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Tintin et Moi
2006-07-12 09:38
by Alex Belth
Note: The Bronx Banter blog has moved to bronxbanterblog.com.

Last night PBS ran a documentary on Herge, the legendary creator of the Tintin comics. He was a classic Belgian character--proper, tasteful, disciplined, droll and very Catholic. As a kid, the Tintin comics had an enormous impact on me. Though they were translated into English, Tintin never caught on in the States like he did elsewhere around the world. Herge is national treasure in Belgium; he's very much their Walt Disney.

My mother is from Belgium, and we visited her family periodically when I was growing up. I vividly recall visiting my grandparents home--an old, stone farm house that was roughly thirty minutes outside of Brussels, and even closer to Waterloo--and reading all of the comics I could find. And there were plenty to have.

My grandparents home had amazingly steep staircases. I would stay in the attic room when I visited. It wasn't a small room, but it was cozy, as the walls were slanted in a triangular shape. A drafting table was next to the staircase. A twin bed lay in the middle of the room, above it a moon window. A small sink was tucked into the corner, a large, old radio nearby, where I'd pick up a BBC station and listen to soap operas and crickett matches--anything to hear English! Lined on the floor next to the bed was a series of comic books (or dessins animés as they are called in French): fifty, sixty of them. They belonged to my mother and her siblings, leftover from their childhoods in the Belgian Congo. (The room was closed off from the other side of the attic space by a wall with a door--on the other side were crates and crates from my family's days in Africa.) Jackpot.

I was into American comics, superheroes--Spidey, Batman, the Justice League of America. Lots of impossibly muscular men in tights. Tintin is not a superhero. He relies on his wits not any special powers. There is a vulnerability about him that makes him easy to approach, makes him universal.

French comics came in hardcover. They were books (though originally printed in magazines or newspapers), not the cheap, paperbacks we had back home. They were something to be taken seriously. They were respectable. I could never imagine my grandparents in New York reading comics (the only strip I ever knew my father to love was Walt Kelly's hyper-articulate "Pogo" strip). But for my aunts and uncles in Belgium, comic books, especially Herge's Tintin, was perfectly acceptable reading for everyone.

But then, my French family had a different sensibility than my New York family. In Belgium, they laughed at slapstick humor; my grandfather would laugh easily at the Muppet Show or Looney Tunes. My grandfather in New York wasn't exactly humorless, but would certainly not be moved by anything as trivial as cartoons. French comics brought me closer to my relatives abroad.

When I was seven or eight, I recall sitting with my uncle Herve in my grandparents' living room. He was in his early twenties and the picture of European cool--gaunt, stylish, always smoking a cigarette. (Herve would soon turn me on to David Bowie and the Talking Heads and Brian Eno.) He spoke a little broken English and I spoke just a little bit of French. I certainly couldn't read any French.

We looked at Tintin au Tibet (1958), an emotionally harrowing adventure that found Tintin searching for a long-lost friend in the snowy mountains of Tibet (It was Herge's favorite book and probably his most personal one too). It involved anxiety, adventure, comedy, isolation and despair and hope. These are base emotions. Without understanding a bit of the dialogue, I followed the story beautifully.

Herge's work is very cinematic but defined by a strong sense of formalism and control. His pictures tell a story and they are meticulously rendered (as well as researched). There is nothing flashy about his art. He is not the virtuoso that Franquin was--and truth be told, I loved Franquin's "Gaston LaGaffe" far more than Tintin--but it is Herge's reserve, his discipline that makes him so brilliant.

Herve and I went through the entire book together, panel by panel, using our broken French and fractured English to talk about the story. We didn't have the luxury of a shared language, or even shared experience. But we could easily relate to Tintin. My family in New York was all about the oral tradition. I learned about their history through countless stories, told over and again. I learned more about my mom's family through photographs, 8mm movies, comic books, gestures, nuances, and food. In short, the language barrier helped me develop my other senses, smells and tastes especially.

When a French relative visited New York, I loved the smell of their open suitcase--even mundane smells, like deoderants, laundry soap, and perfumes would bring me back to Belgium. It was almost overwhelming. Of course, no trip was ever complete without a bunch of Cote D'or chocolate and a new batch of comics.

Watching the documentary last night, I started to miss Belgium deeply. I haven't been there in twelve years since my grandfather died. But it is very much of a part of me. When I have visited in the past, my French relatives say I'm "vraiment a New Yorker." A real New Yorker. But there would be times as a kid--and even now--when I didn't feel completely American either. My Belgian heritage is a side of my life that I'm not always in touch with in a conscious way--but it has informed who I am just as much as anything that has ever happened to me here in New York. From my love of cooking to my visual sense, my love of movies--all of that comes from the Frenchies. And for that, I feel blessed.

Comments
2006-07-12 11:50:25
1.   vockins
I was in Brussels about two months ago. I can't really properly articulate the experience right now, so here's a list:

1. Bierhuis Kulminator in Antwerp is no joke. Drinking some of those beers was like reading a good book. Delirium in Brussels has more selection, but Kulminator is the real deal.

