19 Mar Why I Love Tin Tin

I was twenty when I first read the Tin Tin comic strip. I found it in a small shop that specialized in magazines and newspapers. These shops are rare nowadays, but back then most cities had one or more. The best “newsstands” had periodicals from all over the world. The shop I visited was such a place and there, in a stack, were the Tin Tin magazines — they were printed in sumptuous full color, every page a feast for the eyes, and each magazine contained one long tale about the boy reporter’s adventures.

Georges Remi (1907–1983) — known as Hergé — was the Belgian artist and writer who invented Tin Tin in 1929. For the next two decades he serialized the boy’s adventures, then in 1950 he collected these in series of books, each about 50 pages long. They were wildly popular, have been translated into 70 languages, and continue to entertain adults and children alike. Hergé was among those rare talents who could play to both audiences. The people he draws are caricatures that children find funny and engaging but these characters’ surroundings are stunning renderings of places most adults would find fascinating. The vivid and meticulous artwork drew me in first.

Then there are the stories, each containing just the right mixture of comedy, drama, culture, politics, intrigue, and mayhem. Tin Tin himself is an enigma. He appears to be sixteen-years-old but he could be twenty. Like a boy circa 1940, he wears knickers (always), not trousers. He has no parents, no romantic attachments, and seems to have no close friends except his faithful terrier and an alcoholic sea captain. He is supposedly a reporter, though it’s a wonder how he stays employed, since he’s always running off to solve a mystery whose solution will save many lives, if not the world.

Tin Tin’s purity — his derring-do, his unwavering confidence, his unshakeable ethics — makes him the nearly perfect boy hero. But he isn’t perfect because he is often duped: he makes his share of mistakes. Still, he always triumphs and, as we might expect, his victories never go to his head. The genius of Hergé’s invention was that Tin Tin had to be this pure in order for the adventures to work. The counterweight to Tin Tin’s purity is the world of corruption, conspiracy, venality, and deception. If Tin Tin were more complicated, he would distract us from seeing this world as fully as Hergé hoped we would.

Most Americans had not heard of Tin Tin until Steven Spielberg/Peter Jackson’s recent recreation of the boy’s adventures as an animated feature film (2011). I put off seeing the film for a year because I didn’t want to be disappointed. But Spielberg and Jackson were faithful to the original and the film turned out very well. The likeliest explanation as to why most Americans hadn’t heard of Tin Tin is that we Americans don’t cotton to foreign heroes. Or put another way: we Americans have more than enough homegrown heroes to go around. Tin Tin is European through and through: In the movie, he has an English accent; in actuality, his accent would have been French. None of his adventures (with one exception) take him anywhere near the U.S.A.

That, for me, is one of the appeals of his stories: they feel quite exotic. The primary appeal, though, is the boy’s simplicity: he wants to make the world right. So does his dog, Snowy, who doesn’t talk but whose thoughts we can see (in thought bubbles). During my last two years of college, I bought nearly all 23 of Tin Tin’s adventures. Each was the same cost as an admission to a movie. But, with a Tin Tin magazine, I could linger over the beautiful drawings and escape in ways a movie wouldn’t allow me. And I, too, wanted to make the world right. Hergé’s stories allowed me to dream impossible dreams.

For the most part, Hergé’s heart is in the right place. Rarely does Tin Tin wield a gun and, despite the ill-treatment he receives at the brutal hands of his adversaries, the intrepid boy never kills anyone. Although Hergé’s depiction of Africans is appalling, he does better with stereotypes than most of his peers. In The Blue Lotus, for instance, Tin Tin befriends a Chinese street urchin and declaims against the prevailing stereotypes about the Chinese. Irrespective of race or class, fair play prevails, albeit sometimes with a patronizing air.

To this day, I treasure my Tin Tin collection because, when things get really tough, I’ll retreat to my study with a Tin Tin story and sigh with relief as Hergé takes me on a journey in the good company of a honest young man and his ever-faithful dog — to solve a mystery and maybe save the world.