Top Ten Reasons for Tintin's Popularity around the World
By Sashidhar Kondareddy
I originally wanted to write an essay on the reasons for Tintin's popularity in India along with the story of how I became a Tintinologist. Soon after I started working on it, I decided on the current title instead of something like Top Ten Reasons for Tintin's Popularity in India. However I have tried to explain why Tintin seems to be relatively more popular in India than in other parts of the world.
I had missed Tintin completely during my childhood. After close to a decade outside India, I came back to India and accidentally got hooked on to Tintin after reading some pages of Tintin in America (TIA) that were serialized in a Magazine. When my magazine subscription ended, I got a 3-in-1 Tintin volume that contained Tintin in America, read all three and became (unknowingly) a Tintinophile. Since then I've read all the Tintin books (except Tintin in the Land of the Soviets and Tintin in Congo, which Hergé himself is not very proud of, and are not distributed by Methuen/Mammoth). During this period, I carried some Tintin books to my office and found that many of my colleagues have been Tintin fans for a very long time. And on this website I found David's note saying: "This Haddock web page has received a fair bit of email over the years (most of it, strangely enough, from India. For some reason Indians just love Tintin and Captain Haddock)." I also noticed that there were a lot more Tintins in the local bookstores and libraries. A local for-profit lending library I frequent has multiple copies of each Tintin book and they have more Tintins than all the other American comics. They buy multiple copies based on readership patterns (Some newspapers quote this library's readership patterns in their articles on the book publishing industry1) and it is reasonable to assume that Tintin is more popular in India than the other comics. I found this a bit baffling, as I never heard of Tintin during an eight-year stay in US.
So I set out to find the reasons for Tintin's popularity in India. When I first started reading Tintin, since I never heard of Tintin during my childhood (the small town I grew up in had one bookstore which stocked foreign comics and it was biased against non-American comics) and my preconceived notion of America as the birthplace and home of comics made me strongly favor the "Tintin's popularity in India is based on absence of competition because of price/distribution" hypothesis, instead of the alternative "Tintin has something more that the others, that appeals to Indians" hypothesis. Once I completed around 6 Tintins (at least three times each) I realized there was more to Tintin's popularity than mere absence of competition.
I prepared a detailed Tintin questionnaire, circulated it among my colleagues and got their responses. I also read articles on some websites that tried to explain Tintin's popularity and on David's recommendation read a book titled Tintin - The Complete Companion by Michael Farr (ISBN: 0-7195-5522-1).
The reasons suggested by my survey respondents include Tintin being a 'real-world' character (unlike say Superman), a very rich supporting cast, rich illustrations, something endearing about Tintin, depth of the stories and being eminently suitable for rereads. BTW Farr lists all the above as reasons for Tintin's popularity in all corners of the earth. Here is my "Top Ten Reasons why Tintin is popular in India and around the world"
While all the reasons I have listed (and those suggested by my survey respondents) explain Tintin's popularity around the globe, they do not explain why Tintin is relatively more popular in India than other parts of the world (like for example China; In fact after Blue Lotus one would expect Tintin to be national hero in China). More than 120 million Tintin books have been sold around the world and Tintin has been translated into more than 50 languages! Now, email to this website and Tintin's popularity in India need not be statistically significant proof that Tintin is more popular in India than in other countries. Assuming it is, the explanation I can think of:
- Reason 10:
- This is a future use item. I could not really think of 10 reasons, but I wanted a Top Ten List (;-).If I can think of one more reason, I will update this.
- Reason 9:
- Widely Translated: Tintin has been translated into more than 50 languages including many Indian Languages. Quite a few people I surveyed have commented that this is one of reasons for Tintins popularity in India. Some have been first introduced to Tintin via the local language versions (although the translators did not do a good job in translating Haddockisms), and then moved on to the English versions.
- Reason 8:
- Tintin to some extent epitomizes my favorite author James A Michener's "The World is my Home" philosophy. Tintin is a Belgian, his close associate is an Englishman, Bianca is an Italian, his 'friends' include a Latin American dictator, a Middle Eastern emir, a Chinese kid and a host of others. This explains Tintin's popularity around the world (excluding USA). Even the villains are drawn from diverse places. Unlike most of the other comic characters, Tintin is a World citizen. For his fans, the occasional colonial stereotyping and clichés can be easily forgiven. For example Hergé and his publishers took Tintin in Congo (TIC) out of publication, primarily because of the 'excessive' colonial clichés; Only its subsequent appearance in a Zairean magazine rehabilitated it; According to Farr, TIC is the most popular Tintin book in large parts of Africa. In this era of globalization, it is only natural that Tintin's popularity continues to grow around the world.
