A Brief History of Tintin Books

Shervin Moloudi © 2008

 

Herge lived for about 76 years and drew Tintin for more than 54 years. The result is 24 complete stories and an unfinished one. That is less than 1 book in 2 years. Many other cartoonists have much more impressive records in terms of quantity, but no one even comes close to the universal success of Tintin. After all, good things come in small quantities.

 

Tintin books changed in appearance and style through years. I would categorize them into three distinct groups. The first consists of Tintin in the Land of the Soviets (1930), Tintin in the Congo (1st black and white edition, 1931), Tintin in America (1st black and white edition, 1932), and possibly Cigars of the Pharaoh (1st black and white edition, 1934). The most noticeable aspect of these books is the sporadic adventures packed into each story. At the time of inception, each story would be published in a 2 page per week format in a small magazine (Le Petit Vingtieme). This required Herge to give two pages worth of excitement to the readers, and leave them in suspense at the end of each episode. Obviously, this format is not consistent with a long coherent story and when the pages were put together to form a book the overall plot was not very well thought through. Take the Congo adventure, for example, in which Tintin goes to Africa and befriends a young local boy named Coco. They go through all different sorts of interesting adventures, from deer hunting to spying on the tribe’s magician. However, there is no real story line that ties these adventures together. If you shuffle the episodes and try to put the pages back in the right order, chances are that you won’t be able to, simply because one episode does not build upon another. 

 

Another aspect of the first group is the believability factor. Many of the events that happen in these stories are simply not feasible. For example, using someone’s belly as a trampoline to jump over a high wall is something that can only happen in Cigars of the Pharaoh. Tintin also seems to be able to converse with monkeys (Tintin in the Congo) not to mention the fact that he can skin a dead monkey in a matter of minutes and use the fur to fashion a perfectly flawless disguise! He has a superb linguistic ability when it comes to communicating with elephants (Cigars of the Pharaoh). He even seems to be in constant conversation with Milou (Snowy)! Such oddities mostly disappear in later Tintin stories. In case of Milou, he would lose the stage to Captain Haddock after captain's debut in The Crab with the Golden Claws and would gradually get demoted to a simple pet as opposed to a human-like friend to Tintin. It really bothers me to see how he is treated as a simple pet dragged around on a leash in the opening scene of Fight 714. By the way, an English speaking fan would know that Milou is a “he” because he is referred to as such (see e.g. Tintin in America, English color version, page 47).

 

Furthermore, the drawings in these books are quite crude. Tintin’s face is devoid of details or expressions in the first two stories and gradually finds its forms and gestures in the later books. These points may not be readily recognizable by the average Tintin reader simply because the contemporary set of Tintin books found in bookstores do not follow the original drawing order. The Soviet book was never redrawn for color publication and many Tintin neophytes do not even know that book exists. The Congo story was redrawn for the color version in 1946. At this time, Herge had already written 12 Tintin books. Tintin’s face, body, dressing style, etc. had morphed into their final forms and therefore the Tintin you see in the color version of the Congo book looks very much like the Tintin you find in Red Rackham’s Treasure. The color version of Tintin in the Congo was not published in the Anglophile world until 2005 in the UK (only to face scandelous opposotion by people who didn't know much about Tintin and mistook the book for a racist comic). Therefore, to most American readers, the first of the widely available color Tintin book is Tintin in America, which was completely redrawn in 1945 for the color version. This book and Cigars of the Pharaoh (redrawn for the color version in 1955) do not look at all like the black and white versions as far as the drawing style is concerned. Therefore, a contemporary reader of Tintin trying to find traces of early Herge drawing style can olny succeed when reading the Blue Lotus (1st BW Ed 1936), which was colorized in 1946, with only the first 4 pages redrawn. 

 

Blue Lotus starts the second group of Herge's works. He told Numa Sadoul in his famous book-long interview that Blue lotus marks the beginning of an era in which doing Tintin stories was no longer a game or a pastime to him. This period also includes The Broken Ear (1st BW 1937, 1st color 1943), The Black Island (1st BW 1938, color 1943), King Ottokar’s Scepter (1st BW 1939, 1st color 1947), and The Crab with the Golden Claws (1st BW 1941, 1st color 1943). From The Shooting Star (1942) on, Herge decided to draw the books in color. Therefore the original edition of the rest of the books in this group, The Secret of the Unicorn (1943), Red Rackham’s Treasure (1944), The Seven Crystal Balls (1948), Prisoners of the Sun (1949), Land of the Black Gold (1950), Destination Moon (1953), and Explorers on the Moon (1954) are all in color.

 

In the second group you don’t find talking monkeys (Congo) or people surviving  explosions with minor injuries (America). Everything is realistic or at least within the realm of feasibility. On top of that, Herge started to develop an obsession for precision and details, which began with his collaboration with Tchang during the writing of Blue Lotus and climaxed towards the end of this period. The main purpose of these stories is no longer to create an adrenaline rush at the end of every second page. While still full of adventure and suspense, the books have a clearly well planned story line. There is more to each story than Tintin’s heroic acts and invincibility. Herge took on the responsibility of educating his readers about everything, from politics and geography to science and astronomy. While being precise in his explanation of how an atomic reactor works, he avoids being boring by adding Captain Haddock’s funny comments to the story in Destination Moon.

