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Why Brussels sprouts comics


He is a young Belgian reporter without a surname. His hair is moussed into a strange tuft and he and his woofing fox terrier are inseparable. He defies communism and tyranny. He flexes every sinew to find Red Rackham's treasures. He takes on the dreaded real-life gangster Al Capone. He moseys into Tibet and lands on the moon much before Neil Armstrong. Not many know the meaning of his six-letter name (it means 'sweet' in Polynesian). Very few know that his creator's pen name is the French pronunciation of his initials reversed. His name: Tintin. His dog: Snowy. His creator: Georges Remi (Herge). His birthplace: Brussels, that sits in the heart of the Flanders region. His claim to fame: Tintin is the most famous comic character of the 20th century. The comic series has been translated into 80 languages and sold more than 350 million copies worldwide.

Exactly 82 years after he first appeared in the children's supplement of the Belgian newspaper Le XXe Siecle on January 10, 1929, Tintin will come alive again on 70 mm. On December 21, in Steven Spielberg's 3D film, The Adventures of Tintin, the paper hero will step beyond the minimalist, flat four colours of the paper comic strip to acquire a three-dimensional persona and borrow the voice of Hollywood actor Jamie Hall. It is a day all Tintinologists are waiting for.

Tintin is the most conspicuous face of Belgian comic art, but he's hardly the only one. Belgium - especially Flanders - has been the hub of comic art and the Comic Strip Museum in Brussels is often touted as the shrine of the Ninth Art. Within the celebrated four walls of what was once a textile warehouse, the museum houses more than 40, 000 titles (books and theoretical works) in 20 languages, original drawings, wooden cut-outs, life-size stuffed comic characters and comic heroes like the Smurfs, Lucky Luke, Spirou, Bob & Bobette, Blake & Mortimer and Marsipulami.

In Brussels, however, comic characters are not confined to a museum. Walk around the city and you'd find Tintin hopping off the ladder on a dilapidated wall, the Smurfs sculpted stiff near a roundabout or Lucky Luke peeping out of an old window. The overwhelming presence of comic art is not surprising: Belgium has the world's highest density of comic artists per square kilometer. On last count, there were 700 Belgian comic artists keeping the tradition alive. Time magazine called Belgium's comicstrip culture "Europe's richest".

In the early 20th century, several youth magazines hit the newsstands, but most comic strips were one-page, one-day gags with text written as a footnote. Comic artists followed two distinct styles: Bandes Dessinês (French-language comics) and stripverhalen (Flemish comics). However, when Herge hopped onto comic art centrestage, he took to the ligne claire (clear line) style and introduced speech balloons that were emulated by later artists. Tintin created the market for serialised comic strips - most newspapers introduced comic pages and hired local artists. Very soon there were albums/magazines dedicated to comic heroes. George van Raemdonck was a major influence on pre-War artists like Jan Waterschoot and Buth;Jije joined Le Croise and Charles Dupuis started a magazine around a new comic hero: Spirou;Pierre Culliford (Peyo) drew the Smurfs, Marc Sleen created Nero and it was on Willy Vandersteen's drawing board that Willy and Wanda came alive.

The two World Wars stifled Belgium's comicstrip culture, but the Ninth Art revived in the 1950s and is still an integral part of cultural life. Ask any Belgian the whys of comic art and he'll proudly tell you that "there's room for everything in Belgium. Everything grows here. Even humour". That's reason enough for an art to flourish. Even the Ninth Art.

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