Nicholas Lezard: Comic-book joy for less than €1.3m

In the republic of letters, this is the ultimate democratic object

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There are at least three ironies at work in the news during the weekend that a piece of Tintin artwork has been sold at auction for a "record" €1.3m. The first is that it is from a work – Tintin in America – which belongs to his creator Hergé's earlier, cruder (or, to put it more politely, naive) period.

The first three Tintin albums – which take the heroic reporter to, respectively, Soviet Russia, the Belgian Congo, and the United States – are a hodgepodge of clumsy stereotypes and chaotic plotting. The accusations of racism that the more easily-offended have hurled at the artist stem, most justifiably, from these books. (Hergé went out of his way pretty soon after to be more respectful when portraying other races.) Not even the drawings are that good, when they are compared with the meticulous elegance of the later works.

Perhaps the drawing commanded such a high price because it is one of the surviving artworks that we know for certain was drawn by Hergé himself and not his studio – which is the second irony, for as anyone who has read Tom McCarthy's wonderful book Tintin and the Secret of Literature now knows, almost the whole Tintin canon revolves around issues of authenticity; of rightful claims, legitimacy, and inheritance, whether of tribal diamonds, Inca treasure, family mansions or forged currency, and so on. (This all stems from Hergé's plausible belief that his father was an illegitimate son of the Belgian King; alas, I do not have the space to elaborate. Read McCarthy's book.)

But the third irony is, quite simply, the absurd price commanded by the work. This would appear to be the apex of a thriving trade in Tintinian tchotchkes, which virtually has its own Parisian quartier (in and around the Rue Dante, should you be inclined to amble down there); not only can sums charged be mind-boggling, quite a few of the items displayed are beyond even pecuniary reach: they're simply not for sale.

For the thing about the comic book is that it is the ultimately democratic object in the republic of letters: easy to read from childhood on, swiftly appreciated and available to everyone. You will also find that Tintin's adventures, over and above all others' in the comic strip field, sustain countless rereadings and interpretations. (One of Tintin's publishers coined the slogan "for young people from seven to 77", and this is by no means vapid huckstering.)

So, should you find yourself wandering with a bored child this Bank Holiday weekend, duck into the nearest open bookshop and get them started on Tintin. You, and the child, will get more out of his adventures for a tenner than the anonymous bidder will get for his millions.

Twitter: @Nicklezard

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