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He has cheated death countless times and brushed off charges of racism, Fascism and misogyny. But this time Tintin, the quiffed boy reporter of cartoon fame, is in a stickier predicament than ever before. According to a controversial new book, the comic-strip character - who is 70 this year - is being suffocated by stifling modern- day management as the costs of his merchandised products have risen and sales of his books have slumped by half from a peak of three million copies a year in 1992. And - blistering barnacles! - the villain of the story is a Brit.

The claims made in Tintin and the Heirs, by the Belgian broadcaster and journalist Hugues Dayez, have caused a sensation in his home country, where the book has become a best-seller amid dissatisfaction over the low-key celebrations of the character's 70th anniversary. Now the debate is spreading south, to France, where this week one of the leading national daily papers, the up-market Le Figaro, devoted many column inches to the row, even before the book's official French launch.

On the outskirts of Brussels, in an empty and characterless bar situated on a busy square, the charming but earnest 35-year-old author of the offending tome, Hugues Dayez, sips on his drink and recalls his meeting with the creator of Tintin, Herge, in 1975. He produces a dedication in the handwriting of the famous cartoonist, beneath a drawing of a smiling Tintin and a bone-chewing Snowy. Peering down through his John Lennon glasses, Dayez proclaims slowly: "There is something wicked in the beautiful land of Tintin."

Herge's legacy has been the cause of simmering resentment in his native Belgium for years, but the current dispute has come to the boil over the control of the Tintin empire, now headed by Nick Rodwell, the British second husband of Herge's widow, Fanny.

The picture Dayez paints of those in charge seems to come out of Tintin's first epic assignment - In the Land of the Soviets. Dayez claims that the Herge Foundation, and its commercial arm Moulinsart, are obsessed with a desire for total control of the characters' images, to the detriment of fans' wishes. "They take the point of view," he argues, "that this is private property. But Tintin is really a part of the Belgian dream - everyone feels close to Tintin."

The number of licences to companies to reproduce Tintin products has dropped in recent years from 70 to 10 and is planned to be completely restricted next year, he says. Meanwhile, organisers of fan festivals or Tintin events need to seek approval and pay royalties, inevitably restricting these events. An exhibition at St Nazaire in France illustrating Tintin's sea-faring activities cost the organisers BF900,000 (about pounds 15,000) in licensing alone, according to the book. Several other projects have been scuppered because of the Foundation's need to control all details, he says, alluding to the stalled plans for a Tintin movie - despite interest from Steven Spielberg.

Dayez also complains of the lengthy delays involved in setting up a dedicated museum, and points out that Belgium has no Tintin theme park to compare with the successful Parc Asterix outside Paris. Merchandising is, he argues, targeted at adults, with correspondingly high prices being charged. He argues that a model of Tintin available for around BF2,000 (more than pounds 30) 10 years ago has increased in price between two- and threefold, and complains that little effort is devoted to cheaper Tintin toys that would popularise the cartoon characters among a new generation of children.

All this, of course, has done little to endear Dayez to those in charge at the Herge Foundation. His own request for an interview with the general director, Nick Rodwell, was met with a counter-request to vet the book "for errors". The author even claims that his activities are being monitored and that Moulinsart videoed a speech he made to promote his book last weekend in nearby Charleroi, south of Brussels.

Meanwhile, over at the headquarters of the Herge empire - on one of the smartest streets in Brussels, where Herge once kept his studio - Nick Rodwell, the man at the centre of the storm, dismisses the claims of his accuser as "off the wall". Rodwell, who is in his mid-forties, is the quintessential European entrepreneur, often on the move between Brussels, Paris, London and his house in Switzerland. He is, he says, the victim of a two-year campaign of vilification, designed to oust him because he is a foreigner.

Belgian Tintin fans have hinted darkly that he married his wife for money. Moreover, he expects the next round of accusations to be anti-Semitic because his ethnic origins are being raised obliquely. The Dayez book does not broach this subject, but does explain that the Rodwell house in Switzerland is called "Chalet Rosenthal" because this was Nick's original family name. All of which has added fuel to Rodwell's sense of fighting a vendetta. "In Belgium at the moment," he claims, referring to the fans and now the book, "I get criticised the moment I get up."

