Wednesday, January 12, 2022

The Adventures of Tintin, Reporter for "Le Petit Vingtieme, in the Land of the Soviets by Herge

OK. Going from the mature peak of any art form back to the earliest examples is going to be a big surprise. And if it's all by the same creator, it's not fair to compare the early stuff to the really good stuff.

But, boy howdy did Herge get better over his career.

I finally dropped all the way back to the beginning of the Tintin series, the inimitably titled The Adventures of Tintin, Reporter for "Le Petit Vingtieme," in the Land of the Soviets, originally serialized in the newspaper advertising itself in the title during 1929 and 1930. And it is....not nearly as well-done, in every possible way, than even Tintin in America, which came just a few years later.

On the positive side, Tintin does actually seem to be a a reporter in this book, though that's mostly an excuse for his travels: he does spend one night frantically writing something that he never manages to file. (And never does anything else reporter-ish, like talking to people and taking notes, or even having a dispassionate view of anything he encounters.)

Soviets is a really weird model for the rest of the series: it's nearly three times as long as the others (138 story pages) and reads like a run-on sequence of very slapstick newspaper adventure comics from ten or twenty years earlier. There's no depth of characterization, none of the verbal wit Herge developed later, and the art is quicker and sketchier, possibly because of the newspaper publication.

Instead, we get agitprop. Did you know the Soviet Union was bad? It's bad. Really bad. Tintin is sent on an assignment to Soviet Russia to report on something, or maybe everything - this isn't particularly clear, maybe since it was just a thin excuse to send him in that direction. Immediately (on page 2) a scruffy commie tries to murder Tintin, since - we will hear this over and over - the USSR is one big Potemkin village, where everything is horrible in every way, and if right-thinking Belgians (well, maybe other people elsewhere too, but who cares about them?) knew the truth they would be shocked and appalled, which would lead to something unclear.

The plot follows that initial impetus: Tintin is traveling, first to get into Russia and then to get out of it, while various dirty commies try, sometimes with massive military force and sometimes with sneaky sabotage, to murder him. Several times, for variety, they capture him, tie him up, and threaten to murder him slightly later.

None of this is successful, obviously, since he went on to star in twenty-three more books over the next fifty years or so. This is partially because the narrative is so clearly on Tintin's side that nothing can harm him, and partially because this (twelve-year-old? I guess?) little blonde kid can beat up absolutely anyone and everyone he comes across, probably because his heart is true and they're all dirty commies.

This is not good. It is amusing for anyone who can avoid taking it seriously. It moves very quickly, with that Perils of Pauline-style one-damn-thing-after-another plotting, and a reader will not be bored. (Annoyed, maybe. Baffled, possibly. Bemused, if they're lucky.) It is primarily of interest for people who know the mature Herge and want to do a compare-and-contrast, and possibly for fans of social history who want to see a master-class in fear-mongering.

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