The Adventures of Tintin raises an interesting question about the cartoon character's popularity on the other side of the Atlantic.
“Ten thousand thundering typhoons!” How cherished is that war cry, the beloved image of an enraged, frothing Captain Haddock about to hurl himself on to some hapless crook for swindling him out of a bottle of rum. Many of us grew up with Tintin and his drunkard-turned-socialite master of Marlinspike Hall, and they have, possibly along with the Asterix series, become a timeless, pleasant and breezy echo of our childhood days.
The uniqueness of the comic book series created by Belgian artist Georges Remi (1907–1983) — who wrote under the pen name of Hergé — is not only that Tintin's uncompromising and constant goodness allowed us to virtually enter his character and explore the variegated tapestry of new cultures in a pre-tourism era. It then unfurled the richest fabrics of those cultures for us, warts and all, and we gasped in wonderment. They were educational and thrilling, every one of the 25 volumes.
While we in India and quite likely our counterparts in continental Europe would firmly testify to the timeless appeal of the comic series — indeed London's Covent Garden has a “Tintin Shop” — director Steven Spielberg's motion-capture 3D animated version released two weeks ago in the U.S., The Adventures of Tintin (2011), raises an interesting question about its popularity on the other side of the Atlantic.
When I went in to watch the film at a popular cinema in Washington, admittedly on a Tuesday afternoon, there were all of four people in the hall. I asked one of them, Maryland University mathematics professor Charles Wheeler, about whether American audiences were as familiar with Tintin as were we in the Commonwealth of Nations.
According to the professor, although it may be difficult to confirm that could well be the case and, “Many more Americans would be familiar with Rin Tin Tin [a dog adopted from a WWI battlefield that went on to star in 23 Hollywood films] than with Tintin.”
So what brought him to the cinema that day? Professor Wheeler said he had first met Tintin about eight years ago in Berlin while visiting friends, when he used the German translations of Tintin as an aid in learning the German language. Similarly, he explained that a well-travelled friend of his from Iowa, who was familiar with comics from the 1950s, only encountered Tintin a few years ago while visiting Paris.
But the evidence is not clear that there is a vast Tintin-chasm between Europe and the Americas either. Jake Cumsky-Whitlock, a Buyer at Kramerbooks, one of Washington's top bookstores, said to me, “People who grew up with the book, like me, definitely think of Tintin fondly, and would buy the comic, but I don't know how typical my experience is.” Yet, he too admitted, there had been a “fairly dramatic increase in demand for Tintin since movie was out,” and in recent months his store has “carried many more volumes.”
And the movie certainly could have done worse at the box-office. In the two weeks that it has been running in Washington, it has grossed over $51 million, having been made on a budget of $130 million as per estimates by the IMDB film database. This is considerable, given that hardcore Hollywood blockbusters such as the Bruce Willis sequel Die Hard with a Vengeance rank #506 in the all-time box office record and raked in around $100 million. The question really is, why has Tintin not swept the box office — and indeed the bookstores — the way Marvel Comics superheroes like Spiderman and Batman do?
One possibility is that Tintin's fate in the Americas may have been sealed owing to the monopoly muscle of Marvel Comics, since 2009 owned by the Walt Disney Company. Towards the end of the 1950s, several attempts were made to introduce Tintin to America including serious publicity campaigns and, of course, newly translated and adapted versions of Tintin's most popular adventures. They sold a miserable 8,000 copies each over the Christmas and New Year holiday shopping season.
This was an early foreboding of things to come for the blond-tufted young scribe and in many ways economics was to blame. In a detailed study, the National Post explained that the Tintin comics that hit America were lumped in with other comics and not sold in book form as they were in Europe. There was little product differentiation but only a higher price for the hardbound cover.
Further, customers' interest may have flagged further in the wake of a parallel development in the American comic world: the highly graphic, often violent, crime and horror comics in the U.S. came under the scanner of the censors. According to the Post, a 1954 U.S. Senate Subcommittee “even investigated them as a possible cause of juvenile delinquency ... the whole genre still had something of a black mark on it.”
Yet something deeper seems be missing. Some audiences in the U.S complained that the English translations of Tintin notwithstanding the series still “betrayed a vaguely European sensibility,” and “The language, dress and even the body language of the characters — not to mention some of the colonial plot lines — always seemed somewhat removed from the American idiom.” Was it purely a cultural dissonance with a Marvel-steeped audience that led to the failure of “Tintin in America”?
Why then, in 1971, when a re-launched hardcover Tintin reached the zenith of his American popularity and sold reportedly 1,000 copies a day, did a major publisher decline to do a long-term deal with Tintin? Western Publishing's refusal to take it up was “on the belief that fancy European hardcover comics could not compete in a marketplace in which the monthly adventures of Superman, Spider-man and Batman were going for just 20¢ a pop.”
Ultimately, however, questions of marketability must boil down to questions of consumer demand. It would appear the Atlantic has proved more impermeable to the passage of Tintin than the many sands he crossed to enter the farthest reaches of Asia and Africa.