- Reason 7:
- Tintin operates in the real world, not the fantasy world of a Superman or Batman.
- Reason 6:
- Tintin stories have unusual depth, not to be found in a comic book. Whether it is the bold stand against fascism or military expansionism as in King Ottokar's Scepter and The Blue Lotus, incisive political satire and parody as in Tintin in America, Broken Ear and many others, Tintins have depth not to be found in the usual comic book. Tintins are more suitable for rereads than any other comic. I cannot imagine reading any of my childhood favorites more than twice, while I do not consider a particular Tintin book as completely read unless I read it thrice. (The second read is to appreciate the illustrations more thoroughly and the third read is to identify and appreciate the Haddockisms).
- Reason 5:
- Like a good allegory the stories can be appreciated at many levels. Children can enjoy the action, adults can appreciate the satire/parody. Today's children can appreciate it at a different level when they are grown up and so Tintins will most definitely be reread. Most other comics are not very suitable for adults. I cannot imagine spending any effort (like going to a library/bookstore and get the book) on reading a Superman or Tarzan now, while I do/did make a significant effort in procuring Tintins. As Farr points out in his book, "Tintin's appeal is self-generating, as children become adults and then parents and very likely to introduce Tintin to their children". Some of my survey respondents also support this point.
- Reason 4:
- Hergé's Perfectionism. Hergé did an enormous amount of research for each of his books and took his time writing each one. Except for Land of the Soviets and Congo, Hergé took close to two years to write each book. Every ship or airplane or a car or a motorcycle or any other object was based on a real model. Jai Raj Nair and Martin Wessendorf commented (elsewhere on this site) on the accuracy of Hergé's research--specifically in depicting a Matterhorn look-alike in the Himalayas and the angle of an ice axe. Farr gives a lot more examples in his book. Another noticeable feature of Hergé's Tintin is what Oracle (the database company) calls National Language (or Globalization) Support. Philip Massey points (elsewhere on this site), that when a porter in Nepal shouts at Haddock (Tintin in Tibet), what he shouts is written in authentic Hindi; I was planning to give the translation but Philip Massey has already done that. Anyway most Tintin readers would not understand Hindi, so Hergé could have used a bunch of special characters (@$#*…) as one would expect a comic writer to do, but he did not. According to Farr all the advertisements, slogans and graffiti in all books involving Arabia and China are written in authentic Arabic or Chinese. When Gibbons beats a rickshaw puller in Shanghai the wall poster behind them proclaims "Down with Imperialism" in Chinese!
A Note on Loch Lomond:
A sidenote on Haddocks favorite tipple 'Loch Lomond'. Many Tintinologists got the facts wrong in their published works on Hergé. Farr in Tintin - The Complete Companion says "On Methuen's demand Hergé changed a very real Johnny Walker tanker to his own Loch Lomond. The result was a tanker-load of a less authentic tipple, the future Captain's Favorite, Loch Lomond", implying that Loch Lomond is fictitious. And it seems another author, Pierre Assouline wrote that Hergé changed the brand of whisky from "Johnny Walker to Loch Lomond, a fictitious brand." But according to http://www.tintin.com/uk/, there was a real brand named Loch Lomond distilled in Dumbartonshire, but the distillery is no longer operating. (BTW, Allan presents a very real Haig whisky to Haddock in The Red Sea Sharks).
- Reason 3:
- Illustrations: Hergé's Tintins are very richly illustrated. Initially I was prone to speed-read my Tintins, but very soon realized that fully soaking in the illustrations was essential to comprehend the story and to fully enjoy the books.
