Belgium’s New Passport Spotlights Classic Comic Characters

The design features boy reporter Tintin, the Smurfs and other beloved pop culture figures

Billboard sign of young boy with orange hair and white dog
Belgium has launched new passport designs honoring its comic roots, such as Tintin (above) and the Smurfs. iStock Photo/Getty Images

Belgian passports are now a lot more colorful, report Hannah Ryan and Arnaud Siad for CNN. Debuted on February 7, the new design features illustrations of beloved Belgian cartoon characters like Tintin and the Smurfs—a tribute to comics’ status as “a central element of our culture and our influence abroad,” says Belgian foreign minister Sophie Wilmès in a statement. An accompanying exhibition on the history of the Belgian passport is on view at the Comics Art Museum in Brussels through March 6.

The 34-page passport blends images from existing comics, like the rocket on the first page of the 1954 Tintin serial Explorers on the Moon, with newly commissioned illustrations. An official video spotlighting the design reveals an array of travel-themed spreads, from a Smurf surrounded by maps while studying a globe to cowboy Lucky Luke riding his trusty steed, Jolly Jumper.

colorful cartoon image of red rocket on passport
The passports new colorful designs make it more difficult to create counterfeits, officials say.  Benoit Doppagne/Belga Mag/AFP via Getty Images

“We have chosen a design that represents well our country, its arts and culture, with a touch of talent, expertise, humor and humility,” Wilmès tells Jean-Francois Noulet of Belgian radio broadcaster RTBF, per Google Translate.

Comic strips, known as bande dessinées (BDs) in French, catapulted to prominence in Europe after World War I, wrote Amy Nguyen for the Culture Trip in 2016. BDs are especially popular in France and Belgium, where comics are referred to as “the ninth art,” after painting, photography, sculpture and the like. Boy reporter Tintin, created by Georges Remi under the penname Hergé in 1929, was the first of many Franco-Belgian comic superstars. MI5 agent Blake and nuclear physicist Mortimer arrived soon after World War II; the iconic blue Smurfs, drawn by cartoonist Pierre Culliford, followed in 1958.

Beyond adding a splash of color and character, the new design adds a layer of protection. According to RTBF, it features 48 distinct security elements, including barcodes, laser-engraved photographs and a polycarbonate ID page. (Its predecessor had just 24.) Shining a UV light on the passport’s cartoon scenes, which are seemingly rendered as simple silhouettes, reveals extra details like facial expressions and textures, writes Jennifer Rankin for the Observer.

Belgium’s passport is “one of the best in the world,” says Wilmès in the statement, but it’s also “an object of desire for counterfeiters.”

As Tom Topol, an expert on passport history, tells the Observer, complex designs are harder for counterfeiters to forge or manipulate.

“Nowadays, a passport design with monotone graphic elements is just too simple,” he adds.

colorful cartoon image of couple on passport
The passport images will depict general outlines of people and scenery, with extra security details, like facial features, that appear when placed under UV lighting.  Benoit Doppagne/Belga Mag/AFP via Getty Images

Belgium isn’t the only country with a unique, visually appealing passport design. Norway’s passports, for instance, show the Northern Lights rising above a mountain scene when placed under UV light. Canada’s design similarly utilizes UV light, peppering the pages with neon symbols and illustrations. Finland’s doubles as a flip book, featuring a moose that appears to run as the pages are turned, while Japan’s includes scenes from Katsushika Hokusai’s Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji series.

Belgian Israeli cartoonist Michel Kichka tells the Observer that the new passports allude to the golden age of Belgian comics in the 1960s, when characters “were cute and friendly, [humorous and] drawn in a soft style.”

He adds, “These characters, and the spirit that they represent, are close to the heart of the Belgians. They are a part of the way I draw today.”