The Genius of Tintin

An Essay by John Lechner

TintinTintin has been much in the news lately, with the 100th anniversary of author/illustrator Hergé.  And yet even after so many years of worldwide popularity, many people still scratch their heads over this unique comic creation.  They don’t understand why this rather quirky, old-fashioned series is so popular with each new generation.  What is the magic of Tintin that separates it from literally every other comic book in the world?

I don’t think there is one single answer – no great work of art has a simple explanation for its mystique – but I do think there’s more to it than simply a great read.  As a lifelong fan of the books, I have often tried to crack the puzzle of their success, and perhaps by compiling my own observations I can move us all closer to an answer.

I grew up reading the Tintin books as a child, and I can even remember the first page of the first Tintin book I ever read – in which the little dog Snowy, inexplicably wrapped in a cape, walks up the steps of Marlinspike Manor howling his distinctive “Woah, woah!” as Tintin, the boy reporter, greets him in surprise.  I had no idea who the characters were, and the whole scene was quite bizarre; but the visual storytelling was so precise and the action so well drawn that I was hooked.  My brother and I read every Tintin book multiple times, and could quote our favorite lines at the least provocation.  Even today, upon re-reading, I find them just as compelling and cannot put them down.  There is something about the Tintin books that appeals to the human psyche at a very basic level, beyond the stories and characters.  While it’s true they don’t appeal to everyone (what book does?) their amazing popularity is unparalleled in the world of comics.

Tintin and the PicarosFor those not initiated, the adventures of Tintin is a series of books which began as a comic strip in a Belgian newspaper, back in the 1930s.  The stories were later collected and redrawn in book form, and first came to the United States in the 1970s.  The author and illustrator Hergé (actually the pen name of Georges Remi) developed Tintin stories for fifty years, resulting in twenty-three books, translated into forty languages.  Though they all feature the same basic characters, they are all very different, ranging from detective stories to political thrillers to fantastical adventures.  They appeal to all ages, yet don’t fit perfectly with any – they are often too wordy and unnecessarily complex (not to mention violent) for early readers, yet often too naïve or simplistic for adults – and yet every age has embraced them.

So what’s their appeal?  At first glance, the Tintin books are not particularly remarkable or groundbreaking.  In fact, it is much easier to list their shortcomings than it is to uncover their qualities.  The drawings, while expertly drawn, offer very little variety from page to page, or even panel to panel.  Hergé does not use the full range of graphic storytelling devices used in most comics today, but generally keeps the same perspective and distance from his characters.  The drawings don’t have the visual inventiveness of, say, Moebius, but could almost be described as “workmanlike” in their strict dedication to no-frills storytelling.  The stories themselves are plot-driven adventure tales, with few signs of character development, themes, or larger purpose.  The characters are broad, simple archetypes verging on cliché – the wholesome boy hero, the blustering sea captain, the bumbling detectives, the absent-minded professor, the dastardly villains.

In short, the books break most of the rules for modern storytelling.  But they also contain many ingredients that compensate for – and even capitalize on – these shortcomings.  Let’s start with the characters.

Tintin castThe characters are simply drawn, literally and figuratively.  And although they are each limited to a few key characteristics (Tintin his brave heroics, Captain Haddock his temper, the Thompsons their bumbling) it is in combination that the magic happens.  Put any two characters together in a Tintin book and you instantly get a delicious stew of possibilities, both dramatic and comical.  Tintin and the captain, the captain and the professor, the professor and the Thompsons — not to mention the parade of secondary characters and villains who color the stories.  And then there’s Snowy, the little white dog who observes everything, and tags along just like the reader.  We all recognize these characters in ourselves and people we know.  Their simplicity is also their universality.

The secondary characters occasionally fall into ethnic stereotypes, which is an unfortunate flaw in the books.  Herge grew up in colonial Belgium, with little knowledge of other cultures; but as he grew as a writer and artist, he became more sensitive and diligent about the way he portrayed the countries his heroes visited.  He always strived to be authentic about the people in his books, and any shortcomings of Hergé as a cultural observer do not diminish his later genius as a storyteller.

