Douglas Bastard's Rants of Rage

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This article was written on 03 Mar 2016, and is filled under Uncategorised.

The Belgian boy scout – or why I love Tintin

I can remember where I was and who I was with when I got the book that changed my life. We had gone on holiday to Jersey and I think I must have been about nine or ten, just because my memory of what height things were suggests that I probably was. Before going to the beach in Portelet each day, we stopped in a supermarket in nearby St Brelade to stock up on provisions and there was a spinner in the supermarket that had loads and loads of cartoon books on it. I picked one out and gave it to my mum. She said no. So I showed it to my Nana, who said yes. Seems a bit calculating, this, but children are pretty sharp at getting what they want.

The supermarket had blue and white checkered lino on the floor, which is pretty vivid, and as soon as I got down to the beach, I seem to remember starting to read in earnest. And the title of the book was ‘The Crab With Golden Claws,’ the author was Herge and the hero was Tintin. I drank every detail of this in, from the exciting story of smugglers, to the huge freighter that Tintin ends up on, with evil first mate Allan and all the rest. Being hooked on a book is a feeling like no other, with a hand extending from the page and then pulling you in.

During the rest of the holiday, I managed to worm a few more books out of my Nana, including ‘The Black Island’ and the movie adaptation, ‘The Lake Of Sharks,’ and for the next few years, I worked hard at getting all the books and read them with the same hunger that I sat on the beach in Jersey, quickly reading every panel and then going back over repeated readings to soak up the detail and facts about the different characters. I remember trying to work out, from the drawing style, where they fell in the chronology of the stories, because Herge had gone back and redrawn some of his earlier books, so once I’d read them, I could truly nerd out over where they fell in the chronology of Herge’s pen.

I wasn’t a very sophisticated reader. In fact, I wasn’t sophisticated at all. I wanted action and movement, and I got them from Tintin in spades. There were exciting locations that briefly stopped me skimming though, like the massive, ruined engine in ‘Tintin In Tibet’ to the seaplane that strafes them in The Crab With Golden Claws to the details about the rocket in the two moon books, but generally, I wanted speed and action. And I see now that I was so, so lucky in my choice.

Herge was a meticulous draughtsman. As the books and his career went on, every angle and every line were carefully worked out before being inked in and every scene and part of the storyline were agonised over and redrawn again and again. It shows, because to an adult reader, each book is a work of genius on small scale, and they reach the final peak of greatness, for me, from ‘The Seven Crystal Balls’ onwards, meaning that there are eleven books where his understated talent is at its height. There are moments, particularly in ‘King Ottakar’s Sceptre’ and ‘Cigars Of The Pharaoh’ from the earlier books that are also just as good.

My family have never quite understood my enthusiasm for Tintin in particular and comics in general. My dad told me as a child that they would ‘lower my reading age,’ which utterly terrified me, thinking that the books I loved most were somehow damaging me, and even when I managed to drag my family off to see the Tintin museum in Belgium a few years ago, he said that he could see the appeal for people who didn’t read so well, a comment that slightly saddened me. It’s all the more wayward because Tintin gave me a love of literature that got me a BA in it and then an MA in journalism as I sought to make that love somehow relevant.

There are still scenes from these books that are vivid in my memory. The bit where Tintin weaves sideways out of the way to avoid machine gun fire in ‘Flight 714,’ Captain Haddock staggering onto the stage in ‘The Seven Crystal Balls’ and, because I’m a huge, huge plane spotter, the de Havilland Mosquito from ‘The Red Sea Sharks,’ flown by the man who is my all-time favourite character in the books, Piotr Skut. He goes from an adversary to an ally, and crops up again, this time as the pilot in Laszlo Carreidas’ jet in Flight 714, imprisoned when it is hijacked by men who mean to kidnap Carreidas and steal his money. Pride of place in my collection is a model of that Mosquito, complete with a Skut figure, which is so perfect it makes me want to roll around, gurgling.

As I’ve got older and the internet has opened up new ways to research things, I’ve learned more about Tintin and more, in particular, about Herge. I’ve learned that he was a Catholic, at least, for the first part of his life, and that as he grew older, he found the constraints that his faith imposed on his narratives to be irksome. One of my favourite scenes in the books is from ‘Explorers On The Moon,’ where the rocket engineer, Frank Wolff, is pressured by a shadowy international group of crooks to allow Colonel Jorgen onto the rocket so that he can direct it into their clutches. The plot goes awry when Jorgen emerges from the hold and takes Tintin and pals hostage at gunpoint. Wolff wrestles with Jorgen, who is then shot through the heart, but the danger isn’t averted.

The Thompson twins have also found their way into the rocket at the last moment, which means that the oxygen supplies are being depleted by three extra mouths. Appalled at what he has done, Wolff waits until the rest of the crew are asleep, severs the wires that would stop the rocket if yeh external doors were open and goes out into space in his spacesuit, effectively committing suicide so that his companions might have a chance at survival. This, to my modest mind, is one of the great and climactic scenes in any medium, but I know now that Herge struggled with it, mainly because Wolff left behind a note on which he said ‘maybe by some miracle I shall survive, too’ which his creator felt was a foolish accommodation to his faith. I love it anyway.

More importantly, Herge also struggled with mental health problems as his first marriage started to fail and he embarked on an affair with Fanny Vlamynck, who later became his second wife. He had dreams of whiteness and, tortured by guilt and mental ill-health, he went into psychoanalysis with a professor who had been a student of Carl Jung. The marriage ended, Herge married Vlamynck, and the whiteness became Tintin In Tibet, which remains his most anguished and most intimate work. It is probably, also, his best, but my favourite is, instead, ‘The Castafiore Emerald.’

Captain Haddock, who Herge used as his cartoon surrogate, sprains his ankle early on, meaning that all the action takes place in the characters’ home, Marlinspike Hall. When Bianca Castafiore, the opera singer who is a running joke throughout the series and who was Herge’s jab at an opera-loving collaborator, comes to stay, they have to endure her and the TV crew who want to film her, providing the backdrop to the supposed theft of her jewels. I like it because, and I know this sound silly, all the characters are safely gathered in for the duration of the story, so the action can happen in benevolent surroundings and be neatly resolved.

I’m now 42 and have been a Tintin fan for over thirty years. My love shows no sign of diminishing which is something I’m hugely glad of. If you lose touch with your childhood enthusiasms, then you lose touch with what it means to be a child and that, I think is the essence of being human. Tintin is still now, as it was then, an escape into a world that is fully and perfectly realised, free from all the world’s cares. Everyone needs this and, moreover, the central theme of friendship and loyalty are universal. Art, like love, endures everything, and these beautiful, clever books are, to me, the perfectly realised testament of love.

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