Friday, 31 August 2012

Books: Tintin: Tintin in the Land of the Soviets


Tintin: Tintin in the Land of the Soviets
By Hergé

Available now from Islington Libraries
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So: as you can probably tell by now I'm a Tintin fan from way, way, way back. The thrilling (and slapstick-filled) adventures of Belgian's most famous young boy reporter have kept me enthralled since I was first able to read [1]. In fact it was a bit of (what I thought would be) a life-long mission: that is one of my goals in life was to read every Tintin book available [2]: one that I thought that I had completed when I finally finally managed to read The Red Sea Sharks [3].

Of course you should never underestimate the lengths people/the publishing industry/Capitalism will go to in order to make a quick buck - as since that point there's been a "clearing of the vaults" so to speak (and I'm sure that someone, somewhere as put this down to: massive public demand!) and so now have "new" Tintin books [4] in the shape of: Tintin in the Congo, Tintin and Alph-Art [5] and (dur! dur! dur!): Tintin in the Land of the Soviets.

I was actually at another Islington library (the lovely little West Library) when I saw this book just sitting on their shelves and had picked it up and taken it home before I even realised what I was doing. I guess it was the old "gotta read them all" instinct kicking in: although I tried my best to rationalise it to myself by going - it'll be a good book to bring to the Comic Forum - you know: the early days of comics and all that.

Well. I was right about it that. I mean - I would have to go and double-check but thinking it over I'm fairly certain that this is the oldest book that I've written about on here: to try and put this in perspective: In 1930 Mickey Mouse was only a couple of years old (and had only just appeared in his first ever comic strip), Jack Kirby would have only been about 13 and Superman wasn't going to be invented until 1932. I mean: this is practically the Triassic period in terms of comic book history: so I guess I shouldn't have been surprised that things were gonna feel - well - a little ancient. But I guess I just wasn't properly prepared for just how basic this book was going to feel: it was a little like going from riding around in a car to holding on the side of a stone wheel as it bounces down a hill.

I mean: the first thing to hit me was just how completely amateur the art looks. I mean - when the book starts it looks like the kind of stuff that if someone sent it to a publisher nowadays they would get a note back saying "thank but no thanks - maybe in a few more years when you've worked out how to draw human beings." But back in the 1930s this stuff was good enough to be published in a national newspaper [6]. Still: that doesn't take away from how disconcerting it is to see Tintin looking like somesort of strange half mutant child dressed up in human clothes (things do gradually improve tho until towards the end he finally begins to resemble a real boy) [7]. The other thing to hit me was - well - all the violence. To be clear: even tho this is the 21st Century and we're all desensitized and I (obviously) have read a lot of superhero comic books where everyone's always looking for an excuse to have a brawl ("Who are you?" "I dunno - but let's fight!") I was somewhat taken aback by just how much fighting there was. I mean - this is supposed to be an innocent little Tintin book but there's just loads and loads and loads of fighting (and everyone standing around in boxing poses - fists raised, legs apart that sorta thing): you can practically feel the violence radiating off the page. I mean back in the strange days before things like the internet and television there wasn't much else to do but go and watch people beat the hell out of each other: but still.

But then I guess the main over-riding feature of this book is just how - well - racist it is [8]. I mean - I knew it wasn't exactly going to be politically correct or anything like that: but well I didn't know that I was going to get dialogue like: "Have you an outfit in my size?" "I zink zo, my liddle fren.'" According to the ever-reliable wikipedia it was written with the express purpose of being a work of anti-communist propaganda for children: but even with that in mind it still comes across as being a bit strong. Examples: apparently Russians are prone to saying things like: "By Trotsky!" and "I think the dirty little bourgeois is asleep." and they like to kill time by idly tying stones around the necks of dogs and throwing them into rivers.  And my favourite bit: when he discovers the underground hideout where Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin collect together all the wealth they've stolen from the people (omg). And none of this is helped by Tintin endlessly pontificating about the evils of Soviet Russia like a spokesperson in a cut-rate propaganda reel [9]: "While the Russian people are dying of hunger, immense quantities of wheat are being sent abroad to prove the so-called wealth of the Soviet Paradise."and "Look at what the Soviets have done to the beautiful city of Moscow: a stinking slum!" and (towards the end) "Goodbye, unfriendly country!" (lovely) [10].

