The 10 Best Tintin Books

With The Adventures of Tintin about to hit the big screen I decided to pick out my favourite books about the Belgian boy wonder.
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With The Adventures of Tintin about to hit the big screen I decided to pick out my favourite books about the Belgian boy wonder.

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Stuck in eternal late adolescence he may be, but one of the few fictional characters who’s got a hairstyle named in his honour is growing up and going global this week courtesy of two of the biggest cheeses on the movie planet: Peter “Lord of the Rings” Jackson and Steven “pretty much everything else” Spielberg. Tintin, the Belgian boy reporter and part-time solver of international mysteries and foiler of dastardly plots, who never actually files a story, is hitting our screens in full motion capture 3D glory next week. It’s become a cliché of the modern generation of animated family blockbusters that Pixar's success is due to their cross-generational appeal – some fluffy monsters and slapstick for the kids with some knowing parody and slick one-liners for mum and dad. Hergé, the pen name of Tintin creator Georges Rémi, had this down pat decades ago and my, now battered, collection of the boy reporter’s adventures has travelled with me from home to home. It’s still possible, as an adult, to read and enjoy these superbly plotted, politically engaged (and sometimes politically controversial) adventures with their stunning visual composition and breathtaking draftsmanship. As to that haircut, ask unfortunate electro pop revivalist La Roux, or simply Google her name alongside Tintin’s and check out the 133,000 results – standout moment of unkindness being the Facebook group, “Fuck me La Roux looks like Tintin” Like many a Tintin fan I’m a little bemused as to why the movie team had to mash a third title “The Crab with the Golden Claws” into one of Hergé’s masterful two volume sets: the wonderfully balanced duo of landlocked mystery tale in The Secret of the Unicorn and maritime treasure hunt in “Red Rackham’s Treasure” with its wonderful twist of an ending.

It’s still possible, as an adult, to read and enjoy these superbly plotted, politically engaged (and sometimes politically controversial) adventures with their stunning visual composition and breathtaking draftsmanship.

The books – like many a comic book, despite being essentially storyboards – haven’t always been treated kindly by the moving image either. The chief pleasure of the Belvision series of the late-50s and early 60s which showed up on kids TV as I was growing up was the bellowed: “Hergé’s! Adventures! Of! Tintin!” Otherwise they were pretty poor. Neither has Hergé been an uncontroversial character. The earliest works with their rather crude racial caricatures can be seen as racist or of their time depending on your point of view. It didn’t help that Le Petit Vingtième youth supplement that Tintin first ran in was hitched to a father paper with a strong Catholic nationalist stance and that once it was silenced by the Nazi occupiers in World War II Tintin’s creator agreed to carry his creation on in the German-approved media. Hergé was even arrested after peace came, accused of collaboration, but went on to clear his name and, in fact, set up in highly successful business with a resistance hero. But, Tintin, like perhaps Sherlock Holmes and Batman, contains a central idea that is robust enough to draw filmmakers back time after time. Unlike Holmes, Tintin is no eccentric genius; in fact, truth to tell he’s a rather anodyne and sometimes priggish character whose faithful little dog Snowy tends to get the best lines. Neither can he match Batman’s gadgetry and dark sophistication – the idea of living a double life would surely introduce some premature worry lines onto that ageless brow. No, Tintin is about the whole shebang – storytelling, supporting cast, visual flair and fantastic research (as the adventures popularity grew the production of Tintin books became an almost industrial process, a long way from Hergé’s first newspaper strips). So, those who wish to watch an unspoiled film should avoid reading Red Rackham first but here’s a personal 10 of Tintin tales to try out after you’re back from the multiplex.

Tintin, like perhaps Sherlock Holmes and Batman contains a central idea that is robust enough to draw filmmakers back time after time.

