Would Tintin have travelled by Eurostar? The bold outline of the Class 373 trains, still sleek and dynamic after almost 20 years of service, would certainly have captured the imagination of his creator, Hergé. And as I arrived at Brussels Midi station, I might just as well have been transported into the early frames of a Tintin adventure: a bustle of waiting people in the background; passengers disembarking; views of the city beyond; a man in a trenchcoat peering over a copy of Le Soir.
Tintin, perhaps Belgium's most famous son, is celebrated from the moment you step off the train. In the station concourse, a vast black-and-white scene from Tintin in America greets new arrivals. The extraordinary energy of the drawing – Tintin dressed in cowboy gear, clinging to the side of a coal-black locomotive as it hurtles forward – is a concise demonstration of what makes these cartoons great. In it, Hergé's immaculate attention to detail combines with the heroism of the boy reporter in action. There's an urgency that propels the reader onwards: a very cinematic sensibility.
Since the first Tintin story – In the Land of the Soviets – was begun in 1929, that sense of drama has transformed the character into a publishing phenomenon. He's now been translated from the original French into around 100 languages (the most recent being Yiddish) with 250 million books sold worldwide.
Next Saturday, Tintin gets a 21st-century makeover with the world première in Brussels of The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of The Unicorn, a hi-tech motion-capture film version of his escapades, directed by Steven Spielberg and produced by Peter Jackson. It's Tintin's chance finally to make it big in America, where home-grown cartoon heroes such as Mickey Mouse and Superman have long held sway.
I'd arrived in Brussels in the company of Michael Farr, the leading British authority on Hergé, and someone whose own adventures in journalism as a foreign correspondent occasionally mirrored those of Tintin himself. He interviewed the notoriously reclusive Hergé in 1978, while covering the European Parliament. An initial enquiry seemed doomed – "I called his number and asked if I could take him out to lunch. He said, 'Non. Pas de question.'" – but eventually Hergé consented to a meal at Comme Chez Soi, a Michelin-starred eatery still found in an art nouveau building on Place Rouppe.
"He was hard to interview," remembers Farr. "You would ask him a question and he would pause, and then he would ask you one." Nevertheless, that first meeting eventually led to Farr being allowed access to the artist's archives after Hergé's death, resulting in books including Tintin: The Complete Companion and, more recently, The Adventures of Hergé – Creator of Tintin.
According to Farr, Hergé was "very modest. He hated to talk about himself and was very sensitive; he had a terribly thin skin." He was also uncomfortable with the level of celebrity that followed his success with Tintin. Born in Brussels in 1907 as Georges Remi (he took his nom de plume from his initials, reversed, and then pronounced: "RG") he was, as Farr says, "hugely famous" here by the time of his death in 1983.
The fame of his creation is still evident in Brussels today. Our first stop involved walking briskly past the taxi rank at the side of Brussels Midi, then peering back down to Avenue Paul-Henri Spaaklaan. Since 1958 a six-metre-high effigy of Tintin and his canine companion Milou (renamed Snowy for the English version) has revolved on the roof of the Lombard building, once home to Hergé's publisher. As a monument to a local hero, it's bold and striking – a modern-day match for Nelson and his column.
Brussels occasionally features in the stories themselves, although Tintin rarely refers to his home town by name. Just as Tintin himself was an everyman character – "Nondescript: you project yourself on to him," says Farr – the city also seems pan-European in the books. However, according to Farr: "It was discreet, but very recognisable if you were familiar with it."
The Metropole Hotel, on a tree-lined stretch of Place de Brouckère, pops up in the background of The Seven Crystal Balls. We wandered past to take a look. The cars have changed since Hergé's time, of course, and he drew a tramline running down the street – the Brussels Métro didn't arrive until 1976. Otherwise, if you narrowed your eyes a bit, it could easily pass for a Tintin backdrop even today.
