Friday, 18 March 2011

Is Hergé’s art holding the boy reporter back?

I admire Tintin. What comics creator could fail to? Charming, well-rounded characters in inventive plots, driven by storytelling that gracefully swoops from humor to suspense to danger and back again. Yep, Hergé is undeniably one of the great talents of the 20th century. I often describe Mirabilis as "Tintin with fantasy" and I'm always conscious of doing my best to live up to that.

But for all that, and even with the involvement of Spielberg and Jackson, the prospect of the upcoming movie hadn’t motivated me to dig out any Tintin books and re-read them. It’s the way many British people feel about cricket. Nice to know that it’s still played. What’s on the other channel?

Until this week, that is, when I caught up on Hero Complex with what Steven Spielberg has to say about the first movie, The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn.
“It just seemed that live action would be too stylized for an audience to relate to. You’d have to have costumes that are a little outrageous when you see actors wearing them. The costumes seem to fit better when the medium chosen is a digital one.”
It’s not so much what he said about the movie, interesting as that is. It’s the screenshots that have me really stoked. And those images have been on the web since last November, so why hadn't I even bothered to take a look before? Well, what did we know about the Tintin movie? At least it wasn’t going to be 2D. Gotta love those Studio Ghibli movies but it’s love with a shrug, admit it. And as for mo-capped 3D? If you see me shiver, that's the grisly memories of Polar Express that won't stay buried.

Instead of either of those extremes, Spielberg and Jackson have picked a very slightly cartoonish 3D styling. It’s a look that’s grounded in realism but with just enough Disneyesque stylization to nudge the characters safely away from Auton spookiness and into warm relatability. Of course. Should’ve figured that Steven Spielberg isn’t the sort of man who’d get trapped under a boulder in the Uncanny Valley and have to saw his own arm off.
So here’s the thing. Up until this week I could’ve waited for the DVD. Now I’m really keen to see the movie in theatrical release. But in the meantime, if I do happen to look at any of the original albums (European for “graphic novels”) it’ll only be one or two of them, and the reaction they’ll evoke will be a sort of kept-your-dinner-warm admiration. A rich glow of nice. Nobody is going to be devouring those old Tintin stories in a fever pitch of tunnel-visioned excitement as if the sun might go out at any moment…

And why not? That crazed all-consuming zeal is what I feel when I’m reading The Walking Dead or Irredeemable. You want the truth? The world moved on. The art in those Tintin books now, it’s been damned with the label of “classic”. Like The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Vampyr, even Battleship Potemkin – sure, you and I and Martin Scorsese watch those movies. No, we don't; we study them. They’re what the vintners drink.

Tintin books shift, at best, two or three thousand copies a year in the UK. I doubt if it’s even as many as that in the US. Yet a movie can exponentially boost the sales of an attached comic. What’s the use of getting the Tintin books in front of the wider, non-fan market if they can’t see past the quaint old wrapping to enjoy the stories?

You know what I’m going to say. And you know I’m right, even if you don’t want to hear it. It’s time to modernize. Comics can be reinterpreted as movies, as TV, even as Broadway musicals, so why not as new comics too?

They need to remake the original Tintin books using the art style of the movies.

An expensive undertaking? Not when you have a crack at selling north of half a million copies of each of twenty-four books. And that’s just the English language editions.
I don’t say this to court controversy, whip up a fake debate, or take a potshot at a beloved and brilliant comics creator. In the English speaking world, Hergé’s stories are fading away into obscurity. They deserve a wide audience but, just like those classic old silent movies I cited, fewer and fewer people are going to seek them out in their current form. Do we want Tintin to be known only as a series of movies, or would it be a good thing if the movies drove people to read the stories as comics too?

If all this sets your blood to boiling, remember I’m not the one stopping people from reading Tintin. If it was up to me, the series would be taught in schools. And remakes wouldn’t invalidate the original albums. They’d still be there, and maybe the newer versions would provide readers with a stepping stone (a Rosetta Stone?) to real appreciation of Hergé’s work as a storyteller. And surely that can only be a good thing.


  1. Yep, gotta love those Studio Ghibli movies.

    And speaking as a Canadian, I believe that Tintin movies are watched in the original language for French classes in high school. I remember having to watch - and subsequently translate - one of them in the ninth grade.

