I’ve long been interested in Hergé’s Belgian comic series Tintin, which chronicles the adventures of Tintin, boy reporter, and his faithful dog Snowy. When a batch of hardback three-in-one editions showed up at my favorite used book store I picked up Vol. 3, which collects The Crab with the Golden Claws, The Shooting Star, and The Secret of the Unicorn. I read The Crab with the Golden Claws in one pleasant sitting that night and finished the other two adventures in similar fashion. Then I went back to the bookshop and picked up the other four three-in-one editions they had in stock.
It’s hard to divide the tales, which are all fun adventures in the high style of boy-adventuring, but I think Crab was my favorite of the three. It involves a drug smuggling ring and a trip to the Sahara desert. It also introduces Captain Haddock, an alcoholic lummox who tips into a verbose stream of insults whenever he’s in a rage (he merely stutters when in his cups). Haddock is Tintin’s unlikely (but totally likely) sidekick in the other tales in the volume, and he shows up in the other books I bought as well. The Shooting Star is a bit more sporadic in its plot–it begins with the end of the world (by asteroid!) and when that doesn’t pan out, moves into an ocean race to recover a meteorite. Unicorn also boasts a nautical theme; Tintin finds part of a treasure map in a model ship and fights against antique-collecting brothers to recover the booty (Keno Bros. beware). These adventure stories share more in common with Indiana Jones and Edgar Rice Burroughs than Marvel or DC comics; there’s a prevalent sense of danger, fun, and mystery that underscores the series.
Hergé’s clean, efficient style evokes beautiful and strange worlds. His economy of storytelling is simply brilliant; he knows how to connote his characters’ movements–including some sweaty action sequences–and he also knows how to move the plot forward without resorting to talking heads (although you will find the occasional expository-friendly radio broadcast pop up in a Tintin comic). It’s when Hergé drops a luscious market scene or a crowded basement-dungeon larded with antiquities that the art in Tintin shines. Hergé’s great talent is to evoke a startling sense of place for each setting in his comics, a fully-realized set that creates a sort of visual (and emotional) baseline for the reader. This allows for the cleaner, crisper panels to relay action without clutter. Hergé’s knack for storytelling cannot be underestimated either. He blends high adventure with slapstick and verbal comedy, much of it courtesy Tintin’s foils: the Thompsons, bungling detectives, precisely, who provide Tintin with many of his cases; Haddock; and Snowy, of course.
If you know a bit about Hergé’s Tintin series, you may know that its depiction of non-white and non-European characters has come under attack in recent years; Tintin in the Congo has been singled out in particular. I haven’t read Congo, but Crab’s representation of Arabs (and Asians) is riddled with all kinds of wrong–at least when viewed from a PC postmodern post-colonialist post-whatever perspective. Hergé’s comics reveal at times a particularly suspect Western European ideology, one that privileges white male authority in the form of white male adventure. We can see the same colonialism and Orientalism at work decades later in the Indiana Jones movies (particularly Temple of Doom). This comparison is not meant to indict Indy (or Spielberg, rather) or excuse Tintin (and Hergé); instead, I’m merely pointing out that adventure tales that feature white heroes exploring–and dominating–the Other are hardly new; nor have they disappeared. The big mistake would be not to read Hergé’s work for fear of tripping over politically-correct mores. Banning a book is never a smart practice.
Far better is Charles Burns’s recent Tintin revisionism in X’ed Out: he moves his inverted hero Nitnit to a bizarro world version of the Saharan market, a place teeming with strangeness that is also largely indebted to William Burroughs’s Interzone. The inversion reverses Tintin’s a priori white male domination into an equally fantastic (but far more horrific) vision of confrontation with radical Otherness. Shit gets weird (as alien encounters should). Nitnit is not in control, not the master of this domain, which is plainly not his. Burns’s Tintin revision saliently calls attention to the ways that the best in art might be transformed and reinterpreted. It points toward the subconscious inheritance intrinsic to art.
But back to the book I am ostensibly reviewing. The Adventures of Tintin, Vol 3 seems to me as good a place as any to start with Tintin, and those interested should dig in. These three-in-one editions are smaller than the traditional oversized format, but you can compensate by holding the book closer to your face (ah, intimacy). Lovely stuff.
If you like Charles Burns, go ahead and pick up X’ed Out, the first (and very promising) entry in a new trilogy. Skip this review. You’ll probably be happier (and more unsettled) just experiencing all that vivid, glorious weirdness for yourself without any potential spoilers. If you need convincing, read on.
