This summer I ♥ Comics returns to Blog@Newsarama. Each Wednesday comics bloggers and creators will discuss the things they love about the medium.
This week our guest contributor is blogger Jim Roeg, who you can find blogging regularly over at Double Articulation.
By Jim Roeg
When I think about the comics that made childhood golden, I think about Tintin.
My father introduced us. He was an aerospace engineer, so little wonder that he brought home Destination Moon—an engineer’s adventure if ever there was one. I was very young, so much of that first rather talky story about the construction of a space rocket in a heavily-guarded NASA-like atomic base was lost on me; its many scenes of green-uniformed men hunched over computer terminals and shouting urgently into headsets exerted only a limited appeal to a boy who was more interested in mummies and fossils than in turbine engines and radar screens. But its eccentric little scenes stuck with me: Tintin mobbed by bear cubs for his honey sandwiches, Thomson and Thomson apprehending a lab-skeleton after a misunderstanding at the X-Ray machine, Captain Haddock dressing up as a ghost to frighten Calculus into regaining his memory. And, of course, the rocket. That’s what Tintin was all about: a dream-ship like no other. As I was to discover in Explorers on the Moon—my next adventure—you don’t read a Tintin story, you strap yourself in and blast off. Tintin traveled, and took you with him, across the globe and beyond.
As much as I loved Tintin’s adventures on the moon, my favorite Tintin stories fell into the category of what we now call, with some embarrassment, imperial nostalgia. These are the stories that take as their premise, if not as their overt theme, the adventure spaces of nineteenth-century imperial romance. I’m not talking about Tintin’s notorious detour through the Belgian Congo, featuring that now-infamous panel of Tintin playing colonial pedagogue to a classroom of African schoolchildren. I didn’t encounter that political misadventure until much later.
The stories I’m thinking of are the tomb-and-jungle fantasies that riff gloriously off late-imperial obsessions with Egyptology (Cigars of the Pharaoh), tribal “fetishism” and “primitive” art (The Broken Ear), cursed mummies (The Seven Crystal Balls), and lost civilizations (Prisoners of the Sun). This is all Indiana Jones territory, and it was a happy accident of my childhood that Steven Spielberg’s most shameless excursions into the lost temples of imperialist nostalgia happened to coincide with the appearance of Tintin on my nine-year-old horizon. (Hardly surprising, either, that Spielberg will be instrumental in bringing Tintin to the big screen, for better or—more likely—for worse, some 30 years later…)
Rereading Tintin now, I’m struck by how frequently Hergé draws Tintin with his back to us. Such scenes typically show us what Tintin is looking at, placing us behind him, so that we can literally look with him, over his shoulder. I love these panels, which carry with them a special frisson that is very particular to the experience of reading Tintin: they remind us about the act of looking and of the special pleasure that looking entails.
These panels that thematize Tintin’s (and our own) spectatorship are closely related to another type of recurrent scene: the secret panorama. Secret panoramas are those sudden revelations of picturesque or exotic hidden worlds—usually of things, sometimes of living organisms and even people. They are objects of discovery, but they are not necessarily climatic ones. Often, they are miniaturized. Their prototype is the treasure chest, but they do not contain any ordinary booty.
Take the ending of one of Hergé’s most perfect, most satisfying tales, Red Rackham’s Treasure. Tintin and Captain Haddock enter the cluttered basement of Marlinspike Hall through a hole in the wall and discover the missing pirate’s treasure in a hollow stone globe set at the base of a statue of St. John the Evangelist.
After an extensive maritime adventure that turns up the sunken Unicorn but no treasure, it is a sublime moment. But it is also, in some sense, a superfluous one, because the “treasure” has already been found and enjoyed, several times by the reader. The real treasure of Red Rackham’s Treasure is not the jewels in the globe (though they are wonderful), but the cluttered basement of Marlinspike itself that is overflowing with antique busts, paintings, and fabulous gewgaws; it is the mysterious contents of Professor Cuthbert Calculus’s laboratory; or the astonishing deep-sea trophies and paraphernalia displayed in the junk shop where Tintin and the Captain purchase a diving suit.
