This year is the 90th anniversary of Tintin first appearing in print and the appeal of the Belgian reporter shows no signs of abating. In many ways this defies logic. The classic titles composed in the 1940s and 1950s, such as Red Reckham’s Treasure and The Calculus Affair, replete with telegrams, trilby hats, propellered aircraft and Citroen 2CVs, already looked dated when I discovered the books as a boy in the 1980s.
The earlier books are also decidedly un-PC. The Shooting Star – drawn by its Belgian author Hergé during the German occupation, and having as its villain the financier Mr Bohwinkel – is clearly anti-semitic. Most notoriously, Tintin in the Congo depicts Africans as rubber-lipped simpletons. Tintin in The Congo is uneasy reading for animal lovers, too: in it Tintin blows up a rhinoceros with dynamite.
His first adventure is the monochrome and frankly awful Tintin In The Land of The Soviets, published in the fiercely Catholic Le Vigntième Siècle newspaper in 1929, and in book form the next year. It is mainly anti-Bolshevik agit-propaganda. Its only redeeming feature is an amusing aside aimed at British Fabians, showing dim ‘English communists’ duped by Soviet propaganda.
Yet the books have sold 350 million volumes and have been translated into 70 different languages. They continue to delight readers of all ages, with Elon Musk admitting earlier this month that the design for his SpaceX Starship Hopper was inspired by the rocket in Destination Moon.
Tintin transcends time and politics. He has an eternal appeal because essentially he has no character. He is a blank slate. As the veteran Tintin authority, Benoît Peeters, recently told Le Figaro: ‘Tintin is a person who never grows old… He is a globetrotter devoid of psychology: he doesn’t have parents, nor children, doesn’t have a past, nor an age. He is an impossibility, an unreal person, asexual, anyone can identify with him.’ He doesn’t even have a surname.
Tintin is not just a blank canvas by character, but literally blank as Hergé drew him. He is without any discernible facial characteristics. His eyes are unadorned points; his eyebrows are simple bars. By contrast, the background in Tintin books are meticulously and precisely detailed, often based on real places. It’s this stark contrast that allows the reader to become the empty vessel immersed in such a realistic world.
Among Tintin’s character traits, or lack of them, the most telling is the absence of parents. It’s common in adventure stories for protagonists to have no parents, or for our hero to be an orphan. The Tintin books fit well into the ‘monomyth’ outlined by the Jungian anthropologist Joseph Campbell in his book, The Hero With The Thousand Faces (1949). He diagnosed the unifying narrative found in all human cultures through time: the hero with no parents who receives an unlikely calling, who embarks on a quest, befriends a buddy or buddies on his way, meets a wizened old man, is assigned tasks, before finally confronting and defeating the monster in his lair.
This ‘monomyth’ was found in Beowulf and the tales of King Arthur, and in living memory is the foundation for Tintin, Asterix, The Lord of The Rings, Jaws, Star Wars: A New Hope, The Matrix and Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone.
Hergé’s genius lies in being unoriginal and creating a bland, one-dimensional hero. Tintin’s appeal is not who he is: it’s what he stands for. ‘Tintin is based on universal values which have not expired’, as the Spanish Tintin authority, Enric Reverté, told the Catalan language newspaper, Ara, last week, ‘Amongst those are tolerance, friendship and pacifism.’