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Tintin: Tintin and the Alph-Art (Review)

In the lead-up to the release of The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, I’m going to be taking a look at Hergé’s celebrated comic book character, from his humble beginnings through to the incomplete post-modern finale. I hope you enjoy the ride.

Tintin and the Alph-Art is a strange little story. It’s the last Tintin adventure that Hergé began before his death, more than fifty years after the intrepid reporter had debuted in Tintin in the Land of the Soviets. I’ve also found something strangely wonderful in the idea that the final Tintin pages that Hergé drew threatened to close the series forever, with the boy reporter trapped in a polyester sculpture, entombed forever as a work of art – it’s not exactly a happy ending, but I’d argue it was a fitting one. There isn’t a definitive finished version of the story available – Hergé died leaving notes and sketches and half-formulated ideas, but there’s little real sense of how he wanted the story to end, or even how he’d get Tintin out of that one final death trap. Of all the “unofficial” Tintin works out there, and there are quite a few, Tintin and Alph-Art is perhaps the one most closely associated with Hergé, drawing from a story he never finished to try to cap off a saga five decades in the making.

And then... nothing...

Note: I am discussing the “unofficial” version of the story completed by Yves Rodier. I will also make reference to the annotated Hergé script released a while back.

It’s very clear that Yves Rodier, one of the artists to try his own hand at finishing the book as a closing chapter on Hergé’s epic The Adventures of Tintin, is a massive fan of the author’s work. Being entirely honest, his artistic style doesn’t quite capture Hergé’s technique – while his work on the faces of the regulars in impressive, their legs look really strange and out of proportion with the body. Still, Rodier’s attempt to emulate the style of his idol is more successful when it comes to writing and developing the adventure, which – while certainly feeling strange in parts – maintains any number of the touches one associates with Hergé.

That said, Tintin and the Alph-Art feels funny, because it is simultaneously one of those bold and outrageous adventures that Hergé so often wrote towards the end of his run (stories like Flight 714 or The Castafiore Emerald) and yet possesses quite a bit of the earnestness of the more classic adventures (like The Cigars of the Pharaoh, for example). Footnotes tell us where we recognise certain cast members from, and Tintin seems to comment on the contrivance when he observes, “It’s a small world, isn’t it gentlemen?” These elements were part of Hergé’s original script, but they seem more obvious when compared to the later sequences where Rodier takes on a nostalgic tour of the Tintin legacy.

Tintin forges ahead...

Indeed, the story actually makes reference to Tintin’s job for the first time in quite a while. “My name is Tintin,” he introduces himself. “I am a journalist.” Later on, he explains, “I’m a journalist and I’m making enquiries about the accident in which Mr. Fourcart was killed.” Given that his profession hasn’t really been discussed in quite a while, it feels strange to see it brought up so frequently, a sign that Hergé himself was harking back to the earlier adventures. Despite the subject matter, there’s nothing especially post-modern about the way that Tintin stumbles across the mystery. In contrast to most of the later adventures, Tintin isn’t sought out or doesn’t discover it through awkward plot contrivance. Instead, he falls back on the old plot device of reading about a murder in a newspaper. It’s a nice touch that harks back to those earlier adventures.

I can understand why you’d want to resurrect all these references for what is the final adventure in the series, but it feels like something that has been done before. The Red Sea Sharks was the perfect excuse to tie up all the lose and dangling plot threads (with Flight 714 temporarily reviving them for parody), so it’s strange to see all these classic elements resurrected. I’ve never really liked the idea that every single plot thread in a stand-alone instalment of a particular series needs to converge later on – it is okay, for example, for Tintin never to meet Mr. Gibbons and Mr. Trickler again.

Don't leave them hanging!

Nostalgia does allow us to forgives some of the more obvious and awkward moments in the tale, as we concede that this is the last opportunity we’ll have to read about a Hergé-plotted Tintin story. In particular, there’s a beautiful little sequence where Tintin, falling unconscious, has a dream that takes him through his years of adventures – we see moments from The Cigars of the Pharaoh, Flight 714, The Blue Lotus and Tintin in Tibet, with artwork that evokes some of Hergé’s trippier sequences. Indeed, the final fate of Rastapopolous calls to mind both Tintin in America (where our hero is lynched) and Cigars of the Pharaoh (where the villain suffers a similar fate).

At the same time, all this nostalgia seems strange when combined with a story that seems boldly progressive and forward-moving. Hergé was always very much a writer inspired by modern popular culture. The curse of the pharaohs inspired The Seven Crystal Balls and The Cigars of the Pharaoh, after all, and one could spot the influence of King Kong in The Black Island. Even the oft-derided surrealness of Flight 714 drew from the same pseudo-science as earlier adventures, this time drawing on the then-popular theories of “ancient astronauts” and “extra-sensory perception.” So it feels strangely appropriate that, even crafting his final story, Hergé had his finger on the popular pulse. It’s nice to see Hergé moving with the times, and to see what reads like a reference to Another Brick in the Wall as the imaginary Blanca Castafiore taunts Haddock, “In that case, you can’t have any pudding!”

