My intellectual life was altered irrevocably the day I entered the fourth grade. (Well, perhaps not that exact day—although some strange things did happen that day, but that’s a story for another time…) What happened was this: Fourth-graders were allowed to access the “big kids” part of the Burlington Elementary School library. This was a big deal for a voracious little reader such as myself. (Case in point: One summer, I spent my mornings reading the World Book encyclopedia from cover to cover.) On my first forays into the new library section, I found a set of volumes, curiously untouched by any of the other kids. They were thin and tall, standing out on the shelf. On their covers were clear, realistic oversized cartoons featuring a boy and his white dog caught up in moments of pure action and adventure—rocketships, shark-shaped submarines, castles, deserts, jungle river treks, mummified Egyptologists, Aztec pyramids. These, the covers proclaimed, were The Adventures of Tintin by a mysterious author who went by a single name, Hergé.
I don’t remember which one I opened first (knowing me, it was probably Destination Moon) but inside I found something entirely new. I was no stranger to comics, at least of the more kid-friendly variety (Richie Rich, Archie, Sad Sack, Casper the Friendly Ghost), but these were not just glorified comic strips; these were full novels, told with wonderful drawings, with as much nuance and drama as action and slapstick. I remember that I felt like I’d found a treasure.
Each cover was only a glimpse into the adventure that lay within. They were clearly from another time. The copyright dates said that they’d been published in the 1950s (although many of them were written much earlier and were subsequently reworked for new publishers). They were clearly from another place. At the time, I believed them to be British, but they were distinctly European, with a unique (and strangely exciting for a kid growing up in Reagan’s America), worldly sensibility.
Tintin himself was not the draw. He was a hero, but a blank one, and it was a simple thing to imagine myself in his shoes. He was often called a boy, an older teenager perhaps, and a prodigy of sorts. He lived in his own flat; no parents or family were ever mentioned. He had no attachments to girls; indeed, there were few women in Tintin’s world. He worked as an investigative reporter. He was often shown with a book in his hand, but he was no mere bookworm. He had a keen eye for detail, a trait that sparked many of his best adventures. Tintin was no superhero and yet at the same time he was. He had an unquenchable curiosity and clear sense of justice; two superpowers that made him an unstoppable force. And not just in Gotham or some Disney-esque fantasy world, but in the real world, one with very real and relevant problems.
And through every voyage, through every danger, Tintin’s faithful white dog, a terrier named Snowy, trotted at his side.
For those who have read Legitimacy, the parallels to my characters of Teague Werres and Monkey might be clear, as if I designed them to be an homage. But believe it or not, I did not set out to do that. And there were more parallels: a young, curious man alone in the world, readily crossing borders to balance the scales of justice, and rubbing shoulders (or butting heads) with some of the most powerful people in the world. Once I realized what I had done, I couldn’t deny that The Adventures of Tintin were powerfully influential—a fact I’ve decided to embrace.
If you’ll indulge me, over the next few months, I’ll be posting reviews of each of Tintin’s adventures. I want to read them again, not just with a fourth-grader’s need for adventure, but with a writer’s thirst for story.
Want to join me?