Archive for June, 2008

Tintin, Your Flipped up Tuft of Hair is the Least Curious Thing About You


I first heard of Tintin through my friend Trevor. Trevor was pale and chubby (I was chubbier, but less pale), and the kids at school called him “Albamster,” which was short for Albino Hamster. I was at Trevor’s house, and he showed me these comic books (it may be fair to call them graphic novels) starring Tintin, a teenage reporter who goes on adventures and solves various crimes and mysteries. I thought Tintin was really cool, so I started reading voraciously, and I still go back and read Tintin now and then, because the stories bring a comforting sort of entertainment. Not in the way that I can identify with any of the characters, but because the stories are so engaging in their own ridiculous way. When I was in France and feeling lost and alone, I bought French versions of Tintin…. since I knew the stories so well, they were really easy to read, and I had the added benefit of being able to read the not-imported-into-the-US volume entitled “Tintin au Congo,” in which Tintin goes to Africa and befirends the natives, who are drawn as hairless monkeys. At the end, they decide Tintin is their god and they build a totem pole with his face on top. It’s pretty much the most pro-colonialist thing I’ve ever read. At least Herge, Tintin’s creator, apologized about it later in his life. Anyway, this blog will chronicle the weird things about Tintin, some of which didn’t hit me until much, much later in my life. If this sounds boring to you, go reread one of my older blogs (because that will be more boring, and then this one will seem better).

1. Unlike the famous comic book heroes, Tintin is not a meek guy who transforms into a super hero. He’s completely comfortable with his place in life as the most talented reporter in history, and he’s totally undaunted by anyone bullying him around. He faces evil mobsters, evil Native Americans, evil Peruvian indigenous folks, evil millionaires, evil South American rebels, and more, and he never really gets scared. In times of dire darkness, he plots totally implausible ways to escape, and then he sees them through to fruition with a calm coolness. There is never any mention of Tintin’s parents, although he is only supposed to be around 15. Who were these people who raised a brilliant, unflappable son and then totally disappeared from his life? It’s the ultimate contrast to something like Spiderman, where you know about Peter Parker’s life when he’s not Spidey… Tintin is and has always been Tintin (“reporter,” as he is always identified, although he almost never does anything remotely close to writing or researching news stories), and you just need to accept that and keep reading.

2. Tintin’s companions are his dog Snowy, Captain Haddock (an alocoholic sailor who loses a considerable amount of weight over the course of the series), and Professor Calculus (called “Professor Sunflower” in the French version, he’s an insane professor who has a knack for developing devices that get him kidnapped by people). Tintin never seems lonely, and I suppose one reason is that his dog (who is also an alocholic and drinks at every opportunity) is always around. But really, does he have that much in common with a sea captain and a mad scientist? I suppose this is part of a larger perplexing issue, which is that Tintin relates to every person he meets with a polite detachment that suggests profound sadness underneath his surface. He never associates with anyone his age, and he has no problem engaging professors, heads of state, military generals, and other such figures in polite conversation.

3. Tintin never gets mad at his own destiny. Many of the books start with a declaration that he’s taking a vacation, at which point something un-vacationy happens, and he is thrust into a new, dangerous adventure (sometimes so complex that it requires two issues to resolve). Interestingly, he never seems to mind… the most irritated he gets is when he says something like, “Here we go again, Snowy!” But, he says it with a smile, not at all in a grumpy way. Honestly, I can’t really imagine what Tintin’s vacation would be like… probably just relating to people with polite detachment, but with less scheming and intrigue. Or maybe he’d finally crack.

4. In German, Tintin is called “Tim.” Why do they have to be so efficient?

5. Tintin is totally asexual. I don’t think he’s gay (although he may be), I just don’t think his adventures involve him with women at all (save for the elegant Italian opera singer Bianca Castafiore, who is more interested in the alcoholic sea captain than in Tintin). He sometimes befirends young boys, but it doesn’t seem like he does anything funny with them. I mean, the time he saves his friend Chang from the Yeti’s cave, he doesn’t even hug him when they reunite at the end. There is a novel about Tintin coming to terms with his sexual side (obviously not written by Herge), although I could never get into it. Great subject though. I wish at some point Tintin would meet a girl his age, just to see what would happen. Obviously, he would greet her with polite detachment and go about his scheming, but maybe then he’d notice her pert breasts and well-shaped behind and feel something he hadn’t previously felt. I guess the world may never know. But seriously, is there any 15-year old in the world who is never, not one time, occupied with the thought of sex? Oh Tintin, you curious boy.

6. Tintin doesn’t age, but his fashion evolves with the times. By the end of the series, he’s stopped tucking his calf-length pants into his socks and has donned bellbottoms, as was the fashion in the 70’s. The bellbottoms look weird at first… you can’t tell what’s different about him, and then you realize. Boy’s got some style. The kind of style you need to help a drunken guerilla army in South America kick the liquor and mobilize to overthrow the despotic General Tapioca, reclaiming Tapiocapolis for the people. Oh man, that’s a great adventure. At the end, they surprise General Tapioca at the big carnival by dressing up as the “Jolly Follies,” a group of dancers in interesting costumes. You never really learn what the real Jolly Follies were going to do, but in those costumes, you knew it was going to be good.

