Tintin was in trouble. Unknown to him and to his trusty colleagues (Captain Haddock, Professor Calculus and Snowy), Colonel Boris had secretly stowed away aboard their rocket. Far worse, Boris had now engaged the launch procedure, planning on stranding them on the moon!
It was a nail-biting moment, but the true question was how, exactly, Tintin would get out of this one, not whether he would get out of it, because Tintin always succeeds.
I’m not really sure how many Americans know about Tintin. I had never heard of him before moving to Europe, but perhaps he’s better known now. He certainly is about to become a household name, since Steven Spielberg has decided to make a movie about him. But even if you were already acquainted with the intrepid young reporter, what you may not know is that Tintin is Belgian.
The French have Napoleon, Brits have Churchill, Americans have George Washington, and Belgians have Tintin, a young reporter with a little white dog. Neither Churchill, Washington, nor Napoleon ever got kidnapped by the abominable snowman, wrestled with a shark or went to the moon. Tintin’s only drawback is that he is a comic book character, but he’s such a likable comic book character that the mere fact he’s fictional doesn’t stop him from being a national hero. At least not in Belgium. But you must remember that comics, or band-déssinées, are as Belgian as beer and chocolate. This means that if you are in Brussels you must visit the Centre Belge de la Bande Déssinée.
Even if you’re not a fan of European comics, the Centre Belge de la Bande Déssinée is worth a visit for the building itself. Designed by Victor Horta in 1906, it was originally a kind of department store for wholesale fabrics. It is a wonderful “art nouveau” building, generally considered the masterpiece of that genre, and it is designed around a latticed skylight that infuses the entire place with a delicious luminosity. Even when the sky is overcast, it seems somehow sunny inside (this is a very good thing, since the sky is usually overcast in Brussels). The building has wooden staircases going in all kinds of different directions, each with wrought iron railings, so that it resembles some fantastic ship designed by Jules Verne. The fantasy of it all is heightened when you walk in and find a three-meter tall model of Tintin’s iconic red rocket, as well as statues of Asterix and a Smurf.
Belgian comics are different from American comics. By extension, this is the case for European comics in general, since almost all of them either originated in Belgium or were at least strongly influenced by Belgian comic artists. There are no superheroes, no cute mice or miserly ducks. Belgian comics aren’t even necessarily for children, and even those that are, are taken very seriously. You’d be hard pressed to find a single adult in Belgium (or France, for that matter) who doesn’t regularly revisit his or her collection of Tintin albums.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Willem de Graeve, the director of the Centre Belge de la Bande Déssinée, about the role of comics in Belgian life and the differences between the superhero/child orientation of American comics as compared to the Belgian variety.
“For us, comics are very important. It’s like chocolate and beer; we like these things, we are proud of them.”
But why? Why did such a small country become so central to the art of comics?
“There are two reasons. The first is historical and centers around Hergé, the creator of Tintin. Comics did begin in the United States, at the end of the nineteenth century, and there were even other European comic artists before Hergé, but he created a phenomenon with Tintin, right from the very first album, Tintin and the Soviets. His success inspired a lot of young Belgians, he was like a locomotive. Today, there are eight hundred comic artists in Belgium… eight hundred people who actually earn a living drawing comics.
“The second reason is less scientific and more cultural: Belgium is a little country, but it’s extremely complicated. There are three official languages, and in the course of our history, we’ve been occupied by just about every Western European power: the French, the Dutch, the Spanish, the Germans and the British. Each of them brought their own language. We understood that in the face of such a linguistic hodgepodge, visual communication would always work. Just look at the success of our painters. It’s a natural extension to use pictures to tell a story. For that matter, American comics started in New York, at a time when the city was inhabited by many different immigrant groups, each with their own language. I think the same phenomenon occurred.”
But what about the lack of superheroes?
“Superheroes don’t work in Belgium. We don’t like characters who take themselves so seriously. We also don’t like good-and-evil absolutes, we like shades of grey, heroes who aren’t perfect. Tintin isn’t perfect, you know, he does make mistakes.”
Speaking of Tintin, I asked if Spielberg had come to the centre to do research for his film.
“He didn’t come himself, but his team came. They wanted to get a better understanding of the place Tintin has in Belgian culture.”
And quite a place it is. Brussels has numerous stores that specialize solely in selling comic albums, and almost all of them give the little ginger-haired reporter a place of honor. I’m convinced that if the Belgians had to choose between Tintin and the King, the royal family would go the way of Louis XVI in a heartbeat.
Which raises the question of why, exactly, Tintin is so appealing. There is, of course, an exhibit upstairs at the Centre that tries to address this question (there are, as well, numerous books on the subject). According to the exhibit, there are three major factors:
1. Tintin is everyone. He is a child to children and an adult to adults. His age, for that matter, has been a subject of debate for seventy years. When referred to in the albums, he is almost always described as young, and he seems to have the physique of an adolescent. However, can drive, and even flies airplanes (not to mention driving tanks, piloting submarines, working as a radioman and being an excellent shot), so he can’t be that young.
2. Tintin is no one. He doesn’t clearly belong to any group, aside from white, European males, and even his nationality is never explicitly discussed (although it’s clear that he’s actually Belgian, particularly in the earlier albums, as it is likewise clear to anyone who knows the city that his home is Brussels).
3. Tintin always succeeds. He usually stumbles on his way to success, and sometimes he only succeeds via some elaborate deus ex machina intervention, but succeed he does, and without rancor or bloodshed, but by use of wits and integrity. Sometimes it seems he succeeds just because he’s more honest than everyone around him.
But Tintin is not alone in the pantheon of Belgian comic heroes. Nor, for that matter, is he necessarily representative, certainly not of more modern characters. On the third floor, the Centre has original drawings from a number of other famous albums, including Largo Winch, Alex, Yakari, Lucky Luke (the only cowboy in the West who could outdraw his own shadow), Lefranc, Titeuf, Michel Vaillant, and Ric Hochet. And, of course, there is an entire exhibition about the periodical Spirou, which launched the careers of such notable characters as the Marsupilami and the inimitable Gaston Lagaff, who managed to combine ingenuity and laziness in ways that would make Homer Simpson bow in homage (assuming Homer can bend enough to bow).
These names might all mean nothing to you, and that’s a shame. I discovered the wonderful world of European comic albums shortly after arriving in France, over twenty years ago. While Belgium still leads in the world of comic albums, the Belgian love of the art form (they call it “the ninth art”) quickly spread to France, as is evidenced by the great team of Goscinny and Uderzo, who created the Asterix series. Actually, reading comics greatly accelerated my efforts to learn French: Boule and Bill as well as Yoko Tsuno were the most effective teachers of language I ever had.
Modern comics continue to stretch French and Belgian consciousness. The top floor of the centre has an exposition about the publishing house Poisson Pilote, which prides itself in printing comics that lie on a newer, more cutting edge. These include the successful series The Rabbi’s Cat, which has all the magic and depth of Jewish fairy tale (which it is). They also publish a beautiful treatment of the ancient Gilgamesh epic.
This, I had to buy in the bookstore on the first floor. Gilgamesh is a favorite of mine, and the authors treat it with broad strokes and sweeping prose. In fact, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to stop writing this and open it up again… Gilgamesh is just about to wrestle with Enkidu.
Maybe the Belgians don’t mind superheroes after all.