Illustration: Tintin and Snowy, © HERGÉ / Moulinsart 2011 — All Rights Reserved
ON MARCH 3RD, 1983, the French daily Libération ran under an unusual cover: Against a black background, as though seen through a telescope, a circular drawing portrayed a cowlicked boy lying face down in the snow while a white fox terrier keened brokenly beside him. Tintin est Mort! tolled the headline. It was in fact Hergé, the Belgian-born creator of the tufty-haired hero, who had departed the day prior, but the headline of that issue — in which Libération replaced every illustration, including those for political news, TV listings, weather reports, and even ads, with drawings from Hergé’s canon — indicated the extent to which the man had become enmeshed with his famous creation. For the French-speaking world, it may as well have been Tintin who’d died, rather than the man who, despite valuing lightness, clarity, and humor above all, was never nearly so clear and precise in his politics as he was in his art. Hergé’s style, to bowdlerize Roland Barthes, might be called biographical: He and Tintin are linked by this very tension between truth and simplicity.
The Tintin stories — published in 1929 in the right-leaning Catholic newspaper Le Petit Vingtieme, then later in Hergé’s own Journal Tintin and the series of Casterman albums through which we know them now — are celebrated for what the Dutch artist Joost Swarte, writing in 1977, dubbed Hergé’s ligne claire, or “clear line,” style. In his use of uniform, strong lines, flat, saturated color, and clearly delineated shapes and volumes, Hergé negotiates between the techniques of his era’s naturalistic adult adventure comics like Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy and those of gag-based newspaper strips like Bud Fisher’s Mutt and Jeff. While his characters are cartoonishly simple, his backgrounds — from the gorgeous Byzantine murals in King Muskar’s palace to the white voids of Tibet — are lush and rigorously detailed. The scenery in a Tintin comic is never static; it moves and turns and anchors the characters in space and, thanks to Hergé’s use of different angles and zooms, in time and mood as well. Large elaborate “silent” panels — set even in the heart of action — enrich the story and give it room to breathe. The comics theorist Scott McCloud, in his graphic nonfiction treatise Understanding Comics, suggests that this complexity, in combination with the characters’ simplified faces, produces multiple levels of realism that “allow readers to mask themselves in a character and safely enter a sensually stimulating world.” Hergé’s use of setting and his exacting depiction of movement — in which Tintin and his friends seem to rush from one panel to the next and yet remain grounded, their feet resting on a panel’s lower frame — presses composition into the service of legibility.
The “clear line” style also enables Hergé to handle serious subjects with an exquisite lightness: a technique appealing to some, exasperatingly old-fashioned to others. Unsurprisingly, Tintin has come to epitomize not only children’s adventure comics as a genre but also a kind of halcyon European colonial past. The earliest Tintin stories — Tintin in the Land of the Soviets and Tintin in the Congo — are catalogs of anti-Bolshevik and colonialist pieties respectively. Likewise, Hergé’s early ethnographic efforts were based not on evidence but entirely on popular prejudice. His racist depictions of, say, Native Americans and the Congolese “Babaorum” tribe were perhaps a knee-jerk adoption to the attitudes of the time, but in prejudice, Hergé also found the kind of uncomplicated understanding of the world he sought to put forward graphically.
Later, his feeling for foreign cultures would deepen somewhat. It was through meeting, in 1934, a Chinese student named Chang Chong-Chen that he learned how much complexity such simplified understandings concealed. Beginning with The Blue Lotus, he dedicated himself to accuracy. It would fall to the detectives Thomson and Thompson to demonstrate the folly of the earlier technique: Although they go to great lengths to don the “right” ethnic costume — “to be precise,” they repeat, echoing the aims of their creator — they are, by virtue of their imprecision, always wrong.)
