How Hergé’s boy reporter invented the Hollywood blockbuster.

Tintin in the Land of the Soviets
Tintin in the Land of the Soviets

Ilustration by Hergé.

When news that Steven Spielberg planned to make a movie of Tintin, the Belgian comic-book hero, first circulated a few years ago, responses among critics ranged from leeriness to undisguised confusion. “I fear this well-financed new imagining of Tintin will smother my own lifelong construct,” fretted Charles Trueheart in the Weekly Standard. “Spielberg Takes On Tintin, but Why?” a headline in the New York Observer asked. Tintin—a young, adventure-prone reporter created in the late 1920s by Georges Remi, aka “Hergé”—has sold more than 200 million books in more than 50 languages, yet the character remains, to American eyes, a product on par with the likes of ABBA or the metric system: odd, limited, and, for all its global pop charisma, something of an offbeat interest on our own, warier cultural shores.

That circumspection may stem, in part, from the character’s mien: Unlike many stateside heroes, Tintin is a picture of unmanly perfection, a scrawny youth who does his best work in a pair of loose-hanging, unfashionably vintage golf pants. Part, too, may pertain to the creator: Fans tend to know Hergé was briefly imprisoned for his contributions to a Nazi-backed newspaper during the Belgian occupation. Mostly, though, Tintin’s limited stateside reputation is a consequence of limited exposure, and it’s that oversight Spielberg’s film is trying to correct. Inspired by the story lines of three classic Hergé books, The Adventures of Tintin traces a breakneck path across two continents as the young hero; his precocious dog, Snowy; and their chronically soused seaman friend, Capt. Haddock, follow long-hidden clues in pursuit of sunken treasure. The movie finds its heroes swashbuckling, crashing planes, stumbling through the desert, chasing ne’er-do-wells by motorbike, and initiating in all manner of high-speed pursuit. What’s striking, though, isn’t how much license the movie takes. Spielberg’s wild, Hollywood-flavored adaptation is, if anything, a fulfillment of Hergé’s ambitions for the comic and an endpoint on the trail he long ago started to blaze.

Since Tintin first appeared in early 1929, he has presented something of a Janus face to those who might admire his exploits. On one hand, there is the brainy boy reporter—patron saint of bookish children, virtuous young men, and (judging from the flurry of confessional tributes that tend to crop up in print) servants of the Fourth Estate. On the other, there’s the rakehell action hero who has no compunction about clocking punches, stealing property, dropping bigoted remarks, and shirking his professional tasks. Tintin is a journalist in the sense Jake Barnes is a journalist: The profession gives him a job title and the resources to roam as “world reporter number one,” even as we never see him doing work that might garner the backing of an editor. Unlike Jake Barnes, though, he is curiously immune to anything resembling a worldly pleasure. Tintin rarely eats or drinks to excess. He is not much given to sightseeing, despite his frequent travels. His erotic life, in Hergé’s books, is so starkly unrealized as to provoke wild speculation. One recent Tintin close reader, Jean-Marie Apostolidès, proposed that every bursting Champagne bottle is a proxy for the man-child’s repressed homosexual desire. Elsewhere, it has been suggested Tintin has an unsavory interest in his dog.  

For decades now, Tintin’s puzzling affect and quiet ambiguities have made the Hergé books a nesting ground for scholarship. A look through the literature of “Tintinology” turns up psychoanalytical exposition, semiotic analysis, historical criticism, and more—all based on the idea that there’s more to Hergé’s images and bubbled prose than meets the eye. This may be something of a wishful notion: Hergé’s chief goal in drawing Tintin was “clarity,” he said, not murky suggestion. And children (even in France) rarely get pulled into a comic book by semiotic gravity.

Why does Tintin remain both wildly popular and hauntingly enigmatic? For all of the close-reading at hand, the answer pertains less to the books’ details, which tend to be confectionary and forgettable, than to the form and style in which they appear. Hergé was a workhorse of an artist whose great achievement ultimately showed up not on the page but on-screen: The Tintin books helped to create the style of the modern blockbuster, and, even now, bridge the gap between a literary audience and a cinematic one. In some sense, Spielberg is realizing Tintin more than just adapting him.

This cinematic style of the 23 Tintin books wasn’t a creative accident. When Hergé began drawing Tintin, he was working as an illustrator for a conservative-Catholic Brussels newspaper, Le Vingtième Siècle (“the 20th century”), and charged with producing images for the paper’s Thursday children’s supplement, Le Petit Vingtième. Yet even as he started staking out territory in the comics pages, he had ambitions to move beyond them. As Pierre Assouline explains in his biography, Hergé, the author’s model for visual narrative was the nascent film industry, with Tintin’s precursor—a strip about a scout, “Totor”—often ending with the credit “Hergé Moving Pictures.”