There are several such "discreet" references, the majority of which are for Tintin obsessives only. If you fit that description, then head to Brussels' stately Parc du Cinquantenaire, which serves as a backdrop to an early scene in King Ottokar's Sceptre. Or to "Rue du Labrador 26", Tintin's home for the first few books, which was inspired by the houses on Rue Terre Neuve, an otherwise nondescript street behind the Marolles district. Back then the Marolles was a down-at-heel area; now it's on the up.
Close by – and far more involving – is the daily flea market at Place du Jeu de Balle. This is where aficionados walk straight into comic book history, for it's where The Secret of the Unicorn begins. Tintin, on the search for a present for his friend, the cantankerous Captain Haddock, discovers a model ship called the Unicorn here, which leads to an adventure involving pirates, sunken treasure and the iconic shark-shaped submarine designed by Professor Cuthbert Calculus.
The market-sellers are rather more ethnically diverse than in Hergé's time, but this is still visibly the place he used as inspiration for his story back in 1942. It's also full of exactly the sort of things that pop up in Tintin books: a replica of a deep-sea diver's helmet; walking sticks for Tintin's old sparring partners Thomson and Thompson; totems from Africa; and gaudy chandeliers and carpets for Marlinspike Hall, where Tintin eventually winds up living with Haddock.
Most of the bric-a-brac is laid out on rugs and blankets on the cobbled square. I rummaged through a box of comics and found a copy of Tintin magazine from 17 July 1962, a page of Les Bijoux de la Castafiore ("The Castafiore Emerald") printed on the back. This was surely a rare find. After all, when the magazine was initially published, it would have been the first time anyone would have seen the story in print. How much would it be worth today? Twenty euros? Fifty, perhaps? I asked the vendor to name his price. One euro later it was mine.
Comics of all kinds are ubiquitous in Brussels. At the corner of the market, at number 79, the real collectibles can be found in a dusty shop specialising in the genre: copies of Le Petit Vingtième, where Tintin made his debut; original editions of the books; models of the characters. Meanwhile, the official Tintin boutique – a gleaming modern outlet at 13 Rue de la Colline – lies in the old town, near the many-tiered guild buildings of the Grand Place. Here the key-rings, T-shirts and replica models are all endorsed by Moulinsart, the studio that these days guards Hergé's legacy.
Hergé suffered a blow to his reputation after the war, when he was accused of collaborating with the Germans by publishing Tintin in Le Soir, then a mouthpiece for the Nazi occupation. Farr describes him in The Complete Companion as "politically naive". Hergé's own defence was that "I worked, just like a miner, a tram driver or a baker." Certainly, according to Farr, Hergé's conscience was clear. The Tintin stories published during the war were free of politics, and he had previously been critical of fascism. In King Ottakar's Sceptre, published in 1938, Tintin works to defeat a coup attempt, in what was an allegory of the Anschluss.
It was in the post-war years that Tintin made the greatest strides. As Hergé worked furiously in Brussels, his young reporter travelled the world and beyond, as far as the moon itself. (Explorers on the Moon was completed 15 years before Neil Armstrong made it there for real.) Tintin magazine began in 1946, with Studio Hergé following in 1950, a team of artists assisting Hergé as he revised the original cartoon serials for publication as colour albums.
The work of one of Hergé's collaborators, Bob de Moor, is currently being celebrated in the Belgian Comic Strip Center, a museum and archive carved from an Art Nouveau warehouse designed by Belgian architect Victor Horta. It's a grand, gracious building, with plenty to attract fans of bande dessinée (strip cartoons), not least the replicas of Tintin and Haddock in spacesuits halfway up the stairs, and the stone bust of Tintin in the hallway.
As you might imagine, it's all treated with the greatest seriousness. Hergé himself is lauded as the progenitor of his own style of drawing, called ligne claire (clear line), which downplays contrast and shading in favour of uniformity of line.
Turn a corner, and there's more cartoon memorabilia: the "Bar Dessiné" in the nearby Radisson Blu hotel has original art from the likes of Peyo, the creator of the Smurfs, as well as sketches by other Belgian comic-book luminaries.