Hergé often ended up on the wrong side of history. Like Professor Calculus, who develops a powerful weapon only to find, to his surprise, that foreign powers want to turn it to warlike purposes, Hergé naively imagined that creativity transcended political conscience: During World War II, he remained in Belgium and, despite nominally remaining neutral, drew for the collaborationist newspaper Le Soir. “I worked, period; that’s all,” he later said. “Just like a miner works, or a streetcar ticket taker, or a baker.” Later, he regretted this work and, as though to compensate, claimed to have given up politics for a belief in friendship. This renunciation gives the later stories an almost nihilistic tinge. After exposing Soviet corruption in the first adventure, by the last (1976’s Tintin and the Picaros) Tintin is assisting a band of leftist guerillas to stage a coup. He’s motivated not by general altruism (the peace sign on his motorcycle helmet notwithstanding) but by the desire to save his friends, and at story’s end, as his plane flies over a newly renamed slum where only the policemen’s uniforms have changed, it’s clear how little any of it matters. In Tintin in Tibet, in which Hergé discards everything that would seem to be essential to an adventure tale — chases, villains, conflict — the friendship agenda is separated from politics altogether. Its story of spiritual brotherhood takes place in a land of whiteness so pure it seems like a reclamation of lost innocence. Many consider the book Hergé’s masterpiece.
If Hergé does not escape the 20th century as unscathed as Tintin does his many scrapes, his political and ethical contortions are part of the way in which the strip reflects its era’s particular upheavals. In the course of his adventures, Tintin hunts Soviets, instructs Congolese children on the history of their Belgian “fatherland,” and battles the gangs of Chicago. He is the first man on the moon — a full 15 years before Neil Armstrong — and exposes corrupt oil interests in South American and the Middle East. The novelist Tom McCarthy, in his 2006 book Tintin and the Secret of Literature, sees Tintin as an aesthetic prototype of the century as well, a forerunner as much of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein as of Indiana Jones and John Le Carré. With Tintin, McCarthy writes, “Hergé let illustration be invaded by the avant-garde.” The stories do incorporate many of ingredients of twentieth-century culture, both “high” and “low”: from film to science fiction, pop art to dime novels, and touching even on what McCarthy calls the “dream logic of post-modernism,” as when the sheik in Cigars of the Pharaohs enthusiastically displays a copy of Explorers on the Moon — an adventure that has not yet taken place.
Hergé himself described Tintin as the “degree-zero of typeage — a typographic vanishing point.” The formulation suggests Samuel Beckett, and there is indeed something Beckettian about Tintin. In French, appropriately, the phrase “faire tintin” means something approximating “to go without” or “to be frustrated.” Tintin may be a reporter, motivated, like any good journalist, by the hint of a good story, but only in his very first of his 24 adventures does he actually file copy. He was born 15, and supposedly stays that way, though it is hard to imagine he’s any age at all. He has no last name, no parentage and no past, no desires and no sexual identity. Even his appearance has little to say about him: his face is just a circle, with two black dots for eyes and a black, semi-circular wedge of mouth. He could be anyone, and frequently is: In The Broken Ear, the villains Alonso and Ramon see him disguised in every face they meet. His amorphousness also allows for virtue: by being nothing, he can be a kind of ideal. Because if he has little in the way of personal identity, Tintin makes up for it in the clarity of his morals. He’s little more than a bundle of uncomplicated virtue. A steadfast and devoted friend, he’s a defender of the weak, chivalrous, upbeat, and abstemious. He will dissimulate, but is never cruel. He’s gently disapproving of Captain Haddock’s drunkenness, but not above deploying a bit of liquid courage when met with recalcitrance. He cries only twice in the entire series. Oddly transparent, he’s less a hero, exactly, than a way for Hergé to show us the world.
Unlike Tintin, many of Hergé’s extras are given a surprising level of specificity, like the old man at the pub in Kiltoch, or the Katmandu airport employee fiddling with rubber bands. This gives the stories a rich, literary texture, and creates an opportunity for diverse forms of humor. Up until 1932’s Cigars of the Pharaoh, Tintin is accompanied on his adventures only by Snowy (Milou in the original French), his faithful and occasionally intemperate terrier. But as the years go by, he accumulates a retinue of Dickensian weirdoes who tend to be a great deal more developed than he is. All share his virtues — courage under duress, loyalty, and basic goodheartedness — and add newer, more complex ones. The Captain is more imaginative than Tintin, Professor Calculus more poetic, Thomson and Thompson more strictly devoted to the letter of the law. The Rabelaisian Haddock, first introduced in1941’s The Crab with the Golden Claws, comes to replace Snowy as Tintin’s primary foil, his coarseness and sardonic humor tempering the young hero’s idealism. His expressive face is capable of widely different states of emotion — self-pity, rage, euphoria, melancholy — and his well-defined set of vices give situations danger, comedy, and pathos in turn, making him one of Hergé’s most complex creations.
