For such a perennially young man, always in a hurry to right the world’s wrongs, it may be strange to hear that Tintin has spent nine decades fighting bad guys around the world. From his earliest adventures in January 1929, as he journeyed into the Soviet Union to report on the excesses of Stalinism, the young journalist’s exploits with his friend Captain Haddock have been translated into more than 70 languages and, at last count sold more than 230m copies around the world..
Tintin, the creation of Belgium cartoonist Georges Remi – also known by his pseudonym Hergé (his initials R.G. in reverse) – first appeared in the youth section of the Catholic newspaper Le Vingtième Siècle. Pretty soon, the serialised adventures were published as books (or “albums”) of which Hergé completed 23 by his death in 1983 (a 24th, unfinished, adventure was posthumously published in 1986). There has also been a cartoon series and several movies – the most recent of which, The Secret of the Unicorn (2011), was directed by Steven Spielberg.
There are a number of reasons we should celebrate Tintin. From a comic book perspective, Tintin had a number of important firsts: Tintin was the first successful comic book series in Belgium and led directly to the beginning of the comic book industry there. In France, meanwhile, Hergé’s style (known as the ligne claire or “clear line”: (a very clearly drawn style with little shading) was hugely influential on comic book artists. Hergé was an innovator in terms of using word and thought balloons – as far as current research has found, Hergé pioneered their use in Belgium, he also developed and expanded the use of symbols such as “speed lines” (the little lines that denote movement) in comics to give further meaning to his drawings.
However, more generally, The adventures of Tintin are important in an educational sense. I have previously suggested that comics should be encouraged as reading materials in schools because they are a way of getting children reading more generally. Reading comics also helps the development of visual literacy which is becoming increasingly important in modern society.
For these reasons I think it’s really important to encourage children to read Tintin. Tintin has the advantage of being designed for children in the first place – they’ve never been dumbed down and the stories also appeal to many adults. And the storylines themselves encourage a number of positive core values: doing good, supporting the underdog, resisting unfairness and fighting for justice.
Magic, but realistic too
More specifically, The adventures of Tintin also have the advantage of allowing the possibility of more specific learning opportunities. Many of the stories (particularly those produced after World War II) were meticulously researched and include factual knowledge that is likely to be important in the development of a child’s general understanding of the world.
This includes geographical and cultural knowledge given that Tintin travels to many different parts of the world as well a some more specific historical knowledge about for example, the Japanese invasion of north-eastern China in 1931 which featured in the fifth Tintin adventure, The Blue Lotus (1936).
In terms of history many have claimed that the 24 Tintin adventures are documents of the times in which they were created, reflecting issues in history either directly or in allegorical terms.
But if you are still sceptical that anyone might learn anything from comics, let me recount an anecdote from my own personal experience. I was born in Portugal to an English mother and Portuguese father and moved to the UK for secondary school. My mother always encouraged my reading but was a little concerned to see me reading so many comics. Portugal followed the European tradition that comics were a legitimate reading source not just limited to children – and indeed adults could regularly be seen reading in public places such as the bus and the metro.
Family legend describes an interaction between my mother and I where I mentioned some factual nugget of information (alas, history no longer recalls what this fact was, only that it existed) which my mother was surprised I knew. When questioned where I had picked up said nugget, I replied: “It was in a Tintin book.” This proved to be a turning point. She claims that from then on, she had no worries about comics – clearly they were educational. Mum later read them and insists to this day they have helped her with many a pub quiz.
So, for my mother and me at least, Tintin is incredibly important and, I would argue, beneficial for children. But at their heart they are carefully crafted, beautifully illustrated rollicking adventure stories, filled with colourful characters, intrigue, suspense, humour and – above all – good cheer. If you have never read the stories, or it is a while since you have, give them a whirl, I guarantee you will be entertained – and informed.
Written by Paul Aleixo, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, Sheffield Hallam University