Hey guys, I’ve got this great idea. I’m going to write detective stories about a Belgian man-child and his alcoholic best friend. For kids!
Clearly that shouldn’t work. It’s madness. Except Hergé started drawing his Tintin cartoons in the 1930s, and in 2011 the series was still popular enough for Steven Spielberg to turn it into a blockbuster movie. Hell, I’ve loved Tintin since I discovered him about twenty-five years ago. Clearly, there is some curious Belgian alchemy at work here. But what the hell is it?
Well, first off, there’s Tintin himself. As a character, he is something of a cipher. His personality is somewhat bland, and most of his conversations serve expository needs. And yet he is surrounded by a vague aura of competence. He is a boy reporter. His age alone makes everything he does a little more impressive. And Hergé was smart enough to surround his central character with utter fools. Tintin just has to open a door without injuring himself to look like a genius in comparison. And if Tintin does take a misstep, then his one definable personality trait always saves him. Because if he is nothing else, Tintin is determined. When he decides to solve a mystery, he will doggedly pursue it to the relentless end, dragging us along with him. And so it becomes hard not to admire Tintin, not to root for him. You can see a similar formula at work with Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon. And that seemed to work out pretty well with the Da Vinci Code.
Then you have Tintin’s companions. Captain Haddock is a bumbling alcoholic buffoon whose simple slapstick and eloquent cursing will never grow tired for me. Professor Calculus is a man so ahead of his time, he’s barely aware of the present, whose circular non-sequiters always orbit hilarity. And Snowy the dog, faithful and frustrated by his inability to talk in equal measure. For a series with an eponymous protagonist, it’s remarkable how much screen time these secondary characters get. Tintin is frequently relegated to the background, quietly driving the plot forward, while his friends’ antics play out in the foreground. And it works. At least, for me it’s really these characters that give the Tintin books their soul. They are big and broad and constantly keep a smile on my face.
And the humor is needed considering the plot lines. Tintin confronts some awfully heavy problems. He tries to break up human trafficking rings. He wrestles with his inability to accept a friend’s death. Dealing with those issues and keeping us giggling is a difficult balancing act, but Hergé pulls it off. And just to add to the performance, Hergé throws in elements of high pulp adventures. There may be a wars being incited over there and gun runners trading slaves for ammunition over there, but there’s also a yeti! There are pirates!
And that’s the reason, I think, that the Tintin books work, and have worked for so long. Because Hergé is capable of the most astounding genre gymnastics. He seems to have one foot in every camp simultaneously. Comedy, tragedy, adventure, noir, even a touch of horror here and there. Hergé is the literary Fred Astaire. It’s an extraordinarily complicated literary tap dance, but the crazy Belgian performed it well enough to keep people flipping pages for over eighty years.
Jonathan Wood is an Englishman in New York. There’s a story in there involving falling in love and flunking out of med school, but in the end it all worked out all right, and, quite frankly, the medical community is far better off without him, so we won’t go into it here. His debut novel, No Hero was described by Publisher’s Weekly as “a funny, dark, rip-roaring adventure with a lot of heart, highly recommended for urban fantasy and light science fiction readers alike.” Barnesandnoble.com listed it as one of the 20 best paranormal fantasies of the past decade, and Charlaine Harris, author of the Sookie Stackhouse novels described it as, “so funny I laughed out loud.” His short fiction has appeared inWeird Tales, Chizine, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, as well as anthologies such as The Book of Cthulhu 2 and The Best of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Year One. He can be found online at his website.
His newest novel, Yesterday’s Hero, is now out in bookstores.
Another day. Another zombie T-Rex to put down. All part of the routine for Arthur Wallace and MI37—the British government department devoted to defending Britain from threats magical, supernatural, extraterrestrial, and generally odd.Except a zombie T-Rex is only the first of the problems about to trample, slavering and roaring, through Arthur’s life. Before he can say, “but didn’t I save the world yesterday?” a new co-director at MI37 is threatening his job, middle-aged Russian cyborg wizards are threatening his life, and his co-workers’ are threatening his sanity. As Arthur struggles to unravel a plot to re-enact the Chernobyl disaster in England’s capital, he must not only battle foreign wizards but also struggle to keep the trust of his team. Events spiral out of control, friendships fray, and loyalties are tested to their breaking point.