My rating: 4 of 5 stars
There is something about Tintin, isn’t there? I had never read it before, but a survey course on the history of comics this semester forced my to it. Here are two very intelligent writers in conversation, each of whom has written a book that joins Tintin to modernism (and neither of which I have read):
[Frederic Tuten:] You have given a portion of your life in writing, Tintin and the Secret of Literature, about Hergé’s Tintin albums. I love your sweep from Joyce to Hergé.
[Tom McCarthy:] Hergé has always fascinated and enchanted me. And you too, Frederic. I loved your Tintin in the New World—although that’s more of a tribute to Thomas Mann than to Hergé, isn’t it? I learned as much about writing from Hergé as from any “proper” writer. Stuff about narrative: doubling, interrupting, mirroring, misleading, and so on. Thematically, Hergé’s themes are very classical: ancestral houses; the host/guest relationship gone wrong; secrets passing down generations; and, of course, crypts, in all senses of the word. Then there’s the relation to technology, and to the shifting political tectonics of the twentieth century—and Hergé’s own tortured navigation of these (which curiously mirrors that of Paul de Man, his erstwhile colleague on Le Soir). Plus, of course, it’s just really, really good, and funny.
I too enjoy the curious historical detail about Hergé and Paul de Man appearing together on the pages of the collaborationist Le Soir, and there is definitely something of high modernism’s double-edged politics, at once reactionary and anti-capitalist, about the three Tintin albums collected in this book. Hergé’s right-wing anti-capitalism allows him to criticize American imperialism abroad and at home, even as it valorizes traditional Europe as an enlightened and civilizing force. Likewise, Hergé’s politics give a sometimes painful complexity to his portrayal of other cultures, at least in these albums’ depictions of Native American country, Egypt, India, China: while he grants them a certain measure of respect as genuinely different articulations of the human spirit (a respect that comes out most compellingly in the detailed drawing), he also implies a certain anthropological authority derived from the idea of a civilizing mission. Tintin is master of all he surveys, and so is Hergé behind him.
On the other hand, Tintin is hapless and passive, called “Don Quixote” by one of his enemies, always getting captured, trapped, and almost killed. The narrative structure of these stories is picaresque, the adventures of an almost Candide-like wanderer from one violent situation to the other. This creates the books’ odd sensibility, their sense of a youthful optimism observed nostalgically, from the outside, complete with the world’s cutest talking (or is he just thinking?) dog.
Hergé’s exquisite drawing and the subtle color palette convey more than the writing could Tintin‘s air of wistful and melancholy wish-fulfillment, the weightless and airy reverie of a cultivated civilization half in ruins. The artistic method employed by Hergé, called ligne claire, violates one of the central tenets of American comic-book art, taught to me in childhood by my father, which is to vary the weight of the inked line according to the position of the depicted object in space. But Hergé inks everything with the same thin line and this—along with his avoidance of shadows and other means of rendering depth two-dimensionally—flattens foreground and background into a comic-book deep focus that gives these stories their ineffable and dream-like buoyancy. I would argue that this style’s blatant artifice, its refusal of pretended depth and verisimilitude, works against Tintin‘s ostensible imperialism; imperialism, as I learned from Edward Said, constructs colonized space as background to the three-dimension depth of the foregrounded European subject. Insofar as Hergé refuses this, both as narrative structure (Tintin is a character with no psychological complexity) and as artistic style (Hergé’s consistent line brings every object up against the surface of the picture plane), his books undermine their own ostensible authority. (Of course, a more cynical critic than myself would say, and perhaps rightly, that this is all a pretended innocence, in keeping with Tintin’s own, the better for the European subject to dominate without seeming to dominate.)
In short, I find Tintin more fascinating than I thought I would. Hergé’s art is sufficiently enchanting that I want to go on looking at it; his writing is pleasantly vigorous and witty, though I find the tangled cops-and-robbers/agents-and-double-agents plots quasi-unreadable and will confess to skimming some of that material. If nothing else, I would like to read more Tintin to appreciate what Tuten and McCarthy make of it.