There are also vast murals throughout the city. A scene from The Calculus Affair graces a wall on Rue de l'Etuve, while Quick and Flupke, a pair of street urchins created by Hergé, tease a policeman on Rue Haute. Professor Calculus (Tryphon Tournesol in French) even gets his own street name, in the form of a plaque under the sign for Rue Charles Buls. The big picture, though, is Stockel station at the eastern end of Métro line one, which boasts an extraordinary mural of 140 Tintin characters hurtling down each side of the platform.
Where, though, is the museum dedicated to Hergé himself? Surely the godfather of Belgian strip cartoonists deserves his own centrepiece in the heart of Brussels? In fact, you have to make a 53-minute train journey from Brussels Central station to find it, in the otherwise unprepossessing university town of Louvain-la-Neuve. Opened in 2009, the Musée Hergé is a shining example of what good modern museums should be, albeit a shining example that's fetched up in the wrong place. A swooping, angular building, surrounded at the moment by cranes and rubble from a nearby building site, it gives a good impression of a sleek ocean liner that's been marooned next to the derricks of a chaotic harbour.
Inside, though, the innovative displays are stunning, with plenty of original material on show. Visitors are given special iPods loaded with information on Hergé's life, including his almost obsessive attention to detail, the photographs he hoarded for use as reference material, even his childhood love of the scouting movement, which fed directly into the creation of Tintin.
The evolution of Hergé's drawing style and the characters that populate the books are all dealt with exhaustively, and there are plenty of interactive elements and exhibits to keep younger fans happy. I was particularly struck by a bright cylindrical room lined with Tintin books, where a loop of recordings from readers revealed their favourites.
Farr is convinced Hergé would have approved of the forthcoming film: "He would have been fascinated by motion capture and the technology of it." Indeed, he says, an intriguing note dating from 1983 found among Hergé's papers appears to endorse Spielberg – "this young American director" who he was due to meet – as the man to bring Tintin to the screen.
"He was like a sponge," says Farr. "He just soaked everything up, whether it was women's fashion or the latest cars." Yet Hergé was nevertheless insecure about his art form, pondering its longevity in 1969: "Comic strips in the year 2000? I think, I hope, that they will – finally! – be accepted and that, dare I say it, adults will be reading them as much as children." Perhaps Tintin's journey from Brussels to Hollywood would have been vindication enough.
'The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn' is released in the UK on 26 October
Travel essentials: Brussels
* Eurostar (08705 186 186; eurostar.com) offers nine daily services from London St Pancras to Brussels Midi. Return fares start at £69.
* Hotel Amigo (00800 7666 6667; roccofortehotels.com) on Rue de l'Amigo has doubles from €199 room only, or from €293 for a Tintin package including breakfast, tickets to the Musée Hergé and a Tintin gift. The hotel launches four Tintin-themed rooms at the end of October, from €319 including breakfast.
* Belgian Comic Strip Center, Rue des Sables 20 (00 32 2 219 1980; comicscenter.net). Closed Mondays; admission €8.
* Musée Hergé, Rue du Labrador 26, Louvain-la-Neuve (00 32 10 488 421; museeherge.com). Admission €9.50.
* Le Bus Bavard runs a "Brussels seen through comic strips" tour for groups only. See busbavard.be for information including prices.
* The Belgian Tourist Office – Brussels & Wallonia (020-7531 0390; belgiumtheplaceto.be)
Leading "Tintinologist" Michael Farr rounds-up the character's globe-trotting adventures
Tintin: the boy reporter as world explorer
In the Land of the Soviets (1930)
The first story was written for a children's supplement called Le Petit Vingtième. It was decided that young people ought to know about the chaos of the Soviet Union, so that's highlighted by Tintin in between the rough and tumble of an adventure.
Tintin in the Congo (1931)
Hergé wanted to send Tintin to America next, but his editor made him write the Congo story first, as it was a Belgian colony and young people would need to know more about it if they were to be its future administrators. It's still popular in Francophone Africa – although not politically correct these days.
