I have to admit that I wasn’t too familiar with Tintin before we agreed to work with Herge’s (or, more correctly, Georges Remi’s) texts on Graphixia, beyond the general “story of a boy and his dog” motif. These young adult texts, notoriously popular in Europe and the world over, however, have a diverse readership have been translated into what is apparently every language known to man (including – holy snakes – Latin!) and number to date more than 200 million copies of the twenty-four titles of the Tintin graphic novels worldwide, with the upcoming movie likely adding greatly to that already substantial figure. Given that Tintin seems to be so widely celebrated in such a cross cultural way, to what can we attribute this overwhelming success? Is there something Platonic about the material that speaks to coming of age that condenses the nuances of cultural experience? What is it about Herge’s formula that can account for the incredible staying power of a character who at first appears like a typical do-gooder teen? Interestingly, and as our previous week’s post noted, the answer may lie in some of the many tropes that the typical superhero comic book follows as well.
Tintin, a young newspaper reporter, has a nose for trouble that always seems to stem from a desire to do good and correct inequities that he sees in the world, from ensuring that a celebrated astronomer gets his due for a groundbreaking discovery to foiling criminal schemes in the forging of currency. This, however, is only where the texts begin – Tintin appears in the right (or wrong) place at the right (or wrong) time, and it is his compulsion for both justice and mystery that acts as the catalyst for the adventure that follows. These adventures typically follow a byzantine tangle of subplots reminiscent of the most popular of Victorian literature which often lead to nowhere, with action that is fast paced and, at times, almost frenetic. Because of this, the texts can sometimes be difficult to follow, as they incorporate random asides of vaudevillian slapstick and peripheral information to keep the readers’ interest – this style of storytelling is hardly surprising, given Tintin’s original format of the newspaper serial which required consistent cliffhangers in order to keep readers coming back for more. We can see the same style in modern graphic novels that collect comics that were originally published serially, with overly suspenseful moments coming consistently at every twenty-two pages like clockwork. Though these cliffhangers compel readers, however, it is more likely the larger pedagogical and thematic elements of Tintin that contribute to its success.
The strength of Tintin, arguably at first glance blasé, static and predictably noble character in and of himself, comes from the failure of the outside social environment in protecting a worldview based on justice and adherence to a moral order. The authorities in Tintin are not only repeatedly bumbling, but they interfere with Tintin’s own investigations, aligning the reader with the protagonist and against the “authorities” through recognition of the desire for corrective measures regarding society’s more properly acknowledged guardians of justice. It is this recognition that drives both Tintin as well as mainstream superhero comics, as it was really the cause for the advent of the superhero on the whole: the rise of an individual, inherent sense of morality that is required to offset the frequent ineptitude of those we rely on to run society for us. As can be seen in the Tintin adventure “The Black Island,” often whole pages are devoted to highlighting the incompetence of police officers, firemen and those we would put our faith in to ensure that moral order is being maintained. Trapped inside a burning building, Herge draws attention to the events outside of the structure as the authorities fumble about trying to find its key, risking Tintin’s life as he lies unconscious inside. Tintin is successful in spite of these characters, and one could claim that it is knowledge of their inevitable failure that compels him to action in the first place.
There are, of course, many other factors that make The Adventures of Tintin exciting reads, such as the exotic locales that he ventures to, the exploration of others’ cultural values, the thrill of multiple adventures contained within a single text. There are also aspects of Herge’s opus that invite scholarship on an academic level, from noting the postcolonial undertones that run throughout, to the sense of noblesse oblige that underlies the apparently moneyed Tintin as he spends a fortune in seeing that wrongs are righted. Underpinning all of these, however, lies the superhero’s impetus for action that draws from the failings of the world to live up to the greater expectations of the moral individual, and as a teaching tool, Tintin forces the young reader to call into question the omnipotence of the various authorities that would guide the collective hand of society both legally and morally. Tintin can be applauded most, however, in the significant way that he actually differs from the classic superhero text, in that he does not have a secret identity that he returns to after he continuously saves the day – he makes the right choices at a cost to his personal safety and his reputation as the authorities consistently label him a troublemaker and often a criminal himself as they misconstrue his actions. One might call Tintin a true hero in this regard, even more than a Superman or a Batman, as he struggles for the collective and individual good with the whole of his being, unperturbed how these actions will appear to others and without the safety net of an alternate identity to retreat into when things go awry. Despite the social conventions (and those figures put in place to uphold them) that limit truth and justice that get in his way, Tintin proves himself to be the kind of modern hero who questions authority in pursuit of what he sees as the greater good.
Herge. The Adventures of Tintin: The Black Island. Trans: Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper and Michael Turner. London: Egmont, 2002.