With a new Hollywood movie to his name, Tintin is inspiring a brand new generation of comic fans. James Williams heads to Brussels, to see where the boy reporter's adventures began. Photography by Natalie hill
The curve of the face, some dots for eyes and a squiggle for a nose, then with a flick of Hergé’s pen the tuft of hair is complete.
But how did Tintin get to be so famous – going from humble black-and-white beginnings in a Belgian newspaper supplement to the star of a new Hollywood action movie?
First created by Georges Prosper Remi, aka Hergé, in 1929 (without his quiff!), the comic strip kid has since been made into 24 albums, selling 350 million copies, in over 70 languages. And this autumn, a new generation will get to meet him when The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn hits cinemas across Europe.
He’s been made into films before, but never like this. With Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson at the helm, it’s set to be a 3D-animated marvel. Stars like Jamie Bell (Tintin), Andy Serkis (Captain Haddock) and Daniel Craig (bad guy Red Rackham) have been donning motion-capture gear to bring the scenes to life, and you can already expect a sequel.
Yet all this glitz seems a world away from the jovial bars, peaceful parks and stately buildings of the Belgian capital, where Hergé soaked up his inspiration. And so our story begins one night in one of Brussels’ oldest pubs, where frothy beers line up along the bar, and a picture of Hergé grins back at me from behind a string of sausages. Armed with a map, compass and a thirst for knowledge, I’m going to visit some of the places most connected with the comics and get to know Hergé and Tintin that bit better.
Laurence and I talk tactics in De Skieven Architek (50 Vossenplein, tel: +32 (0)2 514 4369), a café in the corner of the square festooned with paintings acquired from the flea market. Belgium has long had a love affair with comics, “bande dessinée”, and apparently Tintin is just the tip of the cartoon iceberg.
So we soon set off for a taste of the Cartoon Trail, a city-promoted walk that features 34 comic murals painted on the side of random buildings all around the city. In the Marolles alone we take in six, including another of Hergé’s creations, Quick & Flupke. Unlike the more serious Tintin, these two young boys from the 1930s were the embodiment of naughty hijinks, raising hell all over Brussels.
LA FLEUR EN PAPIER DORÉ
Having checked into the Aloft hotel, and noted its policy on small white dogs just in case, I head into town and drop in for a drink at La Fleur en Papier Doré (55 Rue des Alexiens). This was one of Hergé’s favourite pubs, and once a hangout for artists like René Magritte and the Surrealists, whose philosophical writings are scrawled across the walls. Still a place of exhibitions and happenings today, its cosy corners and plethora of pictures are perfect for a spot of cultural chit-chat. Ordering a Brussels- brewed gueze beer à la Hergé, I’m shocked to find it’s a bitter, cidery concoction. “Blistering barnacles,” as Captain Haddock would say!
PLACE DU JEU DE BALLE
It’s 10am the next morning and the flea market on Place du Jeu de Balle is in full swing.
I browse a sea of lamps and brass ornaments laid out on a threadbare rug, as the man next to me pulls an old-fashioned globe from a cardboard box and examines it. Amid the tinkers and their trinkets I manage to spot Laurence Bragard, my Tintin expert and tour guide for the day, waiting outside traders’ café La Clef d’Or, where an accordion is wheezing away in the corner. She soon informs me that the market, in the Marolles district, is where The Secret of the Unicorn actually begins, as Tintin picks out a mysterious model ship for Captain Haddock.
Ten thousand thundering typhoons!
Stepping into a glass-backed lift, we soon leave the Marolles beneath us, ascending to the Upper Town. The doors open right outside the Justicepalais, 19th-century law courts so huge that St Peter’s Basilica would fit inside. After walking in and gazing up towards the cupola, we saunter down the fashionable Avenue Louise towards the Royal Palace, which was the inspiration for the palace of King Muskar XII of Syldavia in King Ottokar’s Sceptre. The Parc de Bruxelles opposite was also where Tintin and Snowy take a stroll at the start of the tale, and find a briefcase left on a bench – obviously.
Just then a car pulls up and in a puff of smoke two henchmen bundle us into the back seats. When we finally come around these baddies have gone and we are left in a floaty, warped building, surrounded by little blue men. OK, so it was a taxi, but that’s what would have happened to Tintin! We’re actually surrounded by pictures of Smurfs and the surreal building is the Belgian Comic Strip Center (20 Rue des Sables, tel: +32 (0)2 219 1980, www.comicscenter.net), in an art nouveau showroom designed by Victor Horta. A quick tour reveals numerous exhibits, from Asterix to the Marsupilami, a manic monkey with an extra long tail. And in the reading room wide-eyed kids are flicking through the comics.