Tintin in America (1932)
It contains a political message, when the Native Americans are driven off their lands because oil is found there. It's a criticism of capitalism when it's unlimited.
Cigars of the Pharaoh (1934)
An important book because it's the first time Tintin goes to the desert, which has a great fascination for Hergé. Here, he's in Egypt, then the Gulf – but ends up in Northern India.
The Blue Lotus (1936)
The first artistic masterpiece: a very political book, exposing Japanese misbehaviour in China.
The Broken Ear (1937)
Tintin's first trip to South America, and a portrayal of the war between Paraguay and Bolivia [The Chaco War 1932-5] which had just ended.
The Black Island (1938)
Hergé was a huge anglophile. I remember he came up with the memorable quote that he, like many Belgians, "drank Anglophilia with his mother's milk". He was always keen to send Tintin here.
King Ottokar's Sceptre (1939)
Rooted in real countries. We had just had the Anschluss, where fascist Germany had just taken over Austria. And for a lot of the colour, Hergé turned to Albania and Romania, other countries under threat.
The Crab with the Golden Claws (1941)
Tintin back in the desert; a sort of Belgian Lawrence of Arabia. The Francophone culture of North Africa looms very large here.
The Shooting Star (1942)
Hergé was doing another book about the desert before the German invasion of Belgium – years later it become The Land of Black Gold (1950) – and it had a German villain called Müller, so he couldn't continue doing that. He embarked on The Shooting Star instead. In the first pages there's an oppressive feeling of a city under threat from the asteroid – but it's also the oppression of occupation.
The Secret of the Unicorn/Red Rackham's Treasure (1944)
The sea adventures, making use of Haddock, who's developed as a character. There's an element of escapism in these wartime stories which is typical Hergé.
The Seven Crystal Balls/Prisoners of the Sun (1949)
Whereas The Broken Ear is about South American contemporary politics, this time Hergé was looking at the Incas. He was fascinated by all such cultures, and the supernatural.
Destination Moon/Explorers on the Moon (1954)
What I find amazing is that Hergé started his research on sending Tintin to the moon as early as 1948. And the accuracy of it all!
The Calculus Affair (1956)
Here we have "Borduria": Think of Bulgaria as a Soviet satellite state. It's impressive how Hergé parodies the Stalinist cult.
The Red Sea Sharks (1958)
Back to the Gulf. The story was based on news articles about Africans making the trip to Mecca and being sold as slaves. And again, it was about Tintin in the desert.
Tintin in Tibet (1960)
Hergé struggled to find a subject to do next. He picked up articles about the Abominable Snowman, which supplied the idea of the Himalayas for this book.
The Castafiore Emerald (1963)
A great joke: the first adventure where Tintin goes nowhere, but instead stays in Marlinspike, which is based on the chateau of Cheverny in the Loire region of France.
Flight 714 (1968)
The destination here is Sydney – and I'm convinced that Australia was a likely future destination – but Tintin doesn't get there because he gets skyjacked; Micronesia becomes the setting instead.
Tintin and the Picaros (1976)
Back to Latin America. There was a lot in the papers about the Castro revolution; Che Guevara was topical. That's what is marvellous about Tintin: the stories are always a reflection of the century, of world events.
Interview by Ben Ross
'Tintin: The Complete Companion' by Michael Farr (Egmont) is out now (£25). Michael Farr is speaking about Tintin at a charity event on behalf of the Simon Drew Foundation (helping street children and orphans in Manila) at the Wigmore Hall, London, on 22 October. For more information and tickets, see justgiving.com/sdftintinlecture
Michael Farr on Tintin
Belgium's comic-book hero, Tintin, is about to hit the big screen in a Steven Spielberg-directed film.
But for fans of the boy reporter the story begins in Brussels. Michael Farr, the leading British authority on Hergé, and someone whose own adventures as a foreign correspondent occasionally mirrored those of Tintin himself, speaks about the enduring popularity of Hergé's comics and their ties with the Belgian capital.
To download the audio interview with Michael Farr, click here and click "save target as" to download
Images: Hergé/Moulinsart 2011