Popular Belgian comic-strip character 'Tintin' to get mega-boost on U.S. cable TV


BRUSSELS, Belgium -- Like children anywhere with an answer to give, the youngsters playing in the suburban park here could hardly contain themselves.

"Tintin! Tintin and Snowy!" several of the small voices exclaimed in chorus.

"Captain Haddock!" came another reply.

"Oh, I love them all!" shouted a little 8-year-old named Laura, jumping up and down.

The children, part of a city-run recreational program, were reeling off their fictional heroes -- and none was new.

Forget the latest gimmicks marketed to dazzle their young lives. Forget the Teen-age Mutant Ninja Turtles, the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, Strawberry Shortcake and the Care Bears. Don't even think about Beavis and Butt-head.

No, this excitement was aimed at the figures in one of Europe's oldest comic strips, "Tintin" -- a strip whose title character is a fresh-scrubbed teen-age newspaper reporter with a face so open and free of detail that he tickles imaginations from Hanoi to Helsinki.

Villains are confronted

Through a series of adventures that are really miniature morality plays, enjoyed as much by parents as children, he confronts an array of villains ranging from hard-line Stalinists to Chicago mobsters.

So far, the stories have appeared in 51 languages -- roughly twice as many as "Peanuts" -- and are probably the most widely translated features in the world. In the process, Tintin has become a Belgian national treasure, a character so popular throughout the Francophone world that the late French President Charles de Gaulle once quipped, "Tintin is my only international rival."

Now, de Gaulle's rival is making a new run at the United States. Although first translated into English in the late 1950s and widely known today in Britain, the series has never really caught on big in America. But its backers think now is the time.

An animated television series of Tintin's adventures, which began on Home Box Office in 1991, boosted American sales of Tintin books.

And his premier this fall in an after-school time slot on the Nickelodeon cable channel will nearly quadruple the potential audience from 16 million to 60 million households, according to Louise Desjardins, the American agent for Tintin's Belgian publisher, Casterman.

In January, Sony Wonder will begin marketing videocassettes of Tintin's adventures, and Desjardins is convinced that this will help the books catch on. "The problem [in the United States] has always been a lack of exposure," she said in a telephone interview from her office in Mystic, Conn. "This is going to help change that."

Little promotion needed

Elsewhere in the world, Tintin needs little promotion.

It has been 66 years since the young reporter debuted with his little dog, Snowy. And nearly two decades have passed since the last of his 23 globe-trotting adventures was completed. Yet the appeal seems only to get stronger with time. Nearly 200 million bound volumes of these adventures have been sold around the world.

In Europe, the strip's remarkable staying power has already made the adventures of Tintin a rare shared experience among generations of young comics readers. Grandparents and parents have tracked the same characters moving through the same adventures -- as have today's children.

Francis Panichelli, a senior official at the European Parliament here, recalled how he devoured the Tintin adventures as a child, then put them aside as a teen-ager only to rediscover them as he began reading them to his own son.

"I hadn't touched them for 20 years, but when I did, I understood them at a different level," he said. "They were as interesting for me as for my son."

Mr. Panichelli said that, although his son is now nearly 20 and a medical student, they still frequently quote bits of Tintin dialogue to each other. "It's a link for us," he said.

Inevitably, specialty shops peddling Tintin playing cards, mugs, socks, key chains and a variety of other souvenirs have sprung up in London, Tokyo, Montreal and Barcelona, Spain. In Japan, Tintin has become the spokesman for the national airline and the national railway.

Interest is increasing

But what has surprised many followers of comic strips is that interest in the adventures seems to have increased rather than dropped off in the decade since the death of his creator George Remi, who drew under the pen name "Herge" (pronounced Er-jay).

Experts in the medium explain that Tintin's universal appeal stems in part from the simplicity of his features.

"His face is almost empty, so that almost anyone from any culture can associate with him," said Charles Dierick, director of the Belgian Center for Comic Strips. "He's the best vehicle for a reader to project his emotions."

But there is also a deceptive, understated quality to the Tintin stories. While Tintin may look like he belongs on a level with Archie, his adventures contain elements more evocative of Sherlock Holmes, Mark Twain, Jules Verne, Alfred Hitchcock and Don Quixote.

As "Tintin, world reporter No. 1," he escapes a Stalinist-era Soviet Union, tackles Chicago mobsters in the early 1930s, battles drug traffickers in China in the Sino-Japanese War and fights kidnappers of an Arab sheik in the Middle East. It's a string of tales that portray the world between the two wars, yet at the same time are timeless adventures.

Artist's work protected

"When we ask children today when they think Tintin lived, they always say 'now,' " declared Philippe Goddin, secretary general of the Herge Foundation here, which was established to protect the artist's works.

In Herge's later books, Tintin gets involved in Cold War mysteries, fights petty dictators in Latin America, rescues an old friend in Tibet and even explores the moon -- always against great odds, always in the name of truth, justice and a greater good, always winning out in the end.

His supporting cast includes an absent-minded professor named Calculus, a crusty sea captain called Haddock, twin detectives known as the Thompsons (for comic relief) and Snowy the talking dog.

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