“At Le Petit Vingtième we are always eager to satisfy our readers and keep them up to date on foreign affairs. We have therefore sent Tintin, one of our top reporters, to Soviet Russia. Each week we shall be bringing you news of his many adventures.” Thus began, on January 10 1929, in the children’s supplement of the Belgian newspaper Le Vingtième Siècle, the series of cartoons that over the next five decades would capture and hold the imagination of tens of millions of children aged, as their publishers would repeatedly boast, from seven to 77. Or rather, thus almost began: first there was a footnote, an addendum: “NB The editor of Le Petit Vingtième guarantees that all photographs are strictly authentic, taken by Tintin himself, aided by his faithful dog Snowy!”
What a strange claim. The photographs that follow are patently not “authentic”, nor indeed are they photographs. In black-and-white line drawings we see the tufted reporter running around battling communists, crashing cars, trains, speedboats and planes, and even (for the first and last time) writing copy. Yet we are asked to believe that these images are, or at least “represent”, photographs of Tintin, taken by Tintin, and that these “photographs” somehow manage to show him not, as you would logically expect, in the act of taking a photograph (pointing the camera at himself from arm’s length and so on), but rather in the full throes of actions so frenetic that any attempt to photograph them, let alone for their protagonist to do so, would be futile.
Well, you might say, this is just a playful ruse, a convention set in place to give the drawings context and direction. And of course you would be right. If, in addition, you knew a thing or two about the history of comics, you would point out that the medium was fairly new in 1929: Rudolph Dirk’s “The Katzenjammer Kids” and George McManus‘s “Bringing Up Father” had been appearing in American newspapers since 1897 and 1913 respectively, but these were short, light-hearted skits, not extended adventures that laid claim to social and political insight.
In order to meet these new demands being made of it, you would argue, the cartoon format needed to undertake a set of twists and shuffles that would allow it to invoke notions of documentary rigour while at the same time making no attempt to disguise the fact that it was all fictitious. In this, too, you would be right. But if you had your literary goggles on, a strange coin-cidence would strike you: this ruse, this hastily convened convention and these twists and shuffles mirror those carried out by another hybrid entertainment format that emerged several centuries before cartoons did: the novel.
Open most early novels and you will find, before the story proper gets under way, an extremely dubious statement “explaining” how the events you are to read about came to be known to the author. Writing against a new scientific background that demanded provable facts and an old theological one that deemed lying a sin, these 17th-century pioneers – from Cervantes to Defoe, Bunyan to Behn – took great pains to tie their use of “invention” and “romance” to solid values of honesty and accuracy.
As far as its storyline goes, Tintin’s first adventure is fairly straight-forward. After appearing in serial form in Le Petit Vingtième, it was published in 1930 as a freestanding book entitled Tintin in the Land of the Soviets. The reporter (who has no particular brief other than to find out what is going on in Russia) is dogged by assassins who try to kill him; he escapes; they come at him again and he escapes again; this pattern is repeated until he makes it home to Brussels.
The villains are pantomime cut-outs, and the hero’s only attributes are strength, good looks, compassion (he buys a meal for a Bolshevik agent whom he takes to be a beggar and cries when he believes his beloved Snowy has been killed) and moral principles that prompt him to take a stand against injustice even when to do so places him in danger. He also has a sceptical mind, prying behind the surfaces of things to find that what seems to be a fully operating factory is in fact merely a stage set, what appears to be a haunted house is actually rigged with a hidden gramophone and speaker. He is sly, and helps the Kulaks, or bourgeois [landowning] peasants, hide their grain from the Soviet soldiers in whose search party he has himself enlisted.
The Tintin books, as we know them now, are stupendously rich. Characters such as Captain Haddock and Bianca Castafiore rival any dreamt up by Dickens or Flaubert for sheer strength and depth of personality. Professor Calculus could hold his own against any number of literary scientists from Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus to Brecht’s Galileo.
