Review: Tintin and the Land of the Soviets, Tintin and Alph-Art by Herge
March 3, 2008 § Leave a Comment
The Belgian reporter Tintin — the creation of Herge — has charmed children and adults worldwide for decades, from the first adventure in 1929, to his final complete one in 1976. For French cartoonist’s 100th birthday, three volumes of adventures that had never been released in the United States beyond some limited edition, small press hardcovers were announced for release. In the end, the controversial “Tintin in the Congo” has not made it to release amidst charges of racism and a rather ill-advised embrace of the sort of colonialism that has been happily relegated to history. The two titles that have been presented are exciting for their historical significance, for their revelations of the artistic process, and for their simple enjoyment.
Plain and simple, Tintin is the way that so many of us learned to read graphic novels and accept them as part of the realm of literature — they were not open-ended, seat of your pants superhero monthlies, but self-contained, fully-realized adventure books that could be found in any library alongside the classics and contemporaries of the prose world. In fact, Tintin books were the exception — there just weren’t any acceptable graphic novels for anyone in America and their release here pioneered a form that has been embraced wholeheartedly by such ventures as LIttle Lit, and at least partially by the phenomenons of “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” and “Hugo Cabret.” These books might not be as successful without Herge and Tintin to pave the way.
What these new release have done is create book-ends to the adventure series, revealing where Tintin came from and showing where he ended up. Much like his readers, Tintin’s adventures begin from a more facile world view — politics and societies slowly unfold through the decades of intrigue and by the time Herge conceived of “Alph Art,” the audience is able to look at something like “Land of the Soviets” as one would a naive kid — charming, filled with bravado, but with so much to learn about the world.
Almost everything is primitive about “Tintin in the Land of the Soviets,” from the lack of nuance in its politics to the spare and clunky, black and white art. Herge redrew all the earlier adventures except this one, and it works as a document to the way his hand moved on the page prior to his trademarked style, which has cast a net on so much comics work in the world. Hardly as tight as any of the later adventures, the book has Tintin going on a loose journey of discovery to Soviet Russia, essentially amounting to an extended chase scene that allows Herge to create satire around the Soviet system and its claims of being a successful and superior way of governance. On one hand, this means the story plays into propaganda of a certain stripe — on the other, years after the bohemian glamor of American communist groups and the instant sympathy created by the witch hunts in the 1950s, it’s easy to see that Herge was not far-off in his lampoons of the country. And old style anti-Soviet satire makes for some nostalgically pleasing cartoons — it seems so far away from the terrorist-fearing, security state we currently live in.
On the other end of the scale, “Tintin and Alph-Art” is an unfinished adventure that Herge began working on in the late 70s, but died in 1983 before it was anywhere near completed. In this new edition, the story is presented as a script, embellished by reproductions of Herge’s unfinished page layouts and various sketches. The script leaves off before the end, but is followed by pages of development sketches and notes that show how Herge arrived at the story he did begin producing.
Strangely, this is a compelling volume and as a script, the story is entirely delightful. The adventure involves the world of contemporary art — ripe for satire despite Herge’s apparent embrace of the form — and a link with the usual litany of international crime, this time revolving around art forgery and new age swindles — there’s one great mystical character who wields electro-magnetic energy on his new age followers. The fact that Herge’s passing left Tintin in a cliffhanger couldn’t be more fortuitous or symbolic — Tintin stories are compilations of cliff hangers, they are one perpetual cliff hanger, and it’s a fitting tribute by the gods of coincidence that its at a cliffhanger that he leaves us. To boot, the circumstances of the cliffhanger itself, in which Tintin might be united with a piece of art and put on display in a museum forever, is such a perfect summation of the character’s fate in literary and cartooning history that, in some ways, “Alph-Art” takes on a Dennis Potter style quality with in mine, the character leaping from the pages and actually being preserved in our world through art.
The downside of these volumes is that they are works that can be only really be recommended to fans — but that really shouldn’t dissuade anyone from thinking it’s too late to become fans. They are around to be enjoyed after you’ve introduced yourself to the other 22 books in the series. There’s bound to be plenty of opportunity — Steven Speilberg and Peter Jackson have announced their joint venture, a trilogy of Tintin films, which is sure to unleash a bombast of interest and product in the boy reporter from Belgium. Do yourself a favor and get a head start before the movies obscure your view of the real Tintin, as presented by Herge.