Cliffhanger!

In a fittingly post-modern twist, the subject of Hergé’s final story was post-modern art, or “Alph-Art.” Given how the writer’s later work played with the stories that had made him famous – with The Castafiore Emerald a deconstruction in which the clues never added up to a hole and Flight 714 almost a parody of a typical Tintin story – it seems oddly appropriate. There’s something fascinating hearing Haddock rant about the artwork he has just brought home, as he’s asked to explain it. “It isn’t for anything!!!” he repeatedly insists. “It’s Alph-Art, that’s all. And it isn’t for anything!” One wonders if Hergé often felt the same way, with various writers digging into his work, seeking deeper meanings. By this stage of his career, Hergé had very clearly had enough of commentators reading through his books trying to construct an argument in favour or against certain key ideas, whether looking for anti-democratic sentiment or hints of xenophobia in earlier editions.

There’s the famous sequence where Tintin is threatened to be turned into a work of art, and the fact that this was the last scene Hergé worked on fills me with a warmth. It’s a fitting end for the character, after all. “Well, my friend,” the villain explains, “we’re going to pour liquid polyester over you… you’ll became an expansion signed by César and then authenticated by a well-known expert… Then it will be sold, perhaps to a museum or a rich collector… You should be glad. Your corpse will be displayed in a museum. And no one will ever suspect that the work, which could be described as ‘reporter’… constitutes the last resting place of young Tintin! Ha!”

Hit the brakes!

There’s also a rather wonderful look at new age spiritual gurus, with Rastapopolous disguising himself as a mystic to worm his way into the confidences of Blanca Castafiore, demonstrating that Hergé still quite timely. It’s telling that such a mystical disguise might have been attempted to fool native populations in earlier Tintin adventures, but it works on the European cast here. It’s a rather timely and pointed little plot element that I think proves that Hergé was always trying to offer even a slightly new take on the character and his surroundings. It’s fascinating to consider the countless ideas that Hergé seemed to consider and throw out at various stages of plotting and developing the adventure, which would have seen the characters reinventing themselves or redefining themselves – indeed, the Rastapopolous element of the story was only suggested by Hergé’s notes, rather than confirmed by his script.

However, it’s also worth considering how Yves Rodier’s story seems to distance itself in tone from Hergé’s notes about the story. Hergé’s notes were plentiful and undefined, and I can’t imagine how difficult they would be to reconcile with a plot – indeed, many of them seem to conflict with one another, and one could see the author himself discarding quite a few before going to print. However, Rodier’s ending seems far more “final” than Hergé’s script would suggest, taking advantage of the fact that he knows this is the last Hergé adventure. While Hergé’s notes suggest taking the characters back to their roots (with Calculus curing Haddock’s inability to consume alcohol), Rodier’s ending suggests that the changes are permanent. Indeed, the only real mention of alcohol in the story is on the first page (“you know very well I can’t stand it anymore”), as if to remind readers that Haddock is still off the booze.

Tintin is a work of art...

Indeed, I do like Rodier’s ending with Tintin himself. I’m not sure what Hergé was building to with the character of the Assistant, but I like the scene in the original script where Tintin accuses her of trying to kill him – an illustration of how paranoid his life has made him, and how little trust he has. It’s a sign that the life has perhaps been a bit too much for him – like the fatigue we saw at the start of Tintin and the Picaros. He has to reassure her, “There there! Don’t cry anymore!” He then tries to placate her, without apologising for the reckless accusations.

Rodier, taking advantage of the finality of the story, takes the idea and runs with it. The story ends, appropriately enough, with the girl asking Tintin to come over to dinner and meet her folks. The last few Tintin stories, from Tintin in Tibet onwards, have seen the character grow, quite a bit – and they’ve hinted that Tintin might be moving beyond the world of investigative journalism (or that the world might be moving on without him). It’s a nice ending to suggest that innocent young Tintin, the Boy Scout who doesn’t smoke or drink and surrounds himself with men, might get a date. I like the suggestion that he might somehow move past these sagas and around-the-world adventures to settle down and live an ordinary life.  It’s a way of continuing Hergé’s developing theme that things are not as they once were, but without seeming as depressive as Tintin and the Picaros. It seems like an ending, with the hint that Tintin is willing to move past his “boy’s own” adventures and grow up, after a fashion.

The end indeed...

Tintin and the Alph-Art is a nice attempt to cap off a fifty-year legacy. I respect Rodier for attempting it, even if it doesn’t alway work – there seems to be an internal conflict between the old and the new elements that prevent it ever being truly satisfying. It’s not the perfect ending, but it’s a decent one.

One Response

  1. Agreed! There are a few bumps, but I thoroughly enjoyed the way the story was wrapped up. Merci, Yves. I wish we could have more.

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