How Hergé’s boy reporter invented the Hollywood blockbuster.
Ilustration by Hergé.
When news that Steven Spielberg planned to make a movie of Tintin, the Belgian comic-book hero, first circulated a few years ago, responses among critics ranged from leeriness to undisguised confusion. “I fear this well-financed new imagining of Tintin will smother my own lifelong construct,” fretted Charles Trueheart in the Weekly Standard. “Spielberg Takes On Tintin, but Why?” a headline in the New York Observer asked. Tintin—a young, adventure-prone reporter created in the late 1920s by Georges Remi, aka “Hergé”—has sold more than 200 million books in more than 50 languages, yet the character remains, to American eyes, a product on par with the likes of ABBA or the metric system: odd, limited, and, for all its global pop charisma, something of an offbeat interest on our own, warier cultural shores.
That circumspection may stem, in part, from the character’s mien: Unlike many stateside heroes, Tintin is a picture of unmanly perfection, a scrawny youth who does his best work in a pair of loose-hanging, unfashionably vintage golf pants. Part, too, may pertain to the creator: Fans tend to know Hergé was briefly imprisoned for his contributions to a Nazi-backed newspaper during the Belgian occupation. Mostly, though, Tintin’s limited stateside reputation is a consequence of limited exposure, and it’s that oversight Spielberg’s film is trying to correct. Inspired by the story lines of three classic Hergé books, The Adventures of Tintin traces a breakneck path across two continents as the young hero; his precocious dog, Snowy; and their chronically soused seaman friend, Capt. Haddock, follow long-hidden clues in pursuit of sunken treasure. The movie finds its heroes swashbuckling, crashing planes, stumbling through the desert, chasing ne’er-do-wells by motorbike, and initiating in all manner of high-speed pursuit. What’s striking, though, isn’t how much license the movie takes. Spielberg’s wild, Hollywood-flavored adaptation is, if anything, a fulfillment of Hergé’s ambitions for the comic and an endpoint on the trail he long ago started to blaze.
Since Tintin first appeared in early 1929, he has presented something of a Janus face to those who might admire his exploits. On one hand, there is the brainy boy reporter—patron saint of bookish children, virtuous young men, and (judging from the flurry of confessional tributes that tend to crop up in print) servants of the Fourth Estate. On the other, there’s the rakehell action hero who has no compunction about clocking punches, stealing property, dropping bigoted remarks, and shirking his professional tasks. Tintin is a journalist in the sense Jake Barnes is a journalist: The profession gives him a job title and the resources to roam as “world reporter number one,” even as we never see him doing work that might garner the backing of an editor. Unlike Jake Barnes, though, he is curiously immune to anything resembling a worldly pleasure. Tintin rarely eats or drinks to excess. He is not much given to sightseeing, despite his frequent travels. His erotic life, in Hergé’s books, is so starkly unrealized as to provoke wild speculation. One recent Tintin close reader, Jean-Marie Apostolidès, proposed that every bursting Champagne bottle is a proxy for the man-child’s repressed homosexual desire. Elsewhere, it has been suggested Tintin has an unsavory interest in his dog.
For decades now, Tintin’s puzzling affect and quiet ambiguities have made the Hergé books a nesting ground for scholarship. A look through the literature of “Tintinology” turns up psychoanalytical exposition, semiotic analysis, historical criticism, and more—all based on the idea that there’s more to Hergé’s images and bubbled prose than meets the eye. This may be something of a wishful notion: Hergé’s chief goal in drawing Tintin was “clarity,” he said, not murky suggestion. And children (even in France) rarely get pulled into a comic book by semiotic gravity.
Why does Tintin remain both wildly popular and hauntingly enigmatic? For all of the close-reading at hand, the answer pertains less to the books’ details, which tend to be confectionary and forgettable, than to the form and style in which they appear. Hergé was a workhorse of an artist whose great achievement ultimately showed up not on the page but on-screen: The Tintin books helped to create the style of the modern blockbuster, and, even now, bridge the gap between a literary audience and a cinematic one. In some sense, Spielberg is realizing Tintin more than just adapting him.
This cinematic style of the 23 Tintin books wasn’t a creative accident. When Hergé began drawing Tintin, he was working as an illustrator for a conservative-Catholic Brussels newspaper, Le Vingtième Siècle (“the 20th century”), and charged with producing images for the paper’s Thursday children’s supplement, Le Petit Vingtième. Yet even as he started staking out territory in the comics pages, he had ambitions to move beyond them. As Pierre Assouline explains in his biography, Hergé, the author’s model for visual narrative was the nascent film industry, with Tintin’s precursor—a strip about a scout, “Totor”—often ending with the credit “Hergé Moving Pictures.”
Nathan Heller is Slate's "Assessment" columnist. You can follow him on Twitter.