7. Tintin is supposed to live in the real world, yet he does things that are clearly impossible. In one adventure, he’s stranded in the jungle with only elephants as his company (elephants to whom he relates with polite detachment). To communicate with them, he picks up a tree branch and handily uses a pocketknife to carve it into a giant trumpet that he then uses to approximate the sound of elephant speech. (Aside from the impossibility of approximating elephant speech, there is also the obvious difficulty of hollowing out a 4-foot solid branch of wood using a two inch pocketknife.) The scene where he asks the elephant to spout water out of its trunk so he can shower under it has to be seen to be believed. Also, he showers in his boxers, presumably because Herge didn’t want to show nudity. But is there a bigger secret being hidden here? In another episode, he kills an ape, cuts off its head, and puts its skin on like a suit in order to blend in with the other apes. And it’s not supposed to be gross at all. Gross.

8. Tintin is totally unfazed by incredible violence. This is the part that most leads me to believe something dark is going on beneath his sheen of polite detachment. I mean, he still expresses emotion, but mostly it’s the emotion of being mad at bad guys for not respecting the law. But he has no problem doing things that cause immeasurable pain or death to people that are out to get him. Yeah, he’s acting in self-defense, but he doesn’t even flinch. He’s like Leon in The Professional, but that guy is a grizzled old French hitman who wears his rough life in the wrinkles on his face. Tintin is a fresh-faced teenager who watches people die without it really seeming to affect him at all. Perhaps the most bizarre instance of this happens when Tintin and the crew make the first manned journey to the moon, where they find water (see #7). On this extremely dangerous journey, a member of the crew helps some hijackers stow away in the rocket. After the hijackers are found out and then killed, Tintin and the Captain tie their accomplice in the hold and wonder how they will get back to Earth without enough oxygen. Wracked with guilt, the accomplice writes an apologetic suicide note and jumps out of the spaceship. Tintin is moved by this show of sacrifice, but not that much. And by the time the rocket lands, the guy is an afterthought. All I can say is that when I was 15, if I were on a mission to the moon and a member of my crew who had aided hijackers committed suicide by jumping out into space, just so I would have enough air to breathe to get back to Earth alive, I’m pretty sure I would have needed at least a little therapy afterward.

9. No one questions Tintin in any way, and everyone takes him completely seriously. If Tintin were a normal comic book, his main struggle would be getting the world to take him seriously. But when he meets the President of Peru and tells the President that he’s going to rescue Professor Calculus from the crazy People of the Sun, the President of Peru acts as if nothing at all bizarre is going on. (He even offers the Captain and Tintin a round of the Peruvian national liquor, which is far too strong for the Captain, who prefers Loch Lomond whiskey). Or, when Tintin faces the evil mobsters in Chicago, they never make any remarks to the effect of: “What, this guy’s just a KID, and he killed Mugsy?!” In fact, offing Tintin is their top priority, because the recognize how difficult he’s going to make their lives when he decides to come to Chicago to clean up the town and free it from Capone’s (yes, that Capone) iron grip.

10. Tintin gets gassed all the time. Seriously, it seems like at least once per adventure, he ends up in a closed room where he gets gassed.

11. There’s the hair. I’m going to sign off on this totally irrelevant and probably mind-numbingly boring blog by commenting on the hair, which just doesn’t make sense. Even if I understood everything else about Tintin, there’d still be the hair.

Yes I Died a Little Inside when Juno Coined “Nerdy Chicks who Read McSweeney’s” as a Cultural Trope

The idea of McSweeney’s as a hipster staple is pretty well worn… if the tightness of the pants clinging to the patrons of 826 Valencia didn’t drive this point home, the scene in the movie Juno when the main character cites “nerdy chicks who read McSweeney’s” as an identifiable “type” of person certainly did. When I saw that scene in the movie, I got a little sinking feeling, but not because I felt like I was about to lose some obscure pet interest to the mainstream. I just felt a little uneasy with the idea of McSweeney’s being pigeon-holed as an image accessory, kind of like when the main character in a movie is shown reading Sartre in order to establish that said character has more depth than his gruff exterior might suggest. Why do I even care about this in the first place? McSweeney’s has been criticized almost from the start as a self-indulgent, navel-gazing exercise, perfect for people in their mid-20’s to early-30’s who have $24 to spend on books they may read 10-15 pages of in between listening to emo music and sorting their vintage ringer t-shirts. However, I guess I didn’t realize until Juno quite how empty McSweeney’s is perceived to be.

