Get Out! Tintin Is Eighty?

When a good friend of mine told me earlier this week that comic strip reporter Tintin had been “outed” by a fellow journalist, I was not the least bit surprised. The Tinky Winky controversy of the late-1990s came to mind, in which Jerry Falwell—discard his soul!—denounced the handbag-clutching purple creature of Teletubbies fame as being a “gay role model” for television’s newest and youngest target audience, the toddler. As if, with parents plonking them down in front of the box at that age, those poor impressionables did not have enough worries about their future already.

Now, Matthew Parris, who purports to know the Belgian reporter more intimately than anyone except Snowy, had no such agenda; that is, he did not equate “gay” with “dangerous.” Still, I would not be so presumptuous as to drag the perennially adolescent Tintin, who turns 80 today, into what some assume to be a camp (well, it can be camp, as I demonstrated here). Instead, I did a little outing myself by dragging the above sculpture, my most recent addition to a small collection of Tintin memorabilia, onto our patio, whereupon I took in the animated Secret of the Unicorn, based on the strip rumored to be the source for Steven Spielberg’s Tintin project now in pre-production.

I don’t suppose that the gossip about Hergé’s boy will in any way affect the box-office chances of the film and its intended sequels, about the success of which there has been so much doubt already that it was slow in receiving the green light. After all, if one source is to be believed, Tintin enthusiasm in the US and Britain amounts to “little more than a cult.” However unfortunate the phrase in this overstatement, nothing sinister or questionable other than doubt about the figure’s bankability is implied. Still, the boy reporter, who has a somewhat shady past in propagandist cartoons and only gradually matured into the open-minded, worldly youth he became in his Tibetan adventure (the stage version of which I discussed here), has had his share of detractors.

Warning labels other than “Caution: content may damage your kid’s chances to turn out straight” have been attached to Tintin’s exploits in the Congo (as mentioned here), and his tendencies have been denounced as right-wing. A globetrotting reporter who is racist, fascist, and gay? A rather incongruous picture; but then, the Tintin of 1929 is not the same young man who cleared the gypsies accused of having stolen the Castafiore emerald in 1963.

When first I encountered Tintin, no such thoughts occurred to me. Still, in part for reasons made plain by Mr. Parris, I was intrigued by the cub reporter and his freedom to travel around the world, unencumbered by homework, filial duties, or anxieties about puberty. He was as exciting and comforting in this respect as Pippi Longstocking, only neater and more mature.

As an adventure-starved, working-class latchkey kid unsure and downright scared about his own sexuality, I was only too eager to relate to an independent teenager whose parents are never seen or talked about, who does not appear to have girls on his mind, whose closest human pal is a hunk of a sea captain, and who is devoted to a fluffy pet dog named Snowy. I guess that makes me whatever Mr. Parris just labeled him.

When I now add another label in honor of Tintin’s birthday, realizing just how often the lad has found his way into this journal, it simply reads . . . Tintin.

Feeling Strangely Animated

I had never been to a Halloween party; and the days of dressing up in more or less fancy costumes lay well behind me. It was with some reluctance and considerable misgivings that I accepted the invitation. Back where and when I grew up, there was no such blood red letter day as Halloween. Your parents might take you to the cemetery to see the candles lit for All Hallows’; but you could not expect to have a ghoulish old time. Such levity was unheard of even among those not attending church services (yet still paying their automatically deduced church tax in fear of social stigma or unemployment).

When first I saw the title character of Steven Spielberg’s E.T. being both concealed and paraded around with a sheet over his head, I had no idea how clever this disguise was; nor did I what “trick or treat” meant. And what about all those carved pumpkins! To me, dressing up was reserved for Carnival, the late winter revels preceding Ash Wednesday, while going from door to door, lantern in hand, caroling and asking for candy was a treat reserved for the feast of St. Martin’s. Who knew you could combine both festivities, have your candy and dress up to boot!

Your costume tells people what you really want to be, one of my school teachers told us. That may very well be true; but, as a pre-adolescent boy, you get uneasy when you look at yourself and others looking at you while dressed in skirt your sister , having raided the closets and not found anything resembling a costume, insisted you wear instead. It was my sister’s choice, not mine, I pointed out; but my teacher’s argument seemed more compelling to those around you (and, you secretly admit, even to yourself). It was this moment of public shaming that took the carefree joy out of fancy dress parties.

Fast forward to Halloween 2008. I am once again in costume. No wigs or dresses, if you please. There are plenty of ill-fitting garments; but little befitting the occasion. What to do? I certainly did not want to go to any great expense; being a good sport could come dear enough. To appear as my favorite comic strip character was a last minute decision, one for which my none-too-sharp pencil mustache had to be sacrificed.

