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My family is a camping family, and most school holidays we travelled great distances to beaches, snowfields and, occasionally, the desert. I eagerly awaited these holidays not for the destination (how much enthusiasm could I honestly rally for cross-country skiing?) but for my reading material: my mother is a librarian, and it was always a treat when she brought home a crate of books at the end of term (this was, after all, in the days before iPods and Nintendo DSi). And while most girls my age were reading The Baby-sitters Club, Nancy Drew and, if they were a little racy, Judy Blume, I got my early literary kicks out of Tintin.

First appearing in Belgian newspapers in 1929, Hergé’s The Adventures of Tintin became an almost instant phenomenon in the French-speaking world, and today the twenty-three books in the series have sold 200 million copies, translated into more than seventy languages. The comic has engendered many spin-offs, including a successful animated television series in 1991, which became the staple of children’s afternoon viewing across the globe. In 2011, a live-action film, starring Jamie Bell as Tintin and directed by Steven Spielberg, will be released.

What is it about this comic series that made it so popular, and so enduring? The Adventures of Tintin takes a simple formula: quiff-haired boy-reporter Tintin, wearing plus fours and trailed by his narcissistic talking dog Snowy, embroils himself in crime cartels, antiquarian thefts and political coups in locations as varying (and exotic) as the Belgian Congo, the Middle East, Soviet Russia, Peru and the moon. Tintin, who never once files a story, is an ageless, parentless and sexless individual, while Hergé imbues him with the morals of a Boy Scout – resourcefulness, courage, honesty and integrity – on his quest for truth and justice. Next to today’s wizards and vampires, Tintin may come off as a bit naff, but unlike comparable series, The Adventures of Tintin, depicting authentic cultural and political locales, offers an opportunity for armchair travel in episodic stories propelled by action, suspense and memorable characters.

It had been many years since I read Tintin when controversy in the UK, and then more recently in Belgium, once again piqued my interest. Early in 2010, a Congolese man living in Belgium applied to the courts to have Hergé’s second book, Tintin in the Congo (first serialised in 1930–31), banned from sale in Belgian bookstores. In Britain, there was a similar move to ban the book in 2007, sparked by a complaint to the Commission for Racial Equality, and the book is now sold there with a warning that some might find its contents offensive. (Perversely, sales rocketed after this decision, climbing at one point to fifth on the Amazon bestseller list.)

At the time, I read these reports somewhat warily: in an age of political correctness, it seems there isn’t a children’s book series free from controversy (Enid Blyton’s Noddy books immediately spring to mind for their unashamed racism, while for many years the Nancy Drew books have been criticised for their occasional racism and classism). But Tintin’s recent scandal got me thinking not so much about the undeniable problems with the books (racism, imperialism, Hergé’s Nazi affiliations, to name a few) but more about how we read differently as children; how much more immediate our responses are to the texts, unmediated by critical prejudice and political correctness, and how as adults we in some way re-read in the hope of recapturing some of that ingenuity. That is not to say that children are not perceptive of these cultural and social ineptitudes – their minds may be raw and impressionable but they are sharp and discerning, too. I wondered how differently I would read these stories, which had so entertained me with their mystery and intrigue during those long car rides, as an adult.

The Adventures of Tintin is the creation of Belgian artist and designer Georges Remi, aka Hergé (1907–85). Hergé was born in Brussels, and he began drawing the character Tintin in first serialised in Le Petit Vingtième, a children’s supplement in Belgium’s major Catholic newspaper, Le Vingtième Siècle. Tintin was a runaway success, increasing print-runs and giving the parent newspaper a considerable circulation boost. Hergé was himself bemused by the popularity of the cartoon – but when a colleague suggested the famous ‘Soviets stunt’, he soon realised his creation’s appeal.

One of the first adventures in Le Petit Vingtième was Tintin’s expedition to Soviet Russia. Once the adventure had run its course in the newspaper, staff at Le Petit Vingtième arranged for a young man resembling Tintin to be found, dressed à la Russe, along with an accompanying white dog, disembarking a train from Moscow. News quickly spread of ‘Tintin’s’ arrival home, and enormous crowds gathered to welcome him at Brussels’ Gare du Nord station. (The same was done after Tintin’s adventure to the Congo, where he returned in tropical gear and borne in a chair by African porters). La Vingtième Siècle soon began publishing the cartoon in book format, and in 1934 Casterman publishers bought the rights to the series.