X’ed Out begins in a strange fever-dreamland that doesn’t immediately announce itself as such. Instead, we tentatively enter this weird world with Doug, the book’s protagonist, who, like Alice following the white rabbit, chases his (long dead) childhood cat through a crack in the wall. Doug traverses a cavernous, ruinous place, littered with murky detritus and swamped in a strange flood, to finally arrive in a bizarre desert town that approximates William Burroughs’s Interzone. Populated by mean lizards who dress like Mormon slackers and other grubby grotesques, the terrain readily recalls both Tatooine and Asian bazaars. Hapless Doug, still in pajamas, house coat, and slippers — and marked by an as-yet-unexplained head wound — soon finds himself under the guidance of a strange little diapered dwarf, who may or may not have his best interest in mind. The dreamworld unravels as Doug glances an old man — an “oldie,” as the dwarf says — who we will learn later is Doug’s father. An all of a sudden we’re back in the real world, back in waking life.
But no. That’s not right. Not “back” — we were never in the waking world to begin with. Significantly, X’ed Out begins in the Burroughsian dreamworld and then moves to a conscious, concrete reality. Burns’s dreamworld sequences explicitly reference Belgian cartoonist Hergé’s seminal Tintin comics (you can see how X’ed Out’s cover riffs on the Tintin adventure The Shooting Star here). Doug’s dream face is an expressive, stark mask, a naïve, cartoonish contrast to the bizarre nightmare to which it reacts.
Doug — the waking world Doug, the “real” Doug, that is — pulls a similar mask over his more realistically drawn face later in the story when he does his “Burroughs thing” at a slummy art punk party. Alienated from the scenesters who don’t get his cut-up poetry performance, Doug takes up with Sarah, a girl from his photography class with a thing for razor blades and pig hearts. The same night they meet, he loses his girlfriend, and her crazy boyfriend goes to jail for assaulting a cop. They initiate their romance in Patti Smith records, lines of cocaine, and sick Polaroids. Ah, young love.
But all of that is in another kind of dreamworld, the past, a retreat for the “real,” contemporary Doug, who spends his few waking hours cringing in his bathrobe, poring over old photos, and eating the occasional Pop Tart. At night he eats pain pills and goes to Interzone-land, a place that seems as real and solid and valid as his past with Sarah, a past he has apparently lost. Doug bears a huge patch over half his head (significantly x-shaped in his Interzone version), and both this wound as well as the psychic trauma he’s obviously endured (and is enduring) remain unexplained throughout X’ed Out. However, Burns’s often-grisly images hint repeatedly at a past event filled with violence and loss. X’ed Out leaves us in the Interzone, with the dwarf making long-term plans for Tintinized Doug. There’s even talk of establishing residency and employment–it feels like Doug is here to stay (at least in his non-waking hours). X’ed Out ends maddeningly with a girl who visually recalls Sarah being borne by lizard men to a giant hive. The dwarf explains that she is their new queen–and like some insect queen, she is a breeder. Yuck. The ending is the biggest problem with X’ed Out, simply because it leaves one stranded, wanting more weirdness.
In Black Hole, Burns established himself as a master illustrator and a gifted storyteller, using severe black and white contrast to evoke that tale’s terrible pain and pathos. X’ed Out appropriately brings rich, complex color to Burns’s method, and the book’s oversized dimensions showcase the art beautifully. This is a gorgeous book, both attractive and repulsive (much like Freud’s concept of “the uncanny,” which is very much at work in Burns’s plot). Like I said at the top, fans of Burns’s comix likely already know they want to read X’ed Out; weirdos who love Burroughs and Ballard and other great ghastly fiction will also wish to take note. Highly recommended.
X’ed Out is available in hardback from Pantheon on October 19th, 2010.
I devoured Charles Burns’s X’ed Out last night. Then I read it again this afternoon. I’ll read it again before I give it a proper review closer to its release date near the end of October. It’s weird, wild stuff, working in the idioms of William Burroughsand Hergé, brimming with punk rock energy and druggy art madness. It’s thoroughly Burnsian. X’ed Out is the first volume in what the publisher promises will be “an epic masterpiece of graphic fiction in brilliant color.” Like I said, full review down the line, but look out for this book. X’ed Outcomes from the good folks at Pantheon, who’ve already proven their commitment to the graphic novel medium in stunners by publishing soon-to-be classics like David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polypand Dash Shaw’s BodyWorld.