Another shortcoming of the books is the lack a strong female character, which is a strange and puzzling omission.  The women in Tintin’s world remain mostly on the sidelines, as observers.  But Tintin is not your typical male hero either – he relies on his intelligence and quick thinking, rather than force, to bring down the villains (though he is mighty handy with a pistol or an upper cut when necessary).  His sole purpose is to solve the mystery or right the wrong in the story – he has no other life, and no personal agenda except when his friends are in danger.  He is a hero in the true idyllic sense — completely honest, wholesome, amazingly skilled (who knows where he learned to fly an airplane, fire a gun, survive outdoors in any climate, or whatever else he is called upon to do) and with an unerring sense of justice.  He is not the flawed, naturalistic hero of modern literature, but a completely fictional creation that could never really exist.   Even his age is nonexistent – he is called a “boy reporter”, but he has the maturity and wisdom of a grown man, and breezes through his adventures with an independence and assuredness that even adults would envy.  In short, he is a child’s idea of a hero, who can travel all the places and do all the things that the young reader couldn’t even dream of.  He straddles the world of child and adult, possessing the strength and skills of a grown man but the innocence and idealism of youth.  Such a mixture is seemingly impossible to pull off, but Herge does it naturally and with flourish.

Illustration from Tintin

But characters need a story, and the stories of Tintin are high adventure from start to finish.  Spies, assassins, drug lords, revolutionaries, kidnappers, treasure hunters, monsters, space travel — the themes vary from the realistic to the fantastical.  Herge is a master of the long-form adventure story, keeping the action moving from page to page.  When the stories were originally drawn as weekly comic strips, one or two pages at a time, the author learned the power of lean storytelling, where every frame counts, and the reader must be left in suspense at the end of each episode.  But the real key ingredient is the humor – mostly visual, mostly character-based.  And the most brilliant moments of all are when the humor and the adventure intertwine seamlessly, like when the captain’s blustering behavior results in capture by the enemy – or even more gratifying, when it proves the means of their escape.

This mixture of high adventure, colorful backdrops, and visual humor, drawn with an unerring flair for dramatic pacing (and comic timing) makes these books unique.  And how about the illustrations themselves?  They are remarkable for their precision, their realism, and attention to detail.  The city streets, cars, airplanes, ocean liners – every object is minutely detailed, creating worlds that are so believable, even the fictional rocket ship seems plausible.  Later in his career, Herge employed a team of artists to help him with this meticulous research, though he was a meticulous researcher himself.  One look at his pencil sketches shows the effort and labor that went into each line drawing.

The similarity in the comic panels, which hardly vary in size or perspective, give the stories a documentary-like quality, as though the viewer is there watching the action from the side.  Close-ups are rare, unusual camera angles are rarer.  But the flow of the action is effortless, and Hergé can cut back and forth between scenes like an expert film director.  The simplicity of the layouts makes for quick reading, as the reader never has to decipher a page or puzzle out experimental designs.  While this won’t win the author many design awards, it does serve the stories well, and the story is the most important thing to Hergé.  Even the smallest background details are there to serve the story.

So we are left with action-packed stories, ripe with humor, peopled by a cast of colorful characters, drawn with impeccable detail — and still there is one more ingredient in the Tintin books, that intangible thing that is so hard to pinpoint.  Every great book has it, that extra something that comes from the author’s deepest subconscious.  It is that extra quality that pulls everything together and lifts it up.  I can only speculate what that special ingredient is here – hope?  Optimism?  A childish belief that if you keep trying, you can overcome any odds and save the day?

Tintin always wins, through a combination of quick thinking, tireless perseverance, and a little bit of luck.  In the real world, these things don’t always result in victory, and the older we get, the more discouraged and jaded we become.  The world of Tintin reminds us of that youthful feeling that things will work out if we only try hard enough, and the little guy will come out on top.

I don’t know if Hergé truly believed this ideal, or if he was trying to escape the tragedy of life through his comics.  Whatever the case, his inner child permeates every story, and becomes the magic ingredient that shines through to this day.  For readers of any age, it’s an optimism we long to drink up, even if we know it’s all just a story.  After all, isn’t that what stories are for?  And for that, Hergé, I thank you.

(October 2009)

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(Artwork in this article © by Hergé)