A Tintin blockbuster is on the way. Baffled Americans hoping to understand him should look at him through the prism of post-war Europe
IT IS one of Europe's more startling laws. In 1949 France banned children's books and comic strips from presenting cowardice in a "favourable" light, on pain of up to a year in prison for errant publishers. It was equally forbidden to make laziness or lying seem attractive. The law created an oversight committee to watch for positive depictions of these ills, along with crime, theft, hatred, debauchery and acts "liable to undermine morality" among the young.
Taken literally, the law suggests that an ideal comic-book hero would resemble an overgrown boy scout, whose adventures involve pluck, fair play, restrained violence and no sex. That is a pretty accurate description of Tintin, the Belgian boy reporter who enjoyed spectacular success in post-war Europe.
Tintin's slightly priggish character fitted the times. His simple ethical code―seek the truth, protect the weak and stand up to bullies―appealed to a continent waking up from the shame of war. His wholesome qualities help explain the great secret of his commercial success―that he was, and remains, one of the rare comic books that adults are happy to buy for children.
But probity cannot explain why Tintin became a cultural landmark in Europe, as important on his side of the Atlantic as Superman on the other. There were plenty of wholesome comics in post-war Europe, most of them justly forgotten. Something else in Tintin spoke to children and adults in continental Europe. Even in the straitened years of post-war reconstruction, he was soon selling millions of books a year.
Admirers point to the quality of the drawing in Tintin, and the tense pacing of the plots, and they are right. Any child reared on "King Ottokar's Sceptre", a Balkan thriller; or "The Calculus Affair", about a scientist's kidnap, will later feel a shock of familiarity when watching Hitchcock films or reading Graham Greene. It is all there: the dangerous glamour of cities at night; the terror of a forced drive into the forest; a world of tapped hotel telephones and chain-smoking killers in the lobby downstairs.
Yet even excellence does not explain Tintin's success in Europe. For, despite his qualities, Tintin has never been a big hit in the Anglo-Saxon world. In Britain, he is reasonably well known, but as a minority taste, bound within narrow striations of class: his albums are bought to be tucked into boarding school trunks or read after Saturday morning violin lessons. In America, Tintin is barely known.
All societies reveal themselves through their children's books. Europe's love affair with Tintin is more revealing than most.
Any exploration of Tintin's hold on continental affections must start not with culture, but with history. For all the talk about morality, France's 1949 law on children's books had ideological roots. It was pushed by an odd alliance of Communists, Catholic conservatives and jobless French cartoonists, determined that French children should be reading works imbued with "national" values. Pascal Ory, a historian at the Sorbonne university (author of "Mickey Go Home. The de-Americanisation of the cartoon strip"), writes that the main aim of the law―which, remarkably, remains in force today, tweaked in the 1950s to add a ban on incitement of ethnic prejudice―was to block comics from America.
The question of the transatlantic gap remains current. The coming year is a big one for Tintin. In 2009 it will be 80 years since the boy reporter embarked on his first adventure, a trip to the Soviet Union. In Belgium a museum is to open, dedicated to the work of Hergé, Tintin's creator, whose real name was Georges Remi. (His initials, when reversed, are pronounced Hergé in French.) Even under construction, the museum is impressive: a soaring structure of concrete and glass, wrapped around a large wooden form like the hull of an upturned ship. The seriousness of the architecture carries a message. This is not a theme park, but a gallery for high art. That is an uncontroversial view in continental Europe, especially in Belgium and France, where cartoon strips are reviewed in critical essays and dissected in academic theses.
In America filming is supposed to begin in earnest on a trilogy of Tintin films to be directed by Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson, using digital "performance capture" technology to create a hybrid between animation and live action. Mr Spielberg secured an option to film Tintin shortly before Hergé's death in 1983. The delays seem to have been caused partly by American puzzlement at Tintin. In September 2008 Universal Pictures pulled out of a plan to co-finance the project. The Hollywood Reporter, a trade publication, describes the films as being about "a young Belgian reporter and world traveller who is aided in his adventures by his faithful dog Snowy", and explains that this storyline is "hugely popular in Europe". You can almost hear the baffled shrugs.
As a journalist, Tintin is spectacularly unproductive, even by the idle standards of his trade. In all 24 albums he pauses perhaps twice to jot down a note. He happily gives rival reporters the details of his latest scoop. Only once is he seen with a completed article, on his inaugural 1929 trip to the Soviet Union. He briefly ponders how to get the manuscript to his office, before yawning and heading for bed, declaring: "Oh well, we'll think about that tomorrow." Four frames later, secret policemen are climbing the stairs to arrest him, and the article is never mentioned again.