And for what? Only very few people at the party guessed whom I was trying to impersonate, even though the by now nearly eighty year old boy reporter proved highly popular again when, last year, he toured Britain in a colorful stage production. It might have been the lack of preparation or my abject failure to capture this much traveled hero of my youth; and yet, I suspect that such a general shrugging of shoulders is just the kind of response that made it difficult for Spielberg to convince Paramount to green-light his latest project.

“With hey, ho, the wind and the rain”: Thoughts on Twelfth Night

Well, this is it. Twelfth Night. In Elizabethan England, Epiphany (6 January) marked the culmination of the winter revels, that topsy-turvy escape to the kingdom of Upsidedownia. For me, it is an apt time to return to this journal in earnest by looking back at my own follies, being that the first daft act of the year has me lying in bed with a cold. I am feeling—to borrow and immediately discard what unaccountably has been declared word of the year—decidedly subprime (wouldn’t below par or having peaked do just fine? Then again, it is a banking or business term and should therefore be ugly and subliterary). I had meant well, braving the wind and the rain, walking our dog after a three-week separation. Just a few days earlier I observed that 2007 has really been a wonderful year; in case yours has proven otherwise, I apologize for rubbing it in like so much VapoRub.

It was a year of traveling and theater-going that, a fall from a ladder notwithstanding (as a result of which my right pinky is now more likely to remain extended during high tea) was free of strife, hardship, and disappointment. Sure, there were those seemingly endless weeks without phone or wireless internet, there was a move into town that fell through, and there were a few minor upsets in my now sidelined teaching career. And then there was that summer that wasn’t. “For the rain it raineth every day.” Yes, it has been a wet year at that. It began in stormy Glasgow and ended in a drizzle on Waterloo Bridge in London, where the annual firework spectacular disappeared behind a thick curtain of sulphurous mist.

Perhaps my greatest folly was the attempt at maintaining this journal while away from home (as I was for about one fifth of the year). Much of what I did manage to convey, pressed for time or bereft of a reliable wireless signal, was—watch me resist neologian inanities—substandard. As I have proved conclusively, I am not cut out to be a post-postmodern Tintin, to mention the titular hero of one of the most engaging theatrical entertainments of 2007, a year filled with delights and sprinkled with duds. Among the duds, aforementioned, were a ballet version of Gone With the Wind, which we caught in Budapest, the Angela Lansbury vehicle Deuce, and the death sentence to musical theater, an art form done away with, rather than revived, in the guise of a cheap concert version of itself that is Spring Awakening.

Among the recent theatrical highlights numbered the New World Stages production of Charles Busch’s Die Mommie Die, with the 2003 film adaptation I have caught up since. It had been seven years, almost to the day, since I saw Busch’s rather more conservative Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, starring (opposite Linda Lavin and Tony Roberts) the wonderful Michele Lee. The star of Die Mommie Die, of course, is the playwright himself. Some unnecessary crudity aside, it is a brilliant evocation of the 1960s and the end of the Hollywood era. It is also a darn good mystery—a rather better mystery than Christie’s nonetheless charming Mousetrap.

I am not a lover of camp, which, according to my own definition, is a wilful act of misreading. Die is a careful reading of the state of the women’s picture in the 1960s, the schlock that reduced a number of silver screen A-listers to sideshow freaks.

The heroine of Die Mommie Die is washed up, all right; but Busch does not derive most of his laughs from strapping her into a ducking stool. His play is as much an homage as it is a send-up (catering to those familiar with the histrionics of Crawford, Davis, and Susan Hayward); and it is this careful balance that, despite some vulgar touches, makes his play succeed both as thriller and farce.

Yes, I am rather traditional when it comes to film and theater, but that is not why I did not care much for Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker (now playing at Sadler’s Wells)—having enjoyed his Car Man earlier this year—and sought refuge at the Prince Edward Theater to take in one of the final performances of Mary Poppins on New Year’s Day. I am not opposed to trying out something new; but I find more pleasure in finding the new in the supposedly out-of-date.

A great while ago the world begun,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
But that’s all one, our play is done,
And we’ll strive to please you everyday.

Yes, I am back, Monday through Friday. And not going on about the weather—until something well nigh catastrophic or at any rate sensational compels me to break this rule . . .