Tintin begins life a reporter – and Hergé has inculcated him with intelligence, inquisitiveness (or nosiness) and determination. But as the series progresses, he becomes less a reporter than a detective. He is also a boy of staggering accomplishment – he can drive any sort of vehicle (including submarines, military tanks and aeroplanes), stoush with the biggest and meanest thugs, and perform all kinds of acts of physical endurance, such as swimming across breached rivers and shark-infested seas. And he is never afraid to put his life on the line for a friend, but after near-deaths, false imprisonments and occult curses, Tintin, and whosever’s cause he’s championing, will always prevail.

Reading the books again, I am reminded, in spite of these heroics, of how Tintin can still be a bit of a wowser; he never drinks, he rarely laughs or gets raucous – ‘Crumbs!’ is as crude as he gets. In fact, you’ll be hard pressed to get a laugh out of Tintin; most of Hergé’s humour is generated by other characters. Since first appearing in The Crab with the Golden Claws in 1940, Captain Haddock and his polysyllabic curses (‘Billions of blue blistering barnacles!’) have proved great comedic fodder – and relief – from the occasional goody two-shoes eponym. Haddock’s fallibility is remarkably endearing, his faults (alcoholism, a violent temper, irrationality and unreliability) humanise him, while he remains warm-hearted and generous with his friends.

There are other characters, too, who appear with entertaining regularity. There is Professor Cuthbert Calculus, Hergé’s amusing take on the ‘crazy scientist’, with an intricate brain and poor hearing; buxom soprano Bianca Castafiore, whose coloratura can literally crack glass; Nestor, Haddock’s loyal but inexpressive butler; General Alcazar, ousted president of San Theodoros and sometime knife-thrower; and Thomson and Thompson, the hapless detectives, identical in all other ways except for their moustaches. To French readers they are Dupont and Dupond, to Spanish Hernandez and Fernandez, and to Afrikaners Uys and Buys.

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The success of Tintin lies in the multifariousness of the comic – Hergé, ever the pedant, was fastidious in all elements of storytelling, whether it be in the narrative modes, the characterisation, the attention to social, cultural and geographical detail, or the stylistics of the artwork. The result is that Tintin is enjoyed on many levels, by many readers.

Hergé’s narratives can be, at times, complex – there are rewards for the astute reader. Ostensibly, however, his premises are straightforward: Tintin is going about his everyday business when he stumbles on crime/mystery. He is compelled to investigate, and adventure in all its forms ensues.

There are three genres at work in the Tintin series: the political (for example, The Blue Lotus, King Ottokars Sceptre, The Calculus Affair), the satirical (Tintin in the Picaros, Land of the Black Gold); and the fantastical (Destination Moon, Cigars of the Pharaoh, Red Rackham’s Treasure). My favourite of the series is The Seven Crystal Balls and its sequel, Prisoners of the Sun, which took four and a half years to complete. The first part of this adventure is infused with Hergé’s own sense of doom – at the time of drawing, World War II had reached a critical phase, suffering and death had mounted inexorably, and Belgium had been under German occupation for more than three years. On the one hand a tale of mystery and the occult, the two books can now be read as a subtle indictment of the Nazis, one that warns of terrible happenings to those who seek aggressive occupation of foreign lands.

Hergé hadn’t travelled to Peru, of course; his principal source of inspiration was a hefty volume called Pérou et Bolivie by Charles Wiener, published in 1880. In fact, much of Hergé’s travel was done late in life, with his second wife. The meticulous detail found in the series – whether it be the characterisation of British India, from the bungalows to the tiger-skin rugs and the Asiatic antiques; to notices in Chinese banning the dropping of litter on public thoroughfares and posters castigating imperialism; to Egyptian hieroglyphics – all came about through his own research.

Hergé’s style is unique, and from the first book, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets (1929–30), you can see his awareness of the avant-garde. Hergé loved abstract art, and had a particular interest in the Italian Futurist movement. In Michael Farr’s The Adventures of Hergé: The Creator of Tintin, Hergé discusses his artistic influences, which include Roy Lichtenstein, Miro, Monet, Botticelli, Jan Vermeer and Poliakoff. But Hergé was himself a pop-culture icon in his lifetime; Andy Warhol, who painted Hergé’s portrait in the 1960s, once remarked: ‘Hergé influenced my work as much as Disney … He had great political and satirical dimensions.’

