Le Club Tintin

Speaker's Corner: The rosy-cheeked adventurer never caught on in the U.S. But on the 100th anniversary of his creator's birth, Julia Ross explores the boy's power to unite travelers and melt national divides.

08.08.07 | 10:13 AM ET

TintinIt was from the back row of high school French class that I first suspected something amiss. Madame Stone arrived one morning with a well-thumbed copy of “Tintin au Tibet” and, peering down at us through half-moon glasses, launched into an earnest dissertation on why the nation of France so adored the boy reporter created by Belgian cartoonist Herge.

The kid from Ivory Coast, who, with his sing-song accent, was way cooler than the rest of us, backed Madame up enthusiastically (vraiment genial!). But most of my classmates were nonplussed. We scanned the panels—in which Tintin and his trusty dog Snowy slice through blizzards and negotiate crevasses—and found it all vaguely exotic, but wondered, why the misty-eyed nostalgia?

I had the feeling I’d been left out of something big, something that cultured Europeans had kept to themselves, far from an America that chose Mickey Mouse and Charlie Brown as its cartoon heroes.

It took many more years, into my 20s, until I realized just how far the cult of Tintin reached. I took a job in international development and soon found myself swilling after-hours Czech beers with a multinational cast of colleagues—from Eastern Europe, West Africa, South Asia, you name it. When, invariably, someone invoked a childhood memory of reading Tintin by flashlight, I’d watch national and ethnic divides melt away in the night.

My sense of isolation deepened. I spent no part of my childhood abroad and my parents weren’t immigrants; these immutable facts seemed to equal permanent exclusion from the club. As much as I enjoyed the stories, and appreciated Tintin’s place as an iconic 20th century adventurer, I just couldn’t muster the same emotional attachment I saw among friends.

One of these friends, whose mother is French-Canadian, recalled the youthful thrill of getting a new Tintin book each summer, when she traveled to Montreal to visit relatives. “Tintin was a kid himself,” she explained. “I remember that being something I could relate to. He was just a kid and yet he was able to travel the world.”

It’s not that Americans were left out of the Tintin phenomenon (24 books, 50-plus languages, over 200 million sold) as much as they chose not to embrace it. In a recent interview with On the Media, New Yorker cartoonist R. Sikoryak argued that Tintin never caught on in the United States because the character just wasn’t manly enough. The rosy-cheeked adventurer was drawn in the simple, European, “clear line” style, which differed wildly from the thick, black brushstrokes that Americans expected of their animated superheroes.

Clark Kent had a square jaw line, after all, even before he entered the phone booth.

The rest of the world shows no such reservation. A recent trip to Vietnam confirmed that Tintin’s spell still holds strong across French-influenced nations: Every bookstore in Hanoi was stocked with “Objectif Lune” or “Le Lotus Bleu,” not to mention Tintin ashtrays and key rings. Of course, the series penetrated other colonial orbits as well. According to the Times of India, Tintin’s following on the subcontinent is as strong as ever, particularly in Bengal, “where he features on the reading list of every self-respecting family.”

Because this year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Tintin creator Herge, the boy reporter is being feted like a king. Paris’ Pompidou Centre launched a blockbuster exhibit of original Tintin drawings last winter, and a new Herge museum recently broke ground outside Brussels. Museums in Sweden and Canada are running Tintin exhibits into next year, and directors Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson have announced they’ll direct a series of three Tintin films.

Amid the celebration, the series has also sparked controversy. In London, Tintin became Topic A last month when Borders Books pulled “Tintin in the Congo” from its children’s section in response to customer complaints that the book, first published in 1931, promotes crude racial stereotypes—charges that have circulated for decades. Perhaps predictably, sales of the book promptly skyrocketed, pushing the title into Amazon UK’s top 10 most popular books list.

As for me, the surge in media attention has done nothing but raise my Tintin ambivalence anew.

Sure, Americans have plenty of shared childhood cultural touchstones—for my generation, these tend to revolve around things like pop rocks and the Hawaii episodes of “The Brady Bunch”—but they stop at the border. Those raised on Tintin were globalized before globalized was cool, supplied with an instant connection should they meet in a hostel in Prague or across a conference table in Tangiers. 

Filmmaker Anders Ostergaard, who directed the documentary “Tintin and I,” told PBS last year, “The U.S. has been considered a wasteland for Tintin so far. And for no obvious reason. If Americans can pick up soccer, why not Tintin as well? It’s all cultural globalization at its best.”

I can’t go back and make Tintin a part of my youth, but for a new, more world-wise generation of Americans, maybe it’s not too late. Now that Spielberg’s on the case, the Belgian boy wonder’s got one last shot. Le Club may see a U.S. chapter yet.

Julia Ross is a Washington, DC-based writer and frequent contributor to World Hum. She has lived in China and Taiwan, where she was a Fulbright scholar and Mandarin student. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Time, Christian Science Monitor, Plenty and other publications. Her essay, Six Degrees of Vietnam, was shortlisted for "The Best American Travel Writing 2009."

7 Comments for Le Club Tintin

Eva Holland 08.08.07 | 6:12 PM ET

Ah, Tintin. He was - along with dubbed versions of Disney cartoons - a staple of the Canadian “French immersion” program for English-speaking elementary school kids… I had no idea he was such a big deal outside of French-speaking circles.

I never thought about the travel aspect before, but now that you mention it I guess I hadn’t heard of Tibet, or the Congo, or Aztecs and Incas, before I read these books!

Marilyn Terrell 08.09.07 | 8:15 AM ET

A fun thing about raising kids is you can introduce them to books you never read as a child.  I developed an appreciation for Tintin and also for the hotheaded little Gaul, Asterix, by reading them to my boys, who luckily never knew they were learning some history and geography along the way.

Mariellla Bonnivert 08.09.07 | 3:28 PM ET

AAh Tintin,
Being a Belgian ...yes I read the Tintin’s the Spirou et Fantasio, Gaston Lagaffe, Bob et Bobette where you would learn things about history , geography or new words…
Great memory of fun and laughters !

Benji Lanyado 08.12.07 | 11:18 AM ET

erm, i’m not really sure where i stand on this, but you’ll probably want to have a read through this article:

not as innocent as we might think(!)

J.J. Lasne 08.20.07 | 5:18 PM ET

As all French children, I read all the comic books including the Tintin Adventures. It was always great fun.

As for the recent “racist” accusations and for its aftermath, it is the usual misplaced PC police and its concurrent fascist tendencies to censor anything it does not like; however trivial it might be.

Plenty of racism went around in the 30’ s, especially in the European colonies in Africa and the Southern US States.

Eva Holland 08.21.07 | 11:03 AM ET

The idea of pulling the books entirely is crazy - you’d have to ban pretty well every nineteenth-century travel narrative too, just for a start. I suppose it’s alright to move the Congo book to the adult section, but really, all teachers and parents need to do is provide a little context. Kids aren’t stupid - we read the Congo book in third grade and came out unscathed.

Liesbet Collaert 09.23.07 | 4:32 PM ET

I am excited about all this publicity for the Belgian “comic books”.  It is a great part of our culture (I’m Flemish, so read them all in Dutch), and I hope they will join the “Famous things about Belgium league” of waffles, fries, beer, and chocolate.  I’ve always wanted to share the stories of Kuifje (Tintin), Suske en Wiske (Bob et Bobette), Asterix, and others with my American boyfriend, but it is hard to create that same connectivity with someone that didn’t grow up with these books.

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