It all began for me, decades ago, in one of the rows of the old Makati Supermart. Amid the clutter of the magazines section, I spied an item I had never seen. It was a comic book I knew immediately was quite special.
For one thing it was hard bound. The paper was of good quality, grainy and nice to touch, redolent with that distinguished fragrance of the finest tomes. For another, every drawing was masterfully rendered.
My supermarket find was “The Prisoners of the Sun.” It would be my introduction to the wonderful world of Tintin, the boy reporter who was the hero of the comics series conceived by the Belgian artist, Georges Remi under the pen name, Herge.
Remi first brought out his creation in 1929 in Le Petit Vingtieme, the children’s supplement of a national newspaper. Since then, 25 separate titles have been produced with about 200 million books sold in more than 50 languages.
Admittedly, I had become a fan. Every time my father took us to dinner at Cucina Italiana on Padre Faura, Manila, I would slip off to visit Erewhon Bookshop.
The store usually would be closed, but I would stand in front of the display window staring hungrily at the Tintin volumes. I began buying cheese sandwiches for lunch in school instead of the more expensive chicken just to save money for my purchases.
I even enrolled at the Alliance Francaise because not all of the titles had yet been translated from the original French!
Looking back, I sometimes wonder why I was so addicted. I suppose it had a lot to do with the sheer beauty of the drawings themselves. These were done in the ligne claire style.
This involved the use of clean, uniform outlines enclosing single color areas. Without the benefit of cross hatching nor shading, Herge managed to conjure images which were dynamic and nuanced.
For someone growing up in a tumultuous tropical country, I found comforting the neat yet dynamic universe which emerged from the pen of my beloved Belgian artist.
Tintin and his friends were very entertaining. There was Haddock, the short-tempered bear of a sea-captain who, though lovable, was a tragic reminder of the self-centered destructiveness of alcohol dependency.
There was the partially deaf genius Professor Calculus whose eccentricity and hairline I vainly prayed I would not emulate.
Then there was dear Snowy, Tintin’s dog and constant companion, strangely omniscient and admissible even in palaces and opera houses.
Life would not be complete without villains and these, too, were deliciously present: fakirs, brats, putschists, shipping magnates, drugs smugglers, shipping magnates who were drugs smugglers.
This colorful cast represented an extended family which was far from conventional. Writers have observed that the protagonists in stories for teenagers do not seem to have traditional family ties.
Think of Nancy Drew who had only a father and a house-keeper as well as amazingly long summer vacations. Think of Popeye and the question arises: Was Sweepea Olive’s love child?
The more inquisitive may likewise wonder: Where were Tintin’s parents? Offspring? Paramours?
Perhaps for the adventurous, the whole world was family. The lack of ties bestowed exhilarating freedom and greater disposable income which was not shared with greedy siblings. One never had to finish chores or ask permission. One could skip off to parts unknown at the drop of a mysterious note.
A lot of skipping off certainly did occur in Herge’s realm. It was with Tintin that I first traveled the world. He took me to Africa, South America, even the Arctic.
Herge invested a lot of research in the making of his strips. Backdrops were never generic. Each city scene or landscape was carefully devised to capture the look and flavor of the actual site.
In a way, Tintin helped me tag along on other journeys. If other kids provided hapless relatives who were going abroad with outlines of their feet, I helpfully distributed lists of Tintin titles I lacked. I will always be grateful to my aunts Chona, Gene, Lirio, Marilyn, and Lulay for humoring my childhood whims.
Pandering to my childish desires could also have its advantages. I can still relish my mother’s secret satisfaction when, after being handed a Tintin adventure in a British bookshop, she airily declared: “I’m sorry, but I was looking for the original in French!”
Given all these then, I was glad to find, on a recent trip, that the Singapore Philatelic Museum had set up an exhibition of Tintin stamps. The Philatelic is a little jewel of the Lion City.
Its lovely building started life in 1906 as part of the Anglo-Chinese School. Meticulously restored, the schoolhouse reopened in 1995 as Asean’s first postal gallery.
The exhibits at the Philatelic are delightful and full of surprises. Who would have guessed that when the designs from tiny stamps are enlarged they could dominate whole rooms?
Featured themes range from plants to heritage professions. It is the combination of playfulness and the taste for exploration which ensures that Herge’s characters would be right at home.
The Tintin Exhibit showcases stamps issued in honor of the boy reporter by Belgium, France, and the Netherlands. I especially liked the backdrops which, as based on scenes from the comic books, employed fresh colors and fine line drawings.
I was transported, once more, to the orderly sanctuary of my childhood.
Viewing the displays, I noted many pieces from the collection of a certain Mr Eric Tan. This happened to be the name of the director of the Singapore Archives who I had come all the way from Manila to meet.
The next day, I happily confirmed that Eric was indeed the owner of the museum items and therefore, an avid Tintin fan like me. For a while, business matters were put aside. I remember how we both agreed that we didn’t like the current editions printed on glossy paper.
I will never forget how, in the dignified confines of the Singapore National Archives, we had an animated exchange about Spielberg’s attempt to transfer Herge’s creation to the big screen. When my host insisted on bringing me to the Tintin Shop on Pagoda Road, I knew that resistance was futile.
To a devotee, the Tintin Shop is like the mother ship. My juvenile hero was everywhere. He was on bags and mugs. He was incarnated as little statuettes.
My top pick was a special collector’s edition of The Black Island. It had been reissued in hard-cover with matte illustrations and grainy paper. Someone out there understood!
Much later, I laughed as I listened to my otherwise very serious colleague explain with obvious relish that Singapore appears in one of Tintin’s adventures. Though admittedly our idol had never been to the island republic, it is at least mentioned in Cigars of the Pharoah as part of a vacation itinerary that would eventually be aborted.
When I got back home, it was with some envy that I consulted my own copy of Cigars. Examining the map of Tintin’s proposed ports of call, I saw that Eric was right—Singapore was indeed there.
Then suddenly I saw it: at the extreme right of the map was the unmistakable outline of Luzon. The Philippines was part of Tintin’s world!
Over the years, traveling with Tintin and his crew has brought me many pleasures. Not the least of these is the unexpected joy of meeting a kindred spirit with whom one could share moments of fun in the course of official duties.
It was, likewise, good to be reminded of how heartening it was for a boy growing up to know that, while looking at the very same images of an unconventional reporter with his loyal dog, other children throughout the planet were also smiling, smiling all together.
The Tintin exhibit runs until June 20. The writer wishes to thank Eric Tan, Lucille Yap, Tresnawati Prihadi, and Jocelyn Lee for assistance with this article. Send questions or comments on the article to [email protected]