 

 

There may be different reasons why Herge decided to change his style. Herge had built the foundations of his empire. Although he still had a limited per week quota for his stories, there was no need to entice the readers into coming back next week by using just any cheesy skit. The readers would always come back. The little kids who started with the Soviets and the Congo were teenagers by the end of the decade and young adults by mid forties, and that demanded a different type of storytelling. Also, the Herge who wrote the Soviets was 22 years old whereas the Herge who put Tintin on the moon was a middle-aged man in his forties. The change was inevitable.

 

The circumstances surrounding the era during which these stories were written were unique too. The Second World War and the occupation of Belgium by Germans had a direct impact on Herge’s works. It slowed down the making of the stories and even stopped the Black Gold because of its supposedly anti-German storyline. Had the Shooting Star been written before or after the war, one would have found a different lineup for the scientific expedition team who are mostly from the counties allied with the wartime Germany in the present version. 

 

The stiff rationing of the era did not exempt the book industry and Casterman (Herge’s publisher at the time) asked him to confine the books to a strict 64 page limit. Excluding the cover and the copyright pages, this left 62 pages for the stroy. Up until then, Herge‘s books took as many pages as he deemed necessary. The usual format was normally 100 to 130 pages with 3 horizontal strips per page and 2 or 3 frames per strip. To convert the old black and white books to the color format Herge had to put every two pages into one.  In the new format, every page was divided into four horizontal strips. The Shooting Star was done in color in the 64-page format in 1942 and the other books followed suite.

 

The war and the invasion did not leave Herge with too many subjects to work on and therefore he spent most of his time colorizing the early books. All the books except the Cigars were colorized before the end of the war. 1943 was a busy year for Casterman: The Shooting Star 1st reprint (April), The Broken Ear (June), The Black Island (August), The Unicorn (Sept), and The Crab (December). The first three books colorized in 1943 (The Broken Ear, The Island, and The Crab) went through minor modifications, but the following two (America and Congo) were completely redrawn. The Cigars was also drawn from scratch in color format in 1955.

 

The end of the war marked the start of a great era in Herge’s artistic life, an era that made an undoubtedly huge impact on the art of comics in Belgium and probably the whole Francophone world. After going through some rough times, Herge started working at a new magazine that was to host the future Tintin stories until the end. Herge who started Tintin stories in Le Petit Vingtième and continued in different periodicals including Cœurs Vaillants and Le Soir finally found a permanent home for Tintin at Tintin Journal. Herge could have as many pages as he wished every week although he normally published one page of Tintin and maybe a page of Quick and Flupke or Jo and Zette. Tintin Journal was born in 1946 under the editorship of Raymond Le Blanc and published many other stories in addition to the adventures of Tintin. The first ten years of the magazine is an indispensable treasure of Herge's drawings including the Balls-Temple duo, the follow-up to The Black Gold which had been stopped by the war, and the Moon stories. Many other comic heroes were born in this golden period in Tintin Journal. Therefore, by the end of the moon stories, readers bought Tintin magazine not only for Tintin, but also for other characters including Blake and Mortimer (by Edgar P. Jacobs). Tintin magazine started the Golden Comic Period of Belgium, the country with highest density of comic artists, and gave birth to characters that went down in the comics history such as Alix, Chick Bill, and Richochet.

 

It was time for Herge to move on to the third major period of his professional life. The Calculus Affair is the first of many stories to add something new to the adventure and suspense elements of the tale, be it the reality of slave trading in the twentieth century or the meddling of extraterrestrial creatures in our mundane affairs. The stories of this period (The Calculus Affair (1956), The Red Sea Sharks (1958), Tintin in Tibet (1960), The Castafiore Emerald (1963), Flight 714 (1968), and Tintin and the Picaros (1976)) do not probably attract as huge an audience as the Moon stories did. However, they proved that Herge can be much more than an adventure writer.

 

Tintin in Tibet is an extraordinary story of friendship masterfully laid before the white backdrop of Himalayas. It evolved out of Herge’s repeated nightmares, which he primarily described as “white” nightmares. This period of Herge’s life was very turbulent because of his marriage falling apart, among many other things. Therefore, Tintin in Tibet is a very personal story to Herge and a far cry from purely adventure stories such as the Congo.

 

Another book that stands out in this period is The Castafiore Emerald. There is actually little to no adventure in this book. It may even not be that appealing to children because it is a mix of mystery, humor, and art. It looked like Herge had taken a break from adventures to stay home for a change. Not to worry though, as he will make a comeback in Flight 714.

 

Aging started to get the best of Herge towards the end of this period. Although he never lost his magic touch, his pace slowed down dramatically. During the last 15 years of his life, Herge only wrote two stories and left one unfinished. This is the same man who during the thirties wrote almost one book every year and a half. Quick and Flupke, Jo and Zette, and Popol (other Herge creations) were long gone by 60’s and 70’s. Most people believe that Tintin Journal was what it was because of Tintin stories. Arguably, Tintin Journal had many other worthwhile stories, but could not last long after Herge passed in 1983. A magazine that was once sold in Belgium, France, Switzerland, and even translated in other countries including Egypt, slowly died out in 1988.