Then there is Haddock’s dialogue, which, along with Thomson and Thompson’s solecisms (“This man has apologized to us, and we demand an insult!”), contributes enormously to Tintin‘s literary merits. The Captain’s baroque library of curse words — prefigured in the series by Hergé’s “foreign” epithets (“Szplitz on Szplug!”) — is gorgeously inventive. His telegram to the sender of a bogus S.O.S. in The Shooting Star is a sort of high-comic tone poem:
“Deeply shocked by subterfuge … no … that’s not strong enough … er … Gangsters! …That’s it! Gangsters! Twisters! Traitors! … Woodlice! … Turncoats! … Shipwreckers! … Mountebanks! Moujiks! Signed: Haddock. And add: Rhizopods and Ectoplasms!”
Beyond the pure pleasure of such musical alliteration, it can be a real education to hear the man go at it: How many children (or adults for that matter) have been driven to the dictionary by the likes of “bashi-basouk,” “anacoluthon,” “ectoplasm,” “pitecanthropic pickpocket,” or “slubbergegullions”?
But it’s Cuthbert Calculus, whose deafness perfectly offsets Haddock’s perpetual inability to be quiet, that is the most direct instigator of surreal linguistic comedy in the series: “Say, Captain, was that a fish, that large animal that just jumped over there?” “No, that was a grand piano.” “Ah, I didn’t think it could have been a fish …” Deafness, or the reverse: Calculus’s sudden ability to hear, as after being told he’s “acting the goat.” Over and over again, miscommunication crops up in Tintin as both theme and device. A distraught Emir Ben Kalish Ezab hands Tintin the ranson note for his son. “It’s unbelievable! … Here, read this letter.” The letter’s in Arabic: it’s a picture, it means nothing. (Appropriately, the Emir’s capital is called Wadesdah — in Belgian Dutch: “Wat is dat?”) When, in The Land of Black Gold, Tintin is saved by the miraculous appearance of the Captain, the latter tries to explain how he came to be there, but is interrupted each time by someone else. The story ends without resolving the question; the signals are jammed. The Castafiore Emerald, a Flaubertian comedy of pure style, hinges entirely on this trick. Essentially, it has no plot, and action is replaced by a series of mistaken and misleading cues: a ringing telephone, the lies of a builder, the squawks and squeals of the Marlinspike Prize Band, the senseless repetitions of a parrot, repeatedly misdialed calls for Cutts the Butcher, “Mercy my jewels!”, and “scales, scales, scales.” The false mystery of who stole the emerald is solved when Tintin literalizes the story of Rossini’s opera La Gazza Ladra, reading it onto his own world.
While endless comedy is derived from frustrating Haddock’s desire for a quiet pipe and bottle of whiskey, Hergé’s most common joke involves falling, or, “to be precise,” as Thomson and Thompson would say, falling immediately after warning someone else to be careful. It’s the purest form of situational irony. The Thom(p)sons, whose absurd lot it is to look like twins (though the difference in their surnames and moustaches indicates otherwise), are especially susceptible to this indignity: they are arrogant and think they know everything, and therefore prone to the humbling realization that what they know is the exact opposite of what is true. But humiliation, as Dostoyevsky’s underground man notes, “is purification; it is the acutest and most vivid consciousness,” and the Thom(p)sons have a Chaplinesque innocence to them. They, like all of Hergé’s creations, are elegant even in the midst of their silliness, and so never purely ridiculous. There is something deeply literary in their falling (what Camus would have called “a leap of faith”), one after the other, despite repeated warnings. They are players in a kind of Theater of the Absurd — their inability to control their fate creates a breakdown of meaning that hides its own kind of horror.