    Personally, I enjoy Tintin comics greatly, and I wasn't aware that they aren't selling very well. But do you think it's the old-fashioned art that's holding the comics back, or another element?

  2. Hamza, it's the old-fashioned art. I like it myself. It doesn't excite me, I'm not in love with it but I like it. I also like black and white silent movies, Ditko-era Spider-Man, the short stories of A J Alan, the art of Sidney Sime, and Fireball XL5. It's fair to say you couldn't fill even a medium sized movie theater with people sharing those tastes.

    The BBC recognized this when they recently remade The Quatermass Experiment and A For Andromeda. "Classic" had come to mean "gathering dust".

    Maybe Jackson & co could dip a toe by doing just one of the original Tintin books in the cinematic art style. As I said, the original books will still be on the shelves, so it's up to the readers which they pick. In the USA, I'm willing to bet it'd be the new version by a very wide margin.

  3. Part of Tintin's magic, like manga and so many of the French and Belgian comics, lie in the clean and uncomplicated art. Even Franquin's almost grotesque attention to detail was minimalist.

    Updating it, rounding it, fleshing it out, might simply expose the artifice: The experience is so compelling precisely because it is incomplete, it forces us to imagine a richer world; to project coherence onto it.

    The characters, the mood, the tone might suddenly be informed explicitly by the art rather than shaped by the imagination and interpretation of the reader.

    Like Hollywood movies simply drip of manipulation with their pompous, almost baroque scores, Tintin would lose its power. It would become a paperback autodidact, a little tyrant telling you to lay back, relax and hold your imagination: We've got it under control.

    Leave it be. If today's readers ignore the work, that's to their detriment. They don't need our help to see the light.

  4. SHDR, you make a valid point, and I certainly agree that comic art that's too detailed and literal detracts from an emotional connection with the story. (Just look at Mirabilis, for example - Leo certainly isn't trying for photorealism.)

    But I'm not aiming to scrap Herge, I'm saying let's give readers a choice. If you're right and the original Herge art is so much more effective, maybe this would be a way to educate comic-reading tastes so people could see that. 'Cause at the moment they just don't care.

  5. I hope I'm not being too predictable here, Dave, but I disagree!

    First of all, Tintin still sells incredibly well all over the world. Kids and adults alike (but I emphasis kids) still read Tintin in their thousands. Every workshop I've done, children still know Tintin. Tintin is far from fading into obscurity.

    I also think the ligne claire style has a timeless quality - it would be at home in the 1920s, 1950s, 1980s and 2000s. What has dated is the content and sensibility, times have certainly moved on there, but the stories are strong enough to transcend that.

    If Tintin was to be updated it would be a commercial decision and a style-over substance decision. Any stylistic updating would date itself far more rapidly and it would almost certainly fail, as most remakes do. The heart would be ripped out because it would be done to make money (wanting a bigger audience is a commercial decision to make more money from a property).

    If you need to 'flash' something up to sell more, the problem isn't with the original books, it's with the attitude that bright lights dazzle more than the content they hold. Tintin is classic because it is comics at the top of its game (even by today's standards) and because it is excellent material in the first place. It has lasted and stood the test of decades.

    More needs to be produced like this. The more stuff that is made where the object is to give a flash and a bang then get out with a fist full of dollars needs to be constantly challenged by making content that matters, even if it requires the reader to invest some time in it. This kind of thing may not sell thousands and thousands right away, but it will sell constantly and steadily, building up, and will stand the test of time - quality will show.

    Movies are great, they make oodles of money and popularise properties - but the originals live beyond them and are nearly always better. I think there's a right reason and a wrong reason to do things.

    And… I'd take Studio Ghibli over most 3D movies any day (because of the fantastic stories!). (Toy Story and few other excepted - because of the stories - not the style).

    Sorry if my thoughts are higgeldy-pickedly … I'm off out the door now - late!

  6. Hi Garen, well I was indeed talking commercially, not aesthetically. When Marvel announced manga versions of some of their characters, I probably would've expressed the same points as you, with just the names changed. But I can see why they did it.

    Just as a manga Daredevil - or Maleev's version, say - doesn't abrogate Miller's or Colon's, and may indeed encourage more readers to look at the older stuff, I believe that giving Tintin a cinematic makeover could do the boy a world of good. More readers are never a bad thing!

