I first spot them quite by chance, on a narrow wall, in the center of the town: Tintin, Snowy, and Captain Haddock rushing down a fire exit, as if in search of another clue. Even though I knew about them being in town, I hadn’t expected to meet them so soon. If it wasn’t for the selfie clicking crowds, I would perhaps not even have noticed them, so engrossed I was in sampling chocolates and eyeing waffles.
I am in the home town of Tintin, and he one reason I have decided to spend a large part of my holiday in Brussels — the other being food and beer. I have also done my research about where and how to see him, but I wasn’t expecting to find him so soon, withing a few hours of reaching Brussels.
Tintin, world’s famous mystery solving reporter needs no introduction. He is the boy who never ages — even though he is officially 88 — and the reporter who travels the world and beyond long before it became fashionable or even possible to. (He lands on moon years before Neil Armstrong did).
Born on the 10th of January 1929, Tintin was first seen at the railway station in Brussels boarding a train to Russia in a comic strip of the youth supplement of a daily. Today a black & white Fresco of Tintin adorns the same station’s exit, and a large cutout of Tintin and Snowy sits atop a building close by. ( I later learn that it is the building of Tintin’s first publisher).
If you come to Brussels by train, you will spot this cut out from afar. If however, you chose to fly in, there is a possibility of finding an entire aircraft dedicated to the young detective. Modeled on the submarine in Red Rackham’s Treasure, the aircraft was commissioned in 2010 by Brussels airlines to commemorate 100th birth anniversary of Tintin’s creator, Hergé. I see the cutout, but miss the plane.
While there are over half a dozen popular comic strips in belgium, also known as the comic strip museum of the world, Tintin is most famous outside the country. He and his faithful dog are known by different names throughout the world. In French, they are called Tintin and Milou. In Dutch, they heroes were called Kuifje and Bobbie. Their names keep changing—Tenten and Milou in Greece, Tintin and Terry in Norway, and Tintin and Kuttus in Bengal. The Hindi version features the escapades of Tintin and Natkhat.
Tintin is spread like jam on a toast over Brussels. There is no place where you don’t see or hear of him. He’s at the airport, in the shops, at the station and on the walls. But I like him the most inside the Tintin shop.
The store, called Tintin Boutique, stands at the center of the city, adjacent to the Grand Palace. A smiling Tintin welcomes me at the entrance, and the dragon on the floor unfolds the red the carpet. I also get to see a model of the aircraft from Red Rackham’s Treasure. Inside a whole world of Tintin awaits me. There are clothes and bags, folders and notebooks, stamps and pins, figurines, cards, pens, colours, cups, mugs, all dedicated to the quiffed 16 year old.
The Comic Strip Center happens to be right next to my house, just that I do not know that until my last day on Brussels, when a friendly lady shows me around the corner. Set up by Herge, the creator of Tintin himself, the center is housed is a Victor Horta’s masterpiece building designed in his trademark Art Nouveau style. Horta, I am told, was hugely criticized for his use of iron and glass in his designs, which until then were used only for industries and factories.
In the museum however, the iron and glass lend a gentle touch. And somehow give me a feeling of being at home with Hergé . One reason could be the line drawings that run along the walls. The drawing outline the evolution Tintin from a featureless silhouette to attractive young man. It also shows snowy, a wild fox terrier in fashion in the 20s and the 30s, who talks to himself in the first few books. Snowy, it is said, was modelled after a real dog at Hergé’s favourite cafe. And his french name, Milou, was a take on Hergé’s girlfriend.
I also meet Captain Haddock there. The alcoholic, motormouth sailor and alter ego of Tintin. Some say he is deeply influenced by the author himself. The story of his name turns out to be interesting though. Apparently one day Hergé had asked his wife for dinner and she swore at him in return; Haddock’s name was born out of those. No wonder the man is often hurling incomprehensible abuses himself.
A few yards from the Comic Strip Center, at the Opera house, I see the theater that was acted as an inspiration to Hergé, the street that has been pivotal in many comics, and the palace where he found one of his most important clue. There are other places that inspired the books, like 26 Labrador lane, where he is supposed to have lived, the flea market close to the palace where he shopped, Zuidstation, from where he went to Russia.
“You can tell a lot about a place by how it treats its comics” I am talking with my host, john who is telling me about all the comic strips in Belgium — smurf, lucky luke, gaston, suske, Marsupilami — and shows me some of the murals around the town. “We surely take pride in our comics”, he adds even as he points at the mural along the underground station. The never ending trail of comics and murals across the city surely make me believe so.