“Tintin has been for me the means to express myself, to project my desire for adventure and violence, the bravery and resourcefulness within me,” Hergé wrote in a letter to his first wife after one of several bouts of depression. If Tintin expresses a certain idealized aspect of Hergé’s character, and Captain Haddock represents a more self-critical aspect: the hard-drinking man given to spells of discouragement and self-doubt, then Quick and Flupke, two “urchins of Brussels” are a dream of his childhood.
Quick and Flupke is a new discovery for me, but I’ve loved Tintin for as long as I can remember, with a sort of childish love for something that just, inexplicably, makes you happy. To this day, a flash of anything “Tintin blue” brings a memory of that sort of happiness, which aches like a longing. I know I’m not the only one to love Tintin; he’s a global phenomenon. And of course there are rational reasons that he’s so popular. The artwork is iconic, with its clean lines, lack of shadows, and bright bold color. Tintin is, as Hergé noted, brave, resourceful and adventurous. He’s a boy, but he has a job and an apartment of his own and he lives comfortably and independently in a frightening adult world. He cheerfully faces every challenge that confronts him, and travels around the world at the drop of a hat. He’s kind and thoroughly decent (the books might be xenophobic at times, which is a subject for another discussion, but Tintin never is. He befriends children and elderly eccentrics wherever he travels, and would go to the ends of the earth to save them.) And he has a talking dog. A TALKING DOG! For me Snowy was always the main attraction, and I would give anything to be able to take my dog absolutely everywhere with me, without a leash. Because let’s face it, despite his adventurous lifestyle, Tintin himself can be a bit dull. Snowy is saltier, funnier, more irreverent.
Hergé worked on Quick and Flupke simultaneously with Tintin, from 1930 through 1940, but it might be easier to see the differences than the similarities between the two. Tintin is book-length, with involved complicated stories and plot lines: problem and resolution. Quick and Flupke was a weekly serialized comic, usually about two pages long, often with absurd and amusing stories, slight, unresolved, but strangely beautiful. Hergé devoted much less time to Quick and Flupke, and eventually abandoned them altogether so that he could focus his energy on Tintin. He would start work on the strip the day it was due, and complete the whole thing in a few hours. There’s a lovely lightness to the strips, a freedom, but as with all the best comic strips, (or all my favorite) underneath the lightness is a depth of honesty and humanity. Hergé presented jokes that might have been inappropriate for Tintin, he played on words, and he played around with newly-forming conventions in a fairly new medium. He often inserted himself in the strip, frequently as the subject of his subjects’ ire, and he showed the boys as aware of themselves as characters in a comic strip.
Despite the differences and defying logic and geography, Tintin and Quick and Flupke do exist in the same universe. Flukpe writes to Tintin in one strip, and both boys appear in several Tintin books, as well as on the back cover of certain editions. But in my mind, Quick and Flupke are the boys who want to be like Tintin, or maybe they are Hergé as a boy on the streets of Brussels, dreaming of the heroic character he would share with the world one day. They want to be detectives, they want to see the world, to fly in a plane, travel by boat, drive a car. But whereas Tintin can famously operate any means of transportation he comes across, Quick and Flupke rarely make it beyond the streets around their house. The car they make from crates and rubbish crashes into a light pole, the plane falls out of the sky. While camping they think they’re lost in the dark wilderness, only to wake up in the middle of a busy intersection near their apartment. In one beautifully drawn strip they’re out camping and when it starts to rain they go home. That’s it. They see posters advertising travel, and they research places to visit, but in the end they buy a platform ticket, to watch the trains leave for all of the exotic places they’re dreaming of.
With its gently absurd poetry and sweetly chaotic view of the adult world, Quick and Flupke reminds me of Jean Vigo’s roughly contemporary film Zero For Conduct. There’s a similar sense of injustice from above, based on misconceptions and misunderstandings. Quick and Flupke are mischievous, but they nearly always mean well. They take adults at their word, and try to make the world a better place accordingly, but their actions usually end in chaos and often with a spanking. With the logic of childhood, dreams, and comic strips, they can knock down buildings, set fires, flood the town, even meet their death, but they always start fresh in the next strip. Like Tintin, they face all challenges cheerfully; with good humor and endless curiosity, though their adventures never stray far from their busy neighborhood. Everything they encounter inspires them to try something new: juggling, acrobatics, weight-lifting, painting. And they set aside every failure to pursue each new venture.
The authority figure responsible for reigning in their mischievous antics is a policeman known only as Agent 15, and his relationship with the boys is imbued with the same warmth, generosity, and lack of moralizing as everything else about the strip. He is an unlikely friend to them, joining them in playing marbles or leapfrog, or drawing on the walls of buildings. In one strip Flupke thinks he looks sad and wonders if it’s because he didn’t get a Christmas present, so he offers him the cigar Quick gave to his father. How was he to know it was an exploding cigar? In another Quick and Flupke write him a letter on New Year’s Day, expressing their resolve to stop getting into trouble. They deliver it to him tied to a rock and thrown through his window. They walk away feeling pleased with themselves and saying that their kind gesture probably touched him, only to notice the man himself flying after them in a rage with a big bump on his head.
Like Calvin and Hobbes or Peanuts, Quick and Flupke presents a bittersweet view of the world with a sort of childish honesty. As adults we’re supposed to understand the rules that puzzle the boys, but they don’t actually make all that much sense. No good deed goes unpunished, people are petty and cruel, luck and fate are fickle. But Calvin has Hobbes, Charlie Brown has Snoopy, and Quick and Flupke have each other, and maybe this helps to turn trials into adventures. In Tintin books the good guy always wins and every problem is neatly resolved. This is not the case in the world of Quick and Flupke. But they bring the mischievous wit and hopeful energy of their own brand of chaos to face the larger chaos. I think Hergé must have missed them when he let them go, and I’m so exceedingly glad that I met them.