Tintin and the Truth?

With September now here, and with it a new issue of Litro focussed on Comics and Graphic Fiction, I wanted to devote this blog to one of my childhood delights: The Adventures of Tintin. I am not embarrassed to admit that growing up, I had a bit of a crush on the tufty-haired reporter and I can’t deny it’s a fondness that’s lasted into adulthood. I own almost the entire series of books, some of them hardbacks passed down to me. I’ve read them countless times; I’ve also got the animated TV mini-series on DVD box-set; I’ve even visited the official Tintin shop, whilst on holiday in Belgium, where I guiltily read the first few pages of the infamous, once-banned story Tintin in the Congo before hastily putting it back on the shelf and pretending it wasn’t there. Yes, I think it’s fair to say I am a Tintin fanatic: I find it hard to believe that anyone could dislike Hergé’s most famous creation and I certainly wouldn’t think twice about letting any future child of mine enjoy his adventures.

Imagine my surprise, then, on discovering that there are some people today who insist there is more to the world of Tintin than I ever could have imagined at 10 years old: that behind the colourful, childish, cartoon adventures of Tintin, Captain Haddock and Professor Calculus, the stories deal with very real, very adult concerns. Indeed, these concerns are so pressing that the stories have been picked up by various literary critics and led to the creation of ‘Tintinology’, the academic study of The Adventures of Tintin.

Tintinologists dissect the comics, examining what they believe are hidden themes of fascism, gender, family history, addiction, animal cruelty, xenophobia, sexuality and class. At first, I couldn’t believe it but when I returned to the texts recently and looked at them with adult eyes, I could almost see where these academics are coming from. When French critic Serge Tisseron asserts that Captain Haddock is a chronic alcoholic, I have to agree that yes, the Captain certainly drinks with worrying alacrity. Furthermore, it is undeniable that some of the Tintin cartoons are racist – I have already mentioned Tintin in The Congo, its publication in English delayed for many years due to its discriminatory depictions of Africans and, to be sure, Hergé’s portrayals of some other ‘non-European’ cultures is far from flattering or acceptable in today’s society. It’s a problem that splits Tintinologists. Whilst some condemn Hergé for his seemingly racist tendencies, others defend him, arguing that he was only reflecting the times, even going as far as admiring the courage of his convictions. Whether you excuse Hergé or not, accusations of racism certainly add a more complex layer to the Tintin stories than I had first thought.

Some critics, however, have taken the study of Tintin even further. Whilst the majority of Tintinologists are French or Belgian, the British author Tom McCarthy published a book, in 2006, called Tintin and the Secret of Literature, in which he asserts that the stories “hold all of literature’s formal keys, its trade secrets”. He even calls upon the big guns of literary criticism – Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes –and stresses his argument with a zeal only displayed by true Tintin-obsessives and those with an in-depth knowledge of the books that far exceeds my own humble understanding. To McCarthy, Tintin has more potential for subtext than many “real novelists”. To him, Tintin is “the degree zero of personage. He has no past, no sexual identity, no complexities,” and, hence, his stories have a symbolic importance that McCarthy believes equals that of the works of Brontë and Faulkner.

It’s not only academics, however, who are keen to drag Tintin into the adult world. In 1993, Frederic Tuten published Tintin and the New World, in which Tintin experiences sex, drugs and wartime crimes at first hand. This adventure is not for children, with Tuten actually depicting sex scenes between our hero and a character named Clavdia Chauchat and leaving him disillusioned with the world around him. Although the novel received mostly positive reviews, it makes me feel uncomfortable – it seems wrong, somehow, to read erotic paragraphs about Tintin that, for me, take away his innocence forever.

So Tintin is having sex, Captain Haddock is an alcoholic and their creator, Hergé, was a racist: whether you find them interesting or not, these adult perspectives of Tintin and his friends do somewhat mar the simple, child-like enjoyment I used to get out of the stories. With the 26thOctober marking the long-awaited release of Steven Spielberg’s big screen version of the boy reporter’s adventures, the Tintin books are likely to see a resurgence in the coming months and many people, adults and children alike, will pick up the stories once more. So should we stop them, if we are to believe what the academics are telling us, that there is more to Tintin than meets the eye? Should we boycott the boy reporter? Personally, I’m torn – although I find the study of Tintin books very interesting and I can even agree with some of the ideas put forward, I believe there is still much delight to be found in the The Adventures of Tintin. Despite the complex adult issues and the supposed deeper subtext, I would argue that most people won’t find those things when they start reading the books. Instead, they’ll discover exciting tales of adventure, curious mysteries and a spindly-ankled, bequiffed, snub-nosed reporter-turned-detective who is honourable, true and good – and that’s the Tintin I know and love.

Listings: Sep 2011

From the latest comics to undiscovered classics, new musicals and plays to retro boat parties, there's plenty to do this month. You might think the festival season is over, but we've got literary and fashion weekends to delight you, as well as Bankside's eclectic Merge Festival – so pack away that parka and  stave off the end of summer with Litro's pick of September's events.

