Seventy years ago, on the 10th of January, 1929, a regular feature made its first appearance in Le Petit Vingtieme, a Belgian journal for young readers. It was Tintin in the Land of Soviets, the first in the series of adventures that gave birth to a twentieth-century legend - 'Tintin'. The man behind this little great character was Georges Remi, a Belgian illustrator, whom we know by the name of Herge. Tired of illustrating for stories written by others, Herge wanted to create his own series. He took one of his former figures, Totor, changed the letters of his name, gave him a distinctive quiff or cowlick hairstyle and a fox terrier named Milou, after his first girlfriend. He had seen cartoons from the United States, which were not just stories translated into pictures, but had words coming out of the characters' mouths, and decided that this would be his format. Thus was born one of most successful comic characters ever created.
Tintin grew up to become perhaps the strangest creation in the history of the strip cartoon. He is intelligent, astute, quick-witted and almost invincible, but it is his unreality which is most startling. Take his name for a start. In neither French nor English does it mean anything. Is it a first name or a surname? Next look at his round face with only little dots for eyes and mouth and a small button of a nose. The only distinctive feature is the celebrated quiff. Then there is his profession, one which expect in the very first book we never see him exercise. Tintin is not a typical reporter. He has no real age; sometimes he seems to be a child, at other times an adolescent, but generally he behaves like an adult. However, he has no girlfriend or marriage plans. Yet he is so close to our heart.
Herge drew two pages of Tintin adventures every week, and was not aware of where the series was to take him. In May 1930, Tintin's first adventure came to an end, and it was then that Herge realised the popularity of the character and decided to continue his adventures. The first adventure also appeared in the weekly Coeurs Vaillants in France and Herge began his international career. In 1932, Tintin was sent to America, and his success increased even further.
The Second World War completely changed Herge's working conditions. He was called up in 1939 and sent to North Belgium, where he did not forget his strip cartoons and managed almost every week to complete two pages of Tintin in the Land of Black Gold. The next year, resigning from the ranks, he began working for Le Soir, the Brussels daily, and started The New Adventures of Tintin and Snowy. Due to war pressures, Herge was now finding himself having to work in a different rythem and avoid sensitive subjects, hence the wartime adventures, from The Crab with the Golden Claws to The Seven Crystal Balls were all distanced from reality. Further, the shortage of paper forced the publisher Casterman to ask Herge to reduce his adventures to 62 colour pages, their present format, and these were an immediate success. Herge had to recast all the previous adventures into colour, and recruited an assistant Edgar Pierre Jacobs, who turned out to be a great influence on Herge's ideas and colouring.
In September 1946, the first issue of Tintin magazine was published and was truly a worthy vehicle for Herge's talent. He filled the centre pages with Prisoners of the Sun, continuing The Seven Crystal Balls from where it had stopped. The magazine was an immediate success. From 1948, an edition of Tintin magazine was also published in France and Herge's audience was becoming international. The number of books published also began to soar and, by 1956, had reached a million copies a year. His approach to his work becoming increasingly meticulous. Herge founded the "Herge Studios" in 1950, recruiting a dozen assistants.
The Adventures of Tintin continued to be published at regular intervals, from The Seven Crystal Balls (1948) and The Red Sea Sharks (1958) to Tintin in Tibet(1960) and Tintin and the Picaros(1976).
There were two films with live actors, Tintin and the Golden Fleece in 1961 and Tintin and the Blue Oranges in 1964, as well as two full length animated cartoons, Prisoners of the Sun in 1969 and Tintin and the Lake of Sharks in 1972. At one stage it was reported taht General de Gaulle had commented that his only international rival was Tintin.
Indian children are particularly fond of this adroit reporter and his adventures around the world. Speaking about the nature of Tintin's success, Herge once said : "...I receive a lot of mail from India. Here in the office are two letters from Calcutta. Now what can there be in common between a boy in Calcutta and myself?... That's something I am still asking myself without finding an answer."
Tintin is Tim in German, Tintti in Finnish, Ten-Ten in Greek, Tainetaine in Iranian, Tinni in Iceandic, Tan Tan in Japanese, Tintin in Portugese and Tintin in French, Spanish, Danish, Indonesian, Italy, Malay, Norwegian, Swedish and Bangla. Does this add to his characterlessness? This could be seen as a weakness, but that would be a basic misunderstanding of the great coherence of Herge's world. In fact, it is the neutrality of the hero which is a key element in the success of the books. It is his lack of personality which allows him to chnage from having been a colonialist in 1930 to taking sides with guerillas in 1976 without any feeling of contradiction. As a neutral character he fulfills marvellously the essential role of a hero of a cartoon series, allowing readers scope for identification. This enables anyone, boy or girl, young or old, French or Bengali, the chance to live the extraordinary adventures of Herge's books.
Around his neutral hero, Herge has over the years added a whole collection of richly coloured, often type cast, characters. Snowy - Milou in French - the little white fox terrier is especially central to the early books. The hilarious Captain Haddock made his debut in The Crab in the Golden Claws. The Thomson and Thompson twins first appearing in 1934 in the black and white versions of Cigars of the Pharaoh. The absent-minded Professor Cuthbert Calculus came in with Red Rackham's Treasure. They enriched the series of adventures proving variety and intensity while retaining that immediacy which makes them so very readable.
In 1973, Herge visited China accepting an invitation made 34 years before because of the help he gave the Chinese cause with The Blue Lotus. Tintin's 50th birthday in 1979 was lavishly celebrated in Brussels and Paris and an exhibition. "The Imaginary Tintin Museum", began a successful tour of Europe. Herge's public appearances became increasingly more rare.
Having suffered from anaemia for several years, he was taken into hospital for pulmonary failure. He died on March 3, 1983 in intensive care at a clinic on the outskirts of Brussels.
Herge's death received much attention in the press, especially in the French speaking countries. Many newspapers gave over whole pages to record it. The French daily Liberation did more: all its illustrations for that issue were taken from Herge's books; for its reports on daily political events, the day's television, weather and even small ads.
Whatever the perspective, the Tintin phenomenon is remarkable; from the point of view of sales, durability, range of appeal or critical interest. Today Herge himself would have been taken aback by the scale and persistence of his success. More than 120 million books sold in over 40 languages and more books have been written on Tintin and his creator than on strip cartoons in general. More than ten lakh sites are there on Tintin. Many in French, English and Chinese.
Herge's powerful imagination, the exactness of his stories, their insights, the brilliance of his drawings, the humour of his dialogue - all these are behind the incredible success of Tintin. Beyond these reasons, the mystery remains and the fascination is undeniable. Herge himself may have departed some years ago, but his creation has outgrown him. Even at seventy Tintin is alive as ever.
Written by: John Hardwood