Arts: Tintin betrayed!

Herge's boy reporter is 70 this year, but his anniversary has been miserably celebrated in Britain. How long will it take us to acknowledge the genius of his creator - and of the other great cartoonists? By Gilbert Adair
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Tintin is 70. It was exactly seven decades ago, in January 1929, that - but it would probably be simpler to quote from the press kit just issued by Egmont Children's Books - exactly seven decades ago that "Tintin, the boy reporter, set off from Brussels on an epic train journey to the land of the Soviets, in search of his first ever story". It continues: "Seventy years on, Egmont Children's Books is proud to launch this first adventure, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, making it available for the first time in English album format."

Not quite. Those two statements contain a trio of impressive "firsts", but the third statement is, in fact, untrue. The English version of Tintin in the Land of the Soviets was actually first published in 1989, presumably to commemorate Tintin's 60th birthday. And, while I'm party-pooping, I feel bound to warn fans - for whom the discovery of a long-lost addition to the official canon of 22 albums must seem present a prospect as mouth- watering as would, for a film buff, the excavation from MGM's vaults of the original full-length version of Eric von Stroheim's mutilated Greed - that the album in question is strictly a collector's item.

To start with, its amateurishly slipshod black-and-white imagery bears scant resemblance to the celebrated ligne claire, the graphic equivalent of some elegantly unshowy prose style, of the Belgian comic-book school. Even Tintin himself is just barely recognisable, a sketchy embryo of what he was later to become - the most convincing and unmawkish personification of moral decency in all of today's culture - and his faithful dog Snowy is like nothing so much as a child's crude attempt to copy the wittily realised dog of the subsequent albums.

The storyline was initially serialised in Le Petit Vingtieme, that newspaper's supplement for younger readers, and the joins of weekly publication remain all too visible: the narrative hiccups along from bottom-of-the- page cliff-hanger to bottom-of-the-page cliff-hanger. Even if we're all better informed now about political and material conditions in the Soviet Union of the inter-war years, the album's primitive anti-Communist propaganda is still hard to stomach. Herge himself, Tintin's creator, was the first, though by no means the last, to refer to it as "a transgression of my youth".

Tintin's birthday is also being celebrated with an "exhibition" at the Science Museum in South Kensington. Why the grouchy quotes? Admirers of the strip are likely to feel their idol deserves far better than this trumped-up nothing of a show, whose natural venue would be the back of a Rice Krispies packet - except they go Snap, Crackle and Pop, and the exhibition certainly doesn't.

No-one seems to have lost sleep over this one. All the organisers could think of was to pin up, in the relevant areas of the museum, reproduced extracts from those of Herge's albums - The Shooting Star, The Seven Crystal Balls, Destination Moon, Explorers on the Moon and The Calculus Affair - which have scientific or pseudo-scientific themes, accompanied by a cluster of fact-sheets containing soundbite information already familiar to Tintin fans. (These fans, by the way, belong to five successive categories: Tintinovices, Tintinophiles, Tintinologists, Tintinophages and finally, to describe those who have attained a state of true enlightenment and beatitude, Tintinolaters.)

Such information as: Herge was directly influenced by the design of the V2 missile when creating the rocket which would take his heroes to the moon. Or else: In 1982, the Belgian Astronomy Society named a recently sighted asteroid - found between Mars and Jupiter - Planet Herge.

Planet Herge. It sounds like a theme restaurant, and the very notion of the Royal Astronomical Society in Britain naming an asteroid after Giles, let's say, or Smythe, the "onlie begetter" of Andy Capp, or whoever it was who first dreamt up Desperate Dan, is preposterous. It's preposterous, though, not just because none of these artists is remotely the equal of Herge but also because of the sniffy disrepute in which this country's intelligentsia continue to hold the medium to which they all devoted their professional lives. The argument is both limpid and wonderfully circular: the cartoonist Herge cannot be a genius (as every Tintinolater knows him to be) because the word "genius" is incompatible with the word "cartoonist".

And if the French think he's a genius, well, after all, they thought Jerry Lewis was a genius and Alfred Hitchcock was a genius and, yes, OK, granted, we Brits, 30 years on, also think Hitchcock is a genius but, I mean to say, that's got absolutely nothing to do with the fact that the French did first, has it? Or has it?

Forty years ago, in the fabled columns of the film journal Cahiers du Cinema, a small group of French critics (and filmmakers-to-be) set about constructing an idiosyncratic new pantheon in the upper reaches of whose hierarchy were to be found Hollywood directors most of whom would not even have been mentioned by name in British reviews of their latest movies. Not only Hitchcock, who was routinely dismissed in his native land as a clever if debilitatingly shallow entertainer, but Howard Hawks, Fritz Lang, George Cukor, Nicholas Ray and Vincente Minnelli.

Now, in this the centenary of his birth, Hitchcock is everywhere: a TV documentary, the publication of his diaries published, and a complete retrospective of his career at the National Film Theatre. Hawks, too, was recently the subject of a two-part NFT retrospective and, over the past five years, massive, erudite biographies have been published of Cukor, Ray, Lang and Minnelli. Call them pretentious if you must, but the French were right.

So could they possibly also be right about comic strips? And how long will it take before our collective culturati are prepared to acknowledge the genius of Herge and his like? It is of course impossible in an article of this kind, given the extremely limited opportunities for illustrating one's thesis, to defend as they merit the supreme masters of popular graphic art. One can only be categorical and hence, of necessity, polemical. But, if no other reason than to get the ball rolling, I'm ready to stick my head above the parapet, as they say, and offer the following, calmly reasoned views.

There is, in my opinion, more wit, fantasy and narrative panache in a classic Tintin album than in 99 per cent of novels published today in Britain (or anywhere else, for that matter). There is more genuinely surreal invention in Winsor McCay's Little Nemo in Slumberland than in a typical Mir or Max Ernst. More anarchistic energy in George Herriman's Krazy Kat strip than in a Jackson Pollock action painting. More demented dynamism of line, contour and colour in one of Bob Kane's Batman comics than in Pulp Fiction. More mordancy and intelligence in Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury than in virtually any movie by Robert Altman. And more Hogarthian vividness of characterisation in The Simpsons than in the complete works of Tom Wolfe.

You heard it here first.

Tintin in the Land of the Soviets (Egmont Children's Books, pounds 12.99). The World of Tintin runs until 11 July at the Science Museum, Exhibition Road, London SW7

Comments