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The Origins of Tintin

Pierre Assouline is a journalist and writer whose columns appear regularly in Le Monde and 9780195397598L’Histoire. His book, Herge: The Man Who Created Tintin, translated by Charles Ruas, offers a candid portrait of a man who revolutionized comics.  In the excerpt below we learn about the origins of Tintin.

Tintin and Snowy were born on January 10, 1929, in Le Petite Vingtième. On that day the supplement for young readers in Le Vingième Siècle first published a comic strip under the title “The Adventures of Tintin, the ‘Petit Vingtième’ Reporter, in the Land of the Soviets,” the first two places of a weekly comic strip that would eventually number 121 in all.

These are the bare facts, but we are left with the question of why and how Tintin and Snowy came into being. According to Hergé, it was very simple: “The idea for the character of Tintin and the sort of adventures that would befall him came to me, I believe, in five minutes, the moment I first made a sketch of the figure of this hero: that is to say, he had not haunted my youth nor even my dreams.  Although it’s possible that as a child I imagined myself in the role of a sort of Tintin.”

Tintin has a prehistory.  Hergé made a sketch of a character resembling Tintin in the Totor series, which was a sort of trial run.  This period of trial and error in the creation of a character is far from exceptional.  To cite only two examples, Mickey Mouse was first called Mortimer, and Inspector Maigret in a previous life was Agent No. 49.

Hergé never denied it.  When pressed to explain the origins of Tintin, he admitted that he was conceived of as the younger brother of Totor, the troop leader of the June Bugs.  Tintin wore plus fours because Georges Remi sometimes wore them, and they might distinguish Tintin as easily as Chaplin’s vagabond’s baggy trousers did him.  Hergé also gave him a tuft of hair that stood straight up on his forehead (first seen during a car chase in Land of the Soviets), drawing it as seen full face.  If Tintin is shown in profile or three-quarters to the left or to the right, the facial features are only barely sketched in.  The figure is in harmony with the face, the result being neutral, without dissonance.  Everyone can identify with him because he is everyman.

Tintin was born at fifteen and therefore never had a childhood.  What did Georges Remi look like at that age?  Probably like Tintin – like him had the appearance of an intrepid Boy Scout – except that Remi combed his hair flat, he was thinner and taller, and his face was not as round.  It has been said that Hergé had unconsciously taken the traits, attitudes, and gestures of his younger brother, Paul.

In terms of graphics, there is nothing simpler than Tintin. He is as uncomplicated as the story line.  Tintin is a journalist or, rather, a reporter, which means the contrary of sedentary.  He is less often shown writing at the typewriter than out in the field.  In his eyes, the investigation of something, not the resolution, is the basis of his profession.  Tintin seems to suggest that he is in fact a great reporter, a member of a select group of legendary journalists such as Albert Londres, Joseph Kessel, Édouard Helsey, Henri Béraud, and others.  Of course Remi himself had wanted to become one of them – and he would, by proxy.  Tintin would accomplish his dream.  For one of the youngest people on a newspaper’s staff, belonging to this select group represented the ultimate promotion.  For Remi it also symbolized a quest for adventure.

The transformation of Totor to Tintin would continue.  Though a reporter, Tintin never loses the spirit of a Scout.  On the contrary, he expresses it in his face, his attitudes, and his actions.  It could be said of Tintin, as Voltaire said of Candide, that his face revealed his soul.  Hergé’s constant dilemma was how to make Tintin lose his naïveté while remaining pure.

Here are Tintin’s vital statistics: he is Caucasian, lacks a first name, an orphan, without a past, a native of Brussels (as opposed to Belgian), about fifteen years old, obviously celibate, excessively virtuous, chivalrous, brave, a defender of the weak and oppressed, never looks for trouble but always finds it; he is resourceful, takes chances, is discreet, and is a nonsmoker.

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  3. hammerstein

    Why aren’t there young and attractive girls in Tintin’world ? His adventures were published in “Le Petit Vingtième”, a weekly youth supplement puublished on Thursday by the Brussels daily “Le Vingtième Siècle” (The Twentieth Century. Why on Thursday? The pupils had one day off. The boys could go to their scouts meetings or make sports or… read boy magazines. At that time, in Belgium, girls were separated from the boys : they even went to diffrent schools. And on Thursday, girls had to learn knitting, cooking and everything intended to make perfect wives. No time for magazines. So, why bother trying to seduce a female readership ? That’s why Tintin and many, many other popular Belgian and French comic strips were so macho and segregationist !

  4. Renaud Milhoux

    In the 20s and 30s, my late grandfather, Rene Milhoux, was a very famous Belgian motorcycle champion and speed record breaker. His exploits were regularly reported in the national press. One such newspaper was “le XXe Siecle” (The twentieth Century), a supplement of which was “le Petit Vingtieme”, which was headed by a man named Georges Remi, better known as Herge, the author of Tintin.
    Also regularly in the newspaper was the photo-reportages of a man named Robert Sexe, who was a travelling photo-journalist whose photographs were used a direct inspiration for Tintin’s first three adventures. Herge having never travelled. Robert Sexe would travel the world on motorcycles. On one occasion my grandfather was introduced to Robert Sexe by the the owner of the motorcycle company for which my grandfather was factory rider (Gillet de Herstal) so that he could act as technical advisor of the round the world trips. The two men quickly struck up a close friendship.
    When my grandfather would break world record on his bikes he would always wear immaculate white overalls. He wasn’t a very tall man either…
    Small, all white, brave and intelligent and called Milhoux…
    My grandfather was one day invited to the offices of the “le XXe Siecle” for an exclusive interview, during his visit he got to meet several people attached to the newspaper, including Georges Remi, they had a little chat during which, Mr Remi asked my grandfather if he didn’t mind that he named his cartoon dog after him, Snowy (in french: Milou). My grandfather had a great sense of humour so of course he didn’t mind at all (especially as the spelling had been changed). Remember that in those days Tintin was hardly known and my grandfather was something of a national hero.
    I just thought you would find this little anecdote amusing if not interresting.

    Kindest regards,

    Renaud A. Milhoux

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