Tintin and the Secret of Literature by Tom McCarthy


I am not a fan of Tintin, but I might become one after having read Tom McCarthy’s rigorous study, Tintin and the Secret of Literature; I want to go out and read a few of these iconic and previously unacknowledged ubiquitous texts (for McCarthy, Tintin has influenced everything from Indiana Jones to espionage thrillers). I do not wish to read them because McCarthy’s book is such a good analysis (though it is), but rather because it narrates so much of the books’ plots that at times I need to read the originals to follow along. And this is the predicament of McCarthy’s book: How does one discuss a topic with a general audience when that topic has become rather specialized or even forgotten altogether?

McCarthy attempts it by discussing a topic that is hot right now—comics—and using language that’s intellectually hip. McCarthy’s work comes on the heels of newly made comic-to-film blockbuster productions like Batman Begins and Sin City, and it comes at the reader from a popular stance, while applying methodologies that utilize terms that are anything but popular. For example, Roland Barthes’ seminal S/Z is used throughout this study. The usage is sound. The lighthearted nature in which it is applied is opaque (and I like it). However, I still feel that unless one is a member of what I like to call the League of Literary Studies, I fear many readers may feel ostracized or lost.

It is the lighthearted application of theoretical models like post-structuralism or psychoanalysis that drives McCarthy’s thematic point. The study wishes to show that what seems to be mere entertainment is really doing so much more. It is playfully serious and by extension approachable by a mass audience. Tintin, as the first real comic, undermines the distinction between high and low art, suggesting that such categorizations are arbitrary at best. Thus, Tintin’s creator, Hergé (Georges Remi) can and should be considered a forerunner to artists such as Andy Warhol and Salvador Dalí, for Tintin is an aesthetic prototype for the 20th century, serving as an amalgamation of various artistic forms: painting, literature, dime novels, serial works, burlesque shows, and caricatures, which have all been shaken and stirred for mass consumption. The study goes on to make loose connections between Tintin, its meaning for the 20th and 21st centuries, and the life of Hergé himself. None of McCarthy’s connections nor the subsequent conclusions are meant to stand as the infallible, final word on the comic. Like Barthes’ thesis, the work tries to evoke new meanings as long as people read and consume it, which establishes a contract of serious play between reader and text. And herein lies a major problem with McCarthy’s study.

First, the Barthesian idea of how a contract exists between the reader and the text is lost here; at least, this complex idea is lost without a more careful study and contextualization of the rather nuanced ideas Barthes considers (and later reconsiders in later works of his).

This mixture of the critical and the popular angles will dissatisfy many readers in the end. The academics want more than a light peppering of their belief-systems; many non-academics will be disenchanted by the jargon-laden language, with its linguistic lagniappes of enlightenment. The bridge that might otherwise exist here between the popular and the academic fails to hold one’s weight when jumped upon.

It seems, at least in part, that this is the book’s aim: In order to ultimately prove Tintin is great literature (or that there is no such thing as great literature, per se), then it must be compared to other great works of art. In order to make such a comparison, the methods of study applied to those other great works must also be applied to Tintin as well.

Very well.

Yet, where are the pictures? If we are going to discuss perhaps the most groundbreaking comic and one of the most influential bodies of work of the 20th century, then aren’t we to have some pictures? The general reading audience expects visuals; we are all visually oriented, more so than we used to be. With a comic, we expect even more of those images; we are trained to look for them. There are, however, none to be found, save for obscure images that open each section of the book.

There is an answer for this absence. McCarthy brilliantly criticizes the Hergé estate for its copyright protection policies, which explains the reason that no Tintin images appear in the book. And, in fact, McCarthy shows a fine capacity to make lemonade from lemons by making the pictures’ very absence from his study the point: Tintin is a blank slate, McCarthy argues, “His face, round as an O with two pinpricks for eyes, is what Hergé himself described as ‘the degree zero of typeage’—a typographic vanishing point. Tintin is also the degree zero of personage. He has no past, no sexual identity, no complexities . . . he is a writer who does not write. As Tintin could tell you, if there are secret operations going on in this degree-zero zone of writing, then these can only be approached by overlaying, reading across, reading through [an idea of Barthes’ that McCarthy acknowledges using earlier]. That is what we will be doing in this book.”

But I still need the pictures. Rehashing the comics’ plots becomes a poor substitute, and through the various philosophical methodologies that are called upon and the visual examples that are not, the reader becomes aware of a divide between those who will revel in the academic language found throughout, in other words, those who might accept the McCarthy’s intellectual justification for the absence of the pictures, and everyone else.

Perhaps the book’s point, at least in part, is to draw the reader’s attention to an artificial divide that exists between high and low art. McCarthy asserts, “Hergé’s final, incomplete book Tintin and Alph-Art . . . betrays in its massive self-reflexivity a desire to be taken seriously, to be seen to be considering the highly conceptual issues in contemporary art with which its author is clearly au fait, alongside a desire to mock the highness of the establishment that never accepted him as highbrow, to expose its pretentiousness, its fraudulence. And literature? Hergé grew up reading lowbrow books. Later in life he read Proust and Balzac. He even read Barthes. But he never aspired to be considered a ‘writer.'”


I don’t mean to say that comic books in general, or Tintin in particular, are unworthy of serious study. The very fact that comics sell and productions of classic and newly dubbed classic tales like Superman, Batman, Spiderman, X-Men, The Fantastic Four, The Punisher, Catwoman, Spawn, et al., serves as a signpost to this truth that the medium is worth investment. McCarthy makes sure the reader does not miss this point by mentioning Spielberg, who has been after the rights to Tintin for over two decades.

This is all to say that McCarthy’s study is a serious one, using theoretical disciplines to unpack the comic’s mysteries. But the text’s goals are ambiguous. Its success is even more so.

McCarthy certainly wishes to assert that the author, Hergé, can and should be considered in the same company as Shakespeare, Balzac, Dumas, Cervantes, Austen, Brecht, Dickens, Flaubert, Chaucer, Molière, Conrad, Marlowe, Eliot, Faulkner, James, Goethe, and Baudelaire—all names dropped within the first 11 or so pages of the book McCarthy simultaneously claims that Tintin’s author did not want to be considered a “writer.” This distinction is rather difficult to follow.

Does McCarthy wish to argue that the books are a window into the personal life of Hergé himself, into the psyche of the creator of what McCarthy hails as pure genius? Everything from the author’s supposed genetic connections to royalty, to his change from anti-Semite to near leftist thinker, or to his relationship, or lack thereof, with his father comes under the purview of the study, which utilizes such varied disciplines as pychoanalysis, post-structuralism and New Criticism, and even post-Marxist models of economic or cultural dynamics—all to pick apart the enigma that is Hergé, that is Tintin.

Thus, in the end the answer to just what this book purports to do is blank-slated and rather elusive. McCarthy’s project leaves us with an open-ended conclusion and the attempts seem to fall apart to a certain extent because they wish to achieve so much. Hergé’s work is finally authorized. It is given exposure and recognition. It is now also limited.

Yet, as optimistic as the character Tintin himself is, yet Barthes’ claim cannot be limited: the secret of literature lies in its secrecy, and no amount of analysis, or lack thereof, will deny the interpretations enacted in McCarthy’s study. The ability of Hergé’s work to yield meaning stops only when we stop reading it.

Matt Bowman is a doctoral candidate in comparative literature at Michigan State University. He currently teaches at Samford University.


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