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Ninety Years On, Tintin Is Still Struggling to Conquer America

The little Belgian reporter invented by illustrator Hergé is undeniably a 20th-century hero in France and Belgium. But even with Tintin in America, which saw the journalist travel to Chicago and the Wild West, the character has always struggled to carve out a niche in the U.S.A. where Marvel reigns supreme.

As General de Gaulle liked to say, “In actual fact, my only international rival is Tintin!” With more than 230 million copies sold worldwide and translations into 80 languages and dialects, the Adventures of Tintin series is a reference in European comic books. Half of all French families own the books, and yet there are only a handful of fans in the United States.

First created on January 10, 1929, by illustrator Hergé — real name Georges Remi — Tintin began as a serial in a youth supplement of the Belgian newspaper Vingtième Siècle. “As a young man working on the newspaper, Georges Remi had a unique access to the international press,” says Michael Farr, author of Tintin: The Complete Companion. “He could see the American newspapers which featured strip cartoons, which in the 1920s were little known in Europe. Inspired by these, he developed his own cartoon strips.”

The globetrotting journalist accompanied by his dog, Snowy, travelled to every continent (except Australia). “As a foreign correspondent, Tintin was doing the job Hergé himself would have liked to have done,” says Michael Farr. After visiting the Soviet Union, the young man set off for the Belgian Congo, before carrying out an investigation on the gangsters of Chicago. Published in 1932, Tintin in America is still the best-selling installment of the 24-part series.

A Journalist in America

Hergé had been fascinated by Native Americans since joining the Scouts as a young boy. Tintin’s third adventure opens with a scene featuring Al Capone — one of the rare historical figures in the series — in his office. “The situation is clear. They’re sending the famous reporter, Tintin, to fight against us,” says the gangster to his henchmen. The journalist is then kidnapped as soon as his train arrives, and car chases and trips to the Wild West punctuate the rest of his American expedition.

tintin-amerique-america-casterman

Cover of the French edition of Tintin in America. © Casterman

This particular opus was the first to be so well documented. Hergé depicted the gang wars of the time and made references to Prohibition and police corruption. He portrayed dizzying skyscrapers and parodied the birth of a boomtown sprouting up from nowhere after the discovery of oil. And by caricaturing the Slift canning factory, nicknamed “the charcuterie of the United States,” he also criticized fast food and the American lifestyle.

The illustrator drew inspiration from several expert publications such as Mœurs et histoires des Indiens d’Amérique du Nord by René Thévenin and Paul Coze, and Scènes de la vie future de Georges Duhamel, which attacked the country where cash was king. A special edition of Crapouillot magazine devoted to the United States also provided him with photos illustrating Chicago and the mafia. Through his work, Hergé decided to show both the dispossession of Native Americans and the lynching of black people.

“Tintin Is Not a Superhero”

Despite the book’s success, this story failed to make Tintin popular in the United States. “Tintin is not a superhero,” says Michael Farr. “He is a normal but highly capable young man, and all his adventures are rooted in realism. Hergé took the comic strip in a quite different direction to that pursued in America.”

In 1945, the black-and-white book was republished in color, offering an initial revision of the plot with improvements made to the narration. But the work did not arrive in America until the 1960s. As part of the publication, Hergé was forced to edit his drawings and, in at least two cases, remove the black characters as the publisher did not want its children’s books to feature any racial diversity.

While English translations of the series appeared in the 1950s, only six books were translated by U.S. publisher Golden Books. The other volumes were merely rereleases of the British versions. However, the reception was lukewarm “because Americans were generally not familiar with Tintin.” And despite Hergé’s efforts to make forays into Hollywood before he died, fans had to wait until 2011 for Steven Spielberg’s movie The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn.

As part of the character’s 90th anniversary, the Moulinsart publishing company has decided to release a revamped digital version every two years. Following on from Tintin in the Congo in 2018, Tintin in America will be published in 2020, coinciding with the next U.S. presidential elections.

  • I published Tintin when at Little, Brown & Co., an old Boston firm, ironically, now Hachette. We were pleased with sales but totemic status did not come. But this Belgian wonder has a place in America.

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