Comic book heroes

As Captain Haddock might have exclaimed: “Billions of bilious blue blistering barnacles!” At the grand old age of 77 Tintin is in better shape than ever. With book sales of 200 million in more than 50 languages since he first appeared in 1929, it’s enough to put a spring in anyone’s plus-fours.

By Andy Round

And this is all very well. But if you want to follow in footsteps of arguably the most famous Belgian in the world where do you go? Well, Brussels’ comic strip museum (or Centre Belge De La Bande Dessinée) is not a bad place to start your own little Tintin adventure.

The museum, housed in the romantic surroundings of Horta’s restored art nouveau masterpiece, was opened as a high altar to cartoon craft in 1986. Beneath its flamboyant sinuous metalwork roof are 6,000 pages of original comic strip genius. And it is in these hallowed halls that you realise Tintin, in many respects, created what Belgians describe as the ‘Ninth Art’.

Before Brussels-born Hergé put paintbrush to paper to create his hero, comic strips were regarded simply as frivolous throwaway entertainment. By the time the cub reporter-cum-detective strode out with Haddock, Snowy and pals, Hergé had completely reinvented the genre.

“Brussels is the centre of the European comic world,” explains the museum’s Willem De Graeve. “It is a medium that is extremely well respected in Belgium. I think that due to Belgium’s constant occupation by different European nations, our constant historic need to learn new languages and our bilingual nature, Belgian people have a very developed visual sense and this is reflected in a strong comic tradition.

“Today we have 700 professional comic artists for a population of 10 million, that’s the highest per head ratio in the world. Sixty per cent of the books published in Belgium are comics, and 80 per cent of these are exported.”

Upstairs, beyond the statues of Tintin, Haddock, Professor Calculus and Snowy (in space suits) and that iconic white and red rocket, is the coloured strata of comic book history all protected behind reader-friendly glass. You go from Winsor McCay’s Gertie the Dinosaur in 1914 through to 1950s Tarzans, buccaneers and Second World War heroes all the way up to a third floor of contemporary social commentary, realism, self-reflection, anti-heroes and unfeasibly proportioned women.

Your Belgian highlights include the comic book debut of the Smurfs in 1958 (created by Brussels-born Peyo); the evolution of Belgium’s famous cowboy Lucky Luke or Brussels bellboy Spiru and, pre-dating Homer Simpson by three Flemish decades, the slow-witted, big-bellied Nero and his five-year-old genius son.

But for the visitor on a big game Tintin hunt, there is a special reserved area. It’s behind the marvellous comic panel (naturally) exhibition that celebrates the centenary of Horta’s building this year. Here is the Tintintastic source of the Hergé’s fast flowing imagination.

You can see our hero’s debut in 1929’s Le Petit Vingtieme’s Tintin in the Land of the Soviets. Then comes Tintin battling bootleggers in Chicago, walking on the moon (10 years before Armstrong), fighting with the guerrillas in South America, resisting the Japanese with the Chinese and colonising Africa. For a small Belgian he had a massive worldview.

“Hergé always made Tintin an international hero. He was not restricted to Belgium,” explains De Graeve. “Actually there are no strips that I can think of where he is pictured here. Hergé was obsessed with modernity, space, technology and travel. Still, of course, Tintin was not the only comic that Belgians read. As you can see here we have always had a great deal of choice.”

This year marks the 60th anniversary of Tintin’s own comic Le Journal De Tintin and 2007 is the centenary of Hergé’s birth, two great excuses for a ginger quiff revival. Already Moulinsart, that owns the rights to Tintin, has been involved in a Young Vic production of Tintin in Tibet and an exhibition of Tintin cars at the Brussels International Motor Show both in January.

“We are planning a wide range of other events this year across Europe and even in Peru and Canada to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Le Journal,” said a Moulinart spokesman. “We are already looking at rallies and other activities to mark the occasion.”

For the dedicated Tintin aficionado it seems a case of watch this space. But for those whose Tintin aspirations in Brussels go beyond tourist T-shirts and posters, what else is there beyond the gilded doors of Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinée? Well, there is the famous Brussels Comic Strip Walk.

Thirty giant murals of Belgium’s most famous cartoon characters are dotted along a six kilometre route that snakes through central Brussels from the comic museum to just below the city’s foreboding Palais de Justice near Sablon. Following the trail of characters Bob and Bobette, Lucky Luke, Yellow M and Quick et Flupke is an entertaining way to see both the fashionable and not so fashionable areas of Europe’s capital city as well as most of the major sights.

“The murals were started in 1991 as a way to brighten up parts of the city,” says Brussels comic museum’s Willem De Graeve. “The concept really took hold and in all areas became extremely popular. They are great for tourists, good for business and better than bare walls. New ones are being added every year.”

Close to Brussels’ eccentric Manneken-Pis, halfway along the trail, is where you will find Tintin, looking as fresh as the day he was first painted in 1929, emblazoned on a wall all of his own.

Tintin essentials

Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinée offers a full retrospective of Tintin’s illustrious career and the chance to draw your own heroics during specially arranged workshops. Call (02) 2191980 for details or visit 20 rue des Sables, Brussels

• Maps of the cartoon trail are available from Brussels Tourist Centre in Grand Place. Call (02) 5138940.

• Mantelpiece desperately in need of a Tintin figurine? Bookcase aching for The Crab With The Golden Claws? Le Boutique Tintin on rue de la Colline is where you want to be young adventurer. Call (02) 5145152.

• Being techno-literate Tintin obviously has his own website, understandably, www.tintin.com.

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