From the vault: Tintin the Complete Companion
Note: This review originally ran in issue #252 of The Comics Journal
Tintin the Complete Companion
By Michael Farr
Last Gasp Press
No doubt there are plenty of hardcore Tintin-philes out there to whom a book like the new Complete Companion offers little they haven’t seen or heard before. I am not one of those people. For folks like me – devout fans of Herge’s books who nonetheless remain woefully unfamiliar with how they came to be – this coffee-table sized book is an enjoyable if at times didactic background primer for what has for all intents and purposes become one of Belgium’s primary exports.
The book itself is a thorough and by-the-numbers tour through the Tintin oeuvre. From the barely formed “Tintin in the Land of the Soviets” all the way through the unfinished “Tintin and Alpha Art,” Farr delves into the history of each volume, starting with the general facts and then winding his way down into the more niggling details and artistic decisions.
The central reason for reading this book is the wealth of photos, preliminary drawings and reference material that line the pages, showing how Herge and his studio got from here to there. One wonders if the Herge foundations sends a generous check to the folks at National Geographic after seeing the few samples from the Tintin swipe file included here.
In addition, Farr reveals the real-life influences that inspired characters or certain incidents in the books. For a clueless American like myself, many of these facts were revelatory. I was completely unaware, for example, of the anti-fascist subtext that ran through what I took to be the simple boy’ adventure of “King Ottokar’s Scepter.” Not that such a discovery leads me to completely re-evaluate the book, mind you, but it did make me run downstairs and reread the darn thing to see what else I missed.
If there’s a serious flaw to the book, it’s that it seems to bog down far too much in the minutia and doesn’t give us enough of a general picture. To put it a bit more eloquently, he puts the trees under such a powerful microscope that this reader started to wonder if there was any forest around. I’m not sure, for example, that I need a four-page inventory of every single difference between the original 1943 color edition of “The Black Island” and the overhauled 1966 version. Do I really care, ultimately, that Dr. Mueller’s tie is altered into a waistcoat? Or that one of the Scotsmen the intrepid reporter comes across carries a crook in one version and an umbrella in the next?
What’s especially maddening is that at the end of the chapter Farr exclaims that the ‘66 version is far inferior to its predecessor, yet he has given us no definitive reason to think so; he has merely compiled a list of superficial differences. A tighter focus on the aesthetic merits of the two books and some more thought-out opinions might have made for a more compelling argument.
Ok, I lied. There’s another big problem with this book; namely that Farr feels the perverse need to quote verbatim dialogue from the books at length and often. I confess to being completely flummoxed by this desire. I mean, I’ve already got all the books (not bragging, just saying). I know the various plots and dialogue, as, I imagine, most people who pick up this book will. If I’m confused about a particular passage or quote Farr alludes to, I can always pull out the original work in question. I don’t need to have the entire comic sequence laid out to me in prose. I want to forgive this constant urge of Farr’s, but the cynic in me suggests it’s padding designed to up the page count and nothing more.
Still, for those Tintin fans not already intimately familiar with all of the details, “The Complete Companion” does a decent job of living up to its title. To the die hard Herge scholars, the book probably comes off as old hat, though even they might get a kick at some of the reproduced materials on display here. And it’s not as though there are that many Tintin reference books available in English and on this side of the Atlantic. So let’s congratulate Farr for filling this niche so nicely.