Unlike another fictional adolescent with a media job―the American comic character Spiderman (portrayed as a freelance photographer in civilian life)―Tintin is not an outsider, or a rebel against the established order. He defends monarchs against revolutionaries (earning a knighthood in one book). His first instinct on catching a villain is to hand him over to the nearest police chief. He does not carry his own gun, though he shoots like an ace. Though slight, he has a very gentlemanly set of fighting skills: he knows how to box, how to sail, to drive racing cars, pilot planes and ride horses. He has few chances to rescue girls or women, moving in an almost entirely male, sexless world, but is quick to defend small boys from unearned beatings. His quick wits compensate for his lack of brawn. André Malraux, a French writer and politician, claimed that General de Gaulle called Tintin his "only international rival", because both were famous for standing up to bullies.
Tintin is grandly uninterested in money. He is indifferent when―on occasion―he is offered large sums for accounts of catching some villain. Hergé's disdain for transatlantic capitalism is portrayed in the 1931 "Tintin in America", in which businessmen bid each other up to offer Tintin $100,000 for an oil well. When the young reporter explains the well is on Blackfoot Indian land, the businessmen steal the land from the Indians.
European snobbery about money permeates the books. Villains are frequently showy arrivistes. Old money is good. A gift (as opposed to gainful employment) allows his best friend, Captain Haddock, to buy back his family's ancestral mansion. The captain takes to castle life with relish. Enriched by a treasure find, he swaps his seaman's uniform for an increasingly Wodehousian wardrobe involving cravats, tweeds and at one point a monocle.
Hergé did not share his creation's lack of interest in money. He paid minute attention to marketing (in total, some 200m albums have been sold) and the production of puzzles, colouring books and toys. Though Hergé is routinely voted onto lists of "10 famous Belgians", he had no illusions about his homeland's limitations as a market. He quickly began excising references to Tintin's Belgian roots to boost his appeal on the French and Swiss markets, referring to him in 1935 as a "young European reporter". He was happy for English-language editions to leave the impression that Tintin was British. Captain Haddock's ancestral mansion changed from the Chateau de Moulinsart into Marlinspike Hall, and his most illustrious ancestor became a hero of the British royal navy, rather than a commander in the fleet of Louis XIV.
Assuming that Tintin does end up the subject of a Hollywood blockbuster, many around the world will soon think he is American. Hergé's heirs know Tintin's fame will take on quite different, global dimensions, in a way that will be hard to control. That will mark a big change.
After Hergé's death, his wife Fanny inherited the rights to his work. She remains in overall artistic control of the Hergé Studios in Brussels (day to day the studios are run by Fanny's second husband, Nick Rodwell, a British businessman). The studios are known for the ferocity with which they guard the works, scouring the world for abuses of copyright from Hergé's old offices on a smart shopping avenue.
Mrs Rodwell confesses to seeing risks in Hollywood doing Tintin. To her, the charm of Hergé's work is absolutely "European"―more "nuanced" than an American comic strip. The American style of telling a story threatens that European "sensibility", she suggests: American narratives are "very dynamic, but more violent, and are much more aggressively paced."
Hergé wanted the risk taken. He died days before a planned face-to-face meeting with Mr Spielberg, but had been briefed on the director's thinking by a trusted assistant, Alain Baran, sent to Los Angeles to open negotiations. Mr Baran later wrote that Mr Spielberg saw Tintin as an "Indiana Jones for kids", imagining Jack Nicholson as Captain Haddock. Such talk did not alarm Hergé. He said a film-maker like Mr Spielberg should be given free rein, and told his wife: "This Tintin will doubtless be different, but it will be a good Tintin."
Such artistic openness is perhaps surprising, given where Hergé began his career. He always said the Catholic boy-scout movement rescued him from a "grey" childhood in lower middle-class Brussels. From there, he fell in with a slightly hysterical clutch of hard-right priests and nationalists, one of whom gave him his first job, on a small Belgian Catholic newspaper, the Vingtième Siècle, which fervently supported the monarchy, Belgian missionaries in the Congo and Mussolini and loathed the Bolshevik atheists running Russia and "Judeo-American" capitalism.
Tintin was born in this unpromising environment, in a weekly children's supplement, Le Petit Vingtième. Hergé wanted to draw cartoons about the Wild West of America. His employer, an alarming priest named Norbert Wallez, had other ideas, ordering that the new fictional reporter be sent to the Soviet Union, then to Belgium's colony in the Congo.
The 1930 story "Tintin in the Congo" has done much to feed Hergé's reputation for racism. Its Africans are crude caricatures: child-men with wide eyes and bloated lips who prostrate themselves before Tintin (as well as Snowy his dog), after he shows off such magic as an electromagnet, or quinine pills for malaria.
In Scandinavia the staggering toll of African wildlife Tintin kills―especially a rhinoceros he reduces to blackened chunks with dynamite―has prompted additional angst. The book remains popular in Africa, Hergé defenders like to assert. But, in truth, it has lost any charm it ever possessed. It is a work of propaganda―not for "colonialism", as is often said―but more narrowly for Belgian missionaries, one of whom keeps saving Tintin's life in evermore ludicrous ways: first dispatching a half dozen crocodiles with a rifle then rescuing him from a roaring waterfall, seemingly unhindered by his advanced age and ankle-length soutane.
