I’d like to say that I became a travel writer because I grew up immersed in Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels. But honestly? I travel because I spent my formative years reading Tintin comics. My earliest pangs of wanderlust were stirred by following my cartoon hero around Tibet, Scotland, Peru, Shanghai, and Arabia. What child could pore over these adventures and not feel tempted to sail off to the Amazon, or trek across the Sahara?Tintin made travel seem worthwhile and, above all, fun.
These comics have never achieved mass appeal in the U.S., but in the rest of the world, Tintin is as ubiquitous as futbol and more recognizable than Harry Potter (oh, that cowlick!). Since his creation by Belgian cartoonist Hergé in 1929, Tintin’s exploits have been translated into 77 languages, from Welsh to Esperanto, and have sold more than 200 million books. The final volume appeared in 1976—Hergé died in 1983—but the Tintin juggernaut has rolled on, spawning a TV series, video games, a musical, museum shows, official shops (there’s a great one in London’s Covent Garden), a novel by Frederic Tuten (Tintin in the New World), and—currently in the works—a trilogy of 3-D animated feature films produced and directed by Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson.
Though he’s known as the boy reporter, Tintin is really the world’s most famous traveler, forever en route with his terrier, Snowy, to both actual places and fictional ones (I once spent days trying to locate the kingdom of Syldavia on our classroom map of Europe). This was my introduction to a world beyond my hometown in New Hampshire. And what a glorious world it was—a wonderland of flying boats and steam locomotives, Chinese junks and dugout canoes, Citroën taxis and hand-pulled rickshaws.
Curious thing about Tintin: in all his travels—uncovering Incan temples, meeting Al Capone in Chicago, even walking on the moon—he’s hardly ever seen carrying a camera. Then again, he’s got Hergé to illustrate his travel scrapbooks. Lucky kid. Would that all our journeys could be as memorable, all our landscapes so breathtaking, and all our long, boring train rides just a heartbeat away from adventure.
Peter Jon Lindberg is Travel + Leisure’s editor-at-large and Travel + Leisure Family’s favorite boy reporter.
Hergé completed 23 Tintin titles in all, from Tintin in the Land of the Soviets (1929) to Tintin and the Picaros (1976). Here, a stack that will get you and your kids hooked.
The Blue Lotus (1936)
This detective story (best suited for older readers) traces a complex plot involving opium smuggling, pre–World War II geopolitics, and the rise of Japanese nationalism. The images of rain-soaked Shanghai at the height of its 1930’s decadence rank among Hergé’s most evocative.
King Ottokar’s Sceptre (1939)
Hergé conjures an entire country, the kingdom of Syldavia, out of thin air, giving us a three-page tourist “brochure,” national customs, even a convincing language (“Zrälùkz!”). Add deposed kings, jailbreaks, and shoot-outs, and it’s no wonder Hugh Grant named this his desert-island book.
The Crab With The Golden Claws (1941)
The colorful Captain Haddock is introduced in this wild adventure—and together he and Tintin crash-land a plane in the Sahara. Funniest moment: the captain, delusional from thirst, mistakes Tintin for champagne and tries to pop his cork—before Snowy clubs him with a dinosaur bone.
Prisoners Of The Sun (1949)
The riveting and beautifully drawn sequel to The Seven Crystal Balls sends our hero to Peru, where he encounters runaway trains, dog-stealing condors, avalanches, giant anacondas, hungry caimans—and, in the finale, the hidden temple of a lost tribe of Incas. Indiana Jones never had it so good.
Tintin and The Picaros (1976)
The final story takes place in the fictional republic of San Theodoras, from the capital’s slums to the snake-infested jungle. Hergé is at his wittiest: witness the climactic Carnival scene, in which Mickey Mouse, Snoopy, and Asterix show up to join the parade. They’ve got nothing on Tintin.
With all the attention has come some notoriety. As faithfully drawn as Hergé’s panels were—he spent months researching locations—some of the earlier works are sullied by crude stereotypes, most notably Tintin in the Congo (1931). Congo was the subject of renewed controversy in the U.K. last summer, prompting some booksellers to move it to their adult section. For his part, Hergé himself came to be embarrassed by the volume, which, aside from being hopelessly dated, is the weakest of the Tintin stories, and hardly representative of the series.
Also in the News The Hergé Museum is currently under construction in the Belgian town of Louvain-la-Neuve, 18 miles south of Brussels.
It’s slated to be complete in 2009—the organizers are aiming to open on May 22, Hergé’s birthday.
For more on Tintin, see tintin.com