Thursday, March 21, 2013

Tintin on the Moon and Beyond, Herge's Odd and Wonderful Sci-Fi Espionage Adventure

The Adventures of Tintin, the hugely influential adventure series by Belgian cartoonist Hergé, were the first comics I read as a child. My mother was born and raised in Germany, so naturally growing up my family had an affinity for these comics long before I ever discovered superhero comics (and my mom played a role in my love for those, too, but that's another story). I remember going to the local public library and borrowing the albums - I honestly don't think I took out a prose novel of any kind for the first how-many-ever years until I discovered Arthur C. Clarke and Madeleine L'Engle and Isaac Asimov. I'd take them home and soak in the adventures of ageless young reporter Tintin and his dog Snowy and the large and wonderfully ridiculous cast of supporting characters. But before a few months ago I hadn't read these comics in over twenty years, and rediscovering them has been been a joy.

It is simply not possible to understate the influence and importance of Hergé (nom de plume of Georges Remi) and Les Aventures de Tintin on the global comic landscape. First serialized in Belgian newspapers and his own magazine from 1929 to 1959 and then periodically until 1976, the collected adventures were packaged in 23 internationally best-selling albums, a quarter billion copies translated into over a hundred languages. These collections are trade paperbacks, indeed graphic novels by any other name, many decades before the term would be popularized. Hergé produced massively researched stories and clean, technical and wonderfully eloquent cartooning - a style he popularized called ligne claire ("clear line") that would dominate European comics. When considering Tintin, I like to put these within the context of the American comics of the same time periods. When compared to the comic books being produced stateside the difference in consistency of style, creator vision and length of stories is startling. A better comparison might be the masterpieces being produced by contemporary American comic strip artists, but even these important and influential works (for many decades) could not find the second life as books that Tintin immediately found. Some things about Tintin don't age well, especially the early colonialist and downright racist characterizations. (There is much that can be discussed about such portrayals but that is for another essay.) But it is Tintin's timelessness, sense of wonder, and beautiful art that keeps these books in circulation.

The Adventures of Tintin Volume 5
Little, Brown 2007
The titular and entirely mononymous Tintin is, ostensibly, an internationally renown reporter in his early twenties (though he could just as easily be a teenager). He finds himself on adventures all over the globe, every time becoming the story rather than reporting on it. Indeed, at no point does he ever file a story with anyone. He is always referred to as a "reporter," but I guess a more accurate description would be brave, smart, tenacious, plucky international investigator. An otherwise ill-defined everyman, the early stories (aside from the cultural insensitivity) are defined by Tintin's penchant for being repeatedly captured by various nefarious types and stumbling blindly upon the solutions to his cases. The stories get better after the first few volumes with the introduction of the large extended cast of entertaining, colorful and popular characters. There is the deaf superscientist Professor Calculus, the alcoholic blowhard sea captain Haddock, and the insanely incompetent detectives Thomson and Thompson. These supporting characters often find themselves intertwined with Tintin no matter where his cases take him, and despite providing comic relief are often more fleshed out than Tintin himself.

Some years ago I got for my sister and her children a box set of all the gorgeous Little, Brown omnibus volumes. Each omnibus reprints three of the Casterman albums in wonderfully designed, compact hardcovers, which have also been released individually. In my re-exploration of the material I started at the beginning, which reprints the third through fifth albums (the first two albums are almost never reprinted in the United States). These stories are rough and not quite yet living up to the potential of the latter stories. I read through the first few albums like this then put it to the side, distracted by other comics, real life, the usual. Then the other day I saw the fifth Little, Brown omnibus on the shelf of the comic shop I work at, collecting the fifteenth through seventeenth albums, and I absolutely had to read it as soon as I could. I've seen these covers staring at me for years, but for some reason I just couldn't resist it this time - here, in all it's glory, was the chronicle of Tintin going to the Moon.

The first story in the omnibus is the wonderfully representative Tintin in the Land of Black Gold. War is brewing around the world and weird stuff is happening to gasoline and the answer may lie in the Middle East. After some misadventure getting arrested and kidnapped by insurgents, Tintin finds himself roped into finding the local Emir's kidnapped son. There is a lot of shadiness involving different geopolitical forces at the beck and call of multinational petroleum conglomerates, and plenty of comic relief from Haddock and Thomson and Thompson and the rotten little malcontent that Tintin is trying to rescue. We also get a good example of the recurring rogue's gallery of villains often spearheading the nefarious plots or interfering in Tintin's attempts at do-goodery, a rogue's gallery that will come into deadly play in the following stories. The story then easily segues into (for me) the main event, the two-album journey to the moon. Not figuratively, the actual Earth's moon. So why is a young reporter and his sea captain friend going to the moon? Because it's Tintin and shit like this just happens. That's why.

