Tonnerre de Brest! Qu’est que c’est qui s’élève du miasme bruxellois? Tiens! C’est Monsieur Tintin et le fidèle Milou.
‘That lot will be remaindered before long.’
Thus a sceptical bookseller (are there any others?) one fine Spring day in 1958 while visiting The Book Centre, a national distribution warehouse in rural Neasden.
Two ziggurats of packed books,
piled up from floor to roof, prompted the remark. They were the newly-arrived stock of the first two volumes of ‘The Adventures of Tintin’ to be widely marketed in the British Isles: The Crab with the Golden Claws and King Ottokar’s Sceptre. (Is it true that the Ottakar bookshop chain, albeit incorrectly, is named after this book?)
First to arrive here they may have been,
but they were by no means the first of the Adventures. The boy-reporter with the quiff and the plus-fours (never apparently reporting anything) was already an ageing phenomenon to francophone Europeans and this year sees the celebration – commercially inspired? – of his 75th birthday. You may join in if you wish, for an exhibition ‘Tintin at Sea’ is currently running at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich.
Rather like Rupert Bear,
with whom he unexpectedly shares several characteristics, Tintin’s first appearance was in a black and white strip cartoon published on 10 January 1929 in the children’s supplement to the Belgian magazine XXe Siècle. (The author, Hergé [Georges Remi], invented his name by reversing his own initials.) As reporter, Tintin headed off to the land of the Soviets and his weekly adventures were eventually cumulated into a strip-picture album. Such productions, known as bandes dessinées had something of a history in France from the Shandeian comedies lithographed by Rodolphe Töpffer in the mid-nineteenth century through the picture books of the great Boutet de Monvel and the albums of ‘Job’ (Jacques Onfroy de Breville) and Benjamin Rabier – whose first illustrations seem to have been done in 1898 for a book called Tintin-Lutin (Tintin the Scamp).
Tracing the evolution
of what becomes the typical Tintin adventure is no easy task, and readers interested in such things will get little help from Tintin at Sea, the handbook for the present exhibition, which must be one of the most incompetently edited books of our time (and that’s saying something). It’s published by John Murray redivivus, now a division of Hodder Headline, and if this is what a great publishing house can be so quickly reduced to then ‘’twere better ’twere slain’ on annexation.
Difficult though it be
to chart the chronology of les editions Tintin, what with early black and white volumes being subsequently coloured, coloured editions sometimes being subject to later redrafting, and a multiplicity of varying translation strategies (the books appear in at least 38 different languages), what we broadly find is Hergé seeking to refine the restless narrative dictated by the demands of a periodical strip into something more suited to a 62-page bande. He pays closer attention to the dynamics of his picture sequences, obtaining dramatic impact by varying the sizes of individual frames, and he quests after as complete an accuracy as he can achieve in the manifold details of the Tintin cosmorama. Quiff ever spruce and showing no signs of greying at the edges, the boy-reporter and his inseparable bone-fixated companion, Snowy, find themselves at one time or another on almost every continent of the globe — and even a couple of times involved in a moonshot.
As the series progresses
you also see the introduction of characters who come to be recognised as staple: Professor Calculus, the serenely ineffectual detectives Thomson & Thompson, and, above all, Captain Haddock, whose attachment to strong liquors provokes unease among those lacking a sense of Gallic priorities. These characters probably engender more affection than Our Busy Hero himself.
and a worldwide popularity that would have surprised our sceptical bookseller, but is that enough to vouch for ‘classic’ status? Can any Tintin album be distinguished as a ‘classic’ an sich? Indeed, is there not always a fatal element to such bandes in the mismatch between the speed of the action and the brakes put on it by the reader’s need either to examine the pictures or work through the (often banal) speech-bubbles? Certainly there are surface features of great artistry: the precisely-detailed representations of exotic landscapes (the Sahara desert, the wild lands of the Balkans), or of local ephemera (Peruvian or Egyptian artifacts) but the fundamental sameness of the adventures which lead us through these places becomes wearing, just as the time-locked circumstances of most of the adventures are now dated. (Look at Tintin’s Tibet or the introductory note on Sino-Japanese relations in The Blue Lotus.) History, which of course remainders everything, may even now be lowering over the Tintin ziggurats.
The illustrations are taken from The Crab with the Golden Claws (1 4052 0808 2, £9.99 hbk, 1 4052 0620 9, £6.99 pbk) published by Egmont Books, the sole publisher of Tintin in the UK.
Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and children’s book consultant for The Times.