Most of all, it is the sea bottom, where Tintin discovers the sunken Unicorn amid turquoise gardens of sea anemones, jellyfish, and the bones of drowned sailors. These are the secret panoramas that Hergé gives us, to which my imagination returned again and again as a boy, and whose details shimmer in my consciousness still.
It is no coincidence that so many of the collections that make up these secret panoramas to reward the reader of Tintin’s adventures consist of natural curiosities, tribal artifacts, and miscellaneous exotica, for what has Hergé done in Tintin but turn the whole world into a museum for our delectation? (How fitting that Red Rackham’s Treasure concludes with Captain Haddock opening—what else?—a museum displaying relics from The Unicorn in Marlinspike Manor!)
Of course, museums are not always comfortable places these days—and this is part of Tintin’s legacy, too. It is no longer possible to “just look” unselfconsciously. “We” always look from somewhere; there is a politics of looking, just as there is a politics of collecting and displaying. (The repatriation of tribal artifacts is only the most obvious example of this dilemma.) What, then, is a lover of Tintin to do with Hergé’s sumptuous global museum?
Like most adults who discovered the world through these stories as children and who still feel a powerful investment in Hergé’s imaginative world, I struggle with Tintin’s mixed legacy. On the one hand, Tintin’s adventures are unquestionably masterpieces of comic book art; no list of great twentieth-century works would be complete without them. On the other hand, it is for the most part impossible to separate these thrilling tales of the globetrotting boy reporter and his dog from the twilight of imperialism in which Hergé wrote and drew. They are stories of their time, and even though they are humane and well-intentioned, they are indelibly stamped with the assumptions of their historical moment—many of which have (thankfully) not survived, and many of which (unfortunately) still do.
And yet, none of this really harms my love of the series. Perhaps it is because Hergé makes his boy-reporter so paradoxically knowing and innocent, that in the end, his own politics are rather difficult to pin down. Despite the fact that Hergé sets many of his stories amid some of the most tumultuous political situations of the twentieth century, what one remembers is not so much the reportage of the journalist, but the exhilaration of the boy.
However one ultimately judges the “politics” of Tintin (about which we are sure to hear more as the film approaches), the books do, I would argue, exert a universal appeal that transcends their settings and situations—at least, as much as anything ever does. I am speaking, obviously, about the formal brilliance of Hergé’s signature ligne claire or “clear line” style.
The world of Tintin is synonymous with the clean, clear, equally-weighted lines of Hergé’s pen. It is a world of people and objects which seem to leap off the page, a world where voodoo dolls and monkey wrenches and petrol cans and bone flutes all feel immediately weighty, graspable, present to our knowing. When I look at any panel of a Tintin comic, I feel like I am looking at the Platonic idea of the thing. Its “likeness” is that perfect. This uncanny effect of Hergé’s style is what links it most closely to the perceptual world of childhood—that time in our lives when we really knew how to look, when we had patience and an interest in seeing. One has the feeling, when reading a Tintin story, of encountering objects as if for the first time. Ah, nostalgia again.
Perhaps this brings Hergé-the-curator full circle, for as he assembles the world museum before our dazzled eyes, he is assembling the domestic museums of our childhood as well. The ones we housed in shoeboxes in the closet or Tupperware containers under the bed. His secret panoramas may consist of ethnological treasures, but they also speak to secret panoramas a little nearer home. What are these astonishing panels from Tintin to a nine-year-old kid from Winnipeg but a slightly more exotic bottle cap collection? The objects may differ, but the feeling of plenitude—the joy of collecting—is the same.
What do I love about Hergé? About Tintin?
I love the saturation of those panels, the sheer thing-ness of it all. I love the promise—the fantasy—of clean lines.