The scene is the palace of the Maharaja of Gaipajama, where a messenger from China arrives out of the blue. Before he can speak, he is silenced.
"A dart ... dipped in Rajaijah juice ... the poison of madness ... poor chap ... he just had time to tell me I'm needed in Shanghai," says Tintin, the hero of "The Blue Lotus" and 22 other comic book adventures created by Belgian artist Georges Remi (who wrote as Herge) between 1929 and 1983.
With his cowlick, empty open face, knickers and Boy Scout derring-do, Tintin has riveted and amused generations of readers; since his appearance, 200 million copies of his comic books have been sold around the world, translated from the original French into more than 58 languages.
Tintin traveled while solving mysteries and fighting crime. He's been in places as diverse as Communist Russia in the first series, "Tintin in the Land of the Soviets," Chicago under Al Capone in "Tintin in America," and the Himalayas, where he had a close encounter with a yeti (an abominable snowman) in "Tintin in Tibet."
Along the way, he introduced fans to some of the world's most exotic and exciting corners. Brandon Fernandez, a Los Angeles photographer, started reading Tintin books at 6 or 7, attracted partly by their varied settings. "Tintin makes kids interested in travel," Fernandez says.
With their sophisticated wordplay, use of history, archeology and anthropology, and such quirky supporting characters as Tintin's cynical fox terrier Snowy and colorfully cursing alcoholic friend Capt. Haddock, the Tintin books suit adults too. They entice us to travel or fantasize about faraway places (which is almost as good).
Dogeared Tintin books are fixtures in European households. At the height of his power, French leader Charles de Gaulle said the comic book hero was his only rival. But Tintin never conquered America. "The U.S. already had a strong indigenous comic strip tradition," says Kim Thompson, co-owner of Fantagraphics Books, a Seattle-based cartoon publisher.
Just as Tintin was captivating European audiences, there was an explosion of superheroes in American comics. Tintin hasn't the biceps of Superman, though his exploits involve the same battles between good and evil as those in popular American comics of the '30s and '40s.
In the U.S., it took a lucky hunter in used-book shops, like Fernandez, or a visionary, like Steven Spielberg, to understand the allure of Tintin. The American director has been contemplating making a live-action feature based on the boy reporter's far-flung adventures since the early '80s.
Although a spokesperson for Spielberg's DreamWorks production company says the project is still in development, Moulinsart, the Belgian firm that controls the rights to Tintin, reports an impending deal. In Belgium, the home of Tintin and legions of his loyalists, there is already speculation about who will play Tintin, with Le Soir magazine nominating Gwyneth Paltrow.
Visitors to Brussels can visit a handful of Tintin sights, including the Museum of the Comic Strip Art. It is in a landmark textile warehouse designed in the early 20th century by Victor Horta, the city's premier Art Nouveau architect.
Its central atrium, supported by sinuous cast-iron columns, has a statue of Tintin and Snowy and a model of the rocket that took him into outer space. There are also beautiful vintage Tintin covers and an exhibit on Remi's sources, titled "The Museum of the Imaginary."
At the tourist office in the Grand' Place, visitors can get a walking guide to cartoon art sites in the city. The Stockel Metro stop has a mural that celebrates Remi and Tintin. A store on Rue de la Colline, just off the Grand' Place, has Tintin coasters, socks and breakfast sets.
For die-hard fans, the site of Tintin's apartment is at 26 Rue du Labrador. In later adventures, he moved to Capt. Haddock's villa in French-speaking Wallonia, modeled after Chateau de Cheverny in France's Loire Valley.
Remi and his staff researched the Tintin strips all around Brussels, at the Ethnographic Museum in nearby Antwerp, the Royal Museum for Central Africa in the suburb of Tervuren and the Royal Museum of Art and History in the Parc du Cinquantenaire. There, a few months ago, I saw an exhibit (which runs through April 27) on Remi's sources for a Tintin adventure in South America, with Peruvian artifacts and pictures from the cartoon grouped together. For a while, Remi lived near the museum and frequented it for inspiration.
Remi's first four Tintin stories were quickly assembled and researched, reflecting many European prejudices. But before he wrote his next series, "The Blue Lotus," he was introduced to a young man from China, who helped him bring currency and verisimilitude to the new Tintin adventure. While the European press supported the Japanese incursion into China in the early '30s, "The Blue Lotus" saw it as colonialism.
Remi kept up Tintin during the German occupation of Belgium, which made him, in the eyes of some, a collaborator. But he survived and eventually created the strip most fans love above all: "Tintin in Tibet," written shortly after the Chinese invasion in 1950.
Remi's life underscores many of the conflicts that plagued Europe in the early 20th century. Tintin does more, by enticing us to get away, better understand one another and put away our poison darts.