Thursday, 16 February 2017

The Adventures of Tintin in the Land of the Soviets - The Adventures of Tintin 1 by Hergé

I've only just begun these reviews and I'm immediately faced with the first question, namely what is the English language title of this book? This post's title follows the spine of the current (Egmont) paperback but both the cover and the inside front-page present it as the rather lengthy 'The Adventures of Tintin reporter for "Le Petit Vingtième" in the Land of the Soviets'. (That's not absolutely exact but it's extremely hard to reproduce the Belgian quote marks on my keyboard.) The official website gives this one as "Tintin in the Land of the Soviets", which is shorter. Whatever name gets used is a pain.

The oddness doesn't stop there. This book has the most unusual format of any of the complete adventures in the series. The earliest Tintin stories were originally drawn in black and white and serialised in a succession of publications, but after the war Hergé went back and redrew them in a more compact colour form. Both the format and the style of the series were thus regularised with some of the early developments smoothed over. But Tintin in the Land of the Soviets was never subject to later revisionism. Instead it was mostly out of print for the rest of Hergé's lifetime, with only a couple of begrudging official publications to counter bootleg copies. As a result, the only version available is the crudely drawn black and white one, with a much longer page count but with fewer panels per page than what is to come. It's actually quite surprising to see this sold as a paperback alongside nearly all the other Tintin adventures on children's shelves (though my local bookshop has strategically placed the special rocket stand right on the border with graphic novels) when it would probably be better pitched at adult collectors, as with one or two other entries in the series. It's certainly not a good introduction to the Adventures and I'd recommend avoiding using this one to start anyone off.

The narrative content is also pretty poor. There isn't really a plot beyond a reporter and his dog being sent to the Soviet Union to expose conditions there with the state police trying to stop him. Otherwise this is a string of incidents that are undisguised in their propagandic simplicity, mostly attacking the Soviets though en route the German police also get a hostile portrayal (and remember this came out during the Weimar Republic). There's little attempt to explore just what "communism" actually is and why it still appeals to many beyond one scene where visiting British Communists are shown the outside of a factory apparently operating at full capacity yet inside Tintin discovers it's just an elaborate stage effect. Otherwise this is a portrayal that would need little modification beyond changing the names and some national imagery to attack any brutal repressive regime of whatever ideology. We see sadistic interrogators, rigged elections determined by guns, elites stealing & stockpiling both food & wealth, welfare only given to party supporters and more. The drawings are crude and the points made are no less so. But then this was originally produced for the children's supplement of a newspaper and there's little disguising this. Indeed, at times the story incorporates blatant moments of education, such as Tintin showing how to start a fire without matches or Snowy knowing that salt can melt ice. Nor was the parent newspaper (Le Vingtième Siècle - "The Twentieth Century") neutral but rather it was an overtly rightist publication pushing a Catholic corporatist view of the world.

Tintin himself is less a character than a device for plot exposition. A young investigative reporter sent by his newspaper to show what life is like in the supposed socialist paradise, he has all the amazing skills necessary to outwit and evade his foes, whether it's surviving a bomb at the centre of the explosion when so many other train passengers are blown away, leaping to and from and even between moving vehicles without a scratch, or surviving being frozen in ice and encased in snow. He regularly beats up the toughest of police and interrogators, can adapt a manual railway inspection trolley to use a motor, carve a new plane propeller with just a tree and a penknife, fly said plane or immediately use a diving suit he just happens to find lying about. This is the archetypal Boys' Own hero. Snowy is also an ever-reliable plot device, frequently releasing Tintin from imprisonment and displaying strong skills and cunning, even managing to don a tiger skin as a disguise to scare guards and, inadvertently, a real tiger. Snowy regularly talks in coherent speech bubbles but most of the time it's not too clear if Tintin can actually understand him. Towards the end, it becomes clear that he can, adding to the surreal nature of it all.

Overall this isn't a great tale. The character designs are still in their early prototype forms and would have benefitted from a redrawing. This would also have allowed for the smoothing over of some of the sillier elements such as shutting Tintin in a below river dungeon with a working diving suit or the convenient weakness of many walls, floors and gratings. But what we're left with is a piece of value for its historic merits and certainly not for its literary ones.

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