The supporting characters, from fiery sub-Guevaran General Alcazar to bitter and twisted multi-millionaire Laszlo Carreidas, billow off the page in all their awkwardness, their childishness, capriciousness. Even the most minor among them exude a presence far beyond that which we might expect from a novelist, let alone a cartoonist: the girthy, thunderous but frightened Americanist Hercules Tarragon of The Seven Crystal Balls; the neatly perverted kleptomaniac civil servant Aristides Silk of The Secret of the Unicorn; right down to the nameless airport official whose constant fiddling with rubber bands so irritates the captain in Tintin in Tibet
Like many of the very best writers, Hergé has bequeathed a bestiary of human types. Taken together, they form a huge social tableau – what Balzac, describing the network of characters spread across his books, calls a Comédie humaine, made of emirs, barons, butchers, whose telephone numbers keep getting confused with one’s own, and ghastly petit-bourgeois louches who are too socially insensitive to realise when they are not wanted.
When these figures are thrown together, the tense, loaded situations that arise are managed with all the subtlety normally attributed to Jane Austen or Henry James. People misunderstand one another. Discussions are shown taking place behind the main conversations, dialogues whose content we can infer from the context. Exegeses vital to the plot are offset by, for example, one participant’s continuous attempts to prompt another into offering him wine, as in the sequence in Professor Topolino’s kitchen in The Calculus Affair. Molière-style social comedy runs effortlessly into Dumas-style adventure with Conradian boxed narratives, throughout which, thanks to the captain, volleys of Rabelaisian obscenities echo and boom.
A huge symbolic register runs through the books, turning around signs such as the sun, water, the house, even tobacco – a register that, consistent and expanding at the same time, is worthy of a Faulkner or a Brontë. Played out against a backdrop of wars, revolutions and recessions, of technological progress imbued with an almost sacred aspect, not to mention old gods who steadfastly refuse to die, all of this amasses to an oeuvre that, again like that of many of the best writers – Stendhal, George Eliot or Pynchon, for example – forms a lens, or prism, through which a whole era lurches into focus.
All of which raises the question: is it literature? Should we, when we read the Tintin books, treat them with the reverence we would afford to Shakespeare, Dickens, Rabelais and so on? Should we bring the same critical apparatus to bear as when analysing Flaubert, James or Conrad? In the last two decades of the 20th century and the first of the 21st, writers of cartoons, hugely indebted to Hergé’s work, have deliberately launched bids for literary status, producing “graphic novels” that are often quite self-consciously highbrow and demanding. The huge irony is that the Tintin books remain both unrivalled in their complexity and depth and so simple, even after more than half a century, that a child can read them with the same involvement as an adult.
Adults do read them: there is a wealth of studies assessing Hergé’s work from psychoanalytical, political, thematic and technical angles, just as critics might assess the work of poets, novelists and playwrights. Does it follow that if the same analytical criteria can be applied to one thing as to another, the two things must innately be the same? Or is this bad logic, fit only for cultural theory seminars and Buffy-the-Vampire-Slayer-as-Postmodern-Signifier conferences? As soon as we ask if Tintin should be treated as literature, we raise another question: what is literature? What makes a piece of writing “literary” rather than journalistic, propagandistic, scientific or so on?
The Tintin books announce themselves on their front covers as “Adventures”. This, plus their action-packed nature, might suggest that they are dominated by what Roland Barthes calls the “proairetic code” – that is, the code of action. But, in fact, another code is equally, if not more, dominant: the code Barthes calls the “herme-neutic”. What does the hermeneutic do? It is made up, Barthes tells us, of all the aspects of a text that “constitute an enigma and lead to its solution”.
Tintin’s adventures are framed by enigmas: from the social enigma of the Soviet Union to the scientific enigma of the shooting star to the supernatural enigma of the Sun God’s curse. Tintin is caught up in these and ends up solving them. No wonder he is often mistakenly referred to as a “detective”. The books display an after-the-crime logic, poring over the scene of events that happened either recently (a drowned sailor and a kidnapped Japanese man in The Crab with the Golden Claws) or in a previous century (the shipwreck in Red Rackham’s Treasure). In The Broken Ear we get both: the theft of a fetish from the Museum of Ethnography in the mid-20th century and the earlier theft, in the late 19th, of a diamond from the Arumbaya tribe – two embedded narratives running alongside one another, or rather sedimented layers of the same one, staggered back.
