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BRUSSELS (Reuters Life!) - As intrepid Belgian cub reporter Tintin prepares to celebrate his 80th birthday, his empire grows.
With sales of two to three million comic books a year and a Steven Spielberg film in the making, Tintin continues to rack up profits more than 30 years after creator Herge drew his final adventure.
Tintin and his dog Snowy first appeared in a Belgian magazine supplement on January 10, 1929 and soon after, "Tintin in the land of the Soviets" marked the young reporter's comic book debut.
More than 200 million copies have been sold since then and the comics have been translated into more than 100 languages and local dialects.
"No new albums have been published since 1984 but Tintin remains a huge hit," Guy De Jonckheere, Tintin publisher at Herge's publisher Casterman, which holds the rights to the comic books, told Reuters.
Casterman, which published Tintin for author Georges Remi (better known by his pen name Herge), obtained the publishing rights from Herge's wife after his death in 1983.
But British businessman Nick Rodwell has become the real custodian of one of Belgium's biggest stars.
After his marriage to Herge's widow, Rodwell took charge of Moulinsart, a business which holds the rights to all Tintin character merchandising.
From key rings to t-shirts, exhibitions and even a musical, Tintin is big business.
Moulinsart hopes that a new Tintin film directed by Steven Spielberg will add to the brand's popularity.
"Dreamworks bought the rights to all 23 albums, and we are hoping that the first film can be released on May 22, 2011 Moulinsart spokesman Marcel Wilmet says, explaining that the group was keen on that release date since May 22 was also Herge's date of birth.
For the first film, Spielberg is teaming up with Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, who will bring technological expertise to the table to bring Tintin to life, Wilmet says.
Jackson would probably direct the second film, although it was not yet certain if there would be a follow-up, he added.
Moulinsart, with an annual turnover of some 16 million euros and 40 staff, markets books about Herge, clothes and toy cars, but makes most of its money from collectable items like Tintin figures, Wilmet says.
The collectable items come at a price, and the group has seen a slight slump in sales as even Tintin fans curb spending on luxury items, but it is confident it can survive the crisis.
"We offer high quality at a certain price and see a slowdown in growth, but it is certainly not negative. It remains a very strong brand," Wilmet said.
The most important markets were still Belgium, France and the Netherlands, but the Spanish and Scandinavian market were also significant, he added.
Moulinsart also cashes in on the rights by allowing businesses such as biscuit company Delacre and luxury Belgian chocolate maker Neuhaus to market their goods in much sought-after Tintin boxes.
A Tintin Festival in the Belgian city of Namur this May and an appearance at the Europalia China exhibition, which starts in October, will mark the wholesome hero's 80th anniversary.
Moulinsart also has high hopes for a new Tintin museum which will open on June 2.
The opening will coincide with that of a museum dedicated to Belgian surrealist painter Rene Magritte.
Reporting by Antonia van de Velde, editing by Paul Casciato