29 April 2009

Tintin (Part One)

Tintin, Haddock And Snowy

Tintin Superstar!
The 80th Anniversary of Hergé's
Adventures of Tintin
by Donny Jacobs
Billions of blistering blue barnacles! Can it be true? Tintin and Snowy are eighty years old! Yet, in that irritating way comic strip characters have of aging imperceptibly, Tintin still looks barely nineteen. Lord only knows how old Snowy is in dog years by now!

Somewhere in Classic Comic Strip Land, there’s big doings at Marlinspike Hall, the mansion Tintin shares with his friends Captain Haddock and Professor Calculus. Greeting his party guests at the door, Tintin is resplendent in tuxedo and pink cummerbund, his famous hair quiff freshly pomaded. The opera diva, Bianca Castafiore, has already arrived; she's the center of attention as she begins yet another ear-splitting rendition of "The Jewel Song" from Faust. Off in a far corner of the ballroom, the Captain is cringing at the sound of her voice, with hands clapped firmly over his ears.

The Professor is circulating among the invited guests, talking up his latest invention(and as usual, misunderstanding every word that's said to him in reply). Joylon Wagg is working the crowd, too, predictably using the birthday bash as a venue for hawking his latest batch of insurance policies. Topping their tuxedos with the trademark bowler hats they're famous for, the Thom(p)sons look awfully smart heading up the security detail. Of course, looks can deceive, especially when you’re looking at the most inept police detectives ever. The guys are keeping a sharp eye out for party crashers . . . but gosh, isn't that Tintin's arch-enemy Rastapopoulos who just slipped past them?

Over by the punchbowl, we find the Emir Ben Kalish and his entourage. Nobody noticed when Abdullah, the Emir's devil of a son, spiked the punch with something dreadful. Dinner is beginning, so they may not find out until dessert! The lavish meal, served by Marlinspike’s kitchen staff, includes foods from all the varioius lands the Belgian boy hero has visited. Tintin's friend Chang is seated in a place of honor at the banquet table. Beside him we find Snowy, who's happily gnawing on a steak bone.

If only the man who started it all could be here, too. Tintin is the creation of the late Georges Remi, who signed his work with the pen name Hergé. Born in Brussels, Belgium, in 1907, Remi displayed a talent for drawing soldiers as a child. This led directly to commercial art career. As a young adult, he was hired to work as a copy artist for a Catholic newspaper, Le Vingtième Siècle(The Twentieth Century). In the 1910s and 20s, news photography wasn't as prevalent as it is today; articles and features were often accompanied by illustrations. Newspaper comic strips were still in their infancy, having made their debut with Hearst publications' The Yellow Kid at the turn of the century. However, their popularity was growing fast, and their simple narrative structure appealed to Remi.

After a false start or two in the mid-1920s, he finally got the chance to draw a strip of his own. The editor of Le Vingtième Siècle commissioned him to create and provide content for a children's supplement. Georges Remi thought he had just the right feature in mind: It would be based on a character named Totor that he'd drawn for a Boy Scout publication. On 10 January 1929, the moon-faced boy hero and his snow-white terrier made their first appearance on the pages of the quaintly titled Petit Vingtième. Little did Remi suspect they’d still be monopolizing his time 54 years later!

In appearance, Tintin was modeled after Remi's younger brother, Paul. His adventurer persona was reportedly based on Albert Londres, a famous French foreign correspondent; another celebrated journalist, Robert Sexé, may also have provided inspiration. An emancipated minor(Remi never volunteered any information about his parentage), Tintin had an urbane demeanor that conveyed a maturity well beyond his years. In groups of adults, he was at least an intellectual equal; more often than not, he was the guiding influence. In his early adventures, Remi described Tintin as a reporter for Le Petit Vingtième. He evolved into an amateur globetrotting detective, forever stumbling into diabolical plots and world-domination schemes. There would be hordes of malevolent conspirators over the years: Gangsters, secret agents, corrupt government officials, and greedy businessmen of various nationalities.

In order to deal effectively with such ruffians, Remi gifted his Belgian boy hero with a dazzling array of skills. Though barely fifteen upon his début, he's already an expert (but often careless) driver. Over time, we learn that Tintin can pilot an airplane, helicopter or miniature submarine, and steer a motorcycle, speedboat, or locomotive engine. The Quiffed One is a more-than competent swimmer, mountain climber, saddleback rider and deep-sea diver. In several adventures, Tintin demonstrates skill as a radio engineer. Like an Eagle Scout extraordinaire, he's highly proficient with monkey wrenches, screwdrivers, carving knives and any number of hand tools. In a fight for his life, he acquits himself admirably against multiple adversaries using fists, telephone receivers, lead pipes, or whatever he can lay hands on in a pinch.

Tintin is also a skilled dog trainer; his pet and constant companion Snowy (an exceptionally intelligent terrier given to ironic asides, which Hergé conveyed with thought balloons) understands all of his verbal commands. Amazingly, in the 1934 adventure titled Cigars Of The Pharaoh, the Quiffed One deciphers the language of elephants and learns to converse with them. The boy is obviously a Mensa candidate! His great intellect doesn't always translate into good sense, though. Tintin is foolhardy, often barging headlong into dangerous situations. That said, he's absolutely fearless, risking his life for others at the drop of a hat.

