New comic-strip hero Tintin is a hit in Europe, but will he succeed stateside?

Throughout Europe and in many other parts of the world, a wide-eyed, scrawny, knickers-wearing cartoon boy named Tintin is a pop-culture icon comparable to Mickey Mouse. Charles de Gaulle once remarked, ”My only international rival is Tintin.” A statue of Tintin and his faithful companion, a white fox terrier named Snowy, stands in Brussels’ Parc du Wolvendael. There have been numerous Tintin stamps issued by post offices around the world.

Tintin is the hero in a series of witty, thrilling adventure stories created by the great Belgian cartoonist Hergé. The first Tintin book, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, was published 60 years ago. It was followed by 22 more book-length adventures of the plucky lad as he traveled the world battling spies, searching for treasure, and rescuing his chums Captain Haddock and Professor Calculus from one tough scrape after another.

But here in the United States, Tintin is no Ninja Turtle; he’s only a solid cult star. His American publisher, Joy Street-Little, Brown, supports the skinny fellow nobly, keeping all 21 Tintin English translations in print in oversize paperbacks priced at $6.95. Now, 15 years after the company’s first publication of Tintin in the United States, comes the new Tintin Games Book, offering a colorful series of old-fashioned puzzles, games, and mazes.

Little, Brown has sold a little more than 75,000 copies of each Tintin title. And promotion manager Anne Quirk says, ”The number grows a bit bigger each year. The audience for them seems very broad-based. In fact, we don’t think that most readers of the books are children, necessarily. Lots of adults read them, and there are pockets of Tintin-mania around the country, especially in college towns like Boston and Ann Arbor.”

Tintin’s creator was actually Georges Rémi. His pen name is the French pronunciation (air-JAY) of his reversed initials. The idea behind Tintin, he once said, was to ”combine the exaggeration of the comic strip with the realism of the world we all know.”

To achieve this, Hergé (1907-1983) created Tintin as a brave, kind, resourceful, polite young man, and placed his hero in some of the most detailed, meticulously researched landscapes in the history of comics. When Herge created Destination Moon (1953), for example, he asked a team of rocket scientists to advise him on the accuracy of his art.

Hergé’s method required an immense amount of work. He wrote and drew the first 10 Tintin books, including Tintin in America, Cigars of the Pharaoh, The Blue Lotus, and Tintin and the Broken Ear, by himself, but by the end of the ’40s, with his books selling 275,000 copies a year, he started Studios Hergé and staffed it with about a dozen artists, assistants, and researchers. Eventually, the books were translated into 26 languages.

At the same time, Hergé’s work never became fussy or mannered; indeed, he’s one of the masters of suspenseful story-telling. The opening page of The Black Island, for instance, is remarkable for the way it thrusts the reader into the story as a movie thriller might: Tintin comes upon a small plane in an open field, is curious, and moves toward it. Cut to the plane’s two pilots, who mutter something about acting under orders. They pull out guns and shoot Tintin, leaving our hero, at the bottom of the page, apparently dead.

Is there any way a reader isn’t going to turn the page to see what happens? It’s one of the most beautifully executed, dramatic pages you’ll find in comic books, and it’s a measure of Hergé’s achievement that you can find pages of similar quality scattered throughout the Tintin books.

But if Tintin’s so great, how come he’s not a bigger star in America? ”He falls between the cracks of American comics,” says Jim Trelease, author of the best-selling Readaloud Handbook, a guide on books to read to children, and a major Tintin fan. ”In this country, comics are either Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, or superheroes like Superman and Batman. There’s no precedent for Tintin comics, which have a sense of world history. It’s too bad, because even though a young person could learn a lot reading Tintin, kids would also have so much fun.”

The richness of Hergé’s details makes the books inviting to adults as well. A kid can read, say, King Ottokar’s Sceptre as a rattling good yarn; a grown-up can also enjoy the story for the ridicule it heaps upon its villain Musstler — a verbal and physical cross between Mussolini and Hitler.

In this country, Tintin has snuck into our pop culture in roundabout ways. In the ’60s, a series of Tintin animated cartoons was syndicated on local TV stations in America; the animation was poor and reduced Tintin to a shrill action hero. The British dance-pop act the Thompson Twins took its name from Tintin’s twin detectives Thompson and Thomson (that’s one of the ways you can tell the cartoon characters apart — one has a ”p” in his name, the other doesn’t). And in recent years, many libraries have stocked the books, recognizing their literary value.

The Tintin Games Book is fun, with big find-the-mistakes picture spreads and games in which readers help Tintin escape from various traps and villains. But if it’s your first encounter with Tintin, you’ll lack the proper context. Better to start off with some of the adventure books, like The Blue Lotus, in which Tintin exposes a Japanese drug ring, and Tintin in America, which sends the young fellow off to ’30s Chicago, where he tussles with Al Capone.

”The great thing about Tintin is that children and grown-ups can read his adventures and find common ground,” says kids-book expert Trelease. ”The books give you everything that movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark or Star Wars give you, and they also give you something else: literature and knowledge.”