A quick browse for 'Tintin' on Amazon or Wikipedia, and you'll realise that he's a unique creation in the comic-book genre, in that adults regularly revisit his adventures, and find them just as enjoyable as in their childhood. Not only are the Tintin adventures as good as you remember, but they actually improve with age; in the truest sense, they were designed to appeal to all ages. In this way, Tintin transcends other comic-book heroes, and is a cultural icon who sits shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Sherlock Holmes and James Bond.
I've got three Tintin books in my collection, in order of first publication; 'Tintin's Moon Adventure' (containing 'Destination Moon' and 'Explorers on the Moon'), 'Tintin in Tibet' and 'Flight 714'. The first and the last of these I've had since the eighties, and are now considerably dog-eared. 'Tintin in Tibet' I was given relatively recently, after reading about it during a visit to the Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinee in Brussels (you can see the photos here). These are respectively the 16th, 17th, 20th and 22nd of Herge's 24 adventures of Tintin.
Tintin's Moon Adventure: It was bizarrely fitting that these books in particular be the first which I read in the review of my collection; they feature a two-part storyline in which Tintin travels to the moon in an iconic space rocket (visible in the covers above), the design of which was encorporated into the logo of the groundbreaking chain of Forbidden Planet comic and sci-fi bookstores. The storyline was fairly strongly split in two halves over the two volumes. The first book 'Destination Moon' covers the preparations for the trip to the moon, and the training which Tintin, Snowy, Captain Haddock, Professor Calculus, Thompson and Thomson have to undergo. In a sense, it is fairly procedural, and the storyline is quite linear, perhaps even a little unexciting. The artwork of the spaceshuttle construction is gorgeous though, and the thoroughly researched science lends vital credibility to the storyline (even as it robs it of pace). The majority of the entertainment actually comes from slapstick humour, and it's brilliantly done; Captain Haddock has an unnatural capacity for injuring himself on household objects; and Calculus' hearing difficulties make conversations with him an exercise in futility. Some of the book's funniest scenes come from the collisions between these two disfunctional personalities, although when Calculus finally runs out of patience with Haddock in an extended outburst of emotion, we see some genuine character definition beyond the pratfalls and mishaps. The price of this is that Tintin is genuinely delegated to a supporting character for the duration of this volume, only taking the lead during the climax, when the spectacular rocket launch finally occurs. The second book 'Explorers on the Moon' picks up directly after the launch, immediately creating an atmosphere of danger, excitement and adventure which is maintained to the very last page. Some stunning scientific foresight is shown, especially considering that this book was produced in the early fifties, some 16 years before the first moon landing. Highlights include Captain Haddock (that loveable alcoholic!) attempting to drink a floating ball of whisky in zero-gravity, the remarkable moonscapes that Tintin and co explore, and a shockingly bitter climax which echoes Captain Oates' selfless actions during Scott's fatal Antarctic expedition. This is the only of the Tintin books I've read where characters actually die, although it is done in a respectful way which lends weight to the grand proportions of the adventure, without overshadowing the rest of the story.
Tintin in Tibet: This book is generally singled out from the rest of Tintin's adventures due to the circumstances of Herge's life at the time it was produced. The creator had recently undergone a personal crisis, and the resulting storyline is far more spiritual, the adventure far more character driven, and the comedy far less broad than in previous volumes. Of course, Haddock's (hilarious!) alcoholism is still the crux of several comical set-pieces, but all other comedy support are absent. The storyline concerns Tintin's rescue mission of an old friend, Chang, who's been stranded by a plane crash in the Himalayas. There are no villains, no treasure, and no greater glory to be achieved, only a seemingly hopeless mission to save a dear friend. As usual, an impressive degree of realism is achieved, and the perils faced by Tintin and Haddock on the mountain range were eerily similar to the real life dangers faced by Joe Simpson and Simon Yates of 'Touching the Void'. The fantastical elements have not entirely been thrown out here; the second half of the plot includes elements as diverse as a levitating tibetan monk (actually a cameo by the Dalai Lama!) and a conflict with an abominable snowman. As the perilous hike progresses, Tintin's faith and friendships are truly put to the test, and it's easy to see why for many, this is one of the greatest episodes in the series.
