How to broaden the appeal of a children's comic strip without alienating its youthful devotees? Herge once likened the process to the construction of a Neapolitan cake, with "a slice for the children, a slice for adolescents, another one for the grown-ups, and then a slice for the specialist". Such a modest and straight-forward recipe for success threatens to suggest that anyone might equal the 200 million and more copies sold of Tintin. Why then haven't more of us just hammered together a variety of niche-pleasing incidents, hired a suitably malleable artist, and claimed our longed-for riches and fame?
If only the most basic of competencies - let alone artistic and commercial genius - could be so effortlessly secured. Easily-memorised bullet points pepper the pages of How-To-Create-Comics guidebooks, and yet few of us are any the more able for such spelt-out-for-idiots advice. It is, of course, the right of brilliant and successful artists to explain their achievements in immodestly modest terms. Similarly, it's the right of know-nothing ladder-climbers, tall poppy stompers and uncomprehending egoists to choose to believe them. Indeed, Herge's relatively few public pronouncements on his art often seem to reduce his creative process to little more than good intentions, common sense, ambition, elbow grease and perseverance. Yet even if we restrict ourselves to the ways in which Tintin was quite deliberately targeted at different audiences, Herge's ever-evolving strategies were exhaustingly copious, intricate, and exacting. The blithely disinterested might dismiss the twenty-four Tintin volumes as childishly facile and interchangeably disposable, but even that's a mark of how brilliantly Herge fulfilled his ambitions. Impressing the habitually snooty was never, it appears, anywhere near to the top of his priorities. Indeed, his storytelling is so wonderfully direct and transparent that a mind predisposed to cultural haughtiness might easily mistake it for unsophisticated and artless. Yet as anyone will testify who's ever attempted to ape Herge's deceptively unfussy Clear Line form, its almost-hallucinogenic qualities of simplicity, clarity and liveliness are near-impossible to convincingly emulate. Perhaps the greatest technical triumph of Herge's career was to hide a great many of his technical accomplishments in plain sight, there for everyone to see - if they cared to - and yet always unassumingly in service of the tale being told.
Only cultural roundheads could disapprove of post-pubescents buying into pre-adolescent pleasures. But it is fair to suggest that Tintin can offer its less-youthful admirers a great deal more than nostalgia-sparking comfort reading. Without obscuring the pleasures of the comedy-adventure strip with worthiness or pretension, Herge added layers of thoughtfulness that could - if the mood took - be accessed and enjoyed by the appropriately receptive reader. Put simply, the very same pages that Herge used to enthrall the young could simultaneously be exploited for more nuanced, complex and occasionally acute ends. Different albums would capitalise on this potential to different degrees and for different reasons. But as his work matured in the wake of 1932's episodic and jejune Tintin in America, Herge's aspirations would regularly exceed the constraints of any one audience and any one genre. The challenge of making every adventure as thrillingly compelling as possible clearly wasn't challenging enough. Instead, Herge was repeatedly involved in the process of developing a form that could incorporate his personal tastes, aspirations and compulsions. Yet ever the emphatically populist craftsman, he was careful to develop his method without unnecessarily estranging his faithful and lucrative clientele. What he succeeded in creating was a model of the comic strip so paradigmatic that it even now can be perceived as the purest form of the same. No wonder that someone who's missed the mainstream's critical reevaluation of comics might catch sight of Tintin and casually damn it for an entire medium's supposed sins. To them, Tintin represents the children's comic strip in its most fundamental form, and that, to the unsympathetic, is by definition a superficial and exploitative one. Accordingly, Herge's remarkable fusion of commercial and experimental storytelling can still pass relatively unnoticed. Why look twice at an obviously juvenile form that's by its very definition second-rate and superfluous?
Herge's decision to develop rather than reject the classic traditions of the child-captivating adventure strip would result in some remarkably contradictory responses. The likes of Britain and America would long persist in defining Tintin as child-quietening pablum. Continental critics, however, would develop the habit of subjecting it to beard-twisting, text-mangling analyses which often wearied and even exasperated Herge. Yet in several ways, he only had himself to blame. Many of Tintin's adventures unquestionably did comment on challenging and even seriously controversial matters. In that, his claim to be concerned with nothing but story appears to have been a somewhat disingenuous one. His younger devotees may have never noticed the cruelly reactionary values of his earliest strips, or the determinedly anti-Fascist and then Pan-European content of what followed. But then, that slice of the Neapolitan wasn’t really for them. Nor was the wonderful deconstruction of the very idea of story that was The Castafiore Emerald, the exacting scientific detail of Destination Moon, or the psychoanalytical depths of Tintin In Tibet. "Story" undeniably became Herge's priority, but once again, his art was regularly concerned with a great deal more than character and conflict.
Despite what the quote at the start of this post might be used to imply, Tintin's generations-spanning appeal relies on far more than an ever-alternating layering of eye-catching scenes targeted at disparate audiences. That was just one of Herge's dizzying lineup of narrative options, albeit one that he would regularly use to considerable effect. In Explorers On The Moon, an untypically intense clash between Tintin and Captain Haddock - driven by the latter's debilitating alcoholism - is immediately followed by a page of undiluted slapstick featuring Thompson and Thomson's chemically-driven hirsutism. (Anyone who argues that Tintin was a largely characterless cypher ought to take another look at several of Explorer's key scenes.) Psychologically compelling conflict followed instantly by angst-free absurdity; the sense is of a brilliantly gifted artist who's attending not just to the rhythms and variety that's essential to his work's success, but to the fascinations of a broad range of consumers too. The young might be amused by Tintin's assumption of a parent's authority over the middle-aged Haddock, but the consequences of the Captain's addiction opens up issues that - hopefully - few children would recognise and relate to. By contrast, the following scene carries nothing more charged than the sight of the twins disappearing under reams of facial hair. Herge, it seems, had deliberately added a concentrated measure of grit to his work, and yet ensured that his young readers were protected from undue upset. The conflict between beloved friends flared and quickly passed, and the joyously mood-lightening silliness of what followed ensured that the flash of pathos was paternalistically kept in check.
To be concluded. (There will several posts at TooBusy in the next few days. One of them will be the last, and shorter, part, for whatever that's worth, of this post.)