Title: The Adventures of Tinitin: The Secret of the Unicorn
Author: Hergé (Georges Rémi)
Genre: Adventure comic book
Age category: 8-12 years
With the scheduled December 2011 release of Steven Spielberg’s movie, The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, I thought I would review the classic 1959 middle-grade comic with the same title by the Belgian artist Georges Rémi (1907-1983), who created under the name Hergé. The Tintin comics were some of my favorites as a child, and my kids have now started enjoying them too. If you would like to see the trailer for Spielberg’s upcoming movie, click here.
Summary: The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn
The Adventures of Tinitin: The Secret of the Unicorn opens with a news report that incidences of petty thievery are on the rise in London, and that the police are using their “best men to put a stop to this public scandal.” It turns out that London’s “finest” include Thomson and Thompson, two identical-looking and identically incompetent detectives who sport black suits and bowlers. On their patrol of the Old Street Market—during which both of their wallets are stolen—they bump into their friend Tintin (a brave, sharp reporter, the protagonist of the story) and his white fox terrier, Snowy. As Tintin buys a model ship for his friend Captain Haddock—a retired old salt who struggles (sometimes not too hard) with his taste for liquor—two men appear beside him and express interest in the ship he has just bought. They offer dueling bids, but Tintin refuses to sell it.
Tintin takes the model home, where Snowy accidentally breaks the mast. Never mind: Tintin easily repairs it. When Tintin shows the ship to Captain Haddock, the Captain notices that the ship is a scale model of the Unicorn, the ship sailed by his distant relative Sir Francis Haddock. However, soon after the model is stolen from Tintin’s apartment, which is ransacked in the process. In the wake of the break-in, Tintin discovers a scroll with a curious but incomprehensible message. Tintin deduces that the scroll had been tucked into the mast of the model, before it was broken and then stolen, and that the scroll had been what the thief was after.
As the story unfolds, it comes to light that there are in fact three scale models of the Unicorn, and that each contains a similar cryptic scroll. But, who is after these scrolls, and why would they go to such lengths to get them? I won’t give it away entirely, but I will say that pirate treasure is involved! The complete story actually spans two Tintin comics, and is resolved in The Adventures of Tintin: Red Rackham’s Treasure. (I believe the movie covers the entire story.)
Subjective Appeal: Adventure, Funny Characters, Excellent Art
The Adventures of Tinitin: The Secret of the Unicorn will appeal to middle-graders for several reasons. First, the story is packed with action, mystery, and adventure. For example, a portion of the comic tells the swashbuckling tale of Sir Francis Haddock, and how his ship, the Unicorn, was taken over by pirates, stocked with treasure, and sunk to the bottom of the sea. In another section Tintin is kidnapped by those pursuing the scrolls and escapes by fashioning a make-shift battering ram that he uses to punch a hole in the wall of his prison. Such fast-paced adventure will engage even reluctant readers.
Second, The Adventures of Tinitin: The Secret of the Unicorn is funny. The humor revolves around several of the key characters, especially Thomson and Thompson, and Captain Haddock. As I suggested in the summary, one running gag is that Thomson and Thompson keep getting their wallets stolen by the very thief they are trying to catch. There is also a classic scene where they keep getting their bowler hats stuck too far down on their heads, so that they can’t see. Such slapstick humor feels like it is from a different era, but it still works; it’s smart and keeps kids chuckling. Humor like this fills the space between mystery and adventure, leaving no room for boredom.
Finally, Hergé’s cartoon art is masterful. The drawings are simple, but they contain lots of interesting detail, especially in the occasional half-page or full-page spreads. Moreover, Hergé used color variation in a way that keeps the visuals fresh and appealing from scene to scene. Together, the story and art are captivating.
Developmental Value: Complex Story, International Flair
In addition to its subjective appeal, The Adventures of Tinitin: The Secret of the Unicorn is developmentally valuable in several ways. First, the story is fairly complex. The characters are rich (by comic book standards) and the mystery has lots of moving parts. As I’ve written before, such complexity can be quite beneficial for a child’s cognitive and social development. For example, complex plots can have a salutary effect on memory, requiring a child to hold in mind the many clues that help her solve the mystery.
Second, The Adventures of Tinitin: The Secret of the Unicorn has a certain international, historical flair. Like all the Tintin comics, this one is set in a real place and time: the language, accents, and currency tell us the setting is England, while the styles, automobiles, and other contextual clues tell us it is the 1950s. In fact, other Tintin comics even tie in with larger historical events to such an extent that they approach historical fiction. For example, The Adventures of Tintin: The Blue Lotus is set in China around the Japanese invasion associated with World War II. This sort of historical-cultural context gives the Tintin comics a subtle educational value.
Third, The Adventures of Tinitin: The Secret of the Unicorn has the potential to turn reluctant readers into regular readers. There is just something about good comic books that kids find hard to resist. And because Tintin comics are complex and have smart dialogue, there is some real reading involved. So, Tintin could be just the ticket for kids (especially boys) who don’t usually enjoy reading. Indeed, I think Tintin comics are a great alternative to recent “gateway” books such as the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series (which I don’t much care for, as you can tell from my review).
Finally, I should mention that there are frequent scenes of cartoon violence (e.g., fist fights with crooks, pirates sword fighting), and Captain Haddock’s drinking habit is a running gag in the comic. However, none of the violence is graphic (i.e., no blood/gore), and the Captain’s habit is conveyed as a silly vestige of his days as a sailor; in The Adventures of Tintin: The Shooting Star, Captain Haddock is introduced as the “President of the S.S.S. (Society of Sober Sailors),” though even there he wrestles with his sobriety. In any case, the portrayal of these issues in the Tintin comics does not concern me as a parent, but it might concern some, so I thought I’d mention it.
Summing up, The Adventures of Tinitin: The Secret of the Unicorn is a fantastic comic in a fantastic series. Fast-paced adventure, slapstick humor, and interesting artwork make it appealing to middle-graders (even reluctant readers). A complex story set in a realistic cultural-historical context makes it beneficial for them. Thus, I encourage you to purchase The Adventures of Tinitin: The Secret of the Unicorn through the links in this post and thereby support our work.
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