THE ART OF THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN
By Chris Guise
HarperDesign. 200 pp. $39.99
HERGE: Son of Tintin
By Benoit Peeters
Translated from the French by Tina A. Kover
Johns Hopkins Univ. 394 pp. $29.95
SOMETIMES, EVEN A REVIEWER is a force for good.
Decades ago, Steven Spielberg recounts, it was a movie critic who looked at the filmmaker’s Indiana Jones adventures and saw shades of Tintin, the intrepid boy reporter and globetrotting sleuth. This astute review piqued the interest of the Oscar-winning director, introducing him to the spellbinding universe of a fellow world-class storyteller: the Belgian cartoonist Georges Remi — known to generations simply as the great Herge.
Spielberg shares this backstory in “The Art of the Adventures of Tintin,” timed to the release of his beautiful feature film, which — thanks to a savvy bit of calendar-shuffling — grossed hundreds of millions of dollars in Europe (where the comic books are beloved) before opening in North America near Christmas to a more lukewarm reception. Tintin may have sold more than a quarter-million books since his creation more than 80 years ago, but on this side of the Pond — though he has devoted fans — he’s no Mickey Mouse.
If cutting-edge technology were king, however, “Tintin” the 3-D computer-generated film would be ruling American shores, too. “The Art of the Adventures of Tintin” could rightly be called “The State of the Art of the Adventures of Tintin.” The coffee-table book is a sumptuous visual feast that dissolves the scrim on motion-capture technology, which until now has had a much rougher ride in Hollywood than any Tintin scallywag aboard Red Rackham’s pirate ship. Robert Zemeckis’s “Polar Express,” for one, was lambasted for its digital “dead eye” look during vaguely creepy close-ups, and more recently his motion-capture “Mars Needs Moms” — which reportedly cost more than $150 million to make — was declared the biggest box-office flop of 2011.
Into such snark-infested waters enter Spielberg and producer Peter Jackson, who has used digital effects so brilliantly in “King Kong” and the “Lord of the Rings” films. “The Art of . . . Tintin” author Chris Guise himself worked on the “Rings” trilogy, and was the lead conceptual designer for the “Tintin” film as an artist for the New Zealand-based Weta Workshop design studio (where effects work was done on the groundbreaking “Avatar”). As such, Guise is a top-notch tour guide who leads us on a detailed journey from comic page to “mo-cap” soundstage.
Adapting Herge’s bold and beloved “clear line” style requires uncommon understanding and affection for the characters and their adventures. This Tintin book, then, is best appreciated by those with an artist’s eye who can revel in the sheer beauty of the physical and digital transformations. What was once the simple and simply graceful ink line of an eyebrow now becomes a tapestry of pixels — and black dots as eyes must now register as human windows possessing true warmth and feeling. “The Art of . . . Tintin” illuminates the painstaking process of how digital paint is applied to Tintin actor Jamie Bell; how Daniel Craig morphs into villainous Sakharine; and how effects veteran Andy Serkis (Gollum in the “LOTR” pics) becomes rum-fueled Captain Haddock, the film’s warmest and most alive character — a performance that warrants some new category at the Oscars: best performance in a mo-cap role.
This past summer, cartoonist Jeff Smith — creator of the epic graphic novel “Bone” — told me the future of motion-capture technology may rest on the aesthetic and commercial success or failure of Spielberg and his “Tintin.” Guise’s beguiling book spotlights why that future is again safe.
Thanks to cinematic genius, those perilous waters have been not only stilled, but also warmed.
IN DIRECTING A FILM centered on Herge’s World War II-era tales of Tintin, Spielberg — the man behind “Schindler’s List” and the Shoah Visual History Foundation — had to reconcile himself to one foremost fact: Thecomics were produced for a newspaper — Le Soir — that was controlled by the Germans during the occupation of Belgium.
Although these “Tintin” comics were deemed propaganda-free, they helped sell papers that weren’t. Perceived as a German collaborator, the once-popular Herge fell out of favor during the postwar era, and it was only by aligning himself with heroic Resistance figure Raymond Leblanc — with whom he launched Tintin magazine — that Herge was able to successfully restart his most popular character.
So goes the reporting in “Herge: Son of Tintin,” the new book by devoted Tintinologist Benoit Peeters, who — like Spielberg — met Herge near the end of the cartoonist’s life (he died in 1983). “Herge” is a granular biography that pingpongs back and forth between the artist and his art, looking to build bridges of epiphany and exposition between the ideas expressed and the life lived. (The conceit of the subtitle is that the character came to overshadow his creator.) “Herge” is a highly academic affair that doesn’t fully spring to life till midstream, as we reach World War II. That’s when the cartoonist’s life and spinning moral compass are sharply set against the backdrop of history — and he makes career choices that still tinge the legend’s legacy today.
Throughout, Peeters is fair and tough, though he admits to having been under Herge’s spell for decades now — just as Spielberg and Jackson have been under the spell of Tintin’s tales.
It’s no surprise that several of Tintin’s biggest fans would embark on such books and films, which summon the spirit of exploration and discovery — and the love of unsolved secrets.
In doing so, they’re questing much like the boy reporter himself.