In his imagined role as a director of his own, small comic-pane productions, Hergé seems to have trained himself in pacing, ellipsis, and juxtaposition. The first Tintin adventure, which became his first book, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets (1930), forwent the plodding, pane-by-pane mises-en-scène of most early comics in favor of an urgent montage and forward-driving plot. To this kinetic form, he added two elements then missing from the screen: continuous dialogue (Hergé was among the first European cartoonists to use speech bubbles, rather than captions) and a peripatetic, almost epic sense of narrative scale.

Tintin in the Land of the Soviets is primitive by the standards of the mature comic: It’s illustrated in simple black-and-white line drawings, rendering Tintin’s iconic pate as just a silhouette with flat dots for features. Yet Hergé’s distinctive pacing style comes through: By 12 panes in, a bomb has exploded on a train. Three pages later, Tintin and Snowy steal a motorcycle and sidecar to escape from a police station en route to Moscow. Here and in the books that followed, it is rare for Hergé to hold one visual “shot” for more than two panes and unusual for him to let more than half a dozen pass in a single, unchanged setting. The Land of the Soviets also set a plotting template that the artist never abandoned: Our hero embarks on an innocuous adventure or relaxes around town, stumbles into the wake of a seemingly minor crime, and follows it onto the trail of a larger and more sinister scheme.

That kind of action-packed cold open and converging plot is today so basic to the mystery-adventure genre on-screen, it’s easy to forget how fresh it must have seemed in early 1929—a moment when European movies were still mostly silent, theatrical in scope and pace, and suffused with editing-room style. Hergé’s stories were new and energetic on the page, but they can also be read, more illuminatingly, as fantasies of what the screen might one day be able to do: Here was a “director” who could execute his vision—in full color, no less—without having to make concessions to technology, budget, or even cinematic mores surrounding violence.

The result allowed for a new kind of hero to take shape. Tintin is unfailingly intrepid, moves in a world of luxury cars (many models, like the Jaguar Mark X, are readily identifiable in illustration), and has an easy genius for escape tactics. He can also migrate among continents with no time loss, commandeer high-speed vehicles in a pinch, and use technology at least 10 years ahead of its time. (In 1954, three years before Sputnik went into orbit, he visited the moon.) Place the Tintin comics beside Krazy Kat or Superman, and they seem arch, talky, and fussy. Hold them beside a James Bond movie, and they read like source text.

The high-visual, high-speed, high-impact genre of cerebral adventure helps explain why readers flocked to Hergé on the page long before Sean Connery—or, for that matter, Jean-Pierre Melville—gained a spot on the marquees. “[M]y favorite Tintin stories are those with their feet on the ground,” Anthony Lane wrote in a 2007 New Yorker tribute. “Give me a rain, a running Tintin, the brewing of European intrigue, and the long, menacing goods of enemy cars: at times like these … Hergé slots into a position next to John Buchan, Graham Greene, and the Ruritanian fantasies of Anthony Hope.” Yet it was also Hergé’s forward-thinking on this front that made the comics seem so puzzling when the world caught up. Before the postwar explosion in action entertainment, Tintin seemed to bear a literary style forward, into vivid living color. After that approach went mainstream, though, Tintin began to resemble a stylized print adaptation of new media. The character’s earnest exploits took on airs of irony. By the mid-1960s, Roy Lichtenstein was citing Hergé as an influence.

The story of Tintin’s adventure through 20th-century culture, in other words, is the opposite of his peregrinations through the books. Here, rather than chasing a scheme across the globe and back again, our hero stands still as the world around him spins. (Or nearly still: A cautious Hergé edged away from geopolitics during World War II, giving the stories that followed a fantastical gloss.) A lot of critics have suggested Spielberg’s Tintin movie is cast in the mold of his Indiana Jones films, but this verdict seems to have the influence backward. The director first read Tintin in 1981, the year he made Raiders of the Lost Ark, and immediately recognized it as material he wanted to put on-screen—if there’s a trail of influence there, it approached Hollywood via Belgium.* Spielberg hasn’t blockbustered Tintin. It was the boy detective who helped teach the master much of what he knows.

Now that knowledge, too, has passed on. The Adventures of Tintin begins with an animated credit sequence, done in graphic silhouettes, like the opening of Mad Men. The style is meant to conjure a retro mood for the movie, and it succeeds. Tintin in the movie house is charming, outrageous, quaint, and formulaic. It is hard to recall that these stories once stood for a world of possibility beyond the far frontier.

Correction, Dec. 29, 2011: This article originally misspelled Raiders of the Lost Ark. (Return to original sentence.)