22 June 2010

[comic art] Elementary Tintin: "Tintin In the Land Of The Soviets"

Tintin, the young boy Belgian reporter character invented by the great Belgian artist Hergé, is known for an illustrative style so signature that I've heard people describe some other comics as Tintinesque, much like a high compliment for musicians would be, say, Beatlesque.

Hergé's drawing style is the best known (along with the Asterix comics) of the famous Belgian "clear line" style, or ligne claire. In clear line, all lines are as simple as possible and of more or less equal weight, the communicative job also handled largely by the areas of tone, texture, and color. Despite the lines all being created equal, the illustrations themselves are hardly simple - most panels from Tintin albums are a pleasure for the eye, quite detailed and naturalistic.

But we all start somewhere. The character of Tintin was based on an earlier boy scout character called Totor that Hergé drew, and evolved for a while before becoming the polished representation the American reader would obtain. But very little of this interim stage seems to be very available; as times changed, early adventures were redrawn and polished up, giving the whole series a very stable look, and omitting all the slow evolution we seem to see in comics characters as the artists grow with them.

One work does exist from the Halcyon times, though, and that's the singularly atmospheric Tintin in The Land Of The Soviets. The story in and of itself is a different thing from most of the other Tintin adventures, featuring stock sinister eastern European characters scarcely deeper than the paper they're printed on.

In the beginning, presumably not wealthy enough to travel, Hergé depended on books and popular conceptions of life elsewhere to craft his stories, and in particular in this one, he drew his information from a single book written by a Belgian diplomat. Add in Hergé's reputed distrust of the Soviet government and his penchant for satire, and the resulting story comes off more as an anti-Soviet propaganda tract than an actual adventure.

In reading it I felt I was reading a character who was actually not completely formed yet. In style as well as in substance, Hergé was still clearly finding his way with Tintin. Though he was already exhibiting the beginnings of the wit and the wisdom that would be his trademark later on, they seemed simpler, half-formed. Tintin himself came near death and dismemberment more times than he seemed to in later adventures, at one point not only surviving a plane crash in the most unlikely way, but carving not just one but two new propellers from a nearby tree, which he felled - all with nothing more than a pocket knife and an apparent innate knowledge of aeronautical engineering.

Of course nobody's perfect. He had to make a second propeller because the first one was pitched backwards causing the plane to fly in reverse.

And one thing that Hergé had clearly not had a hand on yet was pacing; on his return to Brussels, ten square frames taking up one and one-third pages rather plod along, lost in exposition and an apparent attempt to build up anticipation for a throng of welcomers:

Compared with the smash-bang pace of the rest of the story, the last two pages were astoundingly plodding and self-indulgent.

It was going to be a while before the artist would become the master we Americans are familar with, creating believable yet fantastic locales uncommonly drafted, and amazing yet charmingly human characters. But this is where it all started.

It's said, in the reading I'm done that Hergé withdrew the album from the market early on. Of all the Tintin adventures, this was was the only one never redrawn and colored, and updated for the times. Regardless of the precise reason (though, given the roughness of the tale, we can make educated guesses), it's our benefit that he did withdraw this and leave it be. One of the most fascinating and illuminating artifacts that an artist can leave us about their own life is the trail of artistic evolution - and the evolution of their outlook (and certainly this was true with Hergé who, starting with The Blue Lotus, did more and better research and created better stories as a result) sort of gives everyone an accessable way of learning that all our lifetimes are about growth and change ... and sometimes arrive at beautiful and sublime destinations.

Tintin in the Land of the Soviets is an object study in beginnings and, knowing where Tintin went from there, the possibilities of where they might end up.

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