Comics | Tintinology

Comics | Tintinology

In Steven Spielberg’s “motion-captured" 3D riot The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, actor Jamie Bell makes a dull Tintin, unsuccessfully armed with a glazed exterior. The most loyal of Tintin fans can’t dispute the intrepid boy’s innate dullness—although the worlds he inhabits and the characters he is after more than compensate for it. But in Spielberg’s cinematic showpiece, which is a breathless, drummed-up and conveniently cobbled together introduction to Tintin, the European boy-hero icon appears almost naive. Belgian creator Hergé’s wit is lost in the spectacle. The 3D skill in the film, possibly the best you’ve seen in the genre of live animation, can’t quite replace the visual intricacy of Hergé’s coloured panels.

A fan who watched a preview of the film early last month came out of the theatre, puzzled. “Great 3D, but I am offended," he said. He is a Bengali.

Tintin, played by Jamie Bell, and Captain Haddock, played by Andy Serkis, in The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, which releases in India on 11 November.

There has never been a dearth of Tintin fandom in India, especially Bengal. The film’s distributors realize this, and will release it in Asia and India (with 350 prints, a fairly large number for English films; Avatar has had one of the widest releases ever of a Hollywood film in India, with 800 prints) two weeks after the Europe release and three weeks before its release in the US. Tintin, a pre-World War II creation by Hergé, is a comic icon. It has been translated into around 80 languages in the world, each new translator adopting new names for characters (Milou, Tintin’s constant canine companion, became Snowy in English and Kuttush in Bengali. Tintin became Dindin in Chinese). American audiences, unfamiliar with Tintin, will be introduced to a stripped-down, Hollywoodized version of this European hero.

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Actor Jamie Bell (extreme left) and director Steven Spielberg (right) at the world premiere of the film in Brussels. Photo: Reuters

Tintin was the ideal comic hero in post-World War II Europe. His simple textbook heroism, belief in fair play and the courage to stand up to bullies was almost a moral voice for the sinning continent. He does not even acknowledge sex and active violence, although when he does have to pick up a gun in dire circumstances, he wields it like a pro. Read today, Hergé’s racism is striking. One of his earliest books, which was published in English just about a decade ago, Tintin in the Congo, stinks of racist portraits of African life and people—curly-haired, pouty-lipped men are shown sprawling at the feet of the small European hero.Hergé himself acknowledged a few years before his death that he was a product of 1940s’ enlightened Europe, which was ignorant and biased about most parts of the world. The only Indian references in the comics are brainless clichés, such as a reference to “The Maharaja of Gaipajama" (cow’s pyjamas). In Tintin in Tibet, in which there’s a detour through Delhi, Haddock tries to move a cow in the middle of a street, which leads to a hilarious ride ending in a taxi driven by, who else, a sardar.

Comic art: A still from The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn.

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The first Tintin comics arrived in a few cities in India in the early 1970s, about a decade before Doordarshan brought the world to our homes. Batman, Superman and other American comics were already available, besides phenomenally popular Indian comics such as Pran’s Chacha Choudhary, which found readers instantly after it launched in 1971. Tintin, then priced at around Rs20 per comic, was confined to a few in some cities, and wasn’t commonly stocked in book stores. But Tintin arrived quietly in Kolkata when Anandamela acquired the rights to serialize the comic.

Abhijit Gupta, a professor of English at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, says: “As a young boy, I was already into Batman and Superman. I remember the first few strips of Tintin in Anandamela. They blew my mind. It was a world of exotic locations and a boy who was quite ordinary, a contrast to the other superheroes. The drawings were a great hook. This was a seminal moment in Bengali childhood." It’s not only because of the Bengali’s fascination for strange sounds that Tintin is not an uncommon pet name in Bengal. Ajit Sarkar, 89, a Tintin fan, christened his restaurant on Kolkata’s SP Mukherjee Road six years ago. A huge poster of the reporter-detective and Snowy welcomes guests to this restaurant of Chinese food called Tintin Economic Chinese Restaurant. “I am still a fan and read the books whenever I can. Not many people thought it was a good idea but after the change in name, it was an instant success. It became much popular," Sarkar says. On the menu is Tintin special chowmein and fried rice. Sarkar also named his granddaughter Tintin, which, he says, is sometimes shortened to Tina.

