The old comic books that decorate my bookshelf seem to fall into two categories—the ones that are forgotten and the ones that seem to improve the more I read them. One of these old comics is Tintin by the Belgian artist Hergé (pronounced hair-jay). Maybe you’ve wondered what was so great about Hergé’s work. Maybe you’ve heard that there was an animated series or heard rumors that Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson (of Indiana Jones and Lord of the Rings fame, respectively) were teaming up to make this series into a movie trilogy. And so you might be wondering whether Tintin is worth reading, whether it is one of those stories that improves with age or not.
Though Tintin is not perfect (more on that at the end), Tintin is a pillar of European comics because of its “cliffhanger” plots, its interesting characters, and its elaborate settings. If you’re looking for a comic series with a great balance of humor, suspense, dialogue, and visual interest, then Tintin is for you.
The plots of Tintin keep the story interesting and moving. Hergé uses the “cliffhanger” extensively, drawing the reader on to the next page:
So that’s where the page ends. And then:
…The problem is resolved. Hergé makes liberal use of this simple device to keep the plot interesting. Though I’m sure the “cliffhanger” could become pretty gimmicky, in the hands of Hergé, the creator of the series, the plot shines (and, in the cliffhanger’s defense, popular movies like Indiana Jones have been crafted around a series of “cliffhangers”). Hergé’s stories strike a balance, much like a Hitchcock film, of generating suspense and raising questions that may only be answered at the end of the film. In some ways, Hergé even uses Hitchcock’s signature plot device—the MacGuffin. A MacGuffin is anything in a story that seems initially to be important but turns out not to be (pop culture example: in the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? the “treasure” George Clooney and his two cronies are looking for is a MacGuffin because there isn’t any hidden money stash; George Clooney is actually looking for his wife).
In addition to the plot, the characters of Tintin are also interesting. From the proud and vengeful villain Rastapopulous to the young Chinese castoff Chang, Hergé crafts interesting characters from all sorts of fabric. Hergé’s stories are also interesting because of recurring characters. Tintin, in his many adventures with his dog Snowy, comes across the bumbling detectives—the Thompson brothers, the ever-vocal Captain Haddock, the faithful butler of Marlinspike, Nestor, the deaf Professor Calculus, and the singer Bianca Castafiore.
The settings of Tintin are one of Hergé’s trademarks, as well (I understand) as the trademark of European comics in general. Every place that Tintin, boy reporter, visits—from the forests of a South American country to the craters of the moon—is elaborately detailed to the point that every locale feels like a living, breathing place. Personally, my favorite location is Scotland, where Tintin uncovers a gang of counterfeiters in The Black Island.
Unfortunately, Tintin, like every other comic book, is not perfect. Some people might get tired of a few far-fetched escapes from danger and clichés (the ape in The Black Island is deathly afraid of Snowy’s bark; there are other “yeah…sure” moments as well). Also, in Flight 714, Hergé does a sort of “deus ex machina” sort of ending. Deus ex machina, “god out of a machine,” is where the author invents a solution to a problem out of thin air. I’ve heard this term comes from Greek plays where Greek “gods” would descend onto the stage using some mechanical crane. This “god” would then liberate the main character in the play from some sort of “cliffhanger” situation. Well anyway, Hergé does this in Flight 714. In a word—aliens. Yes, the sort of aliens that fly in super-secret spaceships. The sort that save Tintin and his friends from danger.
But If you like colorful plots, characters, settings, and are O.K. with slightly exaggerated escapes and a few stereotypes, then you should give Tintin a read. Be on the lookout for part 2 of this series of Tintin reviews where I will give a top ten Tintin comic books list!