If all this sounds a bit extreme for a debate about a mere comic strip, it may help to explain a little about Tintin's place in Belgian life. The country considers itself the spiritual home of the genre known as bande dessinee, or by the initials BD. Tintin himself first appeared in 1929, the creation of Herge (whose real name was Georges Remi), but it was in the post-war period that the stories, including the cast of larger-than-life characters such as Captain Haddock, Bianca Castafiore and the Thom(p)son twins, took off.

In those days, two weeklies dominated: Tintin, which featured global exploits and titanic battles; and another publication by the name of Spirou, which concentrated more on humour with creations such as the Smurfs. For a small nation with relatively few heroes, the BDs became a source of much pride, and Herge joined that exclusive club: famous Belgians.

Looking back, it is clear that Tintin's swashbuckling adventures were conceived in an age before political correctness. Racial stereotypes and jokes abound - most notoriously in Tintin in the Congo - and Herge himself was accused of being a passive collaborator during the war. But over the years, more than 200 million books have been sold and the Tintin stories have been translated into an extraordinary 51 languages.

It didn't take long before France adopted the boy reporter and claimed him as her own; General de Gaulle is even supposed once to have grumbled that "deep down my only international rival is Tintin". Such is the country's on-going devotion to Tintin that, earlier this year, France's National Assembly staged a debate on the political affiliation of the cartoon character.

While Herge lived, his creation's fate was assured but the cartoonist's plans for the future remained vague, except for a desire that there should be no new albums after his death. In 1983 he died, forming a vacuum that has never successfully been filled. Herge's widow, Fanny, co-operated at first over marketing with Alain Baran, a former assistant to the cartoonist - seen by many as the son that Herge never had.

Rodwell, at this point, played only a minor part in the Tintin empire, having started a shop in London's Covent Garden selling Tintin T-shirts and souvenirs. Drawn into the main Brussels operation, Rodwell met Fanny, whom he subsequently married; when Baran departed, a Briton was left at the apex of the Tintin empire, along with Herge's widow.

On the precise sequence of events, as much else, there is little consensus. According to the new book, Baran was ousted by Rodwell in what he sees as a tragedy of Shakespearian proportions: "Herge, a man without a son, chose Alain Baran as his spiritual son and he took power," says Hugues Dayez. "He introduces his close friend, Nick Rodwell, who takes the place of Baran and becomes the husband of Herge's widow."

Not surprisingly, Rodwell rejects this version. Instead, he says, his colleague departed over a delicate financial matter, and he finds "horrendous" the implication that he married Herge's wife for her money. For his part, Dayez argues that the financial footing of the Tintin empire is now "fragile", that sales of books have slumped to half their 1992 figure, and that the planned Tintin museum in Brussels will now never open because of financial demands from the Herge Foundation. Getting more personal, he points to an interview in which Rodwell described Tintin as a "gold-mine" and blames him for the paucity of events to celebrate Tintin's 70th anniversary.

Back at the Foundation, such an indictment is rejected by Rodwell, who says that the 1992 sales figure was artificially high because it coincided with an animation series. Although negotiations have almost broken down with the city of Brussels over the museum, Rodwell predicts that there will be one, probably at another site in Belgium. He points out that there have been new children's learning books, says there are exciting multimedia projects and that the cost of merchandising is dictated by the need for a quality product. The "gold-mine" quote was, he adds, meant figuratively, not literally.

Shorn of its distasteful nationalistic element, the dispute boils down to a row over the ownership and commercialisation of something considered a national asset. If keeping the fans happy is a yardstick of success, the cartoonist's heirs have some listening to do. But the questions remain: how far should Herge's images be protected and how should the fans' interests be balanced against those with a legal right to make money from Tintin?

Rodwell believes that "part of the criticism is because there is an Englishman in Brussels explaining to Belgian people how to manage Tintin". He adds: "They must find it distasteful. But Tintin must be protected in the same way Picasso is protected or that Mickey Mouse is protected. We are just trying to inject some professionalism."

The argument rages on - and squeezed between the desires of his fans and those of his legal owners, our cartoon hero finds himself in a predicament as grave, perhaps, as his famous run-in with the Incas in Prisoners of the Sun, where death seemed inevitable. Will Tintin, Captain Haddock and Professor Calculus manage to pull off one final glorious escape against the odds? In the best comic-strip tradition, this row is delicately poised for a hair-raising denouement.

It is also, as they used to say at the end of the weekly Tintin magazine, destined To Be Continued.