By Robert Lloyd
November 23, 2011
Description: Tintin (Jamie Bell) and Snowy in The Adventures of Tintin. (WETA Digital Ltd.)
Tintin (Jamie Bell) and Snowy in "The Adventures of Tintin" (WETA Digital Ltd.)
Los Angeles Times television critic Robert Lloyd is a longtime “Tintin” fan and he will be writing a series of posts on the heritage of the character. This installment explores: Who is Tintin?
Tintin is a young Belgian reporter of somewhat indeterminate age, the central figure in Hergé’s world-beloved comic-strip/comic-book series “The Adventures of Tintin.” I say “reporter,” because he is at times described as one, but apart from asking a lot of questions he is almost never shown at work. (Indeed, in the stories he is more reported upon than reporting.) Nevertheless, the notion of the job gives the character a reason to travel and frames a life of investigation and adventure; it also made him, for a while, a figure both in and of the newspaper that first published “Tintin,” Belgium’s Le Vingtième Siècle, in its children’s supplement, Le Petit Vingtième.
A cousin of such 20th century American young-adult heroes as the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift, Tintin is no longer a boy, nor quite yet a man. (“It’s difficult to say,” Hergé once told a teenaged interviewer who asked the character’s age, and then settled on 17.) But he is manly in a way that boys were once told to strive to be: athletic, brave, loyal, cool-headed, polite. In any case, neither his friends nor foes, all his senior, treat him as a child; practically speaking, he is more adult than any of them. His virtues are, essentially, Boy Scout virtues — Hergé had enthusiastically been a Scout himself — and in early drawings Tintin markedly resembles his predecessor Totor, the star of a strip Hergé had written for Le Boy-Scout Belge.
His origins are never discussed. He comes into being at the moment we meet him, in 1929, on a railroad platform, bound for Moscow, and dissolves, almost metaphysically, into the series of sketches that make up the last panels of “Tintin and Alph-Art,” unfinished at the time of Hergé’s death in 1983. He does not age, but he does evolve, becoming more and more of a fleshed-out, one might almost say “ordinary” human being as the years go on. In the last books, it has been noted, he is as much acted upon as acting, less keen to go adventuring, but still willing to do what’s necessary.
Visually, too, he becomes more lifelike with time, his at-first spherical head stretching into an oval, his body language and features growing ever more expressive. Some basic elements maintain: the button nose, the dotted eyes, the back-swept quiff Hergé gave his hero to make him easily recognizable from frame to frame, and he wears his increasingly old-fashioned plus-fours almost to the end of the series, when he finally gets a pair of jeans. (One byproduct of the translation of Hergé’s drawings into a more conventionally realistic “three-dimensional” figure for Steven Spielberg’s computer-animated “The Adventures of Tintin” is that the movie-related merchandise features a Tintin who bears only the faintest trace of his creator’s hand.)
He has no parents, but he is not an orphan, and lives independently with his dog, Snowy. His friends are his family; eventually, he will share a house with some of them. He has no romantic life, real or imagined, but this is true of nearly every character in “The Adventures of Tintin.” His closest relationships are with Snowy, and the irascible, imaginatively profane, whiskey-drinking (later not-drinking) Captain Haddock. And he has a sort of transcendental affinity with Chang Chong-Chen (Tchang Tchong-Jen in the French original), a Chinese boy he saves from drowning in “The Blue Lotus” (1936) and, on the evidence of a dream, goes looking for in the Himalayas in “Tintin in Tibet” (1960).
He is, of course, good — pure of heart, mind and deed, yet neither a prude or a prig. (Offered alcohol, he will politely demur; as a European, he has no issue with drinking, only impatience with drunkenness.) He is comfortable in other cultures and around different ways of thinking. A hero in an age of accelerating travel, he can drive, fly or pilot any machine that comes to hand, but he’s also at home on a horse or a camel. He is slow to anger, but not immune to it, and though he can be too trusting for his own good, he is usually the first to notice the out-of-place thing or strange behavior that signals something wicked his way comes.
Next: Who was Hergé?