The Tintinologicopedia Book
July 31, 2011 § 2 Comments
I wonder if kids read Tintin comics any more. I shan’t be surprised to find that they don’t – that the same American hegemony over Europe that saw the eclipse of French and Italian cinema by Hollywood has continued into kid lit.
In some ways it is only fair – the comic strip was, after all, an American invention, that was adapted successfully by Georges Remi, Goscinny and Uderzo, among others. And anyway, it is the American Spielberg who is responsible for the latest attempt to resurrect Tintin this year. But in another sense, this new unipolarity of the world is disturbing: after all, Tintin himself was all about internationality, about adventurous journeys into other countries, the appreciation of other cultures, being sworn and spat at in alien languages, but also about making lifelong friendships while transcending all differences. Perhaps this whole celebration of human-unity-in-cultural-diversity thing was a big theme in the twentieth century – therapeutically so after the condescending colonialism of the previous century – but the novelty seems to have worn off a bit in the next. These days all everyone ever wants to be is American; we are all united in that.
Most importantly, as I realized only after reading this book, the charm of Tintin lies only in the appreciation of context and factually accurate depiction. The comedy is rather slapsticky (compared to the more intellectually witty Asterix); the plots, while full of frantic action, are not terribly sophisticated; the dialogue, apart from Haddock’s colorful invective, is often flat and unimaginative; and we identify with the characters more because of a long and easy familiarity, than anything intrinsically deep or attractive about them, like a distant aunt whom everyone knows only because she hasn’t missed a family event for decades.
No, on the whole, Tintin would have been a pretty ordinary series if not for its topicality, its unerring finger on the pulse of the currently newsworthy. Tintin investigates communism in 1929 (Tintin in the Land of the Soviets), prohibition and Chicago gangsterism in 1931 (Tintin in America), Japanese military designs over China in 1934 (Blue Lotus), oil multinationals pulling geo-political strings in the third world (The Broken Ear), Middle Eastern political conflict (Land of Black Gold), and the Castro-inspired South American liberation movements (Tintin and the Picaros) at exactly the times that the world was curious about these events. I also discovered – from the book – that Herge‘s obsession with accuracy extended beyond plot contexts into the realistic rendition of every object depicted on paper: buildings, cars, aeroplanes and household appliances were faithfully copied to their minutest detail from authentic sources. Of course, as a kid, I never noticed this latter part (or perhaps took it for granted), but the drama of twentieth century history unfolding before my eyes was enough to keep me transfixed.
Quite possibly, there is only one historically incongruous thing about Tintin. Recall that Tintin saves his young Chinese friend Chang from drowning, in Blue Lotus, in 1934. Many things happened in the next few years – East European nations (like the fictional Borduria) turned from 1930’s style Fascist (in King Ottokar’s Sceptre) to 1950’s style Stalinist (in the Calculus Affair), man reached both the moon (Explorers on the Moon) and the bottoms of oceans (Red Rackham’s Treasure), and the rich and powerful were busy swapping their Junkers JU52 airplanes (in the Broken Ear) for swing-wing jets with RB272 Turbofan engines (in Flight 714) in real life as in Tintin comics – but when Tintin rushes to save Chang again in the Tibetan snows in 1969, neither of them appear to have aged a day since they last met 35 years ago. I suppose it is a statement made by Herge about the agelessness of Tintin’s appeal and of the values and principles for which he stands. But alas, it is wishful thinking on Herge’s part – Tintin has lost relevance today, and Mr. Spielberg will probably find later this year that he has directed a period piece, like he did with Schindler’s List, or more to the point, like Shawn Levy’s Pink Panther revival in 2006. Indeed, he picked wisely when he chose The Secret of the Unicorn as the main storyline – it is possibly the least politically controversial – and therefore least historically dated – of the Tintin stories.
I suspect it is the same historical aspect, so fascinating to me as a boy, that makes Tintin less accessible to readers in the current millennium. In the 20th century, Europeans heard of startling events in exotic places like Egypt only thanks to intrepid reporters who went all the way there (that Tintin is an investigative reporter with Le Petite Vingtieme is not a coincidence). Today the world learns of Tehrir Square protests from complete strangers on Facebook and Twitter; moreover, we have learnt to distrust what we read in the print media in a way they never did back in Tintin’s day. Tintin would have found it difficult to have views on the government’s handling of the earthquake in Japan, corruption in India, recession in the United States or terrorism in Norway, without half his readership wondering what his own paper’s angle was; was it fascist right-wing or bleeding-heart liberal, that is, and did Rupert Murdoch own some of it.
No matter – I am more interested in nurturing my fond memories of Tintin than in worrying about his future. I didn’t know Tintinology was a word – but Michael Farr, who describes his area of expertise as such, does a competent job of rekindling my childhood enthusiasm for the oddly hair-styled lad and his little dog. Like his subject matter, Farr is long on historical fact and slightly short on literary artistry. But he strikes the right balance between education and the evocation of nostalgia, and so if you are, or ever were, a Tintin buff, I’d strongly recommend this book to you.