Travel

Comics Characters Beloved by Brussels

By CHRISTOPHER KENNEALLY
Published: September 29, 1991

Correction Appended

LIKE a modern totem, the faces of a boy and his dog smile genially on the city of Brussels from atop the Editions du Lombard office building near the Gare du Midi, the central train station. The pair appears time and again throughout the city in such disparate locations as a shop in the historic Grand' Place, on a mural at the Stockel metro station and in a downtown museum. One has arrived in the Land of Tintin.

The characters are the creations of Herge, the pen name of the Belgian cartoonist Georges Remi ("Herge" is an inversion of the initials G.R. written as they are pronounced in French). Tintin, a peripatetic boy journalist, and Milou, his canine companion, first set out for adventure in 1929 on a trip to the Soviet Union. Eventually, they would circle the globe, turning up in Tibet, the Congo and the American West, among other places, and even making a visit to the moon more than 15 years before Armstrong and Aldrin. The 24 Tintin comic books by Herge are currently published in more than 40 languages and have become familiar to three generations of readers.

In Brussels, however, where Herge was born and worked until his death in 1983, Tintin has assumed mythical proportions. He presides over the city on the giant lighted sign adorning Editions du Lombard, publisher of the "Tintin Journal" comic book, and under the city on the nearly 1,000 feet of murals, painted in 1988, depicting Tintin and his companions at the Stockel metro station. In 1979, Tintin even appeared, like royalty, on a Belgian stamp.

Tintin's most elaborate shrine in Brussels is the Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinee (the Belgian Center of the Comic Strip), which opened in October 1989 and has quickly become one of the city's more popular cultural attractions. Tintin is not alone among the center's exhibits, however, sharing space with many other native Belgian comic book characters, including Pierre (Peyo) Culliford's blue-skinned Smurfs.

In its first full year of operation, the center attracted over 150,000 visitors, according to Guy Dessicy, the museum's director. Mr. Dessicy believes that the appeal, aside from the local affection for comic books, is the center's building, an Art Nouveau masterpiece by Belgian architect Victor Horta. Originally Magasins Waucquez, one of Brussels' first department stores, the two-story structure, built in 1903, is airy and full of light under an enormous opaque glass roof. The openness shows off the classic features of Art Nouveau architecture -- delicate wrought-iron columns, lampposts and railings.

The focus of exhibits at the center is a so-called Museum of the Imaginary. Original artwork and first edition comic books are set among re-creations of typical scenes from the books. The display for Lucky Luke, a spoof of American cowboy heroics by the artist Morris (nom de plume of the artist Maurice de Bevere), is an archetypal western saloon complete with swinging doors. Not far away is a towering model rocket and a re-created spaceship cabin of the same kind Tintin flew in to the moon.

Although Tintin and the Smurfs enjoy international acclaim, a visitor raised on American comic book superheroes such as Bob Kane's Batman and Stan Lee's Spiderman is likely to find the center's lesser-known characters somewhat bemusing. The emphasis is on humor and light adventure rather than the American obsession with violent battles against crime and evil. Among the favorites with Belgians are Spirou, a red-suited bellboy with a taste for slapstick misadventure who was created in the 1930's by Robert Velter under the pen name Rob-vel, and Jean Roba's Boule et Bill, a young boy and his dog (it is often difficult to say which is the more intelligent).

Correction: October 27, 1991, Sunday An article on Sept. 29 about comic books in Brussels referred incorrectly to the Gare du Misi. In English, the rail terminal in known as the city's South Station, not Central Station

CHRISTOPHER KENNEALLY is a Boston writer who visits Brussels frequently.