Over a lunch of Flemish beef stew in the Belgian Comic Strip Center’s elegant Horta Brasserie, Laurence fills me in on Hergé’s past. Although obsessed with drawing from a young age, Georges Remi never had any formal training in the arts. He was also heavily influenced by the scouting movement, which led him to cast Tintin as a globetrotting adventurer. Rather than travelling himself, Hergé would spend hours among the exhibits at places like Brussels’ Royal Museum of Central Africa (13 Leuvensesteenweg, tel: +32 (0)2 769 5211, www.africamuseum.be) and Musée du Cinquantenaire (10 Parc de Cinquantenaire, tel: + 32 (0)2 741 7211, www.kmkg-mrah.be) to draw objects and invent characters.
Set against a sunny Brussels sky near the Gare du Midi we can see the giant heads of Tintin and Snowy, which crown the offices of Lombard, publisher of Le Journal de Tintin. Tintin’s fanbase was enthralled by this weekly publication, which ran from 1946 to 1993, and spun off new heroes like Blake and Mortimer. Tintin had previously been published in Le Petit Vingtième, a Catholic newspaper youth supplement. That folded when the Nazis invaded Belgium in 1940, and it wasn’t until aft er the war in 1950 that Studios Hergé was founded to help meet demand for the coveted full-colour books, as Tintin grew in popularity.
A short train ride takes us to Louvain-la-Neuve, and the town’s modern, angular Musée Hergé (26 Rue du Labrador, tel: +32 (0)10 488 421, www.museeherge.com), a mecca for serious Tintin fans. Housing reams of original drawings and artefacts – from pencil sketches to model rockets and life-sized submarines – it’s here that I learn how after meeting Chinese art student Zhang Chongren in the 1930s, Hergé developed a strong desire to educate his readers. His earlier works were riddled with cultural stereotypes, which remain controversial. But his approach changed with his fifth book, The Blue Lotus. His new friend helped to illustrate it with beautiful caligraphy, and also appeared as Chang, a friend of Tintin. Zhang Chongren’s son, Zhang Xue Ren (pictured), now runs a Chinese restaurant in Brussels.
PURPLE PROFITEERING JELLYFISH!
GREAT FLAT-FOOTED GRIZZLY BEAR!
Back in Brussels, on a side street near the guild houses of the Grand Place, we call in at the official Tintin shop – run by Zhang Chongren’s granddaughter! After buying a couple of books, and scoffing a chocolate waffle on the go, we follow a crowd looking for the city’s tiniest landmark, the Mannekin Pis (“pissing boy”). En route to the famous fountain we spot a Tintin mural, this time with the lad legging it down a fire escape – from Cold War-inspired The Calculus Affair. Moments later we see the fountain, and while it’s not exactly the Eiffel Tower, I’m secretly quite impressed.
Laurence bids me farewell, as I nip off for a pint of Hoegarden in the Poechenellekelder (5 Rue du Chêne, tel: +32 (0)2 511 9262), an historic and rather eccentric pub just opposite. But just then, amid the strange puppets and beer bottles, I remember I haven’t seen one of the most important sights of all — but why did it have to be at Stockel metro station right at the end of the line? Thankfully, Brussels is small, so within 20 minutes my train reaches the platform and I eagerly wait for the doors to open. Stretching 135m along both sides of the tunnel are some of the best murals in town. Every single character from the Tintin comics is there, lined up in a non-stop parade. Opera singers, rickshaw drivers, mad professors and explorers have joined the procession, all led by an aff able young lad in a blue jumper.
TO BOOK A TOUR WITH LAURENCE, CONTACT BRUSSELS TOUR EXPERTS CHATTERBUS (TEL: +32 (0)2 673 1835, www.. BUSBAVARD.BE). FOR MORE ON BRUSSELS AND WALLONIA, VISIT www.BELGIUMTHEPLACETO.BE, FOR A GOOGLE MAPS TOUR OF TINTIN SIGHTS (22 IN TOTAL), SEE www.OPT.BE
YOU LILY-LIVERED LANDLUBBERS!
Brussels (Charleroi) lies about 46km from the centre of Brussels. A bus connects the airport to Charleroi train station, offering rail connections to the rest of Belgium. For car hire, Hertz (www.. hertz.com) is Ryanair’s exclusive rental partner, offering special rates for passengers.
ALOFT BRUSSELS SCHUMAN
Business and leisure friendly, this trendy hotel in the EU district offers style at a great price.
PLACE JEAN REY, TEL: +32 (0)2 800 0888, www.ALOFTBRUSSELS.COM
RADISSON BLU ROYAL HOTEL
Modern design meets art deco splendour at this luxury hotel near the comics centre. It also boasts a Michelin- starred restaurant, and bande dessinée- themed bar specialising in malt whiskies.
47 RUE DU FOSSÉ-AUX-LOUPS, TEL: +32 (0)2 219 2828, www.RADISSONBLU.COM
Featured in The Seven Crystal Balls, this majestic 19th-century landmark is located near the Bourse and Grand Place.
31 PLACE DE BROUCKÈRE, TEL: +32 (0)2 217 2300, www.METROPOLEHOTEL.COM