2 to 4 September: The Vintage Fete, ‘Village Green’ at Foyles, Southbank, FREE

Celebrate 21 years of Vintage Books with a colourful weekend of circus performers, creative workshops, games and fun for book lovers of all ages. Authors appearing at the Vintage Fete include Guardian cartoonist Posy Simmonds, acclaimed food writer and urban gardener JoJo Tulloh and Rob Eastaway, author of Maths for Mums and Dads. The event is free and unticketed, no need to book. See: www.vintage-books.co.uk/events/

2 to 7 September, 4pm and 8pm: Carnival the Musical, Cockpit/Tabernacle, £6-12

Capturing the heart and soul of Notting Hill Carnival: a reluctant Carnival Queen dreams of escaping her elaborate costume and dancing through the crowds. When her world collides with a street smart hoodie, together they must dodge gangsters and seek help from Rampage DJ’s, Calypso Monarchs, and international superstars, before discovering the true meaning of Carnival – freedom. The piece premieres with five performances at The Cockpit Theatre between 2-4 September (4pm and 8pm), and then Tabernacle on 6 and 7 September (8pm). See: www.thecockpit.org.uk/show/carnival_-_the_musical

6 to 11 September, 7.30: Kiss, White Bear Theatre Kennington, prices vary

Kiss is a new play by Peter Brook Award winner Ritchie Smith. It’s you, though it might have been somebody else. You’re happy enough. Aren’t you? The long-term partner, the place to live. Then one day you meet somebody new … who turns your world upside down. And then? Then you’re in a clinic waiting for the results of your HIV test. See: www.whitebeartheatre.co.uk

10 September, 8pm: SS Atlantica, The Silver Sturgeon, Savoy Pier, £20

Prepare to step back in time as we revisit the thirties! As the sun sets over St Katharine Docks, arrive draped in your best ‘at sea formal wear’ to celebrate the event’s maiden voyage. Dance the night away immersed in decadent glamour and fine entertainment. Curving balustrades and portholes encircle an immense dance floor, lined by round tables dressed with pristine white tablecloths. Classic deck games like shuffleboard and dominoes will be on hand for those tired of dancing, while gamblers can try their hand at the roulette table. Entertainment is provided by London’s finest live bands, singers, dancers and cabaret acts, all performing in the style of the era. To book call 0207 724 1617 or see: www.ssatlantica.com

11 to 13 September: Hampstead & Highgate Literary Festival, Hampstead, £7 upwards

Join Raymond Blanc, Esther Freud, Peter Snow, Diana Athill, Martin Sixsmith, Nicholas Parsons, Barbara Taylor Bradford, Andrew Morton, Daisy Waugh, Alan Hollinghurst, Sarah Brown and many more authors and speakers at Ivy House. This year there are also workshops on offer in creative writing, poetry, genealogy, playwriting, food writing and how to get published. Book for 5 individual events priced at £7, across the three days of the Festival, and save £5. Call 020 8511 7900 to take advantage of this offer which cannot be activated online. See: www.hamhighlitfest.com

13 September to 22 October at 7pm: Constance, King’s Head Theatre Pub, £15-22.50

Olivier Award Winning company Good Night Out Presents will stage the world premiere of the only unproduced Oscar Wilde play, Constance, a drama of class and morals written after his exile and disgrace. See: www.kingsheadtheatre.com

15 September to 31 October: Merge Festival, various Bankside locations, prices vary

The Merge festival will bring together artists and performers in experimental partnerships in unusual venues and situations which draw on Bankside’s rich heritage, local identity and contemporary culture. Through a series of exhibitions, performances, events and happenings, Merge will bring art, music and theatre to Bankside. For more information contact Louise Errington on 020 7928 3998 or see: www.betterbankside.co.uk

18 September, 11am onwards: Comic Expo Ealing, Ramada Hotel, Ealing, £3

In  association with Tripwire, Forbidden Planet and Ace, Comic Expo presents many prestigious guests from the world of comics including a very special DC Launch signing with Paul Cornell. See: www.fantasyevents.org

22 to 25 September: Vodafone London Fashion Weekend 2011, Somerset House

A must for anyone wanting to catch a piece of the London Fashion Week action. Buy from designer brands, such as Jaeger London, Alex Monroe and French Sole, and boutiques such as KJ’s Laundry, Designer Studio and Winter Kate who will sell pieces at up to 70% off. Check out the Vintage Comes to Fashion Weekend area by Wayne Hemingway, The Weekend Boutique and a dedicated area for Menswear. Also, Toni & Guy and Elizabeth Arden will be on hand to give tips on the season’s hottest hair and make-up trends. Contact Liv Newiss on 0207 886 3070 or [email protected]

