available books, and I thirsted for some kind of comic that I could sink my teeth into, but that my violence-conscious parents would also approve of.
That’s when I discovered Tintin.
Tintin was the creation of Georges Remi, who was better known by his pen name of Hergé. Hergé created Tintin for a youth magazine in the 1920s that ran in various publications until the 1970s. The serialized strips were eventually anthologized into 24 books, most of which are still quite popular today. My old friend Tintin has been on my mind a lot lately, because of the upcoming movie from Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson. So join me as I reminisce.
Tintin himself is apparently a reporter, although that occupation was essentially dropped. He mostly ended up as a professional adventurer. He travelled around with his dog, Snowy, and they spanned the globe getting in numerous adventures. Tintin himself is a surprisingly low-key character. He evolved from being a mischievous kid in the early adventures, into more of a stereotypical hero in the later books. He’s idealistic, intelligent, and has an incredible thirst for travel and adventure. For the first several stories, Snowy served as the main companion. The nature of Snowy is always a little hazy, but he’s given speech bubbles like all of the other characters. It’s unclear whether Tintin can understand him, but I suspect not. Whenever Snowy speaks directly to humans, he simply says “Woahh,” an Francified version of “woof.”
After The Crab With The Golden Claws, Tintin is forever accompanied by Captain Haddock, a crusty old sea-dog if ever there was one. Loyal, impetuous, pompous, and hilariously hot-tempered, Haddock is such a strong character that he occasionally overshadows Tintin himself. When we first meet Haddock, he’s a drunken wreck. He mostly cleans up his act, but he’s still never far from a whiskey bottle. Hergé seemed to take a unique delight in devising new ways for Haddock to fall down, get hit, and otherwise suffer. His reaction is invariably a string of bizarre expletives, like “Thundering Typhoons!” or “Blistering Barnacles!”
Professor Cuthbert Calculus is the resident mad scientist in the world of Tintin. A relative latecomer to the adventures, his experiments and research can often prove to be the driving force of the story. He’s borderline deaf (a frequent source of humor) but he’s quite brilliant. He’s also one of my favorite character designs ever. He just looks so perfect for who he is.
Thompson and Thomson are a pair of detectives, often working on the same case that Tintin is on. Their parallel efforts are played almost entirely for laughs. They are the stereotypical bumbling detectives. They aren’t related, although they are identical aside from their mustaches. To help people tell them apart, they often tell people that their name is “With a ‘p,’ as in ‘psychology.'” They are also hilariously bad at disguises. When they travel abroad, they tend to dress in the most traditional outfit they can, oblivious to the fact that most people are wearing shirts and ties.
Obviously, there are a lot of other characters as well. One of the little joys in reading Tintin is seeing old friends pop up again, sometimes years later. No matter what, they are usually very memorable and well-designed. One of my personal favorites is General Alcazar, the on-again, off-again ruler of the banana republic, San Theodoros.
To describe the appeal of these books is pretty difficult. They are quite exciting, well-plotted, and usually filled with memorable characters. The genre varies from book to book, but Herge draws from a lot of different sources. They can be mysteries, supernatural thrillers, political dramas, satire, comedy, and often two or more of those at the same time. Driving it all is the extremely detailed artwork. One of my earliest memories of Tintin is in the excellent Destination: Moon, when he draws a detailed blueprint of the rocket that will carry our heroes to the moon and back. In The Red Sea Sharks, we are given an impressive building carved into the cliff, harkening to the ancient city of Petra. That eye for detail was very intentional. Hergé kept a filing system of pictures and photos, taken from magazines and travel brochures. Several frames, locations, and even characters are faithful reproductions of photos from this Hergé’s file.
For whatever reason, Tintin never really caught on in the United States, at least not outside a cult following. Though Hergé’s work is very well-regarded by many, it remains rather niche. Still, the books aren’t difficult to find, and they tend to be quite affordable. All of my books are in an 8.5 x 11 in. format, which was how they were originally published. The most common editions these days are smaller, hard-bound anthologies, with 3 books in each one. They aren’t ideal, but they are much more cost-effective for people who are just getting into the series.
It’s hard to overemphasize how much I love these books. Along with The Lord of the Rings and The Simpsons, Tintin is one of the defining pop-culture influences in my life. There’s something charmingly innocent about them, but also something that feels undeniably grown-up. It’s the sort of entertainment that has grown with me. I loved these books as a boy, and I look forward to the day when I can read them with Forest. And suffice to say, I am pretty excited for the movie this Christmas.
And here’s the trailer, just in case you haven’t seen it yet.
Billions of bilious blue blistering barnacles!