Belgian cartoonist Georges Remi, better known as Hergé, published the first Tintin adventure in the Catholic magazine Le Vingtième Siècle in 1929. The final, unfinished Tintin book, Tintin and Alph-Art, appeared in 1986, three years after Hergé’s death. During that time, Tintin evolved; the first volume, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, is clumsy anti-communist propaganda, while later volumes are better researched and less xenophobic.
The series captures 20th-century history, providing a lens on events like the Cold War and the 1931 Manchurian Incident. The boy reporter never filed a story but enjoyed plenty of action, thwarting forgers and scaling the Himalayas.
This is usually a music blog but, given the name “Aphoristic Album Reviews”, comic book albums qualify. Writing about literature rather than popular music, I’ve encountered far more over-analysis of Tintin than I’ve ever seen about popular music. Wikipedia paraphrases French critic Jean-Marie Apostolidès:
“He viewed the scene at the end of the story in which Calculus burns the plans to his ultrasonic device as “a symbolic castration”, allowing the character to become “the Oedipal Father with whom the sons [Tintin and Haddock] can compete”, thus stabilising “the family hierarchy” of the series.”Wikipedia – The Calculus Affair
Here are my rankings for the 24 Tintin adventures. My favourites largely come from the 1940s and 1950s; the series had matured and Hergé had developed important support characters like Captain Haddock and Professor Calculus.
Tintin Books Ranked
#24: Tintin in the Land of the Soviets
Hergé’s first Tintin story is primitive compared to his later work. The illustrations are rudimentary and it wasn’t issued in colour until 2017, but it’s the flimsy plotline that’s more of an issue. No-one reads Tintin for realism, but the incident when Tintin carves two aeroplane propellers from a tree, using only a penknife, pushes credibility. Even more troubling is that, compared to Hergé’s later, carefully researched works, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets is effectively an anti-Marxism pamphlet in the form of a comic book.
#23: Tintin in the Congo
Congo is another formative work from Hergé – again, it was developed as propaganda, extolling the benefits of Belgian colonialism. It’s a step forward from Land of the Soviets in terms of storytelling and it’s been available in colour for longer. But it’s disorienting to see our hero demeaning a “rotten little train” and blowing up a peacefully grazing rhinoceros with dynamite.
#22: Tintin and Alph-Art
Alph-Art was incomplete at the time of Hergé’s death, but it’s a radical departure from his other work. The draft sketches have been released as an album, but the plot-line is left unfinished. Some of the unfinished sketches at the end present surprising possibilities – a hashish smoking, modern art-connoisseur Captain Haddock and the unlikely return of arch-nemesis Rastapopoulos.
#21: Tintin in America
Hergé still hadn’t hit his stride by the third Tintin book – it abandons any form of a plot for a series of improbable escapes. Following the racism of Tintin in the Congo, there’s a more developed social conscience here. There’s a sympathetic portrayal of Native Americans displaced by their land by oil barons, although Tintin is largely an oblivious tourist.
#20: The Crab with the Golden Claws
The Crab with the Golden Claws is notable for the introduction of the irascible Captain Haddock, who enlivens the rest of the series as a more human counterpoint to the boy-scout purity of Tintin. But the plot is a tame retread of Cigars of the Pharaoh, set in Morocco instead of Egypt and India.
#19: Cigars of the Pharaoh
The first part of a two-volume series, culminating in The Blue Lotus. The story’s too fast-paced and fanciful to rate among the best Tintin books – in particular, Tintin’s unplanned escape from Egypt to the exact location of the villains in India stretches credibility. The story introduces important secondary characters – the detectives Thompson and Thomson, and Rastapopoulos.
#18: The Broken Ear
The Broken Ear is a solid early story which references the war between Bolivia and Paraguay in the 1930s. Onto its sixth volume, Tintin is still struggling to find the correct tone; The Broken Ear bounces between whimsical and macabre.
#17: The Shooting Star
The first Tintin story originally issued in colour, The Shooting Star is a fun nautical adventure which marks Captain Haddock returning after his debut in The Crab with the Golden Claws. The Shooting Star was published during the Second World War, while Belgium was under the control of Nazis. Americans were originally portrayed as the main villains before it was redrawn with the made-up country of São Rico in later editions. It’s a shame that the negative portrayals of Jews weren’t removed in later editions.
#16: Red Rackham’s Treasure
After the excellent setup of The Secret of the Unicorn, the payoff in Red Rackham’s Treasure is a little disappointing. The story is padded out by long days of pumping and diving, making it more repetitive than most Tintin adventures. It does introduce Professor Calculus, who doubles as a brilliant scientist and a hard-of-hearing humour device.
#15: Tintin and the Picaros
Tintin and the Picaros was the final completed Tintin book. Tintin’s change to flared trousers, and a motorcycle helmet with an anti-nuclear symbol, caused consternation with some fans. It feels a little stale in places but most of the adventures with Haddock and Calculus in tow outshine the early books without them.
