x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

A famous Belgian heads to Hollywood

Hergé's plucky cub reporter Tintin is loved the world over. Now Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson are setting him loose in a trilogy of 3D films.

Kagan McLeod for The National
Kagan McLeod for The National

He may have turned 80 this year, but Tintin hardly looks a day over 18. Never mind a chequered history that includes allegations of racism, colonialism and Nazi collaboration, the perennially boyish cub reporter remains one of Belgium's best-loved exports, with sales to date of around 230 million books in 80 languages. As Charles de Gaulle, the former French president, once quipped, "My only international rival is Tintin."

And now the plucky amateur sleuth with the ski-jump quiff is finally making the leap to Hollywood in a series of 3D films from Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson. Due out in 2011, The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn will feature Jamie Bell, the star of Billy Elliot, in the title role alongside Daniel Craig, Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis. Georges Remi was just 21 when he launched Tintin, making his comic-strip debut in January 1929 in the Belgian children's newspaper Le Petit Vingtième. Adapting the pen name Hergé, derived from simply reversing his initials, Remi scored an instant success. His hand-drawn hero starred in the first of 24 book-length adventures a year later, surrounded by a colourful cast including Snowy, his trusty canine sidekick, Captain Haddock, his cantankerous sailor friend, and the bowler-hatted detective duo Thomson and Thompson.

Tintin always had style in that clean-cut, preppie, geek-chic way. Hergé would refine his ligne claire technique a little during his hero's 50-year career, colouring his strips and adding forensically accurate background detail. But the essentials of his timeless and highly influential look were present from the start: crisp, uncluttered lines framing simple character designs. No wonder both Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein later acknowledged Hergé as a Pop Art pioneer. "He has influenced my work in the same way as Walt Disney," Warhol once claimed.

"First and foremost, they are simply beautifully drawn," explains Rian Hughes, the internationally acclaimed comics artist and graphic designer. "They have detailed backgrounds which are full of period detail, comprehensively researched. Even the strips set in a contemporary Europe are now looking like historically accurate period pieces, so accurate was Hergé's attention to cars, trams, etc. It's interesting that this detail contrasts with the simplicity of the characters' faces. This approach - detailed settings, simple cartoony people - is very much a European tradition."

Indeed, this transatlantic divide between different comics traditions is a crucial point. Will our plucky young Belgian hero receive a warm Hollywood welcome like countless European émigrés before him, or will he be chewed up and spat out by the multiplex machine? After all, America has remained largely resistant to the understated charms of Hergé's adventures since their lukewarm US launch in the 1950s, when a mere six volumes were published in bowdlerised form.

Spielberg's fascination with Tintin dates back to 1981, when he read a review comparing Raiders of the Lost Ark to the Belgian adventure comics. After immersing himself in the books, Spielberg secured Hergé's blessing when he pitched his planned adaptations as "Indiana Jones for kids". But the two never met, as the artist died shortly before their first scheduled face-to-face meeting in March 1983.

Jackson and Spielberg are reported to be planning a trilogy of Tintin films, shot back-to-back in the US and New Zealand, combining the latest motion-capture animation with digital 3D technology. The month-long live-action shoot for The Secret of the Unicorn was completed in March, but the complex computerised effects will take a further two years to complete. "Peter and I felt that shooting them in a traditional live-action format would simply not honour the distinctive look of the characters and world that Hergé created," Spielberg said last year. "The idea is that the films will look neither like cartoons nor like computer-generated animation. We're making them look photo-realistic, the fibres of their clothing, the pores of their skin and each individual hair. They look exactly like real people, but real Hergé people."

So far, so intriguing. But the long delay between Spielberg's securing the rights and shooting the first film perhaps tells its own story. In September last year, Universal Pictures pulled out of a co-financing deal. Even with the combined clout of the billion-dollar brains behind the Indiana Jones and Lord of the Rings franchises, it seems Tintin is still not deemed a surefire sell-out by Hollywood. He will need all his wily Belgian charisma to win over a mainstream American audience.

One aspect of Tintin's shady past unlikely to feature in the Spielberg-Jackson films is our wholesome hero's youthful flirtation with dubious political beliefs, which closely mirrored those of his creator. In his early career, Hergé was persuaded by his religious mentors to use Tintin as a shameless poster boy for Belgium's colonialist, Catholic, right-wing establishment. In his 1930 debut, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, the moon-faced adventurer exposed the brutally oppressive reality behind the utopian facade of communist Russia. This was a flagrant piece of political propaganda, but also a prescient signpost of the cultural Cold War to come. Much less palatable was Tintin in the Congo, published a year later, a thinly disguised advertisement for Belgian missionary work peopled with offensive African native stereotypes.

Later in the 1930s, Hergé appeared to take a more liberal stance, sending Tintin to stand up for poor African-Americans, Native Americans and Chinese characters against big business and US economic imperialism. But this anti-American bias only led him into deeper water when Nazi Germany invaded Belgium, initially censoring some Tintin books, then allowing the strip to continue in a collaborationist newspaper, Le Soir. Under the Nazi regime, Hergé also began to sketch Jewish characters in a pointedly anti-Semitic manner.

After the Nazis were defeated, Hergé and other staff members on Le Soir were investigated by the British and American allies over their political allegiances. The artist always defended himself as a neutral observer, a naive pawn at worst, although biographers have cast doubt on this innocent pose. In 1973, Hergé finally confessed to his "huge error", telling an interviewer that "for many, democracy had proved a disappointment, and the New Order brought new hope".

With the end of the Second World War, Tintin's ideology became more peaceful and humanist. Wisely adapting to the mood of the times, Hergé produced more politically correct rewrites of his most controversial stories, notably Tintin in the Congo, and altered the identities of potentially offensive Jewish characters. His busybody boy reporter was reborn as a kind of one-man United Nations goodwill ambassador, standing up for the powerless and against the powerful, an icon of old-fashioned decency in a world still deeply scarred by conflict.

According to an article in the Economist last December, this anachronistic boy-scout image proved crucial to Tintin's enduring popularity. "His simple ethical code - seek the truth, protect the weak and stand up to bullies - appealed to a continent waking up from the shame of war," the magazine claimed. "His wholesome qualities help explain the great secret of his commercial success." In his later adventures, Tintin walked on the Moon more than a decade before Neil Armstrong, and found himself in the crossfire of a Middle Eastern oil war. In his 1960 book Tintin in Tibet, our young hero even broke down and wept, mirroring Hergé's emotional distress in the midst of divorcing his first wife. In 2006, the Dalai Lama bestowed his Truth of Light award on Tintin, the first ever fictional character to receive the honour, in recognition of this Tibetan adventure.

The modern-day cult of Tintin still has its roots in continental Europe, although the books also enjoy a significant following in Britain, India and parts of Africa. Over the past decade, postage stamps depicting Tintin and related characters have been issued in Belgium, the Netherlands, France and Switzerland. Hergé may have died in 1983, but his widow Fanny and her second husband Nick Rodwell, a British businessman, still maintain artistic control over the global Tintin brand from the Hergé Foundation in Brussels. Six months ago, the foundation opened the dazzling new Hergé Museum in Louvain-La-Neuve, 30km south-east of the Belgian capital. Costing US$20 million (Dh73.5m), this elegant modernist monument now serves as a public archive for the late artist's huge body of work, including strips he created outside the Tintin canon.

Tintin has come a long way in 80 years, from Brussels to Hollywood, via some of the darkest chapters in modern European history. But by remaining eternally youthful, like a kind of Peter Pan, he has maintained an appealing innocence that his creator could never quite manage. * The National