The new Herge Museum, in Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium, is devoted to Georges… (Susan Spano / For The Times )
Reporting from Brussels — Director Steven Spielberg's "The Adventures of Tintin" starts innocently enough — with Tintin, it always does — at a flea market, where the dauntless boy reporter finds an old model boat. But blistering barnacles! — as his buddy Capt. Haddock would say — there's a secret inside about a long-lost pirate treasure. So Tintin sets out to find it, undeterred by goons with guns, crashes, explosions, cracks on the skull from behind.
Hold it. Rewind. That flea market? I think I've seen it before.
Of course I have. I've been to Brussels, lifelong home of Tintin's creator, Georges Prosper Remi, better known by his comic book nom de plume, Hergé. Fans and scholars of the strip — a serious tribe known as Tintinologists — may recall an often-reproduced photo of Hergé, posed with a natty cane and bowler hat at the market on the Place du Jeu de Balle in the funky-chic Marolles district of Brussels, where collectors sell vintage postcards, dubious Old Master paintings, threadbare Oriental rugs, broken lamps and model ships just like the one Tintin finds at the opening of the film. On a Sunday morning, the Jeu de Balle flea market is one of my favorite places because of its Tintin connections.
Tintin is everywhere in the Belgian capital, a national hero bigger than Jacques Brel, René Magritte, even moules-frites. You can't buy a paper without seeing the bland, round mug of Hergé's alter ego on stacks of cartoon books at newsstands. Neuhaus chocolate shops feature Tintin gift tins, and there's a Tintin boutique just off the Grand-Place downtown.
Cartoons by Hergé and other Belgian artists are a cherished part of the culture in dour, gray, buttoned-up Brussels, the way the city smiles out from under its umbrella. An official Comic Strip Trail, created by the Brussels Tourist Office, takes aficionados past 30 murals of famous Belgian cartoon characters, including Tintin and Haddock climbing a fire escape on the side of a house, to the Comic Strip Center in an elegant Art Nouveau building downtown, and to the smashing new Hergé Museum about 20 miles south of town, where no clue about the artist and his oeuvre is left unexamined.
I'm no Tintinologist, but I have my own Tintin tour of Brussels, which starts by arriving at the South Station (Gare du Midi) on a high-speed Thalys train. Spielberg, who was in town for the Oct. 23 European premiere of "The Adventures of Tintin," went to the station for the inauguration of Thalys trains emblazoned with characters from the strip.
At one entrance, visitors are welcomed by a huge black-and-white mural of the cartoon hero clinging to the side of a speeding locomotive, a frame from "Tintin in America." He has myriad connections to trains (as well as every other kind of high-velocity conveyance). In 1935, Hergé designed an advertising brochure for the Belgian Railways, and when he completed Tintin's first two adventures, his publisher staged welcome-home celebrations for the boy reporter at the Gare du Midi, starring a Tintin impersonator.
Hergé was a steady, middle-class lad of 22, scribbling in margins while working for the subscriptions department of a Belgian newspaper, when his artistic talents were discovered, leading to the 1929 publication of his first strip, "Tintin in the Land of the Soviets." It was an immediate sensation, equally fascinating to children and grown-ups.
"I am Tintin," Hergé once said. "I am no hero. But like all 15-year-old boys, I have dreamed about being one. And I never stopped dreaming."
A second serial adventure followed in 1930, taking Tintin to the Belgian Congo, every frame imbued with racist clichés and paternalistic arrogance common at the height of the colonial era. Hergé later apologized for portraying Africans as "great big children," but kids in the Congo loved it, and Tintin went on to conquer the world, eventually racking up sales of 250 million books, translated into 100 languages.
The strip failed to catch on only in the U.S., which has its own indigenous comic book tradition featuring superheroes instead of curious adolescent boys. In 1948, Disney turned down an overture from Hergé, presumably because most Americans had never heard of Tintin.
Spielberg, who got to know him as an adult, told Le Monde magazine, "I am not Tintin. I'm more like Snowy," evincing a fondness for the boy reporter's faithful white fox terrier pup, whose dueling angels and demons make him the most human (and my favorite) character in the strip.