It seemed like such a simple idea, creating a map of Tintin’s journeys around the world. An idea so simple that I could do it over the holidays between Christmas and New Year. Five months later and I’m finally nearing completion.
The Devil is in the Detail
Herge is renown for the accuracy and detail he put into his work. The carefully referenced images of foreign countries, the painstakingly researched planes or the spacecraft he designed are as much part of the adventures of Tintin as the Tintin himself. Yet when I came to look at the geography behind Tintin’s stories, it became apparent that Herge had a very relaxed view of where things were in the world.
Take, for example, the question of where Tintin lives. In Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, it is clear that Tintin lives in Brussels. However in the Crab with the Golden Claw, The Shooting Star and The Secret of the Unicorn our hero regularly pops out to visit the docks. A neat feat because Brussels is 30 miles from the coast. [ @hairydalek has pointed out that Brussels has canals and the Bassin Vergote ]. Many similar problems exist. In the Cigars of the Pharaoh, how did Tintin fly from Khemed to Gaipajama, a distance of not less than 1000 miles, in a 1930’s airplane without refueling?
Yet at other times Herge is incredibly precise about where Tintin is. The Shooting Star and Red Rackham’s Treasure both contain specific map references. In Flight 714 to Sydney the pilot Piotr Skut navigates via two minor radio beacons in Indonesian, both of which are on the logical route to Sydney. Herge must of carefully researched this route. Even right back in the beginning, in Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, the train journey back to Brussels is full of accurate observations about towns he passes through.
Editions & Translations
One of the problems I faced right from the start was that most of the modern editions were redrawn in the 1950s & 1960s. Herge used this opportunity to change the stories based on feedback from his publishers. The Land of Black Gold (first published 1939-40) was originally set in Palestine and surrounding countries. When Herge redrew the story in 1972, the world was a very different place. Palestine no longer existed and the subject was (and still is) a politically sensitive issue. So Herge simply moved the action to Khemed, a fictional country somewhere in the Arabian peninsular.
Even in translations, sometimes the locations are changed. The English version of King Ottokar’s Scepter has Tintin flying back home and landing at Southampton. This is logical as Southampton was the hub of the British flying boat service before and after World War II. However, in the original French version, the plane lands at Marseille which is the logical place if you just travelled from the Adriatic. Clearly the question was, which version of the books should I use to plot the map?
The answer I came to was the simplest – The ones I already owned. These are the English editions published in the UK between the 1970s and today. However, at times, I did use various French editions as a guide when it appeared that locations had been changed in the translation and they made a significant difference to the map.
The Winkel Tripel Projection
I’m not a cartographer and I’m not really a graphic artist either. What I discovered in those first few days over Christmas was that I had a lot to learn about both.
To keep with the spirit of Herge’s work, I needed to the map to be accurate which is why I discovered the curious problem of projection. The Earth is a globe, a three dimensional object, and when you try to flatten it out into a two dimensional space, all sorts of problems occur. You can try this at home. Get a cheap beach ball with a pattern on it and try to cut it up and lay it out flat so you can see all the pattern at once.
The solution to this problem is the mathematics of map projection which allows a 3D object to be represented in 2D. There are lots of different ways of doing this but they result in some distortion. Areas around the poles become stretched or continents assume unfamiliar shapes. Which projection you pick has a huge impact on the accuracy and appearance of your map.
After some research I chose the Winkel Tripel Projection as it produces the most accurate map overall. This is the projection used by the National Geographic Society since 1998 and that seemed a like good recommendation. The formula to produce it is way over my ability to work out but there is an excellent piece of free software called GMT that is used by academics for mapping data. Not only was the software free but it had all the data I needed to create a map of the world (including political boundries) and used a open graphical format.
Having generated my world map, I then had to start making decisions about the graphics. Should I try to do it in Herge’s Ligne Claire style? How much information should I show? Will the map be plain or decorated with appropriate graphics. A thousand decisions had to be made.
In the end I decided to go for simplicity. The aim was an accurate map that could be reference whilst reading the books. Anything that got in the way of that was removed but that did not solve all the problems. Parts of the map, especially Europe, were very crowded with many locations in close proximity. Every book I mapped added to the complexity and forced a redrawing of the routes and the labels.
Plotting the Boy Reporter’s routes between real places was easy, not matter how implausible the distances travelled were. The real problems started with the fictional countries: San Theodoros, Nuveo-Rico, Syldavia, Borduria and Khemed. Each of these countries posed a different challenge in trying to locate them but one thing was common between all of them – there is no right answer.
For each country, there was contradictory evidence. Syldavia is specifically described as being in the Balkan peninsula yet in Explorers on the Moon, the rocket appears to launch from central Europe, north of the Danube. Khamed appears to contain the ruins of the ancient city of Petra (in present day Jordan) yet it shares a coast line with Jidda, a port on the Red Sea.
Faced with the impossible task of defining where these fictional places fit into the real world, I tried to gather as much information as possible. Recognisable but unnamed landmarks like Petra or Chichen Itza were a major guide. As were the fauna and flora depicted, such as the Anaconda in San Theodoros or the reference to tapioca. Real world events were also a guide. I located Khemed in Yemen because of its turbulent politics mirrored Yemen’s during the 50s & 60s.
Sometimes, locating the fictional country or the city simply came down to what I could fit on the map. Syldavia and Borduria should probably be smaller and more westerly but that would of made it impossible to show all of Tintin’s adventures in those countries. Whilst part of me is frustrated by this failure to get the details right, another part of me thinks it is exactly the sort of pragmatic decision Herge would make. He mixed fiction and reality as he pursued a simple goal, to tell a great story. I hope that my map helps this goal.
“a labor of love”
The Ephemerist comics blog
Buy The Map
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