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Author: Tom McCarthy

Title: Tintin and the Secret of Literature

Publisher: Granta

Paperback: 196 pages

ISBN: 978-1-86207-935-9

Price: £8.99

Publication Date: 07/05/2007

For me Christmas and Tintin have been irrevocably linked since my childhood, as my stocking would invariably contain a new addition to my Tintin collection. So it has become somewhat of a tradition for me to get out and read my Tintin collection in the ponderous days after the twenty-fifth of December as a means of recapturing something of those halcyon days of my youth. And a recent addition to this experience came a few years back in the form of Tom McCarthy’s Tintin and the Secret of Literature [yes, that’s Tom McCarthy of Man Booker-nominated C fame]. Using postmodern, structuralist and psycholanalytic theory, McCarthy brought a new perspective to how I viewed Hergé’s famously quiffed and ageless cartoon hero.

As has probably become abundantly clear already, I adore Tintin [even as a child I always held him above Asterix and Lucky Luke]. I also spent large swathes of my time at university [well, except for the time I spent carousing!] reading books on postmodern theory. So, in my case, McCarthy is certainly preaching to the already converted. Despite this obvious bias in favour of the book, I have tried to maintain my objectivity in this review and point out both its positives and shortcomings.

For Tintin and the Secret of Literature is a piece of non-fiction that will certainly not be to everyone’s tastes. Indeed, one of the biggest difficulties that McCarthy must overcome is to convince many of his readers that ‘comics’ can be viewed as literature. There are probably some who would see this as the conscription of weighty theory to deal with a subject matter that is too flimsy and without depth. I am certainly not one of them, but I have encountered it countless times in my life. But, as McCarthy argues so convincingly, Tintin does not actually have to be seen as literature. Instead, it falls somewhere between literature and art, and as such is something completely new. Furthermore, McCarthy claims, the importance of Hergé’s works can be seen in the manner in which it has influenced other aspects of twentieth and twenty-first century culture  – which range from Indiana Jones and thriller/adventure literature through to the pop art of Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Roy Lichtenstein.

As someone who is completely fascinated by literary theory, I loved the fact that McCarthy uses a veritable smorgasbord of theorists in this book, including Julia Kristeva, Jacques Derrida, Freud and Roland Barthes’ 1970 book S/Z. However, I can see that both the theory and the subject matter are very specialised and that McCarthy’s writing is so detailed and in-depth that it almost certainly would prove indecipherable [well, it is a postmodernist text!] to anyone who had not read at least some of the literature utilised in the book.

But, conversely, Tintin and the Secret of Literature’s main strength lies in this obsessively detailed deconstruction of Herge’s books and McCarthy’s ability to show quite how something that might seem to be only a children’s comic is in fact a richly textured, multi-layered text. And, incredibly, it’s all done without any frames or images from the comics [the Hergé estate refused]. It makes what McCarthy has accomplished all the more impressive. Indeed, McCarthy’s incredible knowledge of the subject matter is so breathtaking that it makes my affection for Tintin feel slightly less weird [it means that there’s someone even more anoraky than me!!]. And at its heart is McCarthy’s obvious love for Tintin, a love born in childhood and whose exuberance can still be seen in the humour and joy woven throughout the book.

Note: For all you other Tintin-philes, Stephen Spielberg’s long-awaited, much-anticipated film adaptation of Herge’s Tintin series is pencilled in for cinematic release in October 2011. Yay!

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