Felicitous Tintinkering; or, Take Note, Mr. Spielberg

Considering that he inspired the adventures of Indiana Jones, Tintin should do well under Steven Spielberg’s direction. Little is known as yet about the project; and I wonder whether Spielberg, preparing the boy reporter for his first Hollywood outing, is paying attention to the Young Vic production of Hergé’s Adventures of Tintin, which I caught at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff prior to its return to London, where the production will soon reopen in the West End. What an inspired piece of pop culture this dramatization of Tintin in Tibet (1958-59) turned out to be.

I was not prepared to be charmed. I expected something along the lines of the previously reviewed Thirty-Nine Steps (which will soon open on Broadway); but, despite its wit, David Greig and Rufus Norris’s stage version was not so much tongue-in-cheek as it was true to and respectful toward its source without being slavish in its fidelity.

The psychedelic opening sequence had me worried a bit. Although entirely in keeping with Tintin in Tibet, which draws on surrealism to explore the dreams and visions of its central characters, the parading of famous Hergé figures who have no part in the story had something of a routinely choreographed theme park performance. From this costume ball, however, a number of strong characters soon emerged.

Matthew Parish was ideally cast in the title role, conveying both the vigor and vulnerability of our hero, who is driven to the point of madness and despair in his selfless yet lives-endangering quest to find and rescue a friend whom everyone assumes to have perished in a plane crash. Particularly haunting is a scene in which Tintin investigates the crash site and is faced with the ghosts of the dead passengers.

Miltos Yerolemou (previously hidden in the costume of the giant Yeti) was entirely believable as Snowy, the reporter’s four-legged companion. Their friendship, and indeed the very concept of friendship, is at the heart of Tintin in Tibet, a story with whose gentle lesson the creative team behind Hergé’s Adventures of Tintin did not try to tinker. Heartwarming and pulse-quickening, the result is energetic, charming, and altogether absorbing.

Unlike most of today’s Hollywood blockbusters, the stage play suggests as much as it shows, leaving the audience, assisted by ingenious props, to imagine themselves high in the Himalayas, a hidden lamasery, or the cave of a legendary monster. The props, in this case, are not a substitute for the imagination. They are a stimulant. Let’s hope that big screen, big budget special effects won’t do away with this give and take of make-believe . . .

Kaboom! Kerplunk! Ka-ching!

Well, being that I am off to Cardiff on Thursday to see the touring Young Vic production of Hergé’s Adventures of Tintin, I thought I’d make this serial and comic strip week here on broadcastellan. “Blistering barnacles” and “Cushion footed quadrupeds”! I am smack in the middle of the “Funny Book War” as staged by Michael Chabon in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay; and even though my comic treats were generally of not of the superheroic kind (to which this recent portrait attests), comics are very much on my mind.

It so happens that the aforementioned (and by now controversial) boy reporter and his creator are also the subject of the BBC Radio 4 documentary “Tintin’s Guide to Journalism” (available online here until 23 November). In this broadcast, which also features the voice of Tintin creator Hergé, journalist Mark Lawson investigates cases of real-life reporters who were inspired to enter their profession by books like King Ottokar’s Sceptre. In my case, comics simply inspired imitation.

The Germans are said to have papered the way to the comics with the picture books of Wilhelm Busch (Max und Moritz), which is where I started out as well. After graduating from the Katzenjammer Kids inspiring Max und Moritz, I became an avid comic collector, spending virtually all of my Taschengeld (distributed as it was back then in Deutsch Marks) on weeklies like Fix und Foxi.

Sigh! My family could not afford to have me shod there; but I still sneaked into the Salamander shoe stores to browse just long enough to grab my copy of Lurchi, another treat being the stories of Mecki the hedgehog I clipped from the pages of the German radio and television magazine Hörzu. More inclined toward the buzz of Maya the Bee than to the “THWIP!” of Spiderman, my comic book phase ended as I entered my teenage years. Make that my “comic reading phase,” since I kept drawing them. My own creations often mocked those among my pubescent schoolmates who kept up with the exploits of guys like Superman or The Phantom.

It was only after I graduated from the comics that I discovered a connection between cartoon bubbles and comic speech, the kind of connection to which the Americans owe the serial adventures of Amos ‘n’ Andy, the kind of affinity that made it possible for New York City Mayor La Guardia to read Little Orphan Annie on the air during the 1945 newspaper strike. Even though I had very little exposure to radio drama, being the walking TV Guide in my family, I created in the character of Inspektor Bullauge (Inspector Bull’s Eye) a comic for the ear. I made up the story as I played the parts, more interested in the sound effects I could use and record to bring my cardboard creation to life.

Zowie! Despite dedicating an estimated 300,000 words of this journal to popular culture (and radio dramatics in particular), I have never explored here the relationship between onomatopoeia and the equally imaginative world of sound effects . . .