Some problems in Tintin, nevertheless, are now impossible to disregard. Tintin in the Congo is, as Anthony Lane wrote in The New Yorker in 2007, ‘an unmitigated parade of racial prejudice.’ The book tells of Tintin’s adventure to Africa, where he encounters troubles with native tribes, herds of buffalo, an illegal diamond trading ring – and, at one point, blows up a rhinoceros with dynamite.

Hergé did go some way to retracting some of these negative representations. For example, a scene where Tintin teaches geography to a classroom of Congolese schoolchildren is altered in a later edition to a lesson in mathematics. In the original, Tintin is introduced by a Catholic priest and begins the lesson with: ‘My dear friends, I am going to talk to you today about your country: Belgium!’ Worryingly, the scene in which a native woman bows before Tintin, crying, ‘White man very great. White mister is big juju man!’ remains.

There are also other unpalatable biographical details that sour a contemporary reading. Hergé, some historians have claimed, was a Nazi sympathiser. This has been refuted by Hergé, his family, and his biographers – but there is no denying his affiliations with Nazi collaborators. Father Wallez, who launched his career at Le Vingtième Siècle, had fascist leanings; Hergé was friends with many supporters of the Nazi party and the Belgian fascists, the Rexist party. When the Nazis took over Le Soir, Belgium’s leading newspaper, Tintin moved. too – often appearing in the broadsheets next to Nazi propaganda. Hergé’s other lifestyle and design drawings were also printed side by side with anti-Semitic caricatures and for a time after Belgium’s liberation Hergé was indeed blackballed as a collaborator – largely due to this professional advancement under the Nazi regime.

Tintin’s detractors have always been far-flung; and the comic has been subject to critical scrutiny since its beginning. In the 1940s and 1950s, The Crab with the Golden Claws was censored in the US for Haddock’s alcoholism and the presence of African characters – the ‘mixing of races’ was deemed unsuitable for children’s books. In 1970, influential critic Patrick Thévenon famously (and rather absurdly) vilified Tintin in L’Actualité: ‘Tintin is a forty-year-old dwarf, a colonialist, and a zoophile, with homosexual tendencies to boot. This is the despicable character we set up as a hero for our dear little children.’

But overwhelmingly Tintin is celebrated as a series that has entertained generations of children (and adults), canonised in itself. There are those commentators, the growing band of exegetes – Tintinologists, as they call themselves – who go further in critical readings of the series, which may amuse some readers: they’re analysing what is, after all, a kids’ book. Jean-Marie Apostolides, for example, author of The Metamorphoses of Tintin, applies psychoanalysis and poststructuralism to a reading of the series; Hergé’s world is described as ‘a fictive universe [as] coherent, and as closed in on itself, as the world of Balzac’. Similarly, in Tintin and the Secret of Literature, British artist and novelist Tom McCarthy plots a frolic through Hergé’s oeuvre, assisted by the likes of Baudelaire, Freud, Sartre and Derrida.

I’m not sure that I agree with McCarthy when he writes that ‘the Tintin books remain both unrivalled in their complexity and depth and are so simple, even after more than half a century, that a child can read them with the same involvement as an adult.’ But he does touch on something fundamental to this article – the desire we all share to recreate the feelings from childhood; to be once again taken away from ourselves, to be inspired and excited. Perhaps that’s why my reaction to the recent race controversy was so atypical of my critical tendencies.

‘Leave Tintin alone,’ I thought to myself, irritated at this shadow cast over my memories of the books.

Tintin, it must be said, still remains thoroughly entertaining many years later: it is a genuine adventure series. And there are richer veins to tap for adult readers – indeed, Timothy Garton Ash, a British historian specialising in the culture of the Balkans, describes King Ottokars Sceptre as one of the most acute parodies every written – or drawn – of the region’s nationalist politics.

All the same, reading Tintin as an adult is not the same – how can it be? But that doesn’t really matter. What reading Tintin again reminded me of most was that exquisite feeling of inspiration, of how a child’s imagination can absorb and soar. Some stories should be best left to childhood, but those sensations, those flights of imagination, can always be replicated. All you need do is dust off those specks of corrosive cynicism that rust onto us all with age.