Just as the world is divided between men who wear Y-fronts and those who wear boxer shorts, a similar distinction applies in the land of comic books. You either like Astérix or you like Tintin. Over the last two decades, a certain snobbery has developed around this distinction. People who love Astérix regard themselves as superior to Tintin fans. While the Tintin stories are—from the point of view of their critics, at least— simple adventure tales written for children, the Astérix books have been regarded as the epitome of grown-up wit and satire.
Pit stop: Astérix aux Jeux Olympiques (Astérix at the Olympics) will premiere at the First Rendez-vous with French Cinema festival in Mumbai tomorrow.
The little man’s fight against the Romans is seen as an allegory for life, the names themselves are in-jokes (the musician is called Cacophonix—geddit?) and the humour is subtle and sophisticated. Small wonder then that Astérix gets to feature in big-budget movies with the likes of Gérard Depardieu in the cast while Tintin either is the subject of low-budget Sixties French movies (Tintin and the Golden Fleece) or of animated features.
However, I have a confession to make: I am a dedicated Tintin fan. I accept that Astérix may be witty and grown-up but the stories leave me cold. And as for all those clever, clever names, I guess they could call me Cuduntgivafukix. Every time I’m forced to read one of the books, I wish that the Romans win and that somebody tosses that hairy dwarf over a cliff. Nor do I have any interest in the creators of Astérix, two men with names like Gossini and Underwear, about whom I know nothing.
Tintin, on the other hand, is altogether more complex. His creator, the Belgian cartoonist Georges Remi, who used the pen name Hergé (his initials reversed and pronounced in French) was a controversial character who was denounced as a fascist (and a collaborator during the Second World War), a charge he always denied. (He may have been a racist though. A friend of mine interviewed him in the Seventies and was a little taken aback when Remi said, “Gosh, I’m tired. I’ve been working like a Black!” Then, seeing my friend’s shocked expression, he quickly added, “Though, of course, we are not allowed to use that expression these days.”)
Certainly, Remi always had a political agenda. The very first Tintin book, published in 1929 when lefty-liberals were singing the praises of Soviet Russia, had Tintin visit Moscow and discover that Bolshevism was a big con. (“Look what the Soviets have done to the beautiful city of Moscow: a stinking slum!” social commentator and architectural critic Tintin says early in the story.) Later books are full of such political comment and while this is all widely noted in Europe (France and Belgium, mainly), we in the English- speaking world are content to treat the stories as simple adventures.
Truth be told, I got into Tintin when I was 10 largely because there was nothing else available in India. (Nobody had heard of Astérix.) Even then the books seemed curiously dated. The Apollo space programme dominated the news but when Tintin went into space (Destination Moon), he did so in a cartoon-type rocket ship. And the Delhi of Tintin in Tibet bore no relation to the Delhi I knew (the airport was called Willingdon Aerodrome).
But it didn’t really matter. The drawings were of extremely high quality, the stories were so well-told that they remained gripping page-turners and I loved the characters. There was Tintin himself, the boy reporter who never filed a story or seemed to have any visible income. There was the mad genius, Professor Calculus. There were the twin detectives, Thompson and Thomson (whose name was used by the 1980s band, The Thompson Twins). And best of all, there was the drunken Captain Haddock whose favourite expression was “billions of blue blistering barnacles!” I didn’t know what a barnacle was but I loved the alliteration.
It’s a measure of how internationally adept the storytelling was that it wasn’t till I was 14 that I discovered that the stories were translations and that Tintin was French. My first thought was: How can the detectives be called Thompson then? That’s not a French name. As I grew older, I worked out that many—but not all—of the names had been Anglicized. Thompson was Dupont. Snowy, the dog, was originally Milou (he plays a Snoopy-like role in the original French stories but this was excised from the English books).
It took another five years for me to work out that the books were actually very old (Hergé wrote 14 books over 50 years starting from 1929 so by the time I started reading them, many of the stories were at least three decades old). And the moon rocket mystery was explained. The book came out in 1953, in the pre-Sputnik era, so the visual references were derived from Second World War V2 rockets rather than modern space capsules.
None of it mattered though. As with Enid Blyton, a great favourite of my early childhood, the storytelling was so gripping that readers lost all sense of time and space. Unlike Blyton, whose books lose their appeal the older you get, Hergé wrote at many different levels so adults could enjoy the stories in ways that children never really understood.
In recent years, there has been a Tintin revival. Last month, a Tintin play for adults packed the punters in at a London theatre (the highlight was Snowy, played by a man, not a dog). A recent book does a psychological (and largely sex-crazed) analysis of Tintin’s subtexts. (Though now that I think of it: why doesn’t Tintin have a girlfriend?
And what exactly is the nature of his relationship with Haddock, in whose house he lives? Could he be Tintin, Boy Catamite rather than Tintin, Boy Reporter?)
But the best news of all is that Steven Spielberg, a long-time fan, has now purchased the rights to the Tintin books and plans to turn them into big-budget Hollywood blockbusters. Apparently, Spielberg will resist the temptation to update the novels and will treat Hergé’s drawings as storyboards for the movies. If it all pans out then Tintin will become a global cult on par with Indiana Jones or Batman.
Which is more than you can say about the Gallic dwarf and his fat friend.
Write to Vir at firstname.lastname@example.org