Hergé learned a lot from film. He was a great fan of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd, and actually preceded his earliest strips with the title “un grand film comique” (“a great comic film”), signing them “Hergé, metteur en scène” (“Hergé, director”) or, in English, “Hergé Moving Pictures.” It is easy to see how the logic of his comic mimics that of film, not only in his liberal use of slapstick but in the style of the drawings themselves, which use depth of field, jump-cuts, and close-ups. Occasional Hitchcockian chirascuro night scenes add a layer of drama.
Still, drawing too close a parallel between the two mediums — as many commentators on the new Steven Spielberg film, The Adventures of Tintin, have done — is somewhat deceiving. Unlike film, comics have to represent the passage of time spatially; there is something inherently participatory about them, a play between active reading and passive spectatorship that’s lost when the medium changes.
As one might expect, the darker, more literary dimensions of Hergé’s work are nowhere to be found in Spielberg’s film. Here it’s action — big, exhausting, ceaseless — that’s given primacy over story, character, or irony. The Hergé works the movie draws from — Red Rackham’s Treasure and The Secret of the Unicorn, tossed in and pulsed with a little Crab With the Golden Claws — are made a mere pretext for special effects, bluster, and buffoonery. It’s true that the visuals are impressive at times (the opening credits, for instance, are fantastic), but Spielberg would have done well to remember the first rule of “Hergé’s Guide to Comic Book Composition,” as recorded by Pierre Assouline in his biography of the artist: “Find a story line sturdy enough to hold for the whole course of the adventure. A simple chase connecting gags is not enough.” To Hergé, everything — from the clarity of style on down — was subservient to story: sometimes, the Captain and Tintin just sit and talk when an important piece of background needs to be conveyed. But there’s precious little talk in Spielberg’s film, and where there is some — the Captain’s recital of some kind of self-empowerment boilerplate for instance — there could well have been less. When the Captain gives up drinking in Hergé’s comic to join the Society of Sober Sailors, it’s funny, because we know he doesn’t mean it. Here it’s just trite, a way to protect a young audience from the idea that drunkenness can be funny at all. When Spielberg deprives the Captain of his pipe, it’s not a joke, but judgment.
At least Spielberg’s motion-capture technique has the virtue of being, like Hergé’s ligne claire, a play between reality and cartoon. In spirit, at least, the idea of combining real actors with computerized fakery is faithful to Hergé’s mélange of natural and architectural complexity with the graphically simple. In practice, though, it doesn’t have anything like the same effect. This state-of-the-art, high-tech Tintin feels something like high-definition TV: somehow, the sharper the image, the less true it tends to seem.
Then there are ways in which Tintin is simply incompatible with film, as his own creator realized. After seeing an animated version of The Temple of the Sun, Hergé wrote a young fan: “I don’t like Captain Haddock in the film. He doesn’t have the same voice as in the book.” Like words, drawings are an abstraction suggesting a truth: their ability to mean something to us comes from what they suggest but fail to provide. There’s a way in which giving Haddock a voice at all denies him his ability to speak. In Spielberg’s film, the characters feel both more and less human than they do on the page: While the Thom(p)sons and Captain Haddock look like CGI burlesques of Hergé’s original drawings, Jamie Bell’s Tintin looks like someone, where before he’d looked like no one and everyone, at once familiar and strange.
“One set of lines allows readers to see,” McCloud writes of Hergé’s style, “the other to be.” Tintin’s characterless mug reflects the image we tend to have of ourselves: something not quite visible, but still indelibly extant. Look at his face as Hergé drew it: there’s such babyish clarity to those round, rosy cheeks, that thumb-like nose, the expressive parentheses of his eyebrows, and so much complexity, too. Like Barthes’ degree-zero of writing, Tintin is the nursery of a new language of line and shape, the very artificiality of which makes it possible to imagine something real. He’s almost nothing, and as long as he stays that way, he can be anything at all.