For almost the past forty years, at least since Pelé came to New York, people have been saying that soccer is about to break through in America, that it’s poised to be the sport of choice for the next generation of fans. While we’re still waiting for a signature event that proves the predictions right, the victory’s already been quietly won. The sport hasn’t transcended football or baseball to become our National Pastime, but it’s firmly established a place for itself in our recreational life. Kids spend summers in soccer camp, Sounders scarves are visible all over town, and the average attendance at Major League Soccer games is actually slightly higher than it is in the NBA or NHL. By any realistic standard, it’s a huge success.
That trajectory reminds me of the career of a certain adolescent journalist. Tintin was created in the late 1920s by a Belgian cartoonist named Georges Remi, who used the pseudonym Hergé (the French pronunciation of his initials in reverse). His comic strip, featuring the adventures of a cub reporter who travels the world solving mysteries and righting wrongs, was an instant hit that spawned twenty-four books over the next sixty years and an immeasurable mountain of merchandise that continues to grow. In many parts of the world, Tintin is as recognizable as Mickey Mouse, and for years his fans have been wondering when he’ll receive his due here in the States.
Many thought that this was his year, since the button-eyed, blank-faced boy with the irrepressible hair was briefly at the center of a media spotlight, thanks to Steven Spielberg. His action-packed movie version of Tintin has done very well abroad, but seems to have made only a middle-sized splash domestically. A few purists hated the transfer from page to screen, and an equal number of would-be attendees probably skipped it saying, “Who’s he?” Those of us who did give it a try enjoyed a good old-fashioned romp with plenty of derring-do and slapstick, kind of an Indiana Jones for kids. It uses the motion-capture animation style that’s always been uncanny and creepy to me in the past, but I think it works here. If your family likes camel rides, plane crashes, swordplay, shipwrecks, fisticuffs, car chases, pirates, and treasure maps, grab some popcorn and check it out—it’s still in theaters around town.
Of course, the books themselves are the first place to turn. They’re literally and figuratively as colorful as can be, featuring exotic settings (from Arabian deserts to the arctic tundra to the high seas and even the moon) and sumptuous artwork. The characters are clearly and simply sketched, while the backgrounds are painstakingly drawn and accurately researched—those alone can provide hours of geeky delight to anyone interested in period detail—and the plotting is equally compelling. Like the old-time movie serials, the stories are a real roller coaster ride. They’re available in hardcover versions that pack three tales into each volume, but I recommend the larger format of the individual paperbacks.
The uninitiated can get a good idea of the special charm the series has by looking into Tintin: The Complete Companion by Michael Farr, which will also satisfy diehard Tintinologists. For an even more in-depth treatment, there’s the new biography of Georges Remi, Hergé, Son of Tintin by Benoit Peeters. A big part of the comic’s appeal is its childlike directness, but as always, things are messier backstage. Remi’s perspective on racial and colonial issues wasn’t exactly what one would call progressive even for his era, and his early work displayed some repugnant attitudes that had to be whitewashed in later years. As the popularity of his creation grew, some of his own personality was overwhelmed by that of his alter ego, and he was so insulated by fame that he continued to publish throughout the Nazi occupation of his country during World War II, apparently without realizing he was becoming a collaborator. Whatever human flaws Remi had, though, they weren’t shared with his ever-noble hero.
The film might not have been the smash Tintin needed to earn a spot on the Mt. Rushmore of American cartooning alongside Bugs Bunny and Snoopy, but it’s a reminder that, like soccer, he’s a European import who’s already made it in America.