Hergé let illustration be invaded by the avant-garde. In the very first Tintin book he makes a knowing reference to the iconoclastic painter Kasimir Malevich by presenting (after Tintin throws the light switch as he runs from his assassins) a panel of black on black: marking to the point of erasure. The books are full of erasure: wiped run-ways; wiped memories; a ship whose name (Karaboudjan) has been removed and replaced; a city whose name (Los Dopicos) is removed, replaced, removed and replaced again. The books are both full of erasure and subject to it themselves: as Hergé transferred the stories from their original newspaper and then magazine versions to the album format in which we now read them, he reworked them, covering up material he considered out of date or below par.
Hergé was subject to erasure himself. His very name, or rather nom de plume, was born from a double-move of covering up and rewriting: taking the initials of his real name Georges Remi, he reversed them into RG or, written as this is pronounced in French, Hergé. In using this word as his signature, he hid even as he made himself most public. Like Hitchcock, he occasionally slipped himself into his images – but meekly, concealing himself in crowds. He started out with low regard for what he did, not considering it proper art (he lasted just one day at art school). Later, emboldened by a critic’s description of him as the Roi-Soleil or “Sun King” of the comic format, he attempted “proper” painting and showed the results to the curator of the Musées Royaux de Beaux-Arts in Brussels. A huge Tintin fan, the curator told him they were rubbish.
Later still, encouraged by the incorporation of cartoons into the work of modernist painters such as Robert Rauschenberg and Roy Lichtenstein (whose work Hergé collected), he visited Andy Warhol and asked him if he thought Tintin was pop art too. Warhol merely stared back. Hergé’s final, incomplete book, Tintin and Alph-Art, betrays in its self-reflexive-ness a desire to be taken seriously, to be seen to be considering the highly conceptual issues in contemporary art with which its author is clearly au fait, alongside a desire to mock the high-ness of the establishment that never accepted him as highbrow, to expose its pretentiousness, its fraudulence.
And literature? Hergé grew up reading lowbrow books. Later in life he read Proust and Balzac. He even read Barthes. But he never aspired to be considered a “writer”. And here we loop back and rejoin the question: should we now claim, posthumously, on Hergé’s behalf, that in fact he was a writer, and a great one? My short answer to this question is: no. My longer answer is that the claim we should make for him is a more interesting one. And it revolves around two paradoxes. The first is that wrapped up in a simple medium for children is a mastery of plot and symbol, theme and sub-text far superior to that displayed by most “real” novelists. If you want to be a writer, study The Castafiore Emerald. It holds all literature’s formal keys, its trade secrets – and holds them at the vanishing point of plot, where nothing whatsoever happens.
To confuse comics with literature would be a mistake, and even more so with the groundbreaking work of Hergé, in which, as Numa Sadoul points out in Entretiens avec Hergé (Encounters with Hergé), the set of interviews he conducted with Tintin’s creator in the mid-70s, the medium “takes up an original and autonomous ground between drawing and writing”. Packed with significance, intensely associative, overwhelmingly suggestive, it still occupies a space below the radar of literature proper. Which leads us to the second paradox: this below- radar altitude, this blind spot, this mute pocket is, as we already know, the zone where the real action takes place.
Tintin means, literally, “Nothing”. His face, round as an O with two pinpricks for eyes, is what Hergé himself described as “the degree zero of typeage” – a typographic vanishing point. Tintin is also the degree zero of personage. He has no past, no sexual identity, no complexities. Like Cocteau’s Orphée, who spends much of the film in the negative space or dead world on the far side of the mirror, he is a writer who does not write.
· This is an edited extract from Tintin and the Secret of Literature (Granta), price £14.99