Tintin: Organ Music on Every Page

If I'm going to start talking about bande dessinée, I better start with the granddaddy of them all, Hergé's Tintin.

Clocking in at 22 books, officially, with the almost prototypical Tintin in the Land of the Soviets republished late at  Hergé's request and the unfinished Tintin and Alph-Art published posthumously in both sketch & script form and drawn by someone else, Tintin is surely the most long-lived comic book character, first seeing print in 1929, almost a decade before a certain Man of Steel on the other side of the Atlantic. Tintin spun out of a young readers' supplement in a Brussels newspaper and into his own magazine, full-color albums, cartoon show, films both live action and animated, stage plays, slash fic, a museum, and a plethora of merchandising.

And I dare say it is a deceptively rich work.

On the surface, Tintin owes as much to matinée adventure serials as Indiana Jones, and started off with picaresques that didn't make the most cohesive of graphic novels once collected, even if redrawn to format. Tintin's now controversial adventures in the Congo are a series of small incidents and great white hunter gags. His trip to America moves between gangland and western tropes. Cigars of the Pharaoh feels like three distinct adventures that nevertheless share a villain.

It's not until The Blue Lotus that the stories really seem designed, as we would say today, "for the trade". The Blue Lotus is a well-research exploration of 1930s China, with darker elements like opium dens and military insurrection, and while some racial caricatures remain unflattering at this point, Hergé means to revise the stereotypes his Western readers might hold true of "Orientals".
At first, Tintin's only companion is his dog Milou (Snowy), and as could be expected of a comic strip, they're able to converse. After The Crab with the Golden Claws (book 8, 1941) introduces Captain Haddock, Snowy keeps talking, but no one but the reader hears. The cast will keep growing with both recurring allies, villains and neutrals. Most of these are zanies, and despite the intrepid reporter's trademark hair, it soon becomes clear that Tintin is a bit of a cipher. He's a straight man that while good at action and detective work, struggles to be anyone's favorite character in the strips. And perhaps that's why we take to his adventures as kids, but seem to forget them as adults.

It's true that once he commits to a double act with Haddock, things take a turn for the better. The middle range of books are usually the most appreciated, blending high adventure with sci-fi and fantasy elements, with three double-sized adventures without a doubt the most memorable of the stories - The Secret of the Unicorn/Red Rackham's Treasure, The Seven Crystal Balls/Prisoners of the Sun, and Destination Moon/Explorers on the Moon (which is a lame title compared to the original French, On a marché sur la lune, "We Walked on the Moon", cuz yeah, Tintin beat Neil Armstrong to it by 15 years).
The final few books are probably the most fascinating to adult readers though. Hergé, having perfected his craft, starts to get bored and starts to experiment.  The fever dream of Tintin in Tibet, turning into a very personal story about loss that becomes more important than the character's quest. Flight 714 (for Sidney) which deconstructs Tintin's greatest villains. Tintin and the Picaros and its ambivalent stance on good and evil. Tintin's world unravels fully in the posthumously published Alph-Art. But The Castafiore Emerald is the one that takes the cake, and to get the joke, one must understand Hergé's greatest talent as a cartoonist: The point d'orgue.

That's a musical term that translates blandly as a "pause", but more literally as melodramatic "tam-tam-tammmm" suspense notes played on an organ when something shocking is revealed in a film. Look at the bottom of every page, and that corner panel will always be a point d'orgue, i.e. a beat that makes you want to turn the page (again, this is a serial matinée thing). If the page is facing, the point d'orgue will be lesser, but be there nonetheless. Hergé saves his better ones for the right-hand page. And this isn't accident or instinct. When he redrew and/or re-laid out the pages for the larger album size, he sometimes added silent panels so that his point d'orgue would still fall on the same spot. This was a deliberate technique, and one modern comics creators could do well to study. Here are a few consecutive corner panels from The Black Island (selected the album at random) to show what I mean:
And in The Castafiore Emerald, Hergé deliberately uses it to troll the reader. Every page sends you to the next where you discover that what you thought was a threat or a revelation is nothing of the sort. Time after time, Hergé fakes the reader out until one must capitulate and accept the book is a farce whose main joke is a parody of the author's own style.
In Hergé's Tintin, one finds adventure, humor, genre tropes aplenty, and a grand travelogue, but also, as one gets deeper into the work, technical mastery and experimentalism worth scrutinizing.

Recommendations: If you can only read one, go with The Seven Crystal Balls/Prisoners of the Sun.


Alain Degrace said...

Having a limited budget for my French class room library, I just bought the three two-part books you mentionned. My students (young and old), are going through them every opportunity they get. It really will be a timeless classic.

Siskoid said...

The cars, phones, etc. make them "period pieces" today, but the adventure stories really are timeless.

MichaelT said...

Mille millions de mille poissons! Darn you, Siskoid, now I have to go back and re-read my collection to appreciate your revelations. Sapristi!

Siskoid said...

Sorry not sorry.

Anonymous said...

I've read a few of these, but not all of them (yet!); my favorite so far is probably Secret of the Unicorn/Red Rackham's Treasure...those were the first ones I read, and I think they hold up really well.

Mike W.

Darrin said...

Really awesome overview Siskoid. Ruth and I both love the Tintin comics and thoroughly enjoyed your insights into the structure of the stories and the art layouts. Plus, it sounds like we agree on many of our favorite titles.


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