Saturday, March 24, 2012

Tintin - The Cultural Icon of the Twentieth Century

The silhouette of Tintin- a young man wearing golf pants running with a white fox terrier by his side- is easily one of the most recognizable visual icons of the modern world, as much as Mickey Mouse’s ears or Snoopy playing World War One ace on his doghouse.
The most recognizable image of Tintin and Snowy.

Tintin was born – or made his first appearance- in Belgium­ on 10 January 1929. His putative birth occurred a mere months before the Great Depression, and a decade before World War Two, two of the twentieth century’s defining events.

To put this into the context of comic’s history, Tintin was created the same year that American cartoonist Elzie Seger created the spinach-chewing Popeye. The notion that Tintin is, in fact, nine years older than Superman and ten years older than Batman usually causes mild cultural shock on both sides of the Atlantic, even amongst the most educated comics fans, who regard the character as timeless.

It is that very timelessness that makes Tintin the perfect symbol of the twentieth century, a true witness to our era, spotlighting with astonishing 20/20 clarity all the highlights of the recent history: Tintin was a European colonizer in Africa in the 1930s; he battled bootleggers in Chicago during Prohibition and fought alongside the Chinese against the Japanese; he walked on the moon and in the 1970s he sided with South American guerrillas. Tintin always fitted in; anywhere, anytime. And more so, he always made us aware that there were two sides to every story and did it with a smile.
A panel from Destination Moon, 1953.
When we read Tintin, we simultaneously hold two images in our minds: the image we see and Herge’s amazingly symbolic vision. Apollo XII and Professor Calculus’ red & white chequered rocket become inseparable from each other in our collective photo album. The story of Tintin is the story of our times.

When symbols pass away, the outpouring of grief is out of proportion with the actual event, because people do not mourn the person who died but the part of themselves that is floating away on the river of time. On 3 May, 1983, when Tintin’s creator, Herge, passed away, at age 76, for many it was Tintin who died that day. It symbolized to all who had shared in the young reporter’s adventures that a portion of their lives had suddenly come to an end.

Never had the passing of a cartoonist- other than perhaps that of Walt Disney- generated as much public grief and news stories, a vibrant testimony to the deep and everlasting importance of Tintin in our culture.

The many faces of Captain Haddock
When one first looks at Tintin, there may be a tendency to dismiss it as being simplistic. It is, after all, supposed to be a story for children. But as one begins reading, the clarity and expressiveness of the design is revealed, almost like a blurred image slowly coming into focus. Very few artists had Herge’s ability to blend coherent storytelling, depth of characterization and outstanding expression of emotion in such a fashion.

Artistically, Tintin was the first comic to offer its reader a fully self-contained, totally coherent fantasy universe. Long before the one-dimensional universes of Marvel Comics and its rivals, Herge had built a rich and complex world centered around a simple hero, a teenage reporter, flanked by his faithful pet and which included a gallery of wonderful supporting characters.

Part of the supporting characters which have appeared in the albums from 1929-1976.

The humanity of Haddock, the eccentricities of Calculus, the goofiness of the Thom(p)sons, the mercurial nature of the Castafiore and the obnoxiousness of Jolyon Wagg became more familiar to us than the antics of our own relatives.

The Tintin Universe is also comprised of a veritable atlas of imaginary countries, from Syldavia in the Balkans, to San Theodoros in South America and Khemed in the Middle East. They became shadow versions of Hitler’s Germany, Nicaragua or Saudi Arabia, according to the changing needs of the times. As the twentieth century changes, so do the Tintin books.

As a result, both the literary reputation of Tintin and its popular image were not the product of a fixed or stabilized set of works, as is usually the case, but rather a complex interplay of the same works set against a variety of different cultural and ideological backgrounds.

1956: The Calculus Affair. Based on the Cold War.
The books addressed colonialism, the rise of the USSR, organized crime, capitalism, the international drug trade, the prelude to World War II (though the war itself is absent), alcoholism, racism, coups de tat, multinational corporations, the Cold War, the arms race & trade, the space race, the modern slave trade, the fight for control of oil and even the rapacious media obsession with celebrity. In that regard, the Tintin books are a masterpiece chronicle of the last century.

Tintin acquired its mythic status because it created an illusion of reality in its reader’s minds, very much as JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings or JK Rowling’s Harry Potters have. Every facet of the mundane world becomes transformed by and finds its equivalent in the underlying truth of the imaginary world. However, where the other two writers succeeded because of their prose, Herge achieved his success through the symbolic power and visual clarity of his art.

In Europe, Herge’s artistic influence cannot be underestimated. His style became a school- the so-called ‘Clear Line’ style, which now includes Dutch artist Joost Swarte, French artists Yves Chaland, Ted Benoit, and Spanish artist Daniel Torres.

Tintin has sold over 250 million copies and has been translated into over 80 languages
The concept of collecting comics and publishing them as children’s books was a new one in 1930. With the publication of collected editions dubbed “albums”,  comics creators were guaranteed a place on the bookshelves and royalties for years to come They were then motivated to produce their best work on a schedule that ensured quality of craftsmanship.

It was Tintin’s success in the bookstores and its creator ownership that virtually gave birth to the entire European comics publishing industry. And ultimately, perhaps that was its most significant contribution to the History of Comics.

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