Tintin, In America (A Review Eventually)
I have never really cared about Tintin – the comics or the character – and I always assumed that there were probably reasons for this. And since not caring about something also means not caring about why you don’t care, well, I pretty much stopped there. I figured that it was probably generational, or due to lack of exposure. Many of Tintin’s most ardent adult fans seem to have grown up reading the books, which I did not. But I also didn’t read any comics growing up, and there are now plenty of characters and series that I do actually care about. Nostalgia and wistfulness and whatever can therefore be a factor in why someone would still really enjoy Tintin, but it doesn’t have to be. I even find the art itself very appealing, and many of my favorite comics artists favor the kind of strong, clear line that Hergé pioneered over the course of several decades. (Shout-outs to Cliff Chiang, Amanda Conner, Jason.) I still just can’t get into the stories.
It might be telling that I read a book about Tintin before I ever actually read any of the Tintin books, and even then I did so more out of a sense of scholarly obligation than the hope of being entertained. It turns out that I like the story of Tintin, if not the actual stories. Many readers are likely familiar with his origins (and which readers are also probably seething at my indifference right now), but here anyway is an impossibly abbreviated version that will likely leave out something crucial. Created by Hergé (the nom de plume of Georges Remi) in 1929 for a Catholic newspaper in Belgium, Tintin is an intrepid boy reporter whose intrepidness propels him on many adventures in exotic locales. Joined by his dog Snowy (who can sometimes talk), Tintin is also accompanied and/or waylaid by a revolving cast of peculiar characters for whom he usually plays the straight man. Under German occupation in 1940, Hergé would publish Tintin’s adventures in Le Soir for a brief period, where they fit uncomfortably alongside Nazi propaganda and the anti-Semitic essays of a young Paul de Man. The Adventures of Tintin would eventually be collected into 24 albums, much of which revised over time and the last of which unfinished upon Hergé’s death in 1983. The stories themselves are replete with adventures, kidnapping, mysteries, gunplay, racialist caricature, getting hit on the head with stuff, exclamations, and a kind of youthful tenacity that can really only be defined as intrepid. (There’s no other word.) You’d think that I would like this more. Actually, you’d think that America would like this more.
Somewhat notoriously, Tintin has not achieved the status, esteem, or popularity in America that he has maintained in Europe for the last seventy or so years. I suspect that there are many American scholars and critics like me who respect the work and recognize the significance without any of the emotional attachment or literary pleasure. If Tom McCarthy’s description of the books strikes you as maybe a little too effusive and/or desperate, then you are likely American (and probably not alone):
Make no mistake: the Tintin albums are great art. We could argue until the cows come home about what type of art they represent (narrative? Visual? Sub-cinematic?), but their greatness brooks no querying. Their characters, from melancholic and explosive Captain Haddock to proud and fiery General Alcazar to the vain and affected opera diva Bianca Castafiore, rival any dreamt up by Flaubert or Dickens for sheer strength and depth of personality.
It has been suggested that marketing and packaging has significantly hindered the popular appeal of the books; the Tintin albums were not sold on newsstands in the heyday of American comic book publishing (i.e. the past), and today’s bookstores are much more likely to shelve Tintin in the children’s books section and not with the graphic novels. I doubt, however, that this is the only reason why Tintin can’t seem to get a foothold in the States among the thrill-seekers-via-comics crowd. It’s probably not just the weird haircut either.
Regardless of where he is shelved, one could make the case that Tintin is simply not damaged enough. Even when we consider the colorful costumes, hypertrophied nationalism, and inevitable good-over-evil of his American counterparts in the comics, the incorruptible virtue and humility of this boy reporter seems even more far-fetched. Even when he’s firing a gun or encouraging drunkenness (see below), his innocence is unattainable to us because what’s good and true is just so purely within him, so irreducibly innate. That it, there is no reason why he should be fearless and gallant. Unlike Batman and Superman, for example, there is no traumatic experience that propels the adventures of Tintin: no lost parents, no lost homeworld. Despite being a young man – Hergé thought of him as between 14 and 17 – Tintin lives on his own with no parents or family to speak of; they aren’t dead or estranged, they just aren’t. And for all of his many far-flung adventures, Tintin is rooted to and inspired by a motherland to which he returns triumphant. In some stories – such as the anachronistically and predictably racist Tintin in the Congo – he cites his home as Belgium, but otherwise he belongs simply to Europe, to which he can (and does) go home again.
