Skip to content

   

Essay: Tintin in America

In Europe and Canada, Tintin is as popular as Mickey Mouse and Bart Simpson are in the United States. Though the comic hero is still largely unknown in this country, his influence on American art and pop culture is more far-reaching than most people realize.

Tintin, the irrepressible, ageless boy reporter with his trademark blond-tufted coiffure and his faithful dog Snowy ("Milou," in French) was first serialized as a comic strip in the Belgian newspaper Le Vingtième Siècle in 1929. Due to paper shortages during World War II, creator Hergé's Adventures of Tintin were collected and published in book form. Packaged thusly as graphic novels, his comic adventures have sold more than 200 million copies in nearly 60 languages.

Cover of Tintin in the New World by Frederic Tuten

Hergé's use of uniformly rounded, clear lines inspired American Pop Art artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. Lichtenstein was commissioned to create a painting of Tintin and Snowy for the cover of the novel Tintin in the New World: A Romance by Frederic Tuten.

In his home country, as well as in France and the U.K., Tintin's popularity is immense, and his likeness is omnipresent. In addition to the books (about 24 in all, chronicling the hero's adventures over five continents, the Arctic Ocean, and even the moon), he exists in the form of calendars, beach towels, keychains, bed-sheets, pocket watches and model rockets; you can eat off his face on a Tintin dish or saucer. There are Tintin model cars, miniaturized versions of the various vehicles that figured into some of his adventures, the armored car from The Blue Lotus among them; his visage has appeared on a Belgian stamp; his face (and his trusty sidekick's) are minted on a 2004 euro coin. One die-hard fan offers an online step-by-step guide for painting a Tintin garage door.

And yet, in the United States, where Americans have all but perfected the business of merchandising cultural icons, Tintin is peripheral; the comic's popularity has never approximated the staggering proportions it receives elsewhere in the world. This is not for lack of trying: Hergé sent his Boy Scout hero to the States in four separate adventures. Where Europe has Tintin, America has Superman, suggests the cartoonist Seth, creator of Palookaville: "America adopted the superhero as its model (eventually) and this seems to have filled the same role for young children that Tintin filled for much of the rest of the world." Tintin has taken hold in America, but in ways that are less overt and marketed, in ways more deeply and subconsciously realized.

The ligne claire style of drawing, pioneered by Hergé in the panels of Tintin, made a resounding impact on the American art world. In ligne claire, which translates in English as "clear line," meaning Hergé used a line of equal thickness throughout each drawing: "[A]s it extends through each panel, it is nearly unvarying, always of similar weight and defining the objects it describes with the same threshold of detail," explains artist Phoebe Gloeckner, author of Diary of a Teenage Girl. No detail or aspect of the drawing is shaded, no part is given emphasis over another: the result is a deceptively simple, striking image.

Ligne claire paved the way for the American Pop Art movement, especially the paintings of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, both of whom acknowledged Hergé's impact. Warhol said simply, "Hergé influenced my work as much as Disney." Not only did the Pop artist incorporate the cartoonist's use of line and color into his silk-screen portraits, he adopted Hergé's style of working, too: starting around 1950, Hergé Studios was formed, allowing the Tintin artist to create his characters and supervise his dozen assistants, who actually drew the panels. The atmosphere may have inspired Warhol's Factory; in any case, the two artists famously met in 1972, when Warhol created a series of silk-screen portraits of Hergé. For his part, Roy Lichtenstein began to borrow from comics around 1961 with "blow-up" paintings like "Look Mickey," a couple of years later, paintings like "WHAAM!" and "Drowning Girl" show what became the artist's signature style combining ligne claire and bold color, à la Hergé, with Benday comic dots. Lichtenstein made the cover for Frederic Tuten's 1996 novel, Tintin in the New World, a work of fiction in which Tintin pops up in Macchu Picchu, a book many fans criticized for departing from the series and making Tintin a man.

Part of Tintin's enduring appeal lies in the fact that he has endured for so long, resisting change. In Hergé's comics, he never grew up: he was the boy reporter who never really seems to do any reporting; although he briefly traded his usual knickers for bellbottoms in the 60s, he never altered his hairstyle. But his sensibility also prevented him from attaining superhero status: "Tintin was fundamentally too sexless to really catch on in America," cartoonist Chris Ware says. America wanted Superman, but Tintin was Clark Kent. In order for America to accept Tintin, he had to be translated. "I've always loved Tintin," said Steven Spielberg, who is rumored to be in talks to produce a trilogy of films based on Tintin. "I think some of Indiana Jones was inspired by the books." Indeed, Indiana Jones, who is the same "age" as Tintin (born in 1912) and also a Boy Scout, is the intrepid boy reporter grown up: an adventuring hero and a bespectacled professor at heart who sports a fedora and a bullwhip instead of knickers.

Like Indiana Jones, Tintin is an Everyman hero, a stand-in for the reader, who is allowed to inhabit his stories as if they were the reader's own. And this is part of what is profoundly American and universal about Tintin: whether in China or the Congo, whether he is solving mysteries or saving lives, the real draw of Tintin lies in its classic, accessible mix of fantasy and adventure.

Rebecca Bengal is a writer whose fiction, nonfiction and photographs have appeared in publications such as The Believer, Southwest Review and Oxford American. Some of the artists she has written about include Joseph Cornell, Henry Darger and former cartoonist Julie Doucet. She is a contributing editor to Topic and American Short Fiction, and is at work on a novel and stories. She lives in New York and Texas.





Talk About This

Share This

It was obvious to me that Tintin in Tibet had to be the climax of an intense personal drama — played out so movingly by Hergé in the snowy and desolate plains of Himalaya. All I had to do was unearth the story...”

— Anders Østergaard