2. Pierre Marcolini chocolate... Jeez.

3. The only sport(s) I like more than baseball is motorcycle racing in all its forms. There's a pretty upscale restaurant called the Belga Queen in Brussels that has a list of "Les Belges Du Monde" at the entrance. There were three motocrossers in that list - so cool!

Belgium is A-1.

2006-07-12 12:14:38
2.   Sliced Bread
Yo, I'm glad I'm not the only NY kid who enjoyed the distinctive scents of my relative's luggage and clean laundry from overseas. It's weird how those scents, when I conjure them, still somehow linger in my olfactory memory.

Your description (and linked illustrations) of the emotionally harrowing adventure, "Tintin au Tibet" (1958) sort of reminds me of the emotionally harrowing adventure "A-Rod au New York" (2006):
"It involved anxiety, adventure, comedy, isolation and despair and hope."

By the way, Eno is still quite the soundscaper. He produced Paul Simon's new album which I think is his best in decades.

2006-07-12 12:21:51
3.   JoeInRI
Alex,

I don't know if you know Petite Abeille in Manhattan on Hudson Street. Great Moules et Frittes and an awesome brunch. And . . . Tintin prints on the walls.

2006-07-12 12:56:18
4.   RZG
I'm glad I taped the show and I'll probably watch it Thursday.

I've always liked Asterix more than Tintin (maybe because I was introduced to Asterix first) but both are very enjoyable

2006-07-12 15:54:42
5.   sam2175
Tintin was easily the most enjoyable comic-book I read as a child. Captain Haddock, the twin detectives Thomson and Thompson, Bianca Castafiore, Rastapopulus Gorgonzola, General Alcazar, Snowy...

I think what made Tintin a popular figure worldwide was the fact that Herge was very well researched, as Alex points out, and made a concerted effort to incorporate as many cultures in Tintin's expeditions as possible. Tintin goes to Soviets, to South America, to America, to Tibet, to Congo, and even to Moon. Almost all cultures could relate to him, and the fact that he had such a boyish appearance made him even more enjoyable to the young ones.

Thanks for this piece, Alex.

2006-07-12 17:01:54
6.   Alex Belth
Yeah, Asterix was big in our house too of course. They were almost like superheroes cause they'd get juiced up on magic potion before they'd go kick the Roman's asses. I guess it was more like a Popeye thing. But they were funny drawings though, a lot more dynamic than the Tintin drawings.

There was something rigid--again, formal--about the Tintin visuals that were tough to get into at times. Maybe that has something to do with the fact that we were the TV generation. Those Tintin books were moving stories for readers before TV. Tintin was always handsome but I think I appreciate the skill, the sense of reserve and discipline it took to get them "right" more as an adult.

As a kid, I responded to the flashier styles in Asterix and Gaston.

Hey, I'm a check out that Belgian joint. I've heard about it. There are four of them around town. Nothing finer than Belgian Frites. If you've ever had them--good ones--french fries will never be the same again.

2006-07-12 18:19:26
7.   singledd
Hate to be off topic, but this was simply T OO FUNNY to pass up. Check this out.
http://thebrushback.com/clubhouse_full.htm
2006-07-12 21:28:36
8.   chuie
Is it true that Indiana Jones was based on Tintin?
2006-07-13 05:39:31
9.   markh
Since it doesn't happen very often, I always find it especially cool when I find someone else who loved the Tintin books as much as I did. Do. I think my mother brought 2 of them home one day for my sister and I, and I was hooked from then on. And since they were a big part of my childhood, they're always going to be special to me, even if years go by without my owning or reading any of them (I've still never read Congo or Soviets).

I agree that the Asterix books -- which I also loved -- are more dynamic and funny, but it wasn't the same. Alex was right when he complained that they were superheroes; how could there be any doubt that they'd always win in the end? Eventually I began rooting for the poor Romans.

I've never heard of Gaston LaGaffe; the style looks a lot like Asterix. I'll have to look for that one too.

And of course: long live Pogo.

2006-07-13 05:56:07
10.   Alex Belth
I'm not sure if Indy Jones was created with Tintin in mind but I do know that Spielberg is a huge Herge fan was talked for years about doing a live-action Tintin movie.

Gaston LaGaffe is very silly. He's a genial gold-bricker who works in the Spirou comics office. Kind of a stoner I guess, personality-wise. Incorrigble, eccentric, aimiable and very funny.

2006-07-13 07:44:42
11.   PhillyYankee
Alex,
If you're ever in Philly, the best Belgian pub for moules et frites is Monk's Cafe on 16th Street in Center City. They have a great mayonnaise sauce that goes with the frites and there is a boatload of Belgian ale to choose from, including 10 to 15 that are on tap.
2006-07-14 13:26:32
12.   bigjonempire
I'm sorry I missed that. I'll be sure to look for a re-play of it. A friend of my parents once passed on a collection of TinTin comics (they must have been a reprint of some sort because they were in english) but I didn't appreciate them. A little surprising, as I was crazy for almost any comics I could get my hands on. Anything from Classics Illustrated to the Blue Devil to Superman to Mad Magazine.

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