Of Tintin’s contemporaries in our hemisphere, however, let’s consider Superman. Action, adventure, punching – it’s all there. But it would not be there without a sense of loss, the specter which even the most seemingly self-assured superhero cannot outrun. Not only has Superman lost his homeworld of Krypton, but he is powerful (and therefore heroic) only because of this loss; his strength is a result of the physical properties of this world itself and our yellow sun. Therefore every punch, every giant leap is a reminder that he is both literally and figuratively an alien. Similarly, Captain America is only Captain America by having sloughed off the frail body of his former self. Batman’s parents died. Thor is cast out of his homeworld Asgard by his father. Spider-man’s uncle died. Almost innumerably, these superheroes are born of rupture and radical break, by which they replay the trauma at the heart of the American narrative and mythology: the lost homeworld of Europe, and the subsequent deluge of her orphans. (To be sure, we are speaking here of origins and their relationship to a dominant, enduring ideology. I can’t say that I have ever personally mourned the loss of Europe, or that the thought had ever even crossed my mind outside of theory. I’m just saying.)
This is all there (or not there, depending on how you look at it) in The Adventures of Tintin, the motion-capture animated film directed by Steven Spielberg and produced by Spielberg and Peter Jackson. The action may be bigger, the pace more feverish, the characters more motion-y, but the heart of Hergé’s creation is still there: the boy scout, basically, of whom we will know very little as a character. To the film’s credit, we are thrown into the plot immediately and with the good faith that we’ll be able to keep up. Tintin buys a model ship from a vendor on the street, upon which he is immediately accosted by two mysterious and pushy men who try to relieve him of it. And we’re off on an adventure that spans continents and centuries! Although the sense of respect that the filmmaker’s extend to their audience feels pretty good – that is, the lack of exposition and obvious introductions – this technique finds a mirror in the characterization of Tintin as such. In other words, there’s not all that much to introduce. They could just have easily called the film The Adventures.
One of the best (and most telling) gags occurs in this opening scene, where Tintin gets his portrait drawn by a street artist modeled after Hergé himself. The drawing is revealed to be the classic image of Tintin: oval face, dots for eyes, hair tuft aflame. As Tintin looks upon his cartoon visage, we can see the real problem with the motion-capture animation of the film. It’s not the uncanny facial plasticity or the too-real/not-real-enough relation to live action, but the fact that the film is literally trying to add depth to a character who is flat. The simplicity of Hergé’s style is analogous to his title character. Tintin is cartooning: eliminate everything inessential, emphasize only that which makes meaning more immediate. And so he is in the end basically just a person. As Tom McCarthy notes in his book Tintin and the Secret of Literature (2006),
Tintin means, literally, ‘Nothing’. His face, round as an O with two pinpricks for eyes, is what Hergé himself described as ‘the degree zero of typeage’ – a typographic vanishing point. Tintin is also the degree zero of personage. He has no past, no sexual identity, no complexities. (32-33)
With neither beginning nor end (there’s that O again), Tintin is only ever in the middle. And in The Adventures of Tintin, what he’s in the middle of is action.
Because the film can be very exciting. There are gigantic action sequences and set pieces that would have been unthinkable outside of animation, and the film is plotted in a way that resists both blinking and breath catching. In all honesty, I liked watching it. There is also a surprising amount of gunplay and shooting and people getting shot for a movie that I thought was for kids. This is aligned with the original stories, though, such as Tintin in America, where within a few pages a cop says “Here, take my gun” during a car chase! There’s also a lot of drinking in the film. One the film’s pivotal moments involves the surly Captain Haddock, who achieves something like what Marianne Hirsch calls “postmemory” by getting spectacularly drunk. Problem solved. I was a little amazed, at first, because I had somehow thought that parents were more prudish by now, but I – like the many kids in the theater at the time – just went with it. (One of my own favorite childhood adventure movies, The Goonies, has a joke about sexual torture devices, and I turned out okay.)
Despite its holiday release and Hollywood pedigree, the film is currently only doing alright at the box office. (At the time of writing, it is noticeably trailing Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked, a film of which one critic has written “flails about in search of a creative reason to exist.”) It remains to be seen, then, whether The Adventures of Tintin will find an audience among young people for whom guns and alcohol are now hardly the stuff of fantasy; whose parents will often become villains to each other; or who have come to see in their heroes a very real sense of loss, no matter how unbelievable the adventure.