Considering 'Tintin' in the 21st Century

It has been amusing to read some critics' complaints about Steven Spielberg's new, animated adaptation of the Tintin comics. Not enough character development, they say. Not enough humanizing details. And this sea captain, drunk and bellowing all the time, what a bore!

I haven't seen the movie yet, and I have my own skepticisms about it. But to a longstanding fan of the comics themselves, written and drawn by the Belgian artist Hergé, complaints about characterization sound kind of funny. It is true that despite being the star of two dozen long-form adventures (graphic novels published years before anyone had thought to invent the term), Tintin comes with little by way of backstory. From his first appearance in Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, in 1929, to the unfinished Tintin and Alph-Art, published three years after Hergé's 1983 death, the intrepid hero is referred to only as a young reporter. His age is hazy—somewhere around 16 or 17—and there is no mention of his family or any life at all outside his globe-trotting expeditions. He is curious, courageous, always accompanied by his mischievous dog, Snowy, and always on the side of the little guy against the bully.

The other regular players in the series are scarcely more well-rounded. There's the drunken Captain Haddock, the absent-minded Professor Cuthbert Calculus, and the bumbling investigative team of Thomson and Thompson. The conceptual sparseness and repetitive gags set up by these literally two-dimensional characters could be serious limitations. But Hergé uses them as a springboard for wide-ranging escapades, and for his clean, stripped-down pen-and-ink drawing. Like a few other comic masters of his era and a little after—I'm thinking especially of Crockett Johnson and Charles Schulz—Hergé works in bold, elegant lines against minimal backgrounds. The storytelling is as much in the expressive faces and kinetic motion of his characters' bodies as it is in the dialogue and narration.

I grew up on Tintin books, which my comic-collecting father discovered some time in the 1970s. We eventually acquired nearly the entire series, and I re-read them until I could recite dialogue and run pages of panels through my head in order. It was conceived of as a comic for boys, an adventure series in which a young, scrawny male protagonist defeats bigger, stronger adversaries through his wits and derring-do. Tintin's scant personal history, the absence of any worried parents or nagging letters from home, is deliberate. As Philip Pullman, author of the young-adult fantasy series His Dark Materials, has written, "I like Tintin's blandness, his blankness, his lack of depth; he is an empty page on which adventures can be drawn."

I also liked Tintin's obscurity. At the time I first read the books, I had a few other friends who were fans, but we were a small cultural island. Hugely popular across Europe (the books have sold 200 million copies worldwide), Tintin was unknown enough in America to feel like a secret. His treks through Egypt (Cigars of the Pharaoh), Peru (Prisoners of the Sun), the Middle East (Land of Black Gold), and even to the moon, seemed all the more exciting for being ours alone. I am curious to see whether the new movies, if they are hits, will prompt a revisiting of these 30- to 80-year-old comics.

Of course, if they do, it will be accompanied by a familiar current of controversy. Tintin has always been politically and culturally complicated. That first book, about the Soviets, was written as explicit anti-Bolshevik propaganda at the behest of a right-wing Belgian newspaper publisher. It was followed by Tintin in the Congo (1931), which is full of nasty racial stereotypes that kept it from even being translated into English until 1991. And in subsequent adventures, it is hard to ignore the tendency for villains to be various shades of brown, whether they're Latin American strongmen, Incan priests, or murderous Arabs. There is also the not-small matter that during World War II, Hergé continued to produce Tintin strips for a newspaper that was the mouthpiece of the Nazi-occupied government of Belgium. (He later apologized for this "huge error.")

And if you're looking for strong female characters, or any female characters at all, you'll need to look elsewhere. Tintin might be of an age when you'd expect him to have some interest in the other sex (or in some kind of sex, at least), but the comics are written for boys still in the ew-cooties phase. They imagine a world where women aren't so much secondary as simply not around.

So given all of that, what makes these stories worth preserving, much less converting into bazillion-dollar 3D spectaculars? Beyond the obvious and undeniable strength of the artwork, I might be hard-pressed to make a coherent argument. The world Tintin inhabits and represents, seen from a modern adult perspective, seems cramped and problematic. But I read them when I was 8 or 9 years old, when finding a realm of endless adventure—of sunken ships and spy rings and opium smugglers—nestled inside the panels of those slim, 60-page books felt like something magical. I find it hard now, in retrospect, to naysay their vividness and imagination. I don't know if Tintin is really a hero for the 21st century. Moviegoers will decide that this holiday season. I'm just glad to have encountered him when I did.