A few things: this post is about the first Tintin adventure serialized starting on January 10, 1929. The collected serial has come to us English readers, and in subsequent French editions, in black and white only because Hergé did not go back and redo the storyline for a collected, colour, edition as he did for his other Tintin stories. With the these bibliographic details out of the way, let’s dive into why I think this book is important as an artifact of the modernist movement in the arts; an aesthetic, cultural, and social movement that took hold in the early part of the twentieth century, particularly the year 1922 when James Joyce published Ulysses, T. S. Eliot let fly with The Waste Land, and Virginia Woolf gave us the poetic prose of Jacob’s Room.
Modernism, to put it excessively crudely and generally, can be broken down into three main features: 1) aesthetic experimentation with ways of representing the relationship between form and subject, 2) an outlook on modern life that grapples with the emergence of new technologies, consumerism, and popular (mass) culture, 3) a renewed social awareness that tended to foster both pessimism and optimism, depending on the context; the world was either nearing its end, or on the precipice of its zenith. Perhaps the most profound result of all these features collapsing around a single focus is a tendency to understand the era as fraught with terrors and self-realizations that could not be represented or reconciled, where everything seemed to be fracturing, causing a divide between past and present, reality and perception, that would never be traversed. The subjects of modernity are marked by upheaval and confusion, and the experience of it must be captured as such, as a kind of decent into the maelstrom.
At first blush, the presence of an aesthetic principle that attempts to reconcile or represent the tremors of modern life is completely absent from Hergé’s story about a boy-reporter and his dog. Tintin in the Land of the Soviets is notable if only because it is essentially a Western propaganda vehicle for revealing Soviet propaganda–the proverbial black kettle.
The sequencing of Tintin in the Land of the Soviets is hard to follow. The narrative is loosely strung together and when read in a collected edition rather than as a serial, it seems fractured, haphazard and unstructured. The episodic plotting of the collected edition mimics the vaudeville show with its repeated gags and zippy one-liners; it keeps the audience engaged through its cyclical momentum but doesn’t leave much room for drama, mystery or character development. That said, for all its faults, the book does one thing really well: it consistently locates Tintin in this fractured, frantically-paced, disparate world in which he finds himself. And, its episodic plot would seem to mimic the frenetic pace of modern life where one perception is immediately followed by another perception, and where the deus ex machina that comes to the rescue is decidedly technological.
Hergé spends a good deal of aesthetic capital revealing the instances of Soviet corruption and ineptitude at the expense of telling a good story. In fact, one could argue that unlike most other Tintin adventures, there is no story here. Instead, we have a series of episodes that rely on a similarity of subject—the land of the soviets—for their cohesion, and there’s not much of that either. Tintin’s first run-in with undue authoritarianism actually happens in Berlin during the book’s first 10 pages, not at the hands of the unreasonable Soviets.
In short, it would be a big stretch to assume that Hergé is really doing anything interesting with the story in terms of metaphoric layering, or even when it comes to the most surface of declarations about the realities of the Soviet system. That said, what the Soviet system does provide is a metaphor for the fractured, unfamiliar experience of modern life. Tintin metaphorically journeys up the river and into the heart of darkness where strangeness and otherness exist in their natural state. The opportunity afforded by this journey into the heart of darkness allows Herge to draw upon some of the experiential challenges of modern life while at the same time providing stability for one’s experience of it. Tintin navigates his way through the technological world with aplomb and resurfaces again and again with the affirmative “here I am.”
Along with his repetition of “here I am,” Tintin persistently visually signals “here I am” when he addresses the audience directly offering a moment of reflection and stability in the otherwise amped-up madcap journey through Soviet Russia. The sequential pace also slows when Tintin is the detached observer of the struggling Soviet state, hands clasped behind his back he comments and observes rather than participates, slowing things down, suggesting a psychological inertia that allows him to comprehend his environment rather than merely experience it.
Hergé seems to reconcile the onset of technological experience with the medium itself. He offers an intriguing play on the comic gutter (and the fourth wall) when he shows Tintin fighting off a group of would-be attackers entering his room. He exploits the comic’s framed page to interesting effect (the gutter is both a figurative door to the unseen activities between actions and a division between the different “rooms” where action takes place), but at the same time Hergé uses the dividing line—or gutter—between the characters and their respective ideologies.
Hergé’s episodic plot seems ideally suited to jumping over the space between panels, leaping the gutters without regard for narrative structure much as Eliot shifts from voices, to Sanskrit, to noises, to myth in The Waste Land without the traditional markers of formal narrative development. At the same time, the props that keep the journey in the story moving are technological. He journeys not by horse (he tries to, but the horse throws him off), or by sled, but by cars, a train, a boat, a diving suit, and a plane. For all its failings, the Soviet state is not bereft of the technological (and mechanical) marvels that supposedly instigate the fractured environment in which modernism situates itself; the fractured environment in which experiences seem to be other worldly, perception thrown out of whack, certainties uncertain.
In fact, the dominate metaphor of Tintin’s exploration—and I use that term “exploration” lightly—is a commentary about how technologies offer a way out of the “other world”; a way of escaping a strange, perceptively different, world. It even suggests that some of the technological marvels of mass production (with their constantly leaky petrol) and endless productivity may well be a sham—it wasn’t only the Soviets selling the idea of infinite progress in 1929.
Perhaps the most optimistic takeaway from Tintin in the Land of the Soviets is that serendipity is always present—there is always a plan, it just hasn’t been discovered yet. Nothing is actually haphazard, it just appears that way. Tintin, introduced as he is for the first time in this comic sequence foregrounding his encounter with the Soviet state, is the quintessential modern figure: satiric, adventurous, mechanically inclined. Above all, however, he never thinks too much about reconciling his current perceptions with traditional perceptions. He simply pushes forward, recovering, discovering, existing in the serendipity of the moment in which he finds himself. Through it all, Tintin offers what is perhaps the most salient comment about locating oneself in the constantly shifting, fractured, environment of the early twentieth century: “here I am.”
Hergé. Tintin in the Land of the Soviets. Trans: Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper and Michael Turner. London: Methuen, 1991. Print.