The Adventures of Tintin are the cartoon adventures of an unassuming young man with a ginger tuft of hair, his dog Snowy, and his friend, the irascible old sailor Captain Haddock. Over the course of the 24 books, Tintin stumbles into one adventure, mystery, or treasure-hunt after another, faces every kind of danger, visits every corner of the globe (and even the Moon) and foils dozens of bad guys up to every kind of evil trick.
Need I mention how highly I recommend these books? There are many, many excellent things about the Tintin books, and although I cannot hope to cover them all, I shall at least try to list some of them.
- The art. Hergé drew his books with a combination of beautiful simplicity and elegant detail. Much work and skill went into the cartoons, Hergé extensively researched specific locations, and the result is excellent: understated, clear, unobtrusive, but endlessly pleasant to look at.
- The characters. Captain Haddock is everyone's favourite—a peremptory old curmudgeon with a drinking problem and an endless vocabulary of insults (“Coelacanth! Bashi-bazouk! Freshwater pirate!). Snowy is also a delightful character, by turns loyal, cowardly, clever, or foolish. Professor Calculus, the scientific genius who is slightly hard of hearing in one ear, is perfectly amusing and harmless as long as you don't accuse him of acting the goat. But even Tintin, the oddly featureless main character, is a protagonist it's a pleasure to be around. Originally conceived as a role model for Catholic boy scouts, you won't catch Tintin doing anything blameworthy, but that's OK, because he can shoot, fly a plane, knock out a bad guy with one punch, outwit villainous masterminds, investigate mysteries that baffle the police, and drive a tank. He does appear to be about seventeen years old, but that just makes it more fun. One of my favourite Tintin moments occurs in Cigars of the Pharaoh, when Tintin—journeying through a corner of the Sahara—hears a woman screaming and rushes to save her from her villainous attackers (before it turns out that she wasn't really in trouble—he's blundered onto a film set).
- The plots are also brilliant. After the first couple of Tintin books—which were rambling and a little absurd—the plots began to tighten up a lot and for most of the series they were taut, well-constructed mysteries that somehow managed both to present a coherent, satisfying narrative and to have a cliffhanger moment at the end of every page.
- The settings are well thought out. As others have mentioned, Hergé was at his best when dealing with complex geopolitical situations, like in The Land of Black Gold (oil in the Middle East), The Calculus Affair (Communism and the Cold War), and The Blue Lotus (the Japanese invasion of China). During the Nazi occupation of Belgium, Hergé was unable to carry on his political commentary, opting for more far-fetched stories. But when he could, he used then-current affairs as much as possible.
Some people would find this disturbing.The books are refreshingly free of political correctness. All the characters use guns, drink is a common part of life (though it can be abused), tobacco isn't difficult to come by or stigmatised, women are treated with respect and omitted from dangerous situations, and so on. On one page in The Red Sea Sharks, the small boat on which Tintin and Captain Haddock are trying to escape from the bad guys is being strafed by enemy pilots, so Tintin grabs a machine-gun and shoots down the enemy plane. When the pilot survives, they pick him up and end up becoming fast friends. A wonderful intersection of self-defence and charity.
The series of twenty-four can be roughly divided into various segments.
- The formation of Tintin. The first three Tintin books are called Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, Tintin in the Congo and Tintin in America. The first two were very difficult to find when I was young, and I've only read them more recently. They show little research, an undeveloped drawing style, and loose meandering plots. The first two have been more or less dropped from official Tintin canon, for good reason: I am not at all the kind of person to see racists behind every bush, but there's really only one word for some of the escapades in Tintin in the Congo.
- Tintin's adventures with Snowy, from Cigars of the Pharaoh to King Ottokar's Sceptre. A turning-point in the Tintin series came with The Blue Lotus, the sequel to Cigars of the Pharaoh: since he had never been to China, Hergé enlisted a Chinese exchange student as a consultant on the book. They became fast friends, the young man became a character in The Blue Lotus (later to feature in Tintin in Tibet), Hergé learned the value of good research and avoiding stereotypes, and from then on the Tintin books would remain at a very high standard for many years.
- Tintin's adventures with Captain Haddock. Book 9, The Crab with the Golden Claws, would change Tintin forever. Halfway through this book, Tintin collides—literally--with a drunken sea-captain whose villainous first mate has hi-jacked his ship. Tintin and Captain Haddock escape the Karaboudjan together, get lost in the Sahara, and face their enemies in picturesque Morocco. By the end of it, Tintin has not just busted a gang of drug-runners—he has found a new friend. From then on, the pair of them would be a team.