    Quality-wise - well, we are talking about Jackson and Spielberg here, and I think their 3D re-visioning of the characters has been intelligent and positive. The character would still be Herge's, just as modern Spider-Man is recognizably Ditko's. There would be no dishonoring of the original creative talent by doing this.

    I do think we have to accept that entertainment properties gradually lose their audience pull as they get older. J K Rowling outsells Dickens and next decade it'll be somebody else. Hardly anybody reads Bob Kane Batman stories. Hardly anybody watches Hitchcock's original b&w British movies. The Singing Ringing Tree is forgotten while Clash of the Titans gets a sequel (argh!). The majority of people can't make the imaginative jump that's needed to emotionally connect with older stories.

    Here's a personal example. When I was a kid, there was a puppet version of The Goons on television. My dad, a Goons fan, loathed the idea - he was a big believer in the radio having "better pictures" :) But I belong to the TV generation, and I would never have had the patience for the Goons on radio. Moreover, if somebody had colorized those early b&w shows I watched like Fireball XL5, I'd have been first in line. Little philistines, kids, you see :) But so they should be. Stories aren't meant to be respected, they're meant to be devoured.

    I do want to emphasize again, though, that I'm not personally saying, "Oh, that Herge is old hat. Let's kick him into touch and have whizzy digitally colored comics instead." I like the Herge art. But I fear it's getting more and more distant for modern kids (especially in the States) to relate to, and if there's a way to get a 13-year-old kid in Peoria to pick up a Tintin comic, I'm all for it. He may go on to become Herge's biggest fan!

  7. I'm totally fine with Tintin being adapted - changed even - into films. They are separate and different from the books. They can even make new adventures if they want (though that would go against Hergé's wishes). But I can't see any point or improvement in remaking the existing books with a new style. If they don't work in the US market, then they don't work in the US market - make something different that Americans will like.

    Also, your motivation for an update is lack of sales - but this isn't born out. For obvious and personal reasons I keep a close eye on the Amazon top 100 children's comics - it is always littered with Tintin books (as of this moment Tintin occupies nos. 3, 4, 9, 14, 16, 17 and 18 in the top 25.

    The 2009 UK 40-week Nielsen chart (which only tells part of the sales figures) showed the top 20 selling children's comics with Tintin occupying 7 spots including the no.1 position with sales of almost 4000 for that title alone. Tintin sales are in the 10,000s in this country - not at all bad for stories created in the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s - and beating the majority of modern comics for that market.

  8. But we have to compare the few thousand diehard comics fans, Garen, with the upwards of half a million casual readers (and that's just in the English-speaking world) who potentially could be reading Hergé's stories in the years while the movies are being released.

    The Hergé-drawn originals would still be on sale too. I'm certainly not advocating they should be supplanted! Currently Tintin sales in the UK average about 2500 per title across the whole series. And that's not too shabby for comics, true - but the operative term there is "for comics". But then we put that alongside Harry Potter or Alex Rider... Unfair comparison? I don't think so. Tintin is a complete story universe of equal quality, I'm just suggesting ways we could help spread the word.

    Another example of this kind of approach: one of my favorite authors is Jane Austen. When the movie Clueless came out, a friend said, "You'll hate it. They've made Emma a gum-chewing Valley Girl." But I loved it. Because too many people can't get into Jane Austen because of the old-fashioned language (actually more modern than later writers like the Brontës, but there you go) and if they can enjoy the story in a modern incarnation, and that becomes a bridge that allows them to cross over to appreciating the work in its original form, it's all good.

  9. Btw I probably ought to say that this is my opinion only, and I say it with my business hat on rather than my writer's hat (which is a lot less sensible and has a natty peacock feather tucked into the band). Leo will be just as irate as everybody else at the merest suggestion of taking a 3D spray can to poor old Hergé, and would have said so by now except he's up to his neck in DIY this week - and on Monday will be starting work on Mirabilis #9!

  10. Oh, I do hope you don't think your views have got me all irate, Dave! On the contrary, it's got me thinking (ouch) and it's all good stuff.

    I must say that Tintin is one of the few comics that does not just appeal to die-hard comic fans - it sees it's best sales in the mainstream, outside of comic shops. In fact, some people don't even equate Tintin with comics! So, as a comic, it is as about successful as you can get.