There are a lots of pages (more so than the other Tintin books) - but it (mainly) restricts itself to a six panel grid but that's not really helped by the way it all feels so aimless and listless with one thing happening after another with no real sense of consequence: stealing cars, finding a diving suit, joining the army, going up against the firing squad, designing himself as a pilot - whatever. It all feels as un-involving as watching someone else play a computer game.  With cliffhangers resolved in the most unlikely of ways: "As for you, you've penetrated our secret, so you will be killed... (turns page) ...Tomorrow, at dawn."

Praise? I liked it that Snowy's sarcastic and slightly world-weary voice was already pretty much fully formed: When they find a fake factory (like an old-fashioned film set: only the outside is real) they step behind to find someone smashing plates and sheets of iron in order to make it seem like there are people working and Snowy quips: "It must be a Russian jazz band." which I'll admit I found pretty funny (good old Snowy). And there's a bit when Tintin drinks too much champagne and sees multiple keyholes that's kinda cool. But that's just one panel in a whole book - so not really worth the price of entry.

And this die-hard Tintin fan did get a small kick from noticing the same poses peeking through the artwork: the way that Tintin does his celebratory dancing with his arms outstrectched and grabbing Snowy by the hands, the angle of the way trains speed towards the reader or the boats crash through the water and how the people bump into trees with all their limbs extended: it's like glimpses of the finished machine hidden within the depths of the prototype.

Maybe then it's just one for the die-hard completists and comic book historians.

[1] In fact one of my party tricks when I was about 8 or 9 (if it makes sense to talk about party tricks when you're not actually old enough to go to a proper party) was based around just how many times I'd read Tintin: The Black Island. If someone else read a single line of dialogue I could tell you who said it, why the said it and what which other lines came both before and after it. Needless to say: I was a total chick-magnet.

[2] Gotta say: it was super-canny move on the part of the publishers to put the covers of all the Tintin books on the back cover in a super-appealing-looking grid formation: looking like jars of multi-coloured candy in a sweet shop window. As soon as you finish one book it's always what I would find myself staring at: I could hear them calling to me: "read us! read us!".

[3] Which is kinda a strange book to read as your final Tintin book as it manages to pack in cameos from pretty much every other Tintin book - including (deep breath): General Alcazar; Emir Ben Kalish Ezab and Abdullah; Rastapopoulos; Oliveira da Figueira; Doctor Müller; Dawson; Allan Thompson; Bianca Castafiore and Jolyon Wagg. So it feels a little bit like a school reunion or (actually this more accurately describes the feeling of reading it): a wake.

[4] Well - actually - they've been out for quite a few years now - but gimme a break.

[5] Islington don't actually have a copy of Tintin and Alph-Art but I'd say that can only be a good thing. I managed to hunt down a copy a few months or so ago and it's practically unreadable. Just a few sketches and notes saying: "story to go here." In fact it's just sorta depressing. So avoid that if you can.

[6] Well: children's newspaper. Well: children's newspaper supplement. Well: Belgian children's newspaper supplement: but still.

[7] And - is it just me - or does Snowy have a beard? Just look at the cover!

[8] Although - question: is it called racism when it's directed against members of a country? (Sorry: I'm not exactly up on my different types of hate-speech) Speaking to my girlfriend she said that maybe the word that I'm searching for is "xenophobia" which does seem better ("Xenophobia is defined as an intense or irrational dislike or fear of people from other countries. It comes from the Greek words ξένος (xenos), meaning "stranger," "foreigner," and φόβος (phobos), meaning "fear.") (and I like it because it reminds me of "Xenomorph" which is always a great word to use...) but then it's not really Russians that are being targeted but Soviet Russians: so what the hey I'll just stick with "racism" with now and leave it at that... but apologises if I'm using the wrong term or whatever.

[9] I mean - I guess that this is just the comic book version of that - but still. Would it be too much to ask for a something a little bit more subtle? Why does race-hate always have to be so obnoxiously over the top?

[10] Oh and don't worry: it doesn't restrict the racism just to the Russians it  also manages (via a quick trip to an underground torture chamber) to poke some fun at the Orientals too. Yay!

Links: Tomcat in the Red Room Review, Comic Attack Review, Slate Article: Tintin: How Hergé’s boy reporter invented the Hollywood blockbuster.

Further reading: Tintin: Tintin in the Congo, Tintin: Destination Moon / Explorers on the MoonThe Adventures of HergéBreakdowns

All comments welcome.

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