Rereading Tin Tin, what struck me most was just how French it is (or how Belgian, I guess.) Everything’s just so darn greasepaint-precious. “Ooooh hooo hooo…the cursing captain…he fall down and bump ze head! Oh stop — the Thompson Twins, they’re hats, they are pulled down over their eyes so only ze bristley mustachios are showing! Oh, ze little doggie, he is drunk!” In Asterix, the physical humor is explosive and go-for-broke; when you hit the roman soldier, he rockets out of his sandals in a riot of motion lines and explosive puffs; when he lands in the next panels on his head, you get to watch his toes violently twitching. In Tin Tin, on the other hand, the slapstick almost seems to be in quotes, like you’re watching mimes. Motion lines are little curlicues, and the bashed tend to look startled and dizzy rather than actually bashed about. If Asterix is analogous to Bugs Bunny, Tin Tin is Disney; skilled, tasteful, and kind of boring.
A Wikipedia entry on Tin Tin compares Herge’s characters to Dickens’. It’s not a comparison that serves Herge well. Dickens did use caricature, but those caricatures are multi-layered, encompassing both biting satire and a knowing humanism. In Bleak House, for example, Richard Carstone’s rationalizations around money are both funny and tragic, and feed naturally into his gradual embitterment. Or there’s this passage from the same novel:
“There has been only one child in the Smallweed family for several generations. Little old men and women there have been, but no child, until Mr. Smallweed’s grandmother, now living, became weak in her intellect and fell (for the first time) into a childish state. With such infantine graces as a total want of observation, memory, understanding, and interest, and an eternal disposition to fall asleep over the fire and into it, Mr. Smallweed’s grandmother has undoubtedly brightened the family.”
The Smallweeds here are a very particular kind of stultified; enlivened by the one senile figure in their midst. The joke comes out of that specific contrast.
Herge’s caricature’s on the other hand, seem much more broad and tired. Captain Haddock is a sailor who curses and drinks too much. Professor Calculus is an absent-minded (and deaf) professor. The Thompson twins are bumbling cops. Those are the jokes, and they were pretty old, I have no doubt, even 50 years ago when Herge was writing these. Not that they’re handled poorly or that they aren’t often funny or surprising…but overall, and especially if you read a bunch of them in a row, they start to feel decidedly thin. The truth is that Herge’s penchant for racist caricature and easy anti-semitism wasn’t an accident; virtually all his characters are based around easy stereotypes and fusty gags; it’s just that making fun of sailors looks more innocuous these days than ridiculing the stupidity of black people or the avarice of Jews. Fagin is offensive as well, of course, but he’s also got enough depth and texture that you feel that there’s something to him beyond the anti-semitism…or at least that the anti-semitism is somewhat textured. But when Herge uses a stereotype, as he almost always does, the stereotype is pretty much all there is happening.
Herge’s obviously a very skilled illustrator, with an amazing facility and capacity for rendering detail. And in the abstract, I can certainly appreciate a complicated tour de force like this:
But in terms of visceral appeal, though, his art just doesn’t do that much for me. The cleanness and perfection of it, the evennness of the lines; it almost seems produced by machine. For example, compare Herge’s camels:
with Harry G. Peter’s elephants.
Herge’s drawing is much more correct anatomically, but it’s also much less fun to look at. The camels are too smooth; they have the same weight as everything else. They might as well be boxes, for all the character they have. The bits of personality — the one camels’ smile, the other camel’s knowing look — actually comes across as irritatingly smug. Again, it feels Disneyfied to me — a lack of personality gilded with cutesiness.
Given his status as one of the great figures in comics, it’s amazing how little interest Herge seems to have in the page as an aesthetic unit. He does vary panel sizes to accommodate action, and so he can fit big objects like planes:
And he will use bigger splash panels for effect, as with the camel image above. But in terms of unifying an entire page….he just doesn’t bother. Look at this for example:
The most striking visual motif on the page is the binocular frame. It’s used in three panels…but that’s pretty much all that can be said for it. Those three images aren’t balanced out in any particular way that I can see; they’re just placed on the page at the point where they logically occur in the narrative.
You really see this in the use of text as well, which sometimes just overwhelms the pictures.
That’s gratuitous as well; that text is just restating things you already know. It’s off-putting, ugly, and unnecessary. I don’t think it’s laziness, — Herge is never less than entirely professional and meticulous, and writing out all those words was probably actually a fairly irritating task. But it does suggest that he doesn’t have much of an eye for, or interest in, design.
Overall, then, Herge’s perfectionism and professionalism, which are impressive in small doses, become irritating and burdensome the more you realize that that’s all he has to offer. I remember being a bit bored by them as a kid, and as an adult…I’m maybe even more bored by them. The plots bop along, and there are still some excellent gags: the Thompson twins bizarre affliction — whereby their hair grows excessively fast and changes myriad hues, is visually spectacular and completely ridiculous. And I had forgotten how weird and disturbing some of the dream sequences are. Tin Tin turning into a giant bottle of wine with his head as the cork which Captain Haddock tries to twist out; the weird fever dream of a prophet grasping a picture of a giant spider — such moments come close to thematizing the oppressively flat unreality of Herge’s world. Mostly, though, that flat unreality isn’t disturbing or affecting. It’s just flat.
You can read the entire roundtable here.