Hommage á Ligne Claire Part 4 University Observer piece on Tintin – 1998/99

I have yet to post my writings from my student days. I owe the University Observer a lot. It gave me a great confidence as a writer, especially in terms of approaching other, grown up publications to write for.

1998/99 was my annus mirabilis of writing for the Observer. The office, on the old student union corridor off the arts block/library tunnel, was where I spent much more time than I spent medical studenting. Even in 1999/2000 the spell had broken a bit and while I still wrote, it was never the same. When I have seen student publications since they have tended to seem shallow and callow and I fear that my own efforts must have been likewise. Perhaps I’m too harsh. I don’t have an electronic archive on an email account and I will post what I have in odd places.  Anyhow, here is a Tintin piece – the original is preserved here

Tintin, the “reporter” with the distinctive cows-lick, lived the dream life of a seven-year old boy; a life of the most colourful adventure mixed with the most profound innocence. His best friends were, in no particular order, a fluffy white dog, a sea captain, a spectacularly absent minded professor and two incompetent detectives; and he was entirely unencumbered by relationships with the opposite sex, with the exception of the diva Bianca Castafiore, a quasimaternal Brunhilde figure whose encounters with Captain Haddock only vaguely hinted at that ghostly figure of then-distant adolescence, romantic love. Tintin would be propelled forcibly into the world of experience in Frederic Tuten’s 1993 novel “Tintin in the New World”, but in the comics or bandes desineés created by Hergé, he would remain forever in an Edenic state.

Tintin was a reporter who was never glimpsed doing any actual reporting. His life consisted of wandering about and finding adventures. Not looking for adventures, but encountering them randomly. His life took him to the moon (in the company of obvious alcoholic Captain Haddock, evidently the selection process is a good deal less stringent than one would believe), to the centre of Cold War intrigue (in “The Calculus Affair” – Hergé used the kingdoms of Syldavia and Borduria as quasi Cold War locations) to the febrile world of South American politics (“Tintin and the Picaros”, which saw the boy reporters only fashion blunder – flares) to a hijacking with strange extraterrestrial overtones (Flight 714). In short, Tintin’s adventures, which took him from Prohibition America to oil-rich Gulf Emirates, stand as a glimpse of world society and culture from the middle fifty years of the century, from the 20s to the 70s. With the glaring omission of the most central event of that time, World War II.

The role of Hergé, Tintin’s creator, during the war years is still a source of much debate. Tintin appeared in Le Soir, which fell into the hands of the Nazis during the war. Thus the boy detective found himself sharing the pages with glowing tributes to Adolf Hitler, a villain who put Tintin’s nemesis Rastapopoulos in the shade. Hergé’s defenders claim that he stayed in Belgium out of loyalty to his homeland, and his real views can be discerned from Tintin’s own humanistic outlook and the obvious influences of Nazi aesthetics in the portrayal of Borduria, the state which acts as villain in many adventures. Whatever may be, Tintin during the War Years was seen finding sunken treasure and other escapist adventures.

Tintin only met Captain Haddock in “The Crab with Golden Claws”, a few into the series, and only then hit his stride. Haddock is more than just Watson to Tintin’s Holmes – he is a vigorous and dynamic figure in his own right, and often more memorable than the occasionally humdrum character of Tintin himself. His catchphrase “Billions of bilious blistering blue barnacles!” and variations thereof, set the tone for his character; cantankerous, emotional and brave – yin to Tintin’s yang. As salty a seadog as any spawned by printer’s ink, Captain Haddock is perhaps the truly iconic presence in the Tintin series – the books produced before his advent have a watery, insubstantial quality.

An endearing feature of the Tintin adventures is Captain Haddock’s spectacular way with an insult. Captain Haddockisms range from the relatively standard-issue likes of “Bloodsuckers!”, “Nincompoop!”, “Bashi-Bazouks!”, “Shipwreckers!”, “Blackguards!”, “Vegetarian!”, “Dizzards!”, “Fancy-dress freebooters!”, “Centipede!”, “Anachronisms!”, “Sea-lice!” and “Ectoplasm!” to the more linguistically innovative “Whipper-Snapper!”, “Abominable Snowmen!”, “Olympic Athlete!”, “Ectoplasmic Byproduct!”, “Dictatorial Duck-Billed Diplodocus”, “Thundering Misguided Missile!”, “Balkan Beetle!” ,”Two-timing Tartar Twisters!”, and “Flaming Jack-in-a-box!” In the two moon books, Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon, the rarefied atmosphere pushed Haddock to new heights of inventiveness; “Brontosaurus!”, “Dunder-headed Ethelreds!”, “Prize purple jelly-fishes!”, “Jack pudding!” “Interplanetary goat!”, “Ku-Klux-Klan!”, “Cyclotron!” “Bully!” and “Moth-eaten marmot!”

The other regulars in the Tintin universe are Professor Calculus and Thompson and Thomson. While Captain Haddock remains the most vital and entertaining character, these too have totemic significance. Professor Calculus is a genius, which by a sacred law of pop culture physics makes him wildly impractical and more than a little hard of hearing, a source of humour ad infinitum.

Thompson and Thomson (how to tell them apart – if there’s a point at the tip of the moustache, there’s a ‘p’ in the name) are twin detectives/defectives from Scotland Yard who are comfortably the most incompetent policemen in both low and high culture. Their policework revolves around looking grim when Tintin apprehends the suspect, and doing their utmost to hinder his efforts to do so. The dynamic duo’s leitmotif is a subspecies of spoonerism – for example: Thompson: Bother! We were mistaken! Thomson: To be precise: we’re a mistake.

It is the later adventures, in particular “Land of Black Gold”, “The Red Sea Sharks”, “The Calculus Affair”, “Flight 714” and “Tintin and the Picaros”, which more fully embrace the political and social complexity of the modern world. Rastapopoulos is a tycoon of the Onassis type, while the fictional country of “Tintin and the Picaros” is subject to the political instability of then contemporary Latin America.

A personal favourite is “The Castafiore Emerald.” Most Tintin adventures take place in exotic locales, but the action in this witty farce takes place entirely in Marlinspike Hall, the residence of Tintin and Haddock and their extended “family.” This is perhaps the apotheosis of Captain Haddock, as he finds himself flung into all too close proximity with La Castafiore. Along with a neat satire of the cult of the diva, Hergé throws in a pastiche of the paparazzi magazine Paris-Match, whose interview with the convalescing Haddock features the post-modern touch of a mock cover for the magazine, which provokes the classic Haddock dialogue:

Captain Haddock: [reading from a magazine with incredulity] “Loneliness banished, he never tires of hearing the golden voice, singing her for him the famous Jewel Song, from ‘Faust’…!!???!!” [crumpling it up] Blistering barnacles! Wait till I get my hands on the miserable molecule of mildew who dreamed up this balderdash!

Indeed Hergé frequented used similar intertextual touches – King Ottokar’s Sceptre features a tourist brochure and Destination Moon reproduces the blueprints for the moon rocket. While it would be easy to mock the premise of the Moon series of Tintin books, with a small Central European country embarking on a race to the moon with their equally tiny neighbour, and no less than three stowaways appearing on board, Hergé accurately predicted the existence of ice on the moon, which was confirmed by the American probe Clementine in 1996.

Evelyn Waugh once described the world of PG Wodehouse as the Garden of Eden, a comic world forever young. Hergé’s Tintin is the same, for all ages. Any attempt to drag Tintin into the adult world should be vigorously resisted – as we flail in the throes of the humdrum concerns of life, at least Tintin will forever be living a life both placid and adventurous, bright and cheerful.

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