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A scene from Steven Spielberg’s The Adventure of Tintin.
A scene from Steven Spielberg’s The Adventure of Tintin.

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Tintin and the mystery of Hergé Add to ...

Although not as obsessively self-referential as Alfred Hitchcock, the cartoonist Hergé shared the film director’s habit of making occasional cameo appearances in his own stories. Once you’ve seen a photograph of the Belgian artist with his blond hair, telephone-pole lean body and beaky nose, you can start playing a variation of Where’s Waldo? by looking for Hergé doppelgängers tucked away in odd corners of the 24 Tintin books he produced from 1929 until his death in 1983. One Hergé look-alike stands nonchalantly upright in a museum in The Broken Ear, while another is a rather gallant-looking cavalry officer in the royal court in King Ottokar’s Sceptre. Hergé adored Hitchcock and one trait he borrowed from the film director was a peekaboo sensibility, a desire occasionally to break away from the frame of the story and greet the audience with a sly wink. In the new movie, Spielberg pays homage to Herge's game of self-reference by including a Herge stand-in.

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The game of “searching for Hergé” does not have to be so literal-minded. More than a century after his birth and on the eve the North America premiere of Steven Spielberg’s Tintin blockbuster, Hergé remains an immensely popular cartoonist but also an enigmatic one. The Tintin books have sold more than 120 million copies in more than 40 languages. You can find Tintin shops devoted to Hergé’s boy’s adventures not just in his native Belgium but as far afield as Ethiopia, India and Japan.

Rather like the game of soccer, Tintin enjoys an almost global popularity, although only recently gaining a foothold in English-speaking North America. In large parts of the world, Tintin is a cultural icon as familiar as Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan or Snoopy. Yet if Holmes is an avatar of reason, Tarzan an emblem of natural living and Snoopy a symbol of imaginative free-spiritedness, what qualities does Tintin embody? Compared with other popular icons, Tintin seems mysteriously empty, a tabula rasa rather than a fixed identity. Even his creator described Tintin as resembling “the degree zero of typeage.” i.e. a typographical vanishing point. [I pinched this clarification off Google.]/p>

As beloved as Tintin is, his charm can be difficult to explain to those who haven’t fallen under the spell of the books. On the surface, the recurring plots seem simple enough: Tintin is a young reporter and his search for stories leads him to run afoul of evildoers (drug dealers, spies, slave-traders) in many exotic climes, ranging from bustling streets of Shanghai to the lonely heights of the Andes.

As he solves various international mysteries, Tintin’s constant companion is his white wire fox terrier Snowy (Milou in the original French version), who peppers the adventures with sarcastic theatrical asides such as, “Tintin, you’re a real Sherlock Holmes!” Comic relief is also provided by a motley assortment of pals, including the obstreperous, invective-sputtering Captain Haddock and the accident-prone detective duo of Thompson and Thomson (Dupont et Dupond in French), and the proverbial operatic fat lady whose singing causes cringing, Bianca Castafiore.

While Tintin might be a cipher, his colourful posse gives the series zest and life. But leaving Hergé’s character-creating abilities aside, the Tintin books are distinguished by their unique atmosphere, the mental headspace that readers can find in the series and nowhere else. Defining this atmosphere is difficult, and has taxed the resources of numerous critics. The library of Tintinology is large, consisting of more than 70 volumes that try to solve the riddle of the series from a variety of methods, from the biographical to the political to the religious to the deconstructive to the psychoanalytical, among others.

Hergé’s biography has provided a rich mine of clues for critical sleuths. Reticent about his private life, he once asked rhetorically: “What if I told you that I put my whole life into Tintin?”

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