Everybody needs a little bit of Tintin in their lives
It is hard to imagine our childhoods without him. We lost ourselves in his world. We laughed at the crazy things his friends did, but his struggles and ultimate triumphs were always our own.
Many comic book characters occupied our lives. The triumvirate was always Tintin, Asterix and Lucky Luke. Asterix & Co were wildly funny, with incredibly deft puns. Lucky Luke, the cowboy with the smart horse and barmy dog was loads of fun. But Tintin was something else entirely.
For one thing, he wasn’t ‘comic’-funny at all, though others around him were (Haddock, Calculus, Bianca Castafiore, the Thompson twins). Tintin was brave, intrepid, dedicated, a crusader. There was good and evil and Tintin stood solidly against the forces of darkness.
Though he is ageless, Tintin is also the only character who seems to evolve over time, from the simplistic and slighly bewildered character in the early books to the sophisticated and wise man of the last. Tintin’s growth mirrors the life and thinking — and personal crises — of his creator, whom we know as Hergé, born Georges Prosper Remi in a district of Brussels. His pseudonym is a play in French on the initials of his last and first name: R.G., hence Hergé.
Tintin :: Covers of the Tintin books
For 54 years, from 1929 when he was 22 to 1983 when he died, Hergé produced 23 comic books in the Tintin series. The books display an astonishing sweep, spanning continents and eras, and a fine-grained depiction of detail. Hergé pioneered the ligne claire or “clear line” style: strong colours, uniform lines, realistic backgrounds. The narrative lines are equally clear. Graphically, the series evolved from a very primitive look (The Land of Soviets (1930), Tintin in the Congo (1931), Tintin in America (1932) Blue Lotus (1936)) to the complex Tintin in Tibet (1960) and Tintin and the Picaros (1976).
Tintin in the land of the Soviets :: Panel
Tintin and the Picaros :: Panel
During the German occupation in World War II, the Nazis took control of Le Soir, the newspaper that serialized the Tintin strips. After the war, the Allied authorities closed down Le Soir and in the years that followed Hergé was arrested four times and barred from newspaper work, wrongly accused of being a colloborator. It was not till September 1946 that Tintin re-emerged, thanks to the publisher Raymond Leblanc.
By 1949–1950 Hergé’s personal life was in shambles. His marriage of 25 years ended badly. He suffered two nervous breakdowns in quick succession. To ease the stress, Studio Hergé was set up in 1950 with several assistants working on the books. By now, these were in colour, and this melded with Hergé’s love for cinema: the books from the mid-40’s have a decidedly cinematic feel in their use of lighting, perspectives and shading. Hergé himself said that he considered his stories as movies.
Tintin in Tibet :: Page 28 - scenes in the Himalayas
Tintin in Tibet (1960) remains his definitive work. It was heavily influenced by his personal traumas and nervous breakdowns, a time when he had “all-white” nightmares. Many pages of the book are dominated by stark white Himalayan snowscapes. The emotionally charged narrative is empty of politics and renounces moral and ethnic judgement.
Tintin in Tibet :: Page 8 - Delhi scene
Visually, it is magnificent: there are superb panels of the streets of Delhi and Kathmandu, including one captioned entirely in Hindi (“kyon ji? Dekhte nahin saamne kya hai?”). Tintin sets out on the quest to find his friend Chang, who first appeared in The Blue Lotus and who he refuses to believe is dead, despite all the evidence.
The friendship between Tintin and Chang reflects Hergé’s own friendship with Chang Chong-jen, a young sculpture student in Brussels in the 1930’s. They lost touch when Chang returned to China. They would not be re-united for the next forty years. In 1981 — after spending time as a street sweeper during the Cultural Revolution and only later, in the 1970’s, being appointed to head Shanghai’s Fine Arts Academy — Chang travelled to Europe to meet Hergé for the first time since their student days.
This yearning and quest for an old friendship is at the centre of Tintin in Tibet and it was a personal catharsis for Hergé: his nightmares, he said, stopped after the book. Order out of chaos, hope out of despair, trust, friendship, hope and courage in the face of great odds, fixity of purpose, a gentleness to all beings: it should be no surprise that in 2006 Tintin was the first fictional character to receive the Dalai Lama’s “Truth of Life” award.
When we saw the Spielberg’s Tintin movie, the audience was equally divided between those nearing 50 and a much younger lot. Tintin, at least India, seems not to have gone out of fashion. And that is as it should be. Everybody deserves a little bit of Tintin in their lives.
Postscript: in response to this article when it first appeared, a reader wrote in expressing dismay that the books seemed not to appeal to his child. This is puzzling for at the same time the Tintin industry in India seems to show no signs of flagging: the books are available in several Indian languages and are very popular.