Seventy-five years ago, a strange new comic strip appeared in a Belgian Catholic newspaper, chronicling the injustices and absurdities of the Soviet Union. It was hardly the most promising subject for a serial, but this unlikely debut heralded the arrival of a journalist whose cuttings file makes Alistair Cooke look like a cub reporter. After all these years, Tintin, created by Herge (the pseudonym of Georges Remi), is still the most famous foreign correspondent in the business, even though he never seems to get around to filing any copy. Since 1929, he has sold more than 120 million books in over 50 languages, and this year he celebrates his 75th birthday with a newly minted euro coin, a fresh edition of his final adventure and a major exhibition at London's National Maritime Museum.
A lifetime after his first scoop (and a generation since his last one), Herge's boyish hack enjoys a bigger byline than ever, and although he inhabits a lost world of seaplanes and ocean liners, his international celebrity shows no sign of waning. His globe- trotting escapades continue to sell well, not just because they're among the most beautiful comic books ever produced, but also because they double as a chronicle of the 20th century.
This historical perspective is apparent in Tintin's very first assignment. Herge subsequently dismissed Tintin in the Land of the Soviets as youthful folly and refused to republish it until the 1970s, when a spate of pirate editions forced his hand. Yet, although the draughtsmanship is relatively rudimentary, there are some inspired satirical touches, as pliable British trade unionists are taken on a sham tour of Bolshevik industry. "That's how the Soviets fool the poor idiots who still believe in a Red Paradise," says Tintin. As Michael Farr observes in Tintin: the complete companion (John Murray), the best passages bear comparison with Malcolm Muggeridge's Russian despatches for the Manchester Guardian four years later.
Tintin's next assignment was even more controversial, as our man with the plus fours and windproof quiff set off on a jolly tour of the Belgian Congo. Yet, as Harry Thompson points out in his excellent biography, Tintin: Herge and his creation (Hodder & Stoughton), Herge was scarcely alone in ignoring the vicious repression in this notorious colony, and his attitude to the Congolese was patronising rather than racist. "I was fed on the prejudices of the bourgeois society in which I moved," he told the journalist Numa Sadoul in 1971, in the only substantial interview he ever gave. "I portrayed these Africans according to such criteria, in the purely paternalistic spirit which existed then in Belgium." Indeed, as an authentic record of the imperial mindset, Tintin in the Congo is far more informative than any later, safer study. And anyway, Herge made amends in Tintin in America, which was remarkably progressive for the 1930s in its Native American sympathies. Herge included an indictment of lynching, though he had to remove several benign black characters to satisfy his US publishers, who objected to black and white faces appearing side by side in children's books.
Throughout the 1930s, Tintin's reporting grew increasingly courageous. The Blue Lotus lambasted Japan's invasion of China at a time when many Europeans favoured the Japanese. The Japanese ambassador demanded that the book be banned and threatened to take his protest all the way to The Hague. Even the Belgian army got involved. "This is not a story for children," grumbled one general - but as Herge said, Tintin was for everyone from the age of seven to 77.
Undeterred, Tintin continued to expose corruption in high places. The Broken Ear contained a thinly veiled attack on the real-life arms dealer Sir Basil Zaharoff for selling weapons to both sides in the war between Bolivia and Paraguay. Herge also attacked western oil companies for their involvement in that bloody conflict (the disputed borderland was awash with oil, and a British company supported Paraguay while an American firm backed the Bolivians). Nor did he shrink from the coming conflict. The Black Island foresaw German plans to destabilise the British economy with counterfeit currency, while King Ottakar's Sceptre bravely alluded to the Anschluss and Sudetenland on the eve of war. Even after he was called up, Herge began Land of Black Gold, about a dastardly German plot to tamper with Allied oil supplies. Herge was in France when Belgium fell, temporarily invalided out of the infantry with a bad case of boils, yet he obeyed King Leopold's call for loyal Belgians to return home. The Nazis shut down his old paper, so he started working for another, Le Soir, which was now, like all else Belgian, under German control.
Even with the luxury of hindsight, it is difficult to see what Herge did wrong. Business as usual was the official policy. Tintin's wartime sagas were scrupulously neutral, and Herge declined invitations to become a Gestapo informer and the official illustrator of Belgium's fascist Rexist movement. However, when Brussels was liberated, Herge was ostracised, as the Allies imposed a ban on anyone who'd been employed by the occupied press. Herge had behaved no differently from numerous patriotic journalists (or countless honourable Belgians in every other line of work), but Tintin was more high-profile than most penny-a-line reporters. Arrested and briefly imprisoned, Herge toiled away anonymously for nearly two years until he finally secured the certificate of good citizenship he needed to resume Tintin's career. Raymond Leblanc, a publisher and wartime hero, set up Tintin magazine as a weekly forum for his work. Leblanc imposed gruelling deadlines on Herge, but this helped Tintin get back on his feet.
After these traumas, it's no surprise that Herge retreated from political reportage, substituting character-driven dramas for the more polemical yarns of his youth. Yet even in his most escapist romps, his humanitarianism shines through, and Tintin couldn't keep away from current affairs for long. Having landed on the moon 16 years before the Americans (in a spaceship inspired by Wernher von Braun's V-2 rocket), he turned his attention to the nuclear espionage of the cold war in The Calculus Affair. In The Red Sea Sharks, inspired by a true story, he frees black pilgrims enslaved on their way to Mecca.
Herge always backed the underdog, from Tintin in America to Tintin in Tibet. Yet he offered no solutions other than individual acts of kindness. He was a natural liberal with an instinctive distrust of bullies and busybodies of every ideological hue. "For years the left has said I'm right and the right has said I'm left," Herge told the Brussels Bulletin in 1976. "I don't like to contradict either."
It is complex plotting, characterisation and detail that make Tintin so great. Yet his engagement with the real world is also an important part of his appeal. Tintin is here to stay, and this anniversary is only the beginning. Even so, 75 years is some milestone, especially in a genre too often dismissed as ephemera. At once populist and sophisticated, funny and profound, Herge raised the humble comic book to the status of high art. That is why millions of lifelong fans around the world raised a glass of Captain Haddock's Loch Lomond whisky this month to say happy birthday, old chum - if only all reporters were like you. Now where the hell's that copy?
"The Adventures of Tintin at Sea" is at the National Maritime Museum, London SE10, from 31 March. For more information, call 020 8858 4422 or visit www.nmm.ac.uk