Monday, December 29, 2008

The Art of Being Tintin

My family's obsession with Tintin began early when Santa Claus left my brother a copy of The Black Island. Inside the large hardback comic book, the generically European boy reporter dons a kilt and outfoxes both a crime syndicate and a huge gorilla on the craggy Scottish coast. As a gambit to induce my brother to love reading, Tintin was a success, but today he is more likely to do Tintin stuff (scramble over fences, tackle evildoers, stow away on steamships) than he is to read about Tintin stuff.

The distinctively post-World War II series of adventure comics is poised to crossover into the English-speaking world. Commercial moviemaking's two heaviest heavies have promised to turn Tintin into a turgid, American-style trilogy of blockbusters.

This defies reason. There is no more European hero than Tintin. He's an intellectual given to feats of derring-do. His jaunts into the wide world lead him into ancient and insoluble enigmas, but through a balance of patience and guile he arrives at solutions.

Tintin can travel to the moon but his adventures leave no trace. He's not engaged in nation-building or altering the course of history. This is exactly as post-colonial Europe imagines its role in the world: a polite and quite selfless crusader for the greater good. The militaristic fulminations of Tintin's friend Captain Haddock contrast sharply with the hero's carefully considered actions. Haddock always ends up an ineffectual clown.

Although the very visual and action-oriented medium of comics theoretically lends itself to cinematic interpretation, Tintin has until now resisted the movies (mostly). This mediocre animated version offers some clues as to why. Notice how uncomfortable the lad is after knocking the chessboard over at 2:50. This is a hero who hates being disruptive. Also, Tintin doesn't have an acquisitive bone in his body: he never gets the girl, and he never reaps a reward from all the good work he does. Indiana Jones, he is not.

The characters are another reason why Tintin works best inside little rectangles on a page. They are both rich and one-dimensional. The countenances of General Alcazar or Nestor the butler at Marlinspike Hall are distinctive and instantly recognizable, but the hero himself seems to have no psychological complexity. He barely even has a face. It's hard to imagine actors bringing these characters to life. The filmmakers' avowed approach of "photorealistic animation" seems to skirt the issue.

Tintinology is a rich vein of cultural criticism on the continent, as analyzed as any bit of postwar literature. But only recently has the discussion moved into English, with the publication of Tintin and the Secret of Literature, by Tom McCarthy. In the book-length essay, McCarthy weighs the literary merit of the series by "unleashing the arsenal of post-modern literary criticism."

It is taken for granted in Tintin's homeland of Belgium that comics are an art form of serious importance. Brussels' best highbrow comic shop is even called Le Neuvieme Art in deference to the medium. In the English-speaking world where Tintin is less of a phenomenon, and "graphic novels" are a fairly new innovation, the a defense of comics still feels bold.

McCarthy finds that if Tintin is not literature, then he's better than literature, or at least more fun. Since each page was published serially, the narratives are shot through with cliffhangers. The settings all sparkle, alternately with domesticity and exoticism. And how many geopolitical murder mysteries do kids and adults enjoy with the same level of enthusiasm?