The Second Hand Sense

Well, I don’t think there is such a thing as a second-hand experience. I mean, either you are experiencing or you are not. That said, much of popular culture consists of hand-me-downs, the most retail-generative of which are being continually retailored to suit new media and markets. Pop is what keeps popping up, what pops in and out of the media we very nearly reserve for popping corn. It is the culture that is second-hand, though, not our appreciation of it. Earlier today, we booked tickets for the Young Vic’s touring production of Hergé’s Adventures of Tintin, based on the comic book Tintin in Tibet, first serialized back in 1958-59. I sure am looking forward to my reencounter with the aforementioned Tintin (or with Tim und Struppi, as I got to know the boy reporter and his dog many years ago in my native Germany). Without requiring any reanimation, the adventure will come to life on the stage of the magnificent Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff. I shall take it all in, with whatever senses are being engaged, no matter how many layers of text and context separate me from the original strip.

Sometimes, an approximation is all we get to experience. Take Charles Laughton, for instance, who was heard on this day, 15 November, in 1936 in a radio-readied scene from the biopic Rembrandt, in which Mr. Elsa Lanchester played the title role. The radio version (of a scene from the motion picture) was broadcast from London over NBC in the United States. I know, the movie is still extant; it is this original broadcast that seems hard to get.

Laughton (seen here through the eyes of make-up artist Ern Westmore in a chart published in the 24 December 1938 issue of the British Picture Post, previously raided for a shot of Claudette Colbert’s gams and this portrait of Laughton’s Jamaica Inn co-star) is heard extolling the virtues of women, probably not a romantic subject in which the actor had much of a first-hand knowledge.

Considering that the original recording does not appear to be in circulation, I was glad to catch an earful of Laughton’s performance on this 6 March 1957 broadcast of NBC’s self-celebratory second handbasket Recollections, which was being stuffed with this Rembrandt copy more than twenty years after the initial live broadcast. Other goodies shared out on that occasion were Dinah Shore’s “big break” on the Eddie Cantor Show (2 October 1940), a tribute to Wynn Murray, and a 1937 performance by Ray Heatherton (whose photograph you may find on my homepage).

NBC’s broadcasts of Recollections are a first-rate introduction to American radio entertainment of the 1930s and, indeed, to the everyday of US citizens during that period. However much broadcasters depended on stage and screen plays for their material, teasing listeners with their if-only-you-could-see-us-now approach to on-air promotion, tuning had lost little of its excitement during those early days of network broadcasting. I, for one, have never treated listening as a second hand sense, no matter how second-rate the material.

Tintin Foiled?

Holy Mackerel and Blistering Barnacles! Intrepid boy reporter Tintin is under attack. Recently honored in Belgium and soon to become a Spielberg franchise, the byliner turned video and radio star is now being held accountable for his exploits in the Congo. Tintin in the Congo has been denounced by Britain’s independent but government sponsored Commission for Racial Equality as “racist claptrap.” Some booksellers have responded to such claims by moving the comic to the adult graphic novel section.

Tintin, it should be recalled, forged an interracial friendship during his adventures in Tibet (which I hope to be experiencing in the Old Vic stage production later this year) and fought against ethnic stereotyping while retrieving the Castafiore Emerald. Still, the much revised Tintin in the Congo—which dates back to the time when Amos ‘n’ Andy were on the American wireless, Josephine Baker wore bananas, and Al Jolson cried for his “Mammy”—might tell a different story altogether.

I revisited Hergé’s depiction of what Nigger of the “Narcissus” author Joseph Conrad called the Heart of Darkness to debate with myself whether the book’s read-at-your-own-risk label (“an interpretation that some of today’s readers may find offensive”) should suffice or whether Tintin ought to be canned.

Tintin in the Congo is an imperialist, colonial adventure story; but its hero does not come to conquer a continent. He is merely there to see and capture it in his reports. Along the way, he gets into some terrible scrapes, kills a few wild animals, and saves a few natives (or is saved by them). Sure, the Africa visited by Tintin is a caricature, its inhabitants grotesque. So, for that matter, are the white villains, American gangsters with ties to Al Capone.

Is Tintin in the Congo a story likely to turn its readers into Lynx and Lamb (you know, the white supremacist teen-duo known as Prussian Blue)? Should it be going the way of Enid Blyton’s Three Golliwogs (Golly, Woggie, and Nigger), an un(re)publishable book by a bestselling author? I don’t know what is worse: xenophobia or revisionism, yesterday’s blackface or the whitewashings of the present.