Tintin comics in Bengali.

For the generation of Indian children and teenagers growing up in the mid-1970s, Tintin became a window to the world. Many in this generation later found more complex heroes and heroines in comics and graphic novels, but the appeal of Tintin remains. Arindam Adhikari, a 33-year-old graphic designer based in Singapore, and a collector of Tintin books and memorabilia, says: “I grew up in Bardhaman in Bengal and Tintin was an adventure in those days. The world became smaller for me and there was always that reassurance with Tintin that he was an ordinary guy and he always returned home after big adventures to small Belgium."

Tintin was never really a journalist; in all the 23 books, he hardly ever files a report. He often takes sides with the establishment and even in the hurly-burly of geopolitics and space, he never has an ideological stand. He is a safe superhero, if at all one. Mago says that more than children, Tintin’s appeal is to the 1970s’ generation, which introduced Tintin to their children. “There’s a whole nostalgia value attached to Tintin comics and that’s why it is never a poor seller," he says.

But any comic lover will tell you that it is easy to admire Hergé’s work purely on the basis of his extraordinary artwork. The clear, colourful panels with clean lines are busy but never vague in what they are trying to say. Depiction of movement is vividly cinematic. Doyle says: “He is acknowledged as the founding father of a school of comic art: the style known as ‘clear line’, and it has had a deep impact on the continental European comic world. However, that would be to overlook the fact that first and foremost, Hergé was a superb storyteller. There are other superlative exponents of comic art who have fallen by the wayside... This is best shown by the fact that his books have been turned into audio adventures in many languages, such being put on the radio by the BBC, and they still make excellent listening without the printed page!"

Spielberg’s film, unfortunately, is a perfunctory homage to both Tintin and his creator. The Americanizing is like an arriviste’s desire to introduce Tintin at home. Spielberg read his first Tintin after a critic compared his last Indiana Jones instalment with the comic book. He explains in his production notes how the little guy enamoured him and he became obsessed with him until the filming began. Hergé is reported to have said a few months before his death in 1983 that Spielberg was his choice of film-maker to take Tintin to the big screen.

Ironically, the artist expressed serious doubts about extreme American capitalism in his books. In Tintin in America, there’s moral exultation in Tintin refusing money for an oilfield, a journey in which he stands up for Indians expelled from their oil-rich lands.

Farr writes in Tintin: The Complete Companion: “Although later in life he would display some enthusiasm for America, developing, for instance, a friendship with Andy Warhol, this was by no means yet apparent. Even several Tintin adventures, like in The Shooting Star—significantly written during the oppressive war years—Hergé pits a European expedition led by Tintin against unscrupulous American rivals."

It’s safe to assume that Tintin’s new journey to the US, in mind-boggling technological garb, will be easier and a lot less meaningful than that.

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn will release in theatres on 11 November.


Market report

There’s a new set of hardcover books in stores, and the demand for ‘Tintin’ has been rising in the past two months

At book stores, and on Flipkart, the demand for ‘Tintin’ books, especially the sets, has always been high. Flipkart says the sale of DVDs of ‘Tintin’ cartoon films has gone up in the past few months.

Crossword has been selling approximately 175 sets of ‘Tintin’ books every year for the past three years, says Vatsala Bisen, deputy buyer, children’s books, Crossword. This is next only to ‘Asterix’ comics, around 250 sets of which are sold every year at Crossword stores. “The sales have increased by at least 20% in the past month, after the buzz around the movie," Bisen says. During this time, the price of one ‘Tintin’ comic has gone up from Rs375 to Rs425..