Hergé's reputation is also marked by charges of anti-Semitism. He received many complaints about one of his villains, the hook-nosed New York financier, "Mr Blumenstein". It does not help that this caricature appeared in "The Shooting Star", an adventure written in 1941 while living in Brussels under Nazi occupation. In the field of devout Tintinologists, much effort has been put to explaining this "lapse" away. Michael Farr, a British expert on Tintin, is typical, writing in 2001 that as soon as Hergé realised that his character was "liable to misunderstanding", he gave Blumenstein a different name and a new nationality, having him hail from "São Rico".
Tintinologists have a ready explanation too for another lapse: the fact that Hergé spent the war working for Le Soir, a Belgian newspaper seized by the German occupiers and turned into a propaganda organ. This is usually explained by Hergé's "naivety", as an author of children's comics (a defence also used for P.G. Wodehouse).
Alas, none of those arguments survive a reading of a biography of Hergé by Philippe Goddin, published in 2007. Mr Goddin's honesty is commendable: his is an official biography, based on Hergé's large collection of private papers.
Mr Goddin returns to "The Shooting Star", and its initial newspaper serialisation in Le Soir. This included a strip about the panic unleashed when it seemed a giant meteorite would hit the earth. In one frame, he writes, Hergé drew two Jews rejoicing that if the world ended, they would not have to pay back their creditors. At that same moment in Belgium, Mr Goddin notes, Jews were being ordered to move to the country's largest cities and remove their children from ordinary schools. They were also banned from owning radios, and were subject to a curfew. In the news pages of Le Soir, these measures were described as indispensable preparations for an orderly "emigration" of Jews. A year later, Hergé deleted the drawing of the Jews of his own accord, when the serialised "The Shooting Star" became an album.
Mr Goddin demolishes the excuse of naivety, thanks to papers found in Hergé's files. As early as October 1940, he records, Hergé received an anonymous letter accusing him of luring Belgian children to read German propaganda, by publishing Tintin in Le Soir's youth supplement. A few months later, Hergé had a bitter argument with an old friend, Philippe Gérard. In a letter, Gérard demanded Hergé either endorse the "odious propaganda" of Le Soir or make his disagreement with the German occupation known. Saying it was just "a job" would not do, his friend concluded.
By way of reply, Hergé offered a defence of neutrality. "I am neither pro-German, nor pro-British," he wrote back. "As I can do absolutely nothing to hasten the victory of either England or Germany, I watch, I observe and I chew things over. Calmly and without passion." His aim was to remain an "honest man", Hergé wrote, which did not mean shouting "Heil Hitler" or volunteering for the Waffen SS. Some said German occupiers were pillaging Belgium. An honest man had to acknowledge this was not true.
There is a link between Hergé, this disappointing man, and his creation Tintin, who fights against despots so bravely. It lies in the rationalisation of impotence: a very European preoccupation.
The key to Tintin is that he has the mindset of "someone born in a small country", says Charles Dierick, in-house historian at the Hergé Studios. He is "the clever little guy who outsmarts big bullies". And as a little guy, even a clever one, Tintin's bravery works within limits: he rescues friends, and foils plots. But when he finds himself in Japanese-controlled Shanghai, in "The Blue Lotus", he can do nothing to end the broader problem of foreign occupation.
Hergé's final complete adventure, the 1976 "Tintin and the Picaros", offers the clearest expression of this doctrine of neutrality. Tintin finds himself summoned to rescue old friends from a civil war between two Latin American warlords. One general is backed by "Borduria", a fictional but identifiably Communist-block nation. The other is financed by the (presumably American) International Banana Company. Tintin does not take political sides. He contents himself by backing the rebel general in exchange for his friends' freedom, and a pledge that the revolution will be bloodless, with no executions or reprisals. That focus on the death penalty is an extremely European way for Tintin to remain a "man of good faith", to borrow a phrase Hergé used about himself. There is no wild talk of promoting democracy, or even regime change.
Interviewed late in life, Hergé acknowledged the links between his wartime experiences and his moral outlook. The second world war lies behind a great deal in Tintin, just as it lies deep beneath the political instincts of many on the European continent. It matters a lot that the Anglo-Saxon world has a different memory of that same war: it is a tragic event, but not a cause for shame, nor a reminder of impotence.
Tintin has never fallen foul of the 1949 French law on children's literature. He is not a coward, and the albums do not make that vice appear in a favourable light. But he is a pragmatist, albeit a principled one. Perhaps Anglo-Saxon audiences want something more from their fictional heroes: they want them imbued with the power to change events, and inflict total defeat on the wicked. Tintin cannot offer something so unrealistic. In that, he is a very European hero.