Douglas Bastard's Rants of Rage

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This article was written on 03 Feb 2017, and is filled under Uncategorised.

Why you need to know about Tintin

Studying English literature at university exposed me, often reluctantly, to some great works of art. From prose to poetry and plays, it was a three year immersion in Marlowe, which I loved, Chaucer which I hated and even, in one, rogue course that seemed to have passed unnoticed by the people who directed it, eastern European fiction, which I found as intoxicating as only a twenty year old can find something. And I feel like that qualifies me to say this: Tintin is, to me, every bit as welcome and worthwhile as anything I read at university and my love of it is undiminished. Here’s why.

Tintin was created by a man called Georges Remi. Reverse his initials and you get ‘RG,’ which sounds, in French, very much like ‘Herge.’ This became his pseudonym. I devoured all of his books, almost faster than I could pester adults into buying them for me, but my entry point, my birth into the world of the Belgian boy hero, came in a supermarket in Jersey. We were going to the beach and called in for some supplies. I saw some comic books on a spinner, picked one off that I liked the look of, and asked my mum. She said ‘no.’ With a child’s arch cunning, I asked my grandma, known to me as Nana and she, obviously, said ‘yes.’

The book turned out to be ‘The Crab With The Golden Claws,’ and even thinking about that title and that day means that I can see the blue and white tiles on the supermarket floor and hear the hum of the refrigerator cabinets, feel the warmth in the air and remember the sounds of the beach we went to later in the day. But more importantly for my odd little child’s brain, I remember being transported, through the pages of the book to a world of drug smuggling, sea journeys, heroes, villains and strange freighters plying the seas to unknown destinations. For someone who already had such a fertile imagination that he could stand still for hours, lost inside his own head, this was like opening a door you had not realised was there.

Over the years to come, I added to my collection with the kind of agonising sloth that happens when you have no financial means of your own. I slowly learned to sort, with a kind of deranged, obsessive zeal, my books into order based on when they had been re-drawn by Herge from his own originals rather than when they had first been written which, reading it now, seems both mad and yet also somehow characteristic of me as a child – to wit lonely, odd and bent on some very bizarre pursuit which had no relevance whatsoever to my schoolwork or anything else in my life. A few scenes embedded themselves in my mind, so while I read them so much that I can still remember almost every scene, they come back to me with extra poignancy.

There’s one, in particular, that I think shows how something so easily derided as being no more than a child’s comic can be seen as literature in the truest sense, both accessible to children on one level and to odd fortysomethings like me who think about things more than they ought to. I’m going to try and describe it, but first I want to tell you a bit more about the context.

When Herge started writing Tintin, the strips were no more than fairly crude propaganda for the Catholic Church and Herge’s own beloved Boy Scout movement, albeit with some clumsy slapstick humour thrown in. Like any great original idea they evolved, however, steadily becoming more elaborate with Tintin and his friends being sent on extensive adventures with detailed plots and with a fully realised cast of supporting characters. Casting around for an adventure for his heroes, Herge decided to send them to the moon, but because he did so in the middle of his career, when Tintin was the centrepiece of a magazine created expressly for him, he had the time to do some extensive research and give this implausible tale a basis in scientific fact. Models were used so that Herge could more easily visualise the inside of the rocket and the story was so detailed and so extensive that it stretched over two, self-contained volumes.

So much for the backstory. The reason why it stuck in my mind was because of a character called Frank Wolff. One of the rocket engineers, Wolff travels to the moon but is pressured be gambling debts into allowing who he thinks is a journalist onto the rocket in secret. It turns out that the person is not a journalist, but Tintin’s nemesis and that the people behind him are a shadowy group of international criminals who want to steal the moon rocket. He emerges from hiding, there is a struggle and is ultimately shot through the heart. There is a problem, though. With finite reserves of oxygen calculated for the existing crew, the extra passenger may have cost them their lives. And what Wolff does next is what raises this book, in my eyes, to a work of genius.

Wracked by guilt, he goes down to the airlock, dons a spacesuit and, cutting the cables so that opening the door does not, as it should, brake the rocket, he willingly goes out into space to die. He leaves behind what is essentially a suicide note, with the words ‘if, by some miracle, I survive’ too. This, it turns out, was a sop to Herge’s Catholic conscience, as the religion forbids suicide and I have read that he regretted including these lines in the note, but to me, it does nothing to weaken it at all. Here, in the middle of a children’s comic, we have notions of loyalty, moral compromise and, ultimately, redemption. These are not themes which adults assume are the stuff of comics, but they are here nonetheless. Wolff’s love for his comrades redeems him and the price for his folly is ultimately his death, a fairly stark morality tale buried within it. I was as impressed then, turning over the pages feverishly, as I am now.

And there’s another line which also lives in the memory. Despairing, the crew doubt that they will ever return to Earth, such is the price of Wolff’s misdeeds. Tintin says, in the midst of this despair, ‘In the meantime, we’re very much alive.’ I can’t count the number of times when I’ve been feeling bleak and as though all hope has receded, when I’ve heard these words in my head and resolved to hang on, in the vague and dim hope that things would get better. And they do for Tintin, of course. The rocket lands, with its diminished oxygen supply leaving the crew unconscious. There’s a final cliffhanger when it seems that Captain Haddock is not responding to treatment, but he rallies at the last minute and good triumphs.

This is all, of course, hokey good fun in the model of all adventure stories, but especially in the later books – and I plan to talk about ‘Tintin In Tibet’ which I find hard to read because it’s so beautiful in a later blog – there are quiet but definite themes of love, friendship, perseverance in the face of what seem like hopeless odds and the ultimate failure for evil, that make them worth a few hours of anyone’s time. So do yourself a favour. Go and buy one of the books – me, I’d start with ‘The Calculus Affair’ because it almost perfectly paced and says some faintly damning things about authoritarian societies – and immerse yourself in it for a while. Better still, give them to a child or a teenager you know. Perhaps I’m being naive, but it feels as though there is something vital and necessary here, something life-affirming and, for want of a better word, good. And that has to be worth any asking price.

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