    And I do think it is unfair to compare Tintin's sales figures (over 150 million as of 2008 and still selling about 4 million a year) with those of Harry Potter (400 million in 2008). Comics remain, regrettably, the poor cousin as far as storytelling mediums go. The problem does not lie with Hergé's style, but with the comic form in its entirety (in the UK and USA, at least). You don't need to update Hergé's artwork on paper - the books can be left alone. The film *is* the update you're asking for - it's that which will provide Tintin in a more modern art form for those who may not look at the books in the first place, and it is the film that will lead many to the books where they will stand or fall on their own merits, as they should. It would be artistically wrong to meddle with such great works, and doing it for commercial reasons is no justification. Let the film do its work there.

    A film adaptation is a different thing entirely, and I have no problem with the likes of Clueless existing alongside Emma, Throne of Blood existing alongside MacBeth, or West Side Story existing alongside Romeo and Juliet.

    Does Tintin really need a makeover in book form? I don't believe it's worth the sacrifice (even alongside the original books, as you say), and it's not the answer to getting more people to read Tintin, or comics.

    Rambling (and not very well argued) thoughts, as ever! (Thanks for indulging me :-))

  11. Oh no, Garen, when I said irate, I wasn't thinking of anyone in these parts - where the debate, as always, has the conviviality of a chat over afternoon tea :-) And I wouldn't have it any other way. Just that some hackles did get raised on LinkedIn and elsewhere - and that wasn't at all my intention. (I wasn't expecting the Belgian Inquisition.)

    It has been a shame that the success of movies like Iron Man and Batman Begins hasn't brought mainstream readers back to comics. And I do think that the key to doing that is to have more stories like Tintin that appeal to all ages. It would be a tragedy if comics themselves wither away while the characters created therein go on to billion-dollar success at the box office.

    I'd also like to see more of what Scott McCloud calls genre maturity - ie successful comics shouldn't just be zombies, superheroes and girls in very skimpy clothing. As previous posts have discussed, the key to that is getting comics out of the hobby stores (those hobby stores that survive, that is) and I believe digital comics can help there.

    I can well remember how my reaction to comic art as a kid was not at all what my more educated (?) taste tends towards these days. I passionately preferred Romita's Spider-Man to Ditko's, rated Kirby's books the worst of Marvel's titles, and thought Steranko's drawing was as often stilted as it was inventive! Well, I was a kid and I didn't know anything - but I knew what I liked and didn't like, and works of genius would stay on the racks if my twelve-year-old self didn't find them relatable. Why I mention that is I also didn't care for Tintin then - not because of his lack of repulsor rays, but simply because he wore plusfours. Now, I realize that is a dumb reason to dismiss a body of work, and I made up for it later, but I remember how a child's tastes are just so arbitrary, immediate and absolute. And I suspect that today's kids may be just as intolerant of anything at all quirky.

    Hence I would like to see the film-makers at least do one album using the movie art. (And they pretty much have to do that if they want a tie-in comic because I understand the movie storyline combines ideas from several different Hergé books.) Because I do believe that it's possible for an English-language comic to sell 500,000 copies in a year and I think it would do no harm to test that theory. Just as Pride & Prejudice will survive long after P&P & Zombies is forgotten, the Hergé books are well enough established by now not to be threatened by an alternative version that would only be around for a few years, after all (ie while the movies are showing) so that a decade from now the stone would have sunk and only the ripples remain.

  12. Movie adaptations of comic books represent an "easy way out" to me. While the loyal comic-reader spends hours leafing through thick graphic novels, all the casual viewer has to do is sit through an hour and a half without any real effort on his/her part. I feel as if movie watchers don't "earn" the experience. I don't know if you'd agree with me on that, though.

  13. >>Does Tintin really need a makeover in book form? I don't believe it's worth the sacrifice (even alongside the original books, as you say), and it's not the answer to getting more people to read Tintin, or comics.<<

    This is what it boils down to for me. It reminds me of the old 3D View-Master versions of Peanuts comics. Without Schultz's wonderful linework they were soulless novelties at best:

    The Tintin film images look decent but I withhold my opinion until I see it in action. Motion capture animation is lackluster at best, and decidedly creepy at worst (as you say, Dave, remember Polar Express!). They will have to do a lot of hands-on mo-cap cleanup if it is to win me over.

    On a side note, as of last weekend we have our first official 3D animated film flop, proving that flash and dazzle don't always win the day:

    (Although personally I think it had something to do with the appalling character design!)

