Know Thy History: Tintin
When The Adventures of Tintin movie opened in America on 2011, the general public consensus around these parts was, “Whaaa—-? Who—?” I mean, I’d heard of TinTin… but that’s because I took French in high school, and knowledge of the charming boy reporter is pretty much taught in Week 2. Unless you think I’m joking about the American reaction to Tintin, Box Office Mojo reports on the numbers: despite having Steven Spielberg as director, it debuted at #5 and took in $9 Million on opening weekend. Domestically, it brought in $77 million overall. By comparison, the already much forgotten Meet The Robinsons debuted with $25 Million on opening weekend with a $97 million total take.
Fortunately, Spielberg could count on another audience: pretty much the rest of the world. Almost 80% of the profit came from non-American audiences, bringing the total take to $373 million. It’s pretty respectable. Personally, I thought the movie was fine. There were cool moments here and there — like the crash landing in the desert and the crazy chase scene through the crowded streets — but most of the movie I’ve already forgotten.
Still, this bodes well for Spielberg’s plans. He’d heard about Tintin when a review compared it to Raiders of the Lost Ark. Georges Remi, a.k.a. Herge, was the creator of Tintin, and he was likewise a fan of Indiana Jones. The two had planned to meet in 1983 to do a Tintin movie together, but before the meeting date, Herge had passed away. (Herge’s widow, though, decided to give Spielberg the filming rights.) However, nothing seemed to work out. Spielberg was dissatisfied with the progress (working on the Indiana Jones sequels instead), and eventually the rights were passed from one owner to another. However, the Herge Foundation only trusted Spielberg to make a faithful adaptation. With fellow Tintin fan Peter Jackson on board, the movie finally came together. Spielberg had planned ahead for two movies, and a third may yet be on the way.
So what is it about Tintin that captured the imagination of two high-profile film directors?
As a child, Remi was a fan of silent film stars like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, as well as the the new medium of animation. He was also a Boy Scout. He became troop leader at the Squirrel Patrol of St. Boniface School. With them, he got to voyage through all of Europe. Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Spain… and a 200 mile hike through the Pyrenees. Pierre Assouline, the writer of Herge, the Man Who Created Tintin, credits this experience with fostering Remi’s love of camping and the natural world, as well as his particular moral compass.
His scoutmaster encouraged his artistic talent. Remi’s earliest illustrations were published in Boy Scout newsletters and magazines. One such continuing cartoon, which appeared in the July 1926 issue of Le Boy Scout Belge, was a little thing called The Adventures of Totor. It was about a Boy Scout who was off to visit relatives in America, and instead found adventure.
The character we know as Tintin would make his debut in the Catholic magazine, The Twentieth Century. Tintin is a boy reporter, though a boy reporter to what publication is never revealed. Nor are his parents. Nor if he’s an orphan or not. Basically Tintin is an absolute enigma with a cowlick. He’s earnest and pleasant, but beyond that he’s not really a character. The better for the reader to put themselves in his shoes, says Scott McCloud.
The first two outings are possibly the most controversial Tintin stories ever printed. They’ve become so contentious, in fact, that in 1999 the French government convened to determine what Tintin’s particular political ideology was. (And I’m assuming that if the French National Assembly would have come on the side against Tintin… then Tintin would probably have been banned, I guess?) In the first one, Tintin in the Land of Soviets, our title character encounters the horrible conditions behind the Iron Curtain. While the book is indeed anti-Bolshevik, it should be noted that Russia-bashing is something that’s never really gone out of fashion.
The second book, Tintin in the Congo, is more problematic. Africans are portrayed as primitive and are drawn in what could be interpreted as offensive caricatures. At the same time, Tintin goes out of his way to slaughter as many animals as possible. (For example: Tintin kills a rhino by drilling a hole in its back and blowing it up with dynamite.) In his later years, Herge had tried to rectify his earlier transgressions by redrawing his panels. The book remains very controversial, though. In 2007, UK’s Commission for Racial Equality insisted that the book be pulled from the shelves.
The rest of the 24 albums, though, don’t receive quite as much negative press. The comics showcase Herge’s pioneering linge claire (“clear line”) style. The inks are of uniform width. There is no cross hatching, and shadows are kept to a minimal. Using this style, the action and compositions are uncluttered despite the presence of a lot of detail. (And Herge was very meticulous. I remember seeing a drawing of a DC-3 and being impressed that he remembered the horseshoe-shaped antenna atop the cockpit.) The coloring gains much more importance in the absence of dark spaces.
And sometimes… there’s no color at all. Herge came up with Tintin in Tibet after arriving at a crisis in his life. He was married, yet he had fallen in love with another woman. His own morals dictated that he had entered an unbreakable contract with his wife, and yet his heart was with another. This led to recurring dreams where everything was white and dead. He worked out his issues by illustrating Tintin in Tibet, a lonelier story set in the snow-covered peaks of the Himalayas.
Tintin is joined by several allies. His dog, Snowy, was originally set up to be his foil. Tintin’s actions would originally met with Snowy’s skeptical rejoinder.
Tintin met his most enduring foil (and best friend) in the form of Captain Haddock. The salty sea captain debuted in The Crab with the Golden Claws, the ninth volume of Tintin stories. Haddock had a hot temper and could oftentimes be sarcastic, but in a way it infused him with the humanity that the saintly Tintin sometimes lacked. The introduction of Haddock also introduced Marlinspike Hall. In The Secret of the Unicorn, it is revealed to be Haddock’s ancestral home and the defacto headquarters for future Tintin adventures.
Other notable members of the cast include Professor Calculus (an absent-minded physicist), Thompson (one half of the twin bumbling detectives who serve as the series’ comic relief), and Thompson (the other half).
The Adventures of Tintin took the world by storm (in places that weren’t America). Among its fans were 60’s pop artists Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, who both cite Herge among their influences. Herge’s ligne claire style has proven to be highly influential among Franco-Belgian creators. And then there are all the parodies, which Tintinophiles view as heretical and an affront to Herge’s memory. Aaaaannndddd… now I just discovered the existence of sexy Tintin parodies and Tintinophiles.
And that’s where Tintin stands today: an adventurous Boy Scout who’s an unlikely political lightning rod, an influence to many artists, and a star of a movie that Americans won’t see. Though, who knows: maybe by 2015, when the next Tintin movie is set to drop, America will have finally gotten on board with that charming boy reporter.