If you get hooked there’s a whole world of Tintinology to get lost in: Tintin: The Complete Companion by Michael Farr is a great start, as is the late great comedy writer and producer Harry Thompson’s biography. You can even follow him off into the magical realist fictional double life of – rather more adult – Tintin in the New World, among other novels (like many an iconic character he’s been porned up and pressed into propaganda service too). 1 – The Black Island: Number seven in the Tintin series first came out in the papers in 1937, but you’ll probably get a look at the superlative 1966 update, which owes much to Hergé’s decision to send an assistant, Bob De Moore on a fact-finding mission to the UK to help produce some wonderfully and authentically detailed backgrounds. It’s a cracking movie serial-style plot too, with many a cliff-hanger, car chase and a monstrous gorilla as Tintin tries to foil a forgery plot unaided by ‘tecs Thompson and Thomson and Snowy’s discovery that what he likes most about Scotland is Scotch. 2 – Cigars of the Pharaoh: One of Hergé’s great virtues is his enthusiasm. Here he takes the Egyptian craze and the Curse of Tutankhamen meme occasioned by Howard Carter’s 1922 discoveries and weaves an intricate, funny and sometimes ridiculous plot from it, chucking in drug smugglers, mad professors (Hergé may have been the world’s greatest ever drawer of beards) and Bond style supervillain Rastapopolous as well as the world’s greatest – and very funny - salesman. 3 – King Ottakar’s Sceptre: Simply wonderful stuff – a masterpiece owing much to the troubled Europe in which it was given birth; Ottakar’s Sceptre was first written in 1938. Hergé doesn’t just invent some Ruritanian neverland for his fable of a ‘failed Anschluss’  - and more really quite splendid facial hair. No, basing Syldavia on Albania, he gives it not just a back story but a whole history wonderfully illustrated in an aircraft brochure. With some stunning set-piece illustrations worthy of framing and the usual clever plot, Syldavia was to be one of Tintin’s regular stop-offs. 4 – The Secret of the Unicorn: One of the joys of the Tintin series is the way the books grow through the canon. Here Captain Haddock – formerly an alcoholic pain in Tintin’s behind, now a funny alcoholic boon companion – comes into his own as he discovers his heroic ancestor Sir Francis and Tintin finds – as ever – a mystery which could reveal the pirate treasure of Francis’s sworn enemy Red Rackham. The Haddocks’ famous way with an oath, often whisky or rum fuelled, is given full 20th and 17th Century vent, for example: “I’ll pluck those feathers, squawking popinjay! Fancy dress freebooter! Freshwater pirate” Pithecanthropus!” 5 – Red Rackham’s Treasure: Where The Secret of the Unicorn was a clever crime thriller, its companion takes us on a tropical treasure hunt. Professor Calculus brings his comedy deafness and inventing genius to the party while the mystery is left hanging until a brilliant last minute revelation. 6 – Destination Moon: By looking back at some of the researchers – many of them Nazis - who helped shape the post war US space programme, Hergé came up with a wonderfully prescient picture of how the moon would eventually be conquered. It’s back to Syldavia – now a budding space power – begun a full 19 years before the real Eagle would land. Another visual tour-de-force really showcases the virtue of all that hard work behind the scenes and Professor Calculus’s one recorded outburst temper provides the comic highlight of the whole series. 7 – Explorers on the Moon: The follow up lives up to Destination’s high standards. A claustrophobic rocket trip with the requisite deep space scrapes along the way – and what happens to whiskey in space? - to some marvellously expansively drawn moonscapes. Syldavia’s bad guy, authoritarian neighbours the Bordurians provide the boo hiss moments, Thompson and Thomson’s psychedelic drug side effects are among the laughs, and in the double-edged story of Wolff there’s a genuinely affecting moment of weakness and human tragedy. Not bad for kids’ book and the film makers must surely be sizing these two books up for a future blockbuster. 8 – Tintin in Tibet: Of all his passions, the Far East one of Hergé’s most enduring and this, his 20th, was his favourite of all the adventures. But you don’t really need to know about the author’s failed marriage and Jungian analysis sessions to enjoy an uplifting tale of friendship conquering doubt. If Tintin’s Congolese adventure was – at the least – a deeply patronising look at a foreign culture, here, Hergé immerses himself in the mysteries of Buddhism and Tibetan culture. The final, surprising panel should tug at the tightest of heart strings. Many Tintinologists – including the estimable Michael Farr – rate this as the best of the lot. 9 – The Shooting Star: I wonder how many 60s counter-culturalists were drawn to Tintin by the wonderfully trippy cover of this, the 10th Tintin and the first to concern itself with the final frontier. There’s an air of surrealism and unreality to the whole thing as an asteroid heads for earth and in scenes that pre-shadow classic British disaster pic “The Day the Earth Caught Fire” temperatures and tempers rise and an hilarious prophet of doom stalks our hero. The Shooting Star was criticised after the war – it was started in 1942 – for its racial politics: the villainous financier Bohlwhinkel - a name Hergé changed from the original Blumenstein, only to find it too was Jewish – was labelled as an anti-Semitic caricature (should you wish to explore the arguments there’s a voluminous wikipedia page devoted entirely to the ‘ideology of Tintin’, yes, really). While not matching the sophistication of the later works, Shooting Star is funny and strange in a way that’s entirely admirable. 10 – The Calculus Affair: To save the best to last, The Calculus Affair is a triumph from its striking cover image on. Hergé’s skill with a running joke is given full airing from the get go and a bravura single panel that initially looks like something out of Where’s Wally in fact crams entertaining detail into a single coherent narrative moment. The dastardly Bordurians are at it again – The Taschists! Yes, it’s facial hair again – kidnapping Cuthbert Calculus as a cold war heats up with thoughtful moral dilemmas about the use of science and weapons of mass destruction playing out. Hergé was an avid fan of Hitchcock and it shines through here in a chase thriller-cum-spy mystery. My favourite. Click here for more stories about TV & Film Click here to follow Sabotage Times on Twitter Click here to follow Sabotage Times on Facebook