Tintin and the Digital Age

Ligne Claire, Hergé and Tintin

I’ve liked the Tintin books by Hergé (the pen name of the Belgian storyteller Georges Remi) since I was given a copy of a double edition – Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon – for Christmas when I was about 10, and read it in one sitting that new year’s eve.

As a child I used to love finding copies of other adventures in the local library and occasionally having new copies of my own. I’d always read other comic books, mostly American, but Tintin especially appealed because of the artwork, in the Ligne Claire style, as well as the longer-form content than the smaller, shorter, ad-filled American comics.

The style of the artwork still appeals but as I grew up I realised some of the shortcomings of the stories – issues of colonialism, racial stereotypes (especially in the early adventures) and lack of female characters – partly attributable to the period when they were created, spanning roughly the middle 50 years of the 20th century.

This tribute on the Comics Alliance website, marking the character’s recent birthday, perfectly sums up the mixed feelings many people have towards the character, the stories and their author.

Tintin at Somerset House

So I was interested to visit the ‘Tintin: Hergé’s Masterpiece’ exhibition at Somerset House in London and to attend a related panel discussion there on ‘Tintin and the Digital Age’:

“Despite being nearly 90 years old Hergé’s masterpiece Tintin is thriving in the digital age. A distinguished panel including eminent ‘Tintinologist’ Michael Farr, together with Yves Février, Simon Doyle and Paul Gravett debate why Tintin’s legacy has such power to endure and influence the current generation of graphic artists and is still so beloved by families who have grown up in an age where the computer is king.”

Michael Farr

I’ve read various books by and interviews with Michael Farr about Tintin so it was nice to hear from the author in person. On and off over the past few years I’ve read all the Tintin books in chronological order, the first time I’ve done so, each time first reading the chapter about each adventure in Farr’s Tintin: The Complete Companion. (I also strongly recommend Tintin: Hergé and his Creation by Harry Thompson – one of the best texts about Tintin and Herge.)

Farr had met Hergé several times and he started by saying that Hergé liked technology and would have approved of Tintin’s move into digital formats. (He recounted how Hergé proudly once showed him his new stereo system, complete with Wharfdale speakers.)

He explained that one of Hergé’s colleagues at his studio, Bob De Moor, felt that Tintin wouldn’t endure beyond five years after Hergé’s death in 1983 – because Tintin’s creator left specific instructions not to continue the stories without him (“I am Tintin”), famously leaving the final adventure Tintin and Alph-Art unfinished just at the moment the hero is covered in plastic by the art-world villain – an eternal cliffhanger. But despite that pessimistic prediction and no complete new Tintin adventures since 1976, the books have sold 200m+ copies and been translated into 90 languages – the latter, Farr said, being key to their enduring success.

New digital editions

Farr explained how the Tintin books have been made into new digital editions with new translations by him. The modern-day translations have none of the restrictions placed on the original translations into English, which included no swearing or references to religion, and the digital format with more flexible typesetting allows for more space for a more faithful, longer translation from the original more extensive French text. The frequent close-ups of newspaper reports about Tintin’s exploits also benefit from more space as well as, Farr said, his own journalist’s eye for how a news story would be written.

Farr also said that his new translations for digital are able to be fairer representations of the original text content. Farr addressed the regular criticism of Hergé’s books (especially the early stories) as racist by saying this was an unfair accusation, showing in the new translations that Hergé highlighted how badly colonialists at the time spoke to people of other races, using offensive terms that were allowed to be reinstated for these editions. Farr also noted that by Tintin’s third adventure, Tintin in America (which is often seen as the first acceptable adventure after the discredited Tintin in the Land of the Soviets and Tintin in the Congo with their crude political naivety, patronising colonialism and racial stereotypes) Hergé was overcoming his earlier naivety and already bringing more social awareness and themes of social justice to his works, such as his highlighting of how Native Americans were being displaced.

Other advantages of the digital format, meanwhile, were said to include better colours, more faithfully reflecting the originals than recent reprints have, with Farr noting how exceptional Hergé was at lighting his images set at dawn or twilight; and that digital lets you zoom in to every frame and shows how much detail Hergé always put in, such as in one view of an audience where even the people sitting right at the back had clearly delineated features.

Yves Février

Yves Février is in charge of the digital output from Moulinsart, the organisation that manages the works of Herge, as well as the official Tintin website and Hergé Museum.