Flight 714: This was the first Tintin book I ever read. Looking back now, it is certainly the most action packed of the few I have read (Tintin wields an automatic machine gun, gets in a series of gunfights and outruns the lava from a volcanic eruption), it has some of the most outlandish concepts of the series, however briefly (extraterrestrials!), and a cast of villains who maximise the thrills and laughs (led by the hilariously named Papa Rastapopoulos). The storyline very quickly jumps into the action, with Tintin, Haddock and Calculus finding themselves on a chartered flight, which is hijacked in order to extort a fortune out of its millionaire passenger. The plane is rerouted towards a mysterious island with enough hidden history to give the cast of 'Lost' the heeby-jeebies. The heroes subsequent escape forms the rest of the story. It therefore lacks the rich multi-cultural research which typifies other Tintin adventures, but the lean plot and tight timeframe of only 48 hours or so lends a terrific urgency to the story... it's practically Hitchcockian. In the longterm, it may be one of the least memorable of the Tintin tales, but in terms of crowdpleasing adventure, it's a truly ripping yarn.
Looking back at these 3 books, it's clear to see that the appeal of Tintin does not lie with any simple formula or template, but from a whole package. The rotating cast of characters are fully realised and instantly recognisable, making each story highly accessible to newcomers. The compositions of the artwork aspire to cinema far more than comic art; there are next to no extreme close-up or wide scenic shots, and scenes are far more dialogue driven than in super-hero comics. The colours are amazingly vibrant, even by modern-day standards, and every one of the over-sized comic pages is a treat to look at. The majority of the adventures are around 64 pages long, a restriction brought about by increasing paper prices after the second world war, but which led to some remarkably focused storytelling, not to mention excellent value for money. And Tintin's still on the go now, with Steven Spielberg apparently acquiring the rights to make it into a movie franchise. Tom Cruise as drunken old Captain Haddock? I'd pay good money to see that!
Matt Wagner is still synonymous with his independent comics creations, Mage and Grendel, even 25 years after their creation. In the last decade though, the prolific writer/ artist has been a high profile presence in the mainstream super-hero market as well. Finding a happy home amongst the more iconic and fantastical characters of the DC universe, Wagner painted the covers for the blockbuster return of Green Arrow under the stewardship of superstar writer Kevin Smith. He also painted the covers of the controversial Batman run which saw the return from the dead of rogue sidekick Jason Todd.
The stylised visuals and heroic themes are clearly a perfect fit for Wagner, who's earliest work in Mage was an introductory exploration of this territory. Most recently, Wagner has extended this motif in two mini-series which flesh out the early years of Batman's crimefighting career, 'Batman and the Monster Men' and 'Batman and the Mad Monk'. However, his most successful retrospective take on the DC heroes, in my eyes at least, is 'Trinity' from 2003; which charts the first ever adventure to unite DC's 3 tentpole icons, Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman..
It's clear that these are a very carefully planned trilogy of books. The high adventure that runs between them perfectly balances the characteristics and staples of the three characters; the villains and locations used are a clever and natural blend from the principle's worlds. Even the covers of each chapter (shown above) ensure each hero gets a moment in the spotlight. The main strength of the story though, is the sense of light-hearted adventure and fantasy which permeates the tale. I didn't expect this from Wagner, who's signature style is far darker and more psychological. But in this pastiche of Golden Age storytelling, the action is spectacularly cinematic; the heroes' antics are inventive and colourful, and there is space for comedy and wonder amongst the super-heroics.
This tale is by no means a super-hero classic; it contains no adult themes nor hidden analogies. If anything, there may be moments of regret that the culture we live in is not more like the idealised world that these heroes overlook. But in terms of accessibility, retro design and respectful storytelling, I can't think of a better introduction to the heroes of the DC universe, especially for readers who may only know these characters from tv or movies. For fans of Wagner's work, it's wonderful to see him finally get to play with the characters who so clearly inspired him throughout his career so far. The entire story is now available in a single collected edition.