23 to 25 September: Soho Literary Festival, The Soho Theatre, 21 Dean Street

Soho has always been London’s Bohemia, around which staggered an impossibly talented herd of drunken and promiscuous artists, actors, writers and musicians. So it’s the ideal place in central London to hold a literary festival. Starting at 7.30pm on Friday 23rd, the programme will cover a wide spectrum of literature and the arts as well as writing workshops and cabaret evenings. See: www.soholitfest.com

25 September, 3pm: Storytails, The Drop, Stoke Newington, FREE

The Sunday afternoon literary event returns in September with readings of short stories and novel extracts from up and coming London authors you’ll wonder why you haven’t heard of. The vibe is relaxed and entry is free, so just turn up and enjoy. See: www.storytails.org

27 September, 8pm: Fitzrovia Radio Hour at the Royal Albert Hall, £13.50

After a hit run in London’s West End, a sensational national tour and a triumphant return to the Edinburgh Fringe, The Fitzrovia Radio Hour comes to the Royal Albert Hall! Step into the 1940s as a company of stiff-upper-lipped actors presents retro radio comedy for the new Millennium. “Deliciously un-PC … A collision of comedy heritage”★★★★ The Independent. See www.fitzroviaradio.co.uk

Compiled by Alex James

The Great American Graphic Novel

It was a sad moment for my dad when I stayed with him recently and he caught me in bed reading Judy Annual, 1976. It had enraged him when I was sixteen, as he sent me to a “good school” and I “should be reading proper books!” But after studying a whole other world of classics at school and university, I am still like a magnet to comics, annuals and – now the biggest money maker in the publishing industry – the graphic novel.

Words are an imperfect medium. How can we faithfully translate emotions into words when consciousness is infinite and words are finite? In the late 1970’s, Will Eisner created a biography of Dropsie Avenue in the Bronx and “the ethnic and social changes of its stream of occupants”. In the hope of enticing the patronage of a main stream publisher he called it a ‘graphic novel’. The book , A Contract with God , is a series of stories – “some are true, some could be true” – about “life, death, heartbreak and the never-ending struggle to prevail… or at least survive”.

Eisner wrote it after his sixteen year old daughter died. And it’s not a comic nor is it The Year of Magical Thinking. The tales are caught with a cinematic approach to images and a literary economy of words. It’s a man in a metropolis, his head bowed; with “the sewers overflowing and the waters rising over the curbs of the street” exorcising his rage at a deity he believes has violated his faith. The stories are told in the same multifaceted way that they were experienced.

As a dyslexic, maybe it’s only fitting that I deal better with images than straight narrative. Words don’t always suffice. There’s no excuse for Judy Annual- apart from the fact that I just love it. But there’s no excuse for not seeing how skilfully clever a book like Asterios Polyp (by David Mazzucchelli) is. In it, form becomes function. The arrogant anti-hero Asterios Polyp, an architect teacher and womaniser, is at times drawn in red cylinders when arguing with his wife (drawn in blue etchings). And when he asserts his character the make-up of his students physically changes. But Asterios is introduced to us first “standing in the rain watching his home burn up, thinking one thing: Not again.” I am as fazed as he is, trundling through five pages of New York terrain with only the clothes on his back. Sodden and alone in the subway, a small bird flies out of the station (and the page); a woman sits on her suitcase at the bottom of the escalator vomiting on her shoes. Neither is explained. They don’t serve as metaphors but are shown as random happenings, the backdrop to Asterios’ first steps on an epic journey of discovery. Asterios stares out the bus window watching the American landscape shoot past. And it’s the same land Jack Kerouac described- the same fields of dreams and ash heaps from The Great Gatsby, brought to a new audience.

Before Asterios Polyp, Mazzucchelli had the painful, arduous task of working with Paul Auster, adapting City of Glass into a graphic novel. The story is packed with strange metaphysical happenings. A lone man gets mistaken for a detective, decides to play the role, follows a jittering old man through New York, and ultimately disintegrates into the very foundations of the city. Frame-by-frame we see this little figure turn from man to brickwork, literally becoming the wall he leans against.

The latent theme of City of Glass is the word itself. So what better way to discuss our severance from language, our inability to connect feeling with the tool on the tip of our tongue than images? In my eyes, the genre of ‘The Great American Novel’ is all about the dream, the hope and possibility of a new life in ‘the land of the free’ and the loneliness which pays for it. What better way to tell this than through pages of un-narrated frames of a man moving from one disaster in his life into the unknown? Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp and his adaptation of City of Glass force the reader to slowly reflect on his characters and the epic adventures they embark upon. We get to see them wander through inexplicable dreamscapes, shrink in the vastness of the city, or literally become the bricks and mortar which built it.

Graphic novels are not just about girls with blonde pigtails flirting with the neighbour’s son over the garden fence. It’s a medium where anything seems expressible. And if I was to send one to my dad, he might just come round to the idea.

If you enjoyed this post, make sure you pick up a copy of September’s issue of Litro – Comics & Graphic Fiction.