As I’m sure you’ve guessed, I wouldn’t be writing this blog if I didn’t think this reputation was undeserved. I don’t love everything that shows up in McSweeney’s, and I think a lot of the stories are garbage, but there have also been some brilliant pieces of writing (one of my favorites, in case you were interested, is the hoax excerpt from Nabokov’s lost last novel that appears in #8). Nor does much of the writing necessarily connote false edginess more than any other literature that lies just barely within what could be considered countercultural. But that’s not what bothers me either. My biggest problem is that McSweeney’s is the most visible and daring source of unconventional book design in contemporary mid-to-large scale publishing, and it frustrates me that a publishing house that regularly advances the concept of book design like they do gets relegated to the hipster trash bin so easily.

At one point or another, I have had a full set of McSweeney’s issues in my possession, although I’ve always ended up selling the early ones, because, rare and valuable as they are, they don’t interest me as much as the later issues, which really push the envelope in terms of design. The first three issues are fairly modest paperbacks- all white wraps with an abundance of text on the front. They are fairly difficult to find clean, although it is possible (the last copies of #1 and #2 I sold were in such good condition that I argued with a couple booksellers over whether or not they were first editions or reprints). It is easy to turn a profit on these early issues under the right circumstances… as it often happens on eBay, one will show up and fetch a high price, and then a few more will pop up, temporarily driving down the price. I picked up a copy of #1 for $70 this way, and even more surprisingly, and absolutely pristine copy of #2 for $15. With issue #4, they started to break the mold a little bit, issuing a suite of chapbooks (most stapled, although one or two are perfect-bound) in a printed cardboard box. Issue 5 is a standard hardcover, although there are multiple variants of the book itself, as well as multiple dustjackets. This started (well, I can’t say for sure if it started it, but it represents it pretty well) McSweeney’s trend of deliberately frustrating collectors by making books all of whose variants are difficult to collect, or – even worse – next to impossible to keep in good condition. Issue 7 is a good example of this- it’s another collection of chapbooks, this time housed in a hardcover wrap-around sleeve, all held together with a giant rubber band. The boards of the hardcover are uncovered, untreated cardboard, making them susceptible to bumps and smudges. Of course, the rubber band decays over time (especially if it is actually used to hold the book together) and eventually breaks, yielding a less desirable copy. Issue 11 introduces multiple variants once again with printings in 4 colors (for reference: blue is the rarest, followed by yellow, brown, and then black).

And then there are the issues that defy categorization. Issue 16 features panels that fold out in every direction, opening to display a softcover book, an oversize deck of cards with a story printed on it, and a comb. Issue 17 looks like a bundle of mail. Issue 19 is a bunch of ephemera in a cardboard cigar box, along with a “literary supplement” (the actual McSweeney’s issue). Issue 22 has a magnetic binding with three detachable softcover books within it. Issue 23 has an enormous fold-out dustjacket with a volville by Dave Eggers printed on the reverse. Issue 24 has a Z-binding that opens from both sides. Issue 26 is broken down into small books that look like Armed Forces Edition books. And finally, issue 27 houses three books in a slipcase with widows cut into the sides so that the art on the outside of the case changes based on which books are facing out.

As a collector, I’m more interested in the early editions, because they are rarer and much more valuable. However, it’s telling that I don’t own any issues before #5… as a book nut, I’m way more interested in the recent issues, even though their resale value will be nil for at least 20 years. Even then, I don’t know how much they will appreciate. In 1998, when McSweeney’s was young, I imagine that their print runs were only 1000 to 2000 copies, while now, I have a feeling they print 10,000 to 20,000 of each issue. A full set would certainly be worth investing in from a collector’s perspective, but individual issues after #8 often have a hard time getting half their cover price in the marketplace. (Of course, there are always exceptions to this when buyers get overzealous, but it will be a good long time before any issue of McSweeney’s besides the first 3 can legitimately be called “rare.”)

I am ambivalent about book-as-art endeavors. I have seen books that are just plain unreadable (especially comically oversized ones – books that not surprisingly are also ridiculously expensive), and I think those books are pretty worthless, even if they are attractive sculptures. But, for the most part, I like it when books break out of the standard although very efficient format of housing pages within a front and back cover. Any book that requires CAD drawings or 3D mockups is worth a look, and McSweeney’s has done a fantastic job being inventive while continuing to put out commercially viable book objects. I just wish that that commercial success did more to push other publishers to take chances with their book designs, rather than being reflected back on the stereotypical McSweeney’s reader as someone who cares more about appearances than literature.

Any high-end publisher knows that the materiality of a book is a prime factor in whether or not collectors will pay a premium for its merchandise. I think it’s a shame that when McSweeney’s demonstrates this focus on materiality, they are criticized for being superficial and putting more effort into the exterior while passing off the actual printed pages as an afterthought. Instead, I see them bringing a type of book that is almost exclusively the domain of highly limited, uber-expensive editions to a price point that any bookstore patron can afford. For all the guff they give collectors with their multiple variants and fragile covers, I think McSweeney’s is really innovative in how they encourage readers to be interested not just in literature, but also in books themselves.

And, really, should I be complaining if the core readership of McSweeney’s is an army of girls in plaid skirts and horn-rimmed glasses?

June 2008