A Beginner's Guide to 'Tintin': Everything You Need to Know About Steven Spielberg's Latest Big-Screen Hero

A Beginner's Guide to 'Tintin': Everything You Need to Know About Steven Spielberg's Latest Big-Screen Hero

Dec 20, 2011

With the big-budget, CGI The Adventures of Tintin film hitting the world in a big way -- directed by one of the most famous of directors and produced by another no stranger to blockbusters -- it's hard to imagine a time back in my childhood when I innocently clutched faded reprints of Hergé's comic books and dreamed of a movie.

The year Raiders of the Lost Ark came out was when I first discovered this series, which shared many elements with Spielberg's crowd-pleasing adventure: A brave, young, globetrotting hero battles nefarious crime syndicates and villains over artifacts and heirlooms—though Tintin, a boy reporter instead of an archeologist, was younger and more innocent (and asexual, though this thought didn't occur to me as much as a lad) than Indiana Jones; and at times Tintin got into trouble more by sticking his nose into other people's business when things struck him suspicious, rather than venturing forth for his own gain. But these beautifully illustrated comic books captivated in much the same way as Raiders, and the stories took Tintin from England, the character’s home base, all over the globe: from South American jungles to Tibet, from fictional countries to, yes, the moon (before anyone really set foot on it).



Belgian artist Hergé began Tintin as a serialized newspaper strip, before segueing to comic book form. Quite a few of the best stories were written before, during and right after WWII, so Hergé, an anti-fascist who tried to remain apolitical due to worries about Gestapo censorship—and worse—in his occupied country, certainly knew the territory. In that period Tintin was more an explorer like Indy, rather than a reporter (lest he sniff out something the real-life ruling fascists didn't care for). The earliest Tintins, in the 1930s, also had elements of discomfortingly dated racial portrayals, though now it seems clearer that Hergé's work tended to be a sign of the times without much maliciousness to the caricatures; as a judge recently ruled, Hergé's intent was not racist in Tintin in the Congo even if some of the drawings sure seemed that way. But you can trace his progression as an artist and observer reading through to his later work (the last, Tintin and the Picaros, was published in 1976).

In the 1970s and 80s, Tintin had more of a cult following in America than a widespread audience, even though he'd been popular around much of the rest of the planet for decades.


The Coming of Tintin, and his cast of characters

What also got me interested in Tintin was Hergé's skilled penmanship, his eye for detail and characterization. His drawings had a cartoony feel when the moment required it and yet managed a sense of realism as well. Captain Haddock's temper tantrums ("Blistering barnacles!") saw his face explode into a pustule of red--even redder if he'd been drinking his favorite Scotch whiskey.

Those supporting characters provide extra life alongside the occasionally wan Tintin. The behatted identical Thom(p)son Twins (played in the film by Simon Pegg and frequent partner in crime Nick Frost) were always comic relief, bumbling about as if in a silent comedy. One of the more irritating characters, the hard of hearing Professor Calculus, is not in the new film; I’d assumed its makers had the same reaction to the books’ constant string of “Calculus mishears something” gags, but rumors have it that The Calculus Affair may be the second Tintin film.

Background citizens, villagers, cops, elderly couples, innkeepers—extras in this very cinematic layout—were drawn with a level of detail not normally given less important characters. And animals were given their due in Hergé's world—from bosomy opera singer Mme Castafiore's squawky parrot to mischievous monkeys to Tintin's famous canine sidekick Snowy, who talked to the reader, even if his cohorts frequently ignored him.


Hergé’s Influence

As much as the adventurous plots stand out, especially with the action-paced film finally here, it's Hergé's style and artwork that may have had the most influence.

Cartoonist Tezuka (creator of Astro Boy), a "God of Comics" and "Godfather of Anime" in Japan, openly stated his love of Tintin and Hergé's style, and you can see it in his cartoon work, as well as in Miyazaki’s, with the mixed color palettes and the absurd and fantastical side-by-side with the grounded. Other modern illustrators who’ve cited Hergé as an influence include Jessica Abel, Daniel Clowes, Phoebe Gloeckner and Chris Ware (as divulged in the recent documentary, Tintin and I—worth a watch for those wanting more insight on Hergé himself).

An avowed fan of cinema from a pretty early age, it's not surprising that there was already a cinematic eye in Hergé's panel-to-panel stories, which were often so packed with detail a reader had to go back multiple times to see what they missed—thus the pleasure of re-reading—but he liked a clear line style, which kept the action and scenery in each panel easy to follow.


Previous Attempts

Tintin was adapted quite a few times before, though most of these are rarely seen here. A Canadian-made animated series debuted in the early 90s—when I was in college and the only one of my friends who’d even heard of the character, yet alone was excited about this series—and was shown in the States on HBO. Adapting most of Hergé’s stories, it kept close to the books in style (even at times transposing the artwork directly to the screen) but toned down some violence and heavy drinking for kids’ eyes. But it was a bit too faithful, ending up pleasant but dull. Around the same time the BBC did a series of radio adaptations which were more spirited than the cartoon, and featured an excellent voice cast, including Leo McKern, a perfect Haddock. There were also two French features in the ‘60s, though oddly not directly based on the comics; and a long-forgotten 1969 Belgian animated film Tintin and the Temple of the Sun.

The new film’s script twines several of Hergé's comics into one; while it makes sense to have two of them together, Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham's Treasure were a two-part connected story, adding elements from an unrelated third, Crab With the Golden Claws (first published in the 1940s), muddles the story a bit more than necessary. But the spirit of the thing seems intact, and it’s clearly been made by artists who, like myself, grew up adoring the comics.

What keeps Tintin treasured, separate even from whether a prominent film had ever seen the light of day, is the spirit of fantastical adventure, the vivid characters and this hyperreal world as penned by his creator. This boy reporter had experiences any of us could only dream of, or, if we couldn’t dream of it, Hergé did so for us.

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