Tintin's early adventures were typical slapstick-laden romps of the period, hardly notable except for their exotic locales, the ethnic costumes Tintin wore, and the author’s occasional injection of political commentary(i.e. Bolshevik exploitation of poor Russians in the first story). This changed in 1936 when Remi produced The Blue Lotus. With this thriller set in China, Remi began crafting more compelling narratives, and also began striving to depict world culture and politics with heightened accuracy. From that point forward, a readership other than children started taking notice of The Adventures Of Tintin.

People were also taking notice of the distinctive drawing style Remi had developed, a style which featured strong, clear lines and little use of shadow. French critics later dubbed it l'art ligne claire, by which time it was becoming influential in both European and American art circles. Notable artists like Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol adapted the technique for some of their projects. Numerous assistants would help Remi perfect it over the years; the most prominent were Jacques Martin, Edgar Pierre Jacobs, Roger Leloup and Bob de Moor.

After three serialized adventures, Georges Remi began to feel a bit bored. It was apparent to him that Tintin and Snowy couldn't carry the strip by themselves; they needed a supporting cast. Remi chose to make these new characters inherently flawed, which proved to be a stroke of genius. That quirky cast of friends and enemies, accumulated over half a century, transformed the Tintin strip into a cultural phenomenon.

The players came to include Thompson and Thomson, best described as Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee reborn as police detectives, twin bunglers whose clueless methods hinder more than help Tintin's investigations; Cuthbert Calculus, a brilliant but almost totally deaf scientist; Bianca Castafiore, an internationally famous opera star who seems to know only one aria; General Ramón Zarate Alcazar, a two-bit South American despot; Joylon Wagg, a crass insurance salesman; Abdullah, a demon child Palestinian prince, and his doting daddy, the Emir Ben Kalish; Roberto Rastapopulous, a pompous criminal mastermind; and the most important of addition of all, Captain Archibald Haddock, an alcoholic seaman with a perpetual mouthful of impossibly clean expletives.

Originally a pathetic character, Haddock quickly evolved into Tintin's comrade in peril and one of the most complex characters in the history of comics. It was an international cast of archetypes whom Remi delighted in depicting as weak, vain, stupid and petty. Using these misfits as a cracked mirror image of the world, he effectively satirized humanity and completely changed the tone of the strip.

Tintin was far from a typical children's comic; it had a European sophistication that you'd never have found in a comparable American feature. For one thing, it could be quite violent! Aside from the painful pratfalls that Remi was fond of depicting, he had Tintin survive dozens of plane, train and car crashes, sometimes just barely. When it came to near-death traps, Dick Tracy had nothing on the Belgian boy hero! He was shot, blown up in explosions, half-drowned and bludgeoned on the head countless times. Tintin's adversaries didn’t get off easy, either: Sometimes they died disturbingly, like the man devoured by crocodiles in Tintin In The Congo and the criminal stowaway shot through the heart at the climax of Explorers On The Moon. Suicide was sometimes depicted. So was cruelty to animals (poor Snowy was often the victim) and children.

Language could also be unexpectedly harsh. While Tintin's trademark exclamation was the benign "Crumbs!" and the bark of Captain Haddock’s multisyllabic swearing was far worse than its bite, the occasional strong epithet did slip out. A Bolshevik yells "damnitski!" during a chase scene in Tintin in the Land of The Soviets, and a cameraman exclaims "dammit!" during a blackout sequence in The Castafiore Emerald. These utterances may sound mild today, but such talk was unheard of in stateside children's literature of the period. Georges Remi probably would've pushed the swear word envelope even further if he could have: In the climax to Flight 714 To Sydney, he implies that the Quiffed One can cuss like a pro when sufficiently provoked. However, it's still a children's feature, so he can't reveal exactly what Tintin said!

When it comes to the strip's not-necessarily-suitable-for-children content, though, strong violence and language pale in comparison to strong drink! Wine, whisky and beer are partaken to an alarming degree in The Adventures of Tintin; indeed, in the very first tale we find the boy hero nursing a champagne hangover! If that weren’t scandalous enough, Snowy also gets drunk on the first of many occasions. So Georges Remi unquestionably kept adult vices in his storyteller’s arsenal; he wouldn’t hesitate to center stories around mature subjects like narco-trafficking or slave trading, and he wasn't beyond injecting sexual subtexts into his stories, either. More about that topic a little later on . . .

Until the late 1940s, Tintin's adventures would be serialized in newspapers like Belgium's Petit Vingtième and France's Le Soir(The Evening News). Initially rendered in black-and-white, they proved popular enough for compiling in bound volumes. Typically, these compilations would hit the market within a year of the serialization. During the Second World War, when color comics had become standard, Georges Remi decided to redraw his early strips and convert them to color. These book-length color revisions are the versions that later became famous around the world. Only the first serial, Tintin in the Land Of The Soviets, was left in its original monochrome state.

What follows are synopses of all twenty-three Tintin graphic novels, complete with their original French titles and initial dates of publication. A warning to the narrow-minded: These synopses don't shy away from homoerotic themes! Many Tintin fans adamantly deny the existence of such content, but the evidence is there on the printed page. It’s not there capriciously, either; these Gay subtexts were clearly used in the service of character development. Rest assured they'll be discussed in that context, and not exploited for shock value. International intrigue, slapstick, angst, satire, science fiction, exciting locales, and the possibility of same-gender love . . . Georges Remi loaded his amazingly progressive adventure strip with all this and more. For details, read on!

"Tintin Superstar" continues with Part Two.

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