BRUSSELS, Jan. 9 (UPI) -- Belgium, a chronically divided country famous for its strong beer and rich chocolates, does not have many national heroes. In fact, a popular after-dinner game among expatriates in Brussels is to try and name 10 famous citizens of the kingdom.
Top of the list is invariably Tintin, a fictional cartoon character who celebrates his 75th birthday Saturday.
Belgium, home to the Smurfs and the world's largest comic-strip museum, is planning to celebrate the anniversary in style. A 10 euro coin featuring Tintin and his trusty canine companion, Snowy, was presented to Finance Minister Didier Reynders Thursday and will go on sale next month.
The country's two main papers -- Le Soir and La Libre Belgique -- plan to fill their Saturday editions with Tintin strips, exhibitions about the comic icon are now touring Spain and the Netherlands, Swiss watchmaker Swatch is bringing out an anniversary timepiece featuring Tintin, while a theatrical production of "The Castafiore Emerald" episode is playing to packed houses outside Brussels.
It is all a far cry from Jan. 10, 1929, when the intrepid cub reporter first made his appearance in the Catholic youth paper Le Petit Vingtieme. On a trip to the Soviet Union, the fresh-faced correspondent -- known as Kuifje in Dutch and Tan Tan in Russian -- was denounced by the Communist Party and chased by the secret police.
Twenty-two more adventures were to follow "Tintin in the Land of the Soviets," taking the ginger-haired journalist to the jungles of the Congo, the back-streets of Shanghai, the docks of Chicago and even to the surface of moon a full 15 years before Neil Armstrong planted the American flag.
Along the way, both Tintin and his Belgian creator Georges Remi -- better known by his nom de plume Herge -- got into numerous scrapes with the authorities. The author was accused of being a collaborator for continuing to print his best-known comic strip during the Nazi occupation, and his depiction of Africans in "Tintin in the Congo" led to charges of racism.
However, neither time nor political correctness have dented the comic character's worldwide appeal. To date, almost 200 million Tintin albums have been sold in 55 languages, including Latin, Welsh, Esperanto and Vietnamese. In addition, Moulinsart -- the company that manages Herge's estate -- makes over $7 million a year flogging everything from Captain Haddock figurines to Tintin video games, T-shirts, towels and quilt covers.
But the big bonanza is only likely to arrive when Steven Spielberg finishes the first of three planned movies about the correspondent in 2006. The director of "Jaws" and "ET" first tried to acquire the rights to Tintin in 1982, but when Herge died a year later the talks were put on ice.
The managing director of Moulinsart, Peter Horemans, told United Press International that Tintin's adventures had a "timeless" message.
"Tintin stands for certain values in life -- he speaks up for people who cannot express themselves and are in a difficult situation," he said.
Another reason why Tintin still sells is because "each reader can identify him or herself with one of the many characters," says Horemans. "People in Japan think Tintin belongs to their country and the same is true in Finland. He is almost like a perfect person -- everybody would like to be like Tintin."
King Albert II would be the first to agree.
"Tintin is one of our best ambassadors," proclaimed the reigning Belgian monarch last month. "During my travels around the world I have noticed that he has always been there before me."
Former French President General Charles de Gaulle was also a big fan, noting with characteristic immodesty that "deep down, my only international rival is Tintin."
France, which gave the world Asterix and Obelix and Lucky Luke, has adopted Tintin as one of its own in much the same way it has crooners Johnny Halliday and Jacques Brel.
Five years ago, French lawmakers attempted to answer the age-old question: "Tintin, is he from the left or the right?" while on Saturday Le Figaro will publish a special 114-page edition of the newspaper with 250 illustrations.
No new adventure has been published since Herge's death over 20 years ago, but three-quarters of a century after he made his first tentative appearance in a little-known Belgian weekly, Tintin's global appeal shows no sign of fading.