#14: Flight 714 to Sydney
Flight 714 was written at a time when Hergé’s productivity was slowing dramatically – its predecessor The Castafiore Emerald was written in 1963, and follow-up Picaros didn’t arrive until 1976. Possibly bored with Tintin, Hergé pushes the boundaries of the format with an unexpected ending, but it’s still a worthy Tintin adventure.
#13: The Secret of the Unicorn
Captain Haddock was introduced a couple of adventures earlier but entered the spotlight for The Secret of the Unicorn. Haddock adds personality to the mystery of a sailing ship that Tintin finds in a market. After publishing the story of the Captain’s ancestor, Admiral Haddock, Hergé discovered that an actual Sir Richard Haddock served as Admiral in the British navy in the same era.
#12: The Castafiore Emerald
The Castafiore Emerald is an anomaly among the Tintin books, as the action barely shifts from inside the gates of Marlinspike Estate. Like Flight 714, it indicates some boredom with the Tintin format, but it’s very good all the same. The well-developed characters are entertaining even in the absence of exotic settings and political intrigue.
#11: The Blue Lotus
The Blue Lotus is the biggest step forward in the Tintin catalogue – it marks the point when Hergé started researching his locations more deeply. The sudden transformation of Tintin from cavalier colonialist to defender of the downtrodden gives the series depth. The plot drops the manic escapades of early Tintin for more dignified and character-driven storytelling.
#10: The Black Island
Tintin visits Scotland on his seventh adventure. The Black Island is one of the best early Tintin books, as Hergé squeezes a lot of great moments from the still small supporting cast. Snowy shows a burgeoning interest in alcohol, while the Thompsons inadvertently enter an aeronautical contest.
#9: Destination Moon
Calculus becomes the focal character for the pair of moon books – his use of an ear trumpet makes him much more serious. On Destination Moon, Tintin and friends prepare for a moon journey, while dealing with the rivalry between Syldavia and Borduria. The action barely shifts outside the scientific compound, but there’s plenty happening anyway.
#8 – The Seven Crystal Balls
Inspired by the curse of Pharaoh Tutankhamun, the syndication of Seven Crystal Balls was interrupted by the Nazi occupation of Belgium. The addition of paranormal elements to a classic Tintin mystery is effective, and the story ends on a cliff-hanger to be resolved in Prisoners of the Sun.
#7 – Land of Black Gold
The Land of Black Gold started serialisation in 1939, after King Ottokar’s Sceptre, but was interrupted by the Second World War, and wasn’t completed until 1950. This explains both the gathering clouds of war and the diminished roles of Calculus and Haddock. Despite the muddled origins, it’s a great story with some of the Thompsons’ best hi-jinks.
#6 – Explorers on the Moon
Herge’s painstaking research into spaceflight means that Explorers on the Moon, released fifteen years before the Apollo 11 mission, has aged well. While there’s a lot of scientific information, there are enough unexpected events to make Explorers on the Moon a thrilling Tintin escapade.
#5 – King Ottokar’s Sceptre
In King Ottokar’s Sceptre, Tintin travels to the fictional Eastern European country of Syldavia for the first time. It also marks the first appearance of opera singer Bianca Castafiore. It’s my favourite of the early Tintin books. It gently ramps up the tension, as Tintin finds himself in the midst of a fascist plot that mirrors the German annexation of Austria in 1938.
#4 – The Red Sea Sharks
Tintin returns to the fictional Arabian kingdom of Khemed, introduced in the Land of Black Gold. Lots of old favourites are back, including Rastapopoulos, Bianca Castafiore, Oliveira da Figueira, and Captain Allan, which alone makes it a fun adventure for dedicated fans. There’s lot of humour and the climactic submarine attack is thrilling.
#3 – Prisoners of the Sun
Following the terse mystery of Seven Crystal Balls, Prisoners of the Sun travels through jungles and mountains. The deus ex machina at the plot climax is a brilliant mix of serendipity and ingenuity, while the sub-plot, where the Thompsons take up dowsing to locate their missing companions, is hilarious.
#2 – Tintin in Tibet
Set among the Himalayan snow, Tintin in Tibet was inspired by whiteout dreams that Hergé was experiencing during a time of personal crisis. It’s essentially a sequel to The Blue Lotus, the book that marked the series’ artistic breakthrough. It lacks a lot of the usual Tintin elements – no guns, no bad guys, no Thompsons – but there’s a lot of emotional depth for a comic, making it a fan favourite.
#1 – The Calculus Affair
While it’s not inspired directly by current events, The Calculus Affair perfectly captures the cold war tensions of the 1950s. An espionage thriller, it couples the fast-paced action of early Tintin stories with the sophistication of later adventures, creating the best Tintin book.
Did I place your favourite Tintin adventure too low? Did I underrate The Blue Lotus? Write in and let me know.