  14. Hi Sandy - yes, there was so much that was wrong about Mars Needs Moms that I'm amazed it ever got past the pitch meeting. The whole nearly-real mo-cap look is just gruesome anyway. But I wouldn't tar all mo-cap animation with that brush. How about Snow White? King Kong? Gollum?

    Certainly a soulless knock-off comic would be bad news for everyone involved. But I don't think these screenshots are soulless, I think they look cool! Take that shot of the old guy coming through the door. There's some dramatic oomph there. Compare with page after page of Hergé's medium shots, straight-on framing, 50mm lens view. A movie that was lensed like that would put you to sleep.

    Hamza, they are different audiences. Comics readers these days are mostly a tiny, dedicated, ageing hardcore. As per my discussion with Garen earlier, I still hope and believe that pendulum could swing back, but even so people who are willing to read a story are going to be in the minority. Movie audiences are the casual mass market, we can't expect the same level of commitment from them. Just because a book like Lord of the Rings or Tintin may break a little out of the core reading market, we still need to realize that when something like that goes to the big screen its audience is going to increase a hundredfold. The millions who loved it before are now 1% of the market. They don't get any special privileges of ownership.

  15. For a soulless knock-off comic of Tintin take a look at the Lake of Sharks - the comic of the animated film. Yeeurk!

    We obviously have a different view of Tintin (which is all good) - it was my second comic-love, just about a year after Asterix when I was about 6 or 7, and I didn't even really notice the plus-fours. It put me firmly in the direction of European albums rather than American comics (a fling I did enjoy from about the ages of 12 to 15 or so).

    I must also say I think Hergé's staging is exquisite - it is part of the ligne claire sensibility, pure storytelling that doesn't distract from a totally immersive reading experience. I find so many comics these days (American ones in particular) are almost unreadable as they try to be overly clever with panel layout. Great when it works, but inaccessible to many - especially those who aren't used to reading comics.

    Accessible comics with fantastic stories and attractive art are one of the main prongs we need to get comics out of the ghetto and into the mainstream. And that is happening - the world of superheroes and comic shops is where you'll find the ageing hardcore, but more and more people *are* reading comics, just not the inaccessible ones!

    Right, I'm off to put the kettle on :-)

  16. By the way - I hope I've made it clear that I'm not a precious Tintin fan who is against the film. I'm not against it at all, and look forward to it. I hope it's good and I hope it brings more people to Tintin! Just thought I'd add that small print ...

  17. I just realized that when I said a movie shot the way Hergé stages a Tintin comic would put the audience to sleep, I certainly didn't mean that the comic would put people to sleep! My excuse is that it was my birthday celebration this weekend, first drink in 3 months, so I'm a little blearier than usual...

    I need to do a post about how comics are read, because I complete agree with you, Garen, that the simple staging of a Hergé comic helps to draw the reader in. Likewise the iconic character design of ligne claire, which seems to me to be doing much what manga does: finding a simple impression of the characters that allows the reader to pour themselves in to the story. But that's because comics are read (by those that read them still) actively, just as a novel is, requiring us to invest our imagination. Whereas a movie is a passive experience - indeed, Derren Brown has likened watching a good movie to having one's imagination ravished. This is why I always sit front and center at the movies :)

    I think of the comics I read as a kid, typically selling 250,000 copies each a month. Most of them are lucky to shift 25,000 now, and that's with collectors buying several duplicate copies in plastic bags. So content-wise I'm completely with you - I want comics like Baggage and Mezolith and Rainbow Orchid and Horizon, which I think can appeal way outside the hardcore. But at the same time I'm aware that older classics like Tintin or Dan Dare or Prince Valiant or whatever, they continue to sell but as they age it gets harder for casual readers to find a way in. And so it may be worth exploring ways to bring those readers to an easily accessible version of the material so that they can later make the jump across to the originals - much as the Robert Downey movie and Steven Moffat's updated series will have boosted the sales of the original Sherlock Holmes stories.

    To get this away from Tintin and Hergé specifically, the same thing happened when the Iron Man movie came out. I asked my local comic store owner if it had boosted sales of the IM comic. Not a bit. The problem is, the movie was based on the fun, all-ages storylines of the 1960s Iron Man comics. But the comic today is dark, twisted, complex, bombastic and confusing. If you loved the movie, you will *hate* the comic!

    I'm going to pick this up in a post next week - when my hangover has gone I might be a bit more coherent :)