Destination Moon by Herge
Casterman 1953/Little, Brown 1976
The story begins in Destination Moon. Professor Calculus has been commissioned by the recurring, vaguely Eastern European country Syldavia and its government to build a rocket to the moon. See, they're sitting on a ton of plutonium so they're building a space rocket, because that's just what you do with plutonium. Calculus has devised a unique and never-before used method of propulsion for a rocket with the intention of exploring the moon. Calculus, Tintin (with Snowy, naturally), Haddock, and the Syldavian engineer Frank Wolff are the chosen crew for the mission. But first the new rocket has to be tested, and a small-scale version is launched. But nefarious plans are afoot - agents of an unfriendly nation (somewhere, we never really see) have their own designs on Calculus and Syldavia's rocket and intend to remotely hijack it. We frequently see the clandestine plannings of the lead enemy agent and references to a spy within Syldavia's organization. Attempts are made at infiltrating the facility, at one point resulting in Tintin getting shot in the head by an enemy agent. But a bullet can't keep a good reporter down, and after a few months recovery while the rockets are built, the indomitable Tintin is soon assisting with the test launch. The ever perceptive reporter expects chicanery and convinces Calculus to secret a self-destruct device aboard the test rocket. Sure enough, enemy agents hijack the rocket signal and the device comes in handy.

The launch is seen as a successful test of concept and the manned mission to the moon is given the green light. Why a crew of untested, mostly untrained amateurs are going up instead professional astronauts or test pilots isn't explored, but by this point in Tintin's adventures you just kind of accept the improbable. Which is nice because the improbable is wildly entertaining. Haddock is reluctant if not downright recalcitrant, Calculus is fumbling at first then genius in the end, and Tintin just is. Some specific preparations are shown, but mostly we get vignettes of passing time intercut with extended scenes of lighthearted slapstick comedy.

These stories were originally serialized between 1950 and 1953, and much of the design sense is reflective of the wide-eyed, romantic science fiction of the era. Hergé's detailed draftsmanship and extensive research ethic play big roles in establishing the beautifully realized vision of the story. The rocket ship is purely classical in design, and the details lavished on the page with his trademark clarity is a visual feast. Everything from the nuclear facilities to the internal and external design of the rocket to the equipment at their disposal is cleanly rendered, continuously astonishing practical sci-fi set-pieces. Hergé's science certainly tries to get it right, with many technical details about such a journey spot-on, while managing to be way off the mark in so many other areas endemic of sci-fi works of the era. By the time they get to the moon, it's less the magnificent desolation of Armstrong and Aldrin and more the gee wiz sci-fi wonder of early fifties guesswork. Which is just fine. It's easy to overlook such naivety because the execution is just so wonderful.

Destination Moon ends on the cliffhanger of the launch that begins Explorers on the Moon, and the it doesn't take long for the shenanigans to ensue. Two pages in and Thompson and Thomson pop up, accidental stow-aways, of course. Their comic relief isn't really needed when you've already got Haddock's inspired exasperation (I reckon there could be entire treatises crafted about Haddock's inventive alliterative cursing that he frequently unleashes - Billions of Blistering Blue Barnacles! Thundering typhoons you Bashi-Bazouks!) but what the hell, why not have the two fools hanging around gumming up the works. There is much misadventure on the way, involving everything from a drunken space-walk to accidental zero-gravity acrobatics, but the anxiety and pressure of the ground crew over the fates of the erstwhile crew never lets up. Soon enough the seriousness of the proceedings makes itself evident, especially with the portentous looks at nefarious and underhanded subterfuge afoot.

Explorers on the Moon by Herge
Casterman 1954/Little, Brown 1976
Tintin is soon the first man on the moon and the interplanetary adventures begin. We see the joy of exploring the unknown in an alien, gravity-light environment. There is much serious science and exploration to do, too, but this unknown world is not without its dangers from crevasses to caves to human error. And then there is the man made threat. The plans of the enemy are no longer limited to cutaways of obtuse declarations of evildo. With little room for error or interference, things take a deadly turn with the enemies' plans coming to scary fruition. At first the extent of the enemies' plans and one agent's thirst for revenge elicits a hearty laugh, and deservedly so for it is more than a little ridiculous. But things take a quick turn. In what is as much a tale of spycraft, sabotage, espionage and revenge as much as a science fiction adventure, the crew finds themselves fighting for their lives against a heartless enemy in the most difficult and inhospitable of environments.

It's the espionage angle that is the most surprising element of the story, the element that drives the climax of Explorers on the Moon and what gives the story its narrative kick. Lives are lost, sacrifices are made, and the tense and dangerous journey home is anything but a safe prospect. One of the aspects that makes the spy story work is the lack of definition in it in terms of the global players responsible - this isn't a cold war parable, but could be (from either perspective).

The expected, welcome humor comes back in the end, and we end up with a funny, entertaining, dramatic golden age science fiction-adventure-spy-humor graphic novel. In many ways Destination Moon/Explorers on the Moon is atypical of Tintin with its overt science fiction tropes, and in every other way exactly like every other Tintin story. Tintin is about a determined, tough, young, smart investigator and his funny cast of friends (and his dog) having adventures of drama and humor set against entertaining geopolitical backdrops and improbable set-pieces. The Moon stories have all of these things, and rocket ships for good measure.

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