- Reason 2:
Haddockisms: Haddock's sonorous, excessively creative, marvelously irrelevant and seemingly unlimited repertoire of expletives and exclamations. Who can match the sonority and creativity of expletives like dictatorial duck billed diplodocus or anamorphic aardvark. Or the irrelevance of an expletive like Logarithm! Or Polygraphs! And don't forget exclamations like Blue blistering bell-bottomed balderdash and Billions of bilious blue blistering barnacles. Haddockisms have uses beyond the temporary enjoyment we get during a read. First we can use our own (G rated) versions of them in places where the R rated four and four+ letter expletives (that Hollywood is hard selling to the Global citizen; these will be referred to as Hollywood expletives in the rest of this article) are out of place; Like for instance in the workplace. Second these would be a lot more original and more likely to match the occasion, than the Hollywood expletives. No matter what the stimulus or provocation is, people across the world are limiting themselves to a few four and four+ letter words, which really do not convey the degree of aggravation or annoyance felt by the curser/exclaimer. This is because the general curser/exclaimer population has not been exposed to the creativity and originality of people like Haddock. I'm not against Hollywood expletives but their use in every possible situation for every possible annoyance makes them boringly unoriginal. (I feel freshwater spaceman/pirate is eminently suitable for modification and widespread use–-just think of the possibilities: Freshwater Software Professional, Freshwater Project manager and after Enron and Worldcom how can we miss out Freshwater CFO. Note: These days, in most countries, Freshwater politician or freshwater political leader would be a pleonasm; cant help you there).
While on this subject, I would like to add the Haddockisms of two other characters who appear in Tintin books. The Emir of Khemed, Ben Kalish Ezab and San Theodran dictator Alcazar, especially when they are talking about their political rivals (Bab El Her and Tapioca), rise to Haddockian levels. Some of their Haddockisms I can recall are Mangy Dog, Son of a Mangy Dog, Moulting Vulture, Hyena, and Tapioca Puddings.
Haddock's every day vocabulary (full astern, from stem to stern, drop/weigh anchor) has a nautical tinge to it, which I find interesting. I've spent quite a bit of time finding the usually interesting origins of phrases like Shake a leg, Ration my rum, etc…
- Reason 1:
- Tintin's Age: What makes Tintin endearingly appealing to me (and perhaps to all kids aged 7 to 77 as Hergé might say) is his age and the fact none of the people he comes in contact with question the premise of a boy reporter (or even raise eyebrows). This acceptance of Tintin's age extends well beyond his immediate circle and cuts across cultures, Continents and Religions. Whether it is a Latin America Dictator, an Arab Emir, an Indian Monarch, a Chinese Nationalist, Police officers across Europe, Corporate CEOs, they do not say "Hey Kid, Why don't you go back to your Mom". Instead they tell him all their problems and ask him for his help in solving them. This farce reaches its height when Alcazar on being introduced to Tintin for the first time (Broken Ear) makes him a full colonel in his army and his ADC! The closest anyone comes to raising an eyebrow is when Tintin reports as a Radio officer aboard some ship (Speedol Star?) sailing to Khemed, the captain says something like "Aren't you little young"; Note that he does not say 'Are you not grossly under aged for a Ship's Radio officer'. Even world-class gangsters like Rastapopolous and Al-Capone, instead of laughing him off consider him a worthy rival. I believe this is the most important cause of Tintin's appeal. Even with all the other elements above, if Hergé had written about a grown up Foreign Correspondent, it would not have been a fraction as appealing as Tintin (My Opinion).
The golden age of comics (1940-60) largely bypassed India, so none of the Comic Majors gained any following in India. Even Tintin started gaining some following in India after Methuen started its editions in the sixties but really gained steam in the Seventies and Eighties. As I mentioned earlier, those who started reading Tintin as children, continued to do so (at least occasionally) as adults and later as parents (and probably introduced Tintin to their children). While explanation applies to all countries, it is much more pronounced in India because product life cycles are much longer in India than in other countries (as has been well noted by Publishing/Media industry experts in India1,2). Recently some book distributors in India, in collaboration with some UK publishing house started bringing out books by authors like Nevil Shute, Edgar Wallace, Desmond Bagley etc. and have plans to bring out books by James Hadley Chase, Irving Wallace, Arthur Hailey and quite a few others. These authors are still popular in India while the rest of the world has moved on. And this is a trait reflected in music too: ABBA, Boney M, Lionel Ritchie are still popular in India while the rest of the world has forgotten them. Since I'm on an opinion binge, let me add one more opinion to my explanation: Big budget Hollywood movies take the magic out of comic books. After seeing Superman or Batman or Tarzan on the movie screen, it would be difficult to find a comic book magical and exhilarating. The images of Christopher Reeve, Michael Keaton and Bo Derek would make it hard for the reader to use his imagination to conjure his own images of Superman, Batman or Jane!
Time to Weigh Anchor Amigos.
1 They Are Back In Print, Savitha Gautham, The Hindu, Aug 20, 2002. Page 1 (Chennai Metro Plus Section).
2 Favourites Of Yore Back In Bookshop, Sravanthi Challapalli, Business Line, Aug 7 2002. Page 1.