He spoke about how the Tintin app is being redeveloped to provide five types of interactive media:

  • digital editions of the Adventures of Tintin albums
  • audio content (including radio plays and audio description)
  • digital editions of books of theory about Hergé and his creations (including those written by Michael Farr)
  • computer games
  • TV/cinema content (including documentaries and animated adventures).

I wasn’t familiar with the Tintin app before the lecture but it appears at the moment that in the English-language edition you can access all of the albums, as well as translations into French and Dutch, but not the other four types of media content (except for that which is available via a link that pulls through the content from the Tintin.com website).

But the plans for the app are to provide a richer experience, allowing better resolution and truer colours for the albums, and the ability to zoom into panels and to toggle between languages (where previously you would only be able to access different languages separately in individual translated editions) – as well as additional audio and video content alongside theoretical and critical commentary. Where possible it seemed the audio versions of stories could be listened to in sync with reading and viewing the corresponding album.

Paul Gravett

I knew of Paul Gravett initially because of Tintin – as I had come across his excellent piece Hergé and the Clear Line on his website some time ago.

He gave an interesting perspective on how comics in general are adapting to a digital world and had some questions himself as a Tintin fan about how the stories might make use of these developments.

He spoke about how various comic-book apps such as Comixology are dealing with panels versus a whole-page view as part of a viewing experience that might happen on screens as small as a smartphone or as large as a tablet. He gave the example of how Korean comics – Manhwa – are incredibly popular and have adapted for single column vertical scrolling on digital devices, as well as including occasional gifs within the artwork along with using phone vibrations to add physical effects to enhance things such as explosions.

He hoped that the digital editions of Tintin albums might allow viewers to peel back layers of the artwork, for example to show the parts of images obscured by speech bubbles, but Michael Farr suggested that in Herge’s case at least the speech bubbles were designed and drawn as part of one panel rather than overlaid later.

Simon Doyle

Simone Doyle, the founder of the fan website Tintinologist.org, next gave a nice presentation about how the internet has been able to provide a platform to bring fans of many subjects such as Tintin together, across international borders. The Tintinologist website itself is run by three people living in three different countries/timezones, and it allowed people to talk about Tintin, Hergé and the stories, as well as asking and answering each other’s questions.

One of the questions he was sometimes asked was how stories written largely in the middle 50 years of the 20th Century could still be relevant and engaging to all ages today, especially to children. People wondered whether there was anything new to enjoy in such longstanding and well-read stories. He answered that by giving one example of a young child who had asked a question through the Tintinologist site – in one of the adventures, in a scene set in a desert, one of the characters is able to knock out another character using a tree branch. You even hear the branch being broken off from a tree through an off-panel sound effect. And yet the young boy had been the first to ask, in a desert bare of any greenery, where did he find the tree? A decades-old mystery that may never be solved!

Final discussions, video clips and audience questions

The lecture was packed with interesting insights but was keeping to a tight schedule so only allowed a brief wrap-up at the end, with Yves Février drawing parallels between the ‘7eme art’ of cinema and the ‘9eme art’ of ‘bandes dessinées’ (the European comic-book albums such as Tintin).

He explained how Hergé used cinematic viewpoints such as the high shot, for example when Tintin is seen from above scaling the exterior of a skyscraper in Tintin in America (one of my favourite panels from the stories); as well as employing panoramas, zooms, depth of field and, in one famous scene from a desert-set adventure, the illusion of movement. Here Février suggested that the five figures shown were actually intended to be one figure, whereas Farr (in his Complete Companion) says that they are five individuals but cleverly arrayed to suggest the stages of movement. I think Farr’s interpretation is subtler and seems more likely, as it wasn’t characteristic of Ligne Claire art to show the stages of motion of characters by showing multiple echoes of a single character in a single panel. But I also like the fact that the artwork is still open to these differences of interpretation.

Fevrier ended by showing some nice archive clips of different Tintin films and animations before Farr opened the discussion up to the audience for a couple of questions. These included some questions about the cost, especially of the potential 3D printing of Tintin figurines that was mentioned earlier by Février. As always the issue was about quality against affordability – but Février did also say that such digital developments made Tintin merchandise potentially more accessible in countries such as Argentina where large-scale licensing deals were not possible for economic reasons.

Something I would like to know about the Tintin app was, having read the adventures alternately with their background histories in Farr’s Companion, whether there was the potential to combine some of these commentaries within the reading experience of the albums, to create a more seamless experience of the two, in a similar way to the commentary and extras available on Blu-ray or DVD. I’ll wait with interest to see whether this will become another step for Tintin in the digital age.