Aug 18, 2011

Gateway Comics: Discovering Tintin

Until last month, I had never read a TINTIN comic.

You may ask, "But Duy! How can someone purporting himself to be an authority on comics not read this one quintessential piece of sequential art?"

Well, first of all, I don't consider myself an authority in comics, but the rest of it is a cultural thing. And thus, until last month, I had never read a TINTIN comic. Oh, sure, I've seen it in bookstores, browsed through it, and then put it back. But see, while some people in other countries grew up with Herge's TINTIN, I simply didn't. Here, or at least in my grade school, TINTIN is a book given to children by some parents. You see it around, but it's hardly ubiquitous. When comics were big in the 90s, TINTIN wasn't even thought of as a "comic." It was a kids' book. And some kids read it. Most didn't. So when I saw Scott McCloud praising it in UNDERSTANDING COMICS, I was shocked and taken aback.

Well, a friend of mine lent me three TINTINs last month: THE BLACK ISLAND, KING OTTOKAR'S SCEPTRE, and RED RACKHAM'S TREASURE.


And I read them all. What did I think?

To begin with, I thought they were really fun! The characters — I met Tintin, his dog Snowy, the detectives Thomson and Thompson, Captain Haddock, and Professor Cuthbert Calculus — were all really charming, with their own set personality. I particularly love how Snowy is a drunkard.

The stories themselves are the perfect example of linear storytelling, where the only thing that's important is "What happens next?" There are no deeper meanings to the story, not as far as I can tell — it's just rollicking adventure of the best kind. Tintin and Snowy get into all sorts of mishaps and situations. It's a very linear way of telling a story and has a sense of whimsy to it that reminds me of the Golden Age Captain Marvel, which you all know I'm a big fan of. You can't expect anything deep going into TINTIN — it's not heavy with emotion, nor does the political commentary that I was told it has really stand the test of time (unless it does and I'm just an idiot, which is admittedly highly possible). It also feels, at times, padded (I suppose the buzzword is "decompressed"), but it is very suspenseful and is funny at just the right moments. Although I don't think I would buy it for myself (that $10 — or P450 — price tag is pretty hefty for what I think is a rather thin story, although that's more story than you get in most of today's comics), I would happily buy it for my 6-year-old niece and read it out loud to her.

But if I were to buy it for myself, I'll tell you why: Herge's art is beautiful. It is gorgeous. The storytelling is so clear, and if you're used to superheroes post-Kirby, you might be surprised at how technical and conventionally un-dynamic by modern standards the art in TINTIN is. This is from the first page of THE BLACK ISLAND.

Rather than being a detriment, it's a big part of the charm, evocative of that wonderful age of storytelling, with clean, precise lines and expressive characters. A lot of artists today try doing dynamic layouts and in-your-face action without much in the way of storytelling fundamentals, and it's unfortunate. Herge never goes beyond tiers of rectangular panels, and today's artists could learn a lot from him.

The masking effect is in full effect here. Tintin and the rest of the characters are so easy to act out because they have very simple features. Semiotically, pretty much everything you need to know about a character is right there in his face. So it may seem simple to readers looking for overt detail, but then Herge does this.



And wow. Just wow.

Discovering TINTIN was a huge pleasure. The ride was fun and at times genuinely funny, the characters were endearing, and the art was incredible. If you're an adult who didn't grow up with TINTIN, you may not find the story worth the price point. If you're an adult who did and loved it, I can finally say that I see why.

And if you're an adult who has children and want to get them to read, start with something awesome. Start with TINTIN.


Adrien said...

From my European point of view, as someone who grew up reading Tintin, I'm happy you had such a great time reading those books.
As for myself, I can't read them anymore. Read them too many times and it's way too much 1 dimensional story, art...

Have you read other French/Belgian comic books since then ?
If not... hope you can find some, you'll have blast !

Duy Tano said...

Thanks for the comment!

I think that's the peril of reading something too many times. I think that I myself don't really reread (now) a lot of books I read when I was younger.

I actually read quite a few Asterix volumes after this and I find that I prefer Asterix. I just didn't get around to writing about it. I think it's funnier (mostly because Obelix being there helps a lot), wittier, and less decompressed. In retrospect, I wish I'd written about that instead.

It's difficult to find non-American stuff here for a decent price, but a friend of mine also recommended Lucky Luke.

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