Tintin's Final Fling With Fate
After 75 Years, the Comic-Strip Adventures Draw to a Close
By Barbara E. Martinez
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, June 12, 2004; Page C01
BRUSSELS -- On his 75th birthday, Tintin, the boy reporter who never grows old, has gotten himself into a bit of a scrape.
In "Tintin and Alph Art," the series's 24th and last book -- and the first new volume since 1976 -- our hero uncovers a fraudulent art scheme and tracks the perpetrators to the island of Ischia off the coast of Italy, where they have stored counterfeit paintings in a grand hilltop chateau.
The French version of "Alph Art," which was released in January, has sold more than 400,000 copies. An English edition has just been published in the United Kingdom. While Tintin publisher Casterman is searching for a U.S. distributor, Americans can buy the English edition on the Internet.
Tintin creator Georges Remi, known by the nom de plume Herge, died in 1983 before he could finish "Alph Art" and left instructions that no one else should write Tintin stories. A draft of "Alph Art" was among his papers and has been published in a large collectors' edition. The new book, however, extracts a meaningful narrative from the draft.
Casterman decided to release the book to mark the 75th anniversary of the comic strip's first appearance in the Brussels newspaper Le Petit Vingtieme in January 1929. That first tale sent Tintin to the Soviet Union, where a host of communist operatives tried to sabotage his mission to tell the truth about the new republic. The strip was such a hit that hundreds of children went to Brussels's north station on the day the fictitious character was supposed to be arriving home. The crowd gave a hero's welcome to the boy scout enlisted to play the role of Tintin.
"Alph Art" has all the elements of classic Tintin: Throwing caution to the winds, the reporter travels to an exotic locale in search of justice (and presumably, a front-page story -- although the reader hardly ever sees Tintin write a word). His sidekicks, the dog Snowy and the blustering Capt. Haddock, accompany him. He encounters characters from past tales along the way, notably the oblivious opera singer Bianca Castafiore. And, of course, Tintin flirts with death and danger every few pages, escaping only with luck, pluck and the help of Snowy.
While Tintin fans will welcome a new story, they will also get a kick out of seeing Remi's creative process. Budding artists can see how Remi composed his drawings. The best and most complete sketches are enlarged to give readers a close-up of a car crash and other dramatic moments. Remi's attention to detail appears in the notes he made to himself, such as on Page 29, when he mulled over which type of car Capt. Haddock should drive: "R.16? V.W.?"
Remi sent Tintin all over the world. The intrepid reporter visited America, where he encountered gangsters in Chicago and Indians in the Wild West, to the Congo, where he taught a classroom of African children about Belgium (the subject was changed to arithmetic in later editions). Tintin even landed on the moon. On the way, his spaceship executed a risky somersault in midair so that it could land right side up (after having taken off from Earth pointing straight at the moon, of course).
When Le Petit Vingtieme went out of business after the German occupation of Belgium at the beginning of World War II, Remi and Tintin moved on to Le Soir, a collaborationist newspaper that is still one of Belgium's top dailies. In 1946, Remi became the artistic director of Le Journal de Tintin, a comic book that published the adventures of Tintin along with stories created by other artists.
In Brussels, the Belgian Comic Strip Museum chronicles Remi's career as well as those of his contemporaries. Belgium's capital could be considered the capital of comics. Comic strip characters pop up in murals around the city; every shopping district has at least one store for contemporary comic books; and downtown there are at least two stores for vintage comic books and comic art.
The museum unveiled a new, permanent exhibit about the Tintin books earlier this month, in celebration of the 75th anniversary. Also in Brussels, the historic Halles Saint-Gery is hosting an exhibit called "Tintin in the City." In French and Dutch, the exhibit studies Remi's drawings of cities and his references to Brussels in particular. Meanwhile, Britain's National Maritime Museum in Greenwich is presenting an exhibit about Tintin's voyages at sea.
"Alph Art," which Remi was working on at the time of his death, is different from his other Tintin books because the author left the poor little reporter doomed. At the end of the tale, Tintin has encountered lifelike sculptures that entomb their subjects. On the final square Remi drew, Tintin is about to be coated with liquid polyester, buried alive within a sculpture.
Perhaps Snowy will once again come to Tintin's rescue.
Remi's first book abounds with such daring escapes. Thrown in a jail cell, he breaks through the wall and uses the scuba gear conveniently left in the corner to swim to safety. Tintin later survives a plane crash but has damaged the propeller beyond repair. No matter! He whittles a new one out of a tree trunk.
The first book was written before Remi refined the series, adding characters such as the twin detectives Thomson and Thompson, who, according to the Comic Strip Museum exhibit, provide humorous breaks in the narrative. Capt. Haddock, on the other hand, added an emotional outlet to the tales. The captain shouts, laughs and weeps while Tintin keeps his eye on the action.
Despite Tintin's apparent doom, fans could easily imagine him saved at the end of "Alph Art." But Remi left no hint of how he would rescue Tintin. His story ends in the middle of a page, with horizontal lines drawn out for a few more strips. The book includes an appendix with additional drawings that did not fit into the story arc. One of those shows Tintin drowned in plastic.
Comic strips tackled the marvels and horrors of the 20th century. World wars, space travel, epidemic disease, totalitarianism -- Tintin and other comic heroes saw them all, and survived. Remi might not have intended it, but an uncertain ending, on the other hand, seems more appropriate to the 21st century, with so many new dangers and uncertainties.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company