- Tintin's deconstruction. Books 20 to 24 saw Hergé do something I have never seen happen before (even Arthur Conan Doyle, becoming tired of Sherlock Holmes, simply killed off his detective). He began to destroy his creation, at first just playing with it and then actively undermining it. Tintin in Tibet showed the first signs: in this epic man-vs-wild quest, the only villain turns out to be just misunderstood. This was followed by The Castafiore Emerald, considered by some to be Hergé's masterpiece: a story in which very little happens, there is no mystery, there are no bad guys, and yet in which the tension is kept up on every page. Both of these books were interesting and completely successful experiments. However, this was just the start of a derailment into the downright bizarre. Flight 714 was, perhaps, no weirder than the Peruvian adventures, but the whole point of the book seemed to be to take two of the series's most iconic villains—Rastapopoulos and Allan—and make them as ridiculous and unintimidating as possible. Finally, in the last completed book, Tintin and the Picaros, Hergé began to deconstruct his heroes themselves: Tintin loses his taste for adventure, Haddock loses his taste for whiskey, and the two of them end up helping with a meaningless revolution. What caused this sudden turn into deconstruction? Was it a full-blown author breakdown or simply boredom? Tantalising questions.
- The unfinished Tintin and Alph-Art, published with notes as far as it went, seemed to be ready to continue the process of change and deconstruction, though not (perhaps) in such an extreme fashion.
Besides the sudden swerve into self-deconstruction at the end of the series, there are a couple of other things to be aware of—Hergé appeared to have a fascination with the occult which cropped up once or twice, most notably in The Seven Crystal Balls and its sequel, Prisoners of the Sun, with its ancient mummy and voodoo dolls.
But for all that, the Tintin books are well worth your time. Some of my favourites include the following:
- The Black Island: Possibly Hergé's homage to Hitchcock and Buchan, this story gets underway when two villainous characters, worried that Tintin may be on their trail, frame him for assault and robbery. Detectives Thompson and Thomson arrest him, but Tintin knows he's innocent and goes after the real culprits—a gang of forgers led by the sinister Dr Muller. This is a great story set in England and Scotland with beautiful scenery, a well-made detective/adventure plot, and a thrilling climax in a ruined and possibly haunted castle on the Black Island off the Scottish coast.
- King Ottokar's Sceptre: When Tintin returns a lost briefcase he meets seal collector and sigillographer Professor Alembick, who invites him to travel as his assistant to the fictional Balkan country of Syldavia. At first Tintin isn't interested, but then after a series of brushes with mysterious Syldavians, he realises that something is afoot and joins the Professor for his trip to Syldavia. Tintin soon discovers that there's a plot afoot to force the abdication of the quiet but competent King Muskar XII, but there are traitors everywhere and it won't be so easy to warn the King. This book introduces another notable recurring character—Bianca Castafiore, the buxom and deadly opera star, who will go on to become one of Tintin's most loyal allies.
- The Land of Black Gold: Trouble is brewing in the Arabian emirate of Wadesdah, the Emir's son Prince Abdullah vanishes, and war seems imminent. Meanwhile, someone is doctoring the world's petrol supplies. Tintin goes to Arabia to investigate. This book is a great adventure story; my favourite parts include the melodramatic story Tintin's ally Senhor Oliveira da Figueira tells the servants at the villain's house to distract them, and the introduction of the ghastly spoiled brat Abdullah.
- The Red Sea Sharks: Tintin and Captain Haddock find themselves up against an old enemy after they begin investigating a shady arms dealer. Their friend Emir Ben Kalish Ezab has been deposed by archenemy Sheik Bab El Ehr, and the bratty Prince Abdullah has been sent to Captain Haddock at Marlinspike hall for safety. Tintin and Captain Haddock decide that Marlinspike Hall is a little too small to hold them and the Arabian Nightmare, so they jet off for war-torn Wadesdah to see what they can do to help.
Tintin books can be found at most Australian libraries and should be increasingly available in the US as well. I highly recommend them.
I have seen the Steven Spielberg/Peter Jackson film The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn and thoroughly enjoyed it despite a few flaws. Find a more thorough review of the movie, together with some good comments on the books, at Outside Hollywood.