Sometimes the turn around the corner takes you completely by surprise. Usually it might be not so great, like if you step in something. But sometimes you see “The Tintin Shop”. Guess which one makes news here.
During one last souvenir-shopping trip with a friend, here in Singapore, I travelled to Chinatown. I expected some bargains and some nice red lanterns, but not a store dedicated to the intrepid Belgian reporter. But, by some happy twist I saw this store, which is only a few months old. And I was told it is only the 7th “The Tintin Shop” in the world.
Souvenirs be damned, I jumped in here with utmost glee. And what a lovely shop it is. I am glad they kept the interiors bright, cheery and uncluttered, not like a dungeon (as merchandise shops are prone to be). They have all the titles, of course, and also a lot of groovy merchandise, like small models of the characters and the famous vehicles featured in various stories (a footlong shark submarine from “Red Rackham’s Treasure” with Tintin and Snowy inside). A brief collection of books on Tintin are also available, though unfortunately for me a lot of them were in French only. There’s also stationery, t-shirts and the other usuals. Staff is great, never stopped smiling.
But you have to go prepared with cash, the stuff isn’t cheap, not for people like me, anyway. Medium-sized models will be about S$ 20-30, going up to S$ 400-500. My guess is you should have S$ 100 in hand to leave happy (some small models, a book or two, and a few pieces of stationery).
Now having gushed about my exciting discovery, I will also share a despair I have. It is a feeling I have that Tintin is very, very dear to readers in India. I have seen the “7 to 77” age group (a tag used to describe Tintin readership) lap it up. My father borrowed my brother’s copies and shared Thomson-Thompson jokes with his friends. I’ve heard Satyajit Ray was a huge fan. One of my biggest achievements in my otherwise below-average list of accomplishments was having read all the Tintins by my early teens. So why not have something like this in India? I know there’re market forces that determine these things, but that’s also there. I’m sure we deserve this in India. Especially after the Maharaja of Gaipajama showed such hospitality!
Sure, India is not a very mature comics market compared to many others, but the loyalty shown here for Tintin cannot be short-changed. I hope someday there will be such a store here, and I will buy a small set of models after saving for months. After all, I’ve travelled a lot with him.
Re-reading some old comics feels nostalgic, like playing football in the mud (not that I ever did that). And so it happened when I picked up a Tintin comic recently. But what was it that felt so comfortable about returning to Tintin that I had been missing in the wider world of comics?
Why, Ligne Claire of course!
I was equally puzzled by the term when I first chanced upon it. But I think that’s what I had been missing.
Ligne Claire, French for Clear Line is a school of comics illustrating that believes that
lines must be distinct and uniform, giving everything shape and boundaries
everything within the panel must be shown crystal clearly
If you imagine the pages within a child’s colouring book you will know what this mean. A sharp image, drawn using clear lines, just waiting to be carefully coloured in. no ambivalent brush strokes or light effects.
This style, as it turns out, was pioneered by Hergé, the creator of Tintin. It went on to take Europe by storm during the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s. The term itself, however, was coined much later in 1977 by another artist Joost Swarte. We in India had been well exposed to Tintin comics quite early on, and that is the reason behind the familiarity we feel for images drawn in this manner.
But really analyzing the effect of the style Hergé epitomizes can throw up startling insights. The lines are uniform, with no shading or highlighting. This implies the supremacy of form over all else. And the fact that there is no shading to offer the illusion of depth also means that the background is allowed to draw itself closer into our view. Compare the two images below to understand the difference that Clear Line holds.
Herge was fortunate to gain complete editorial control over this works, thanks to their incredible popularity. He started the Studios Hergé, a team of collaborators who helped him produce comics, and taught his protégés there his style. This developed into the ‘Brussels School’ of Ligne Claire.
The style’s popularity has risen and fallen, and occasional works adopt this method even now. Among the most popular recent works in this style was Jason Lutes’ Berlin volumes published since 1996.
Another very promising discovery for me is Peter van Dongen.
What attracted me through each of my readings, from childhood till now, are probably the details within the panels. It seemed to show me everything I wanted to know and more. Like the best of adventure stories it could be crowded with overflowing treasure chests, and intricate machines, all while the plot was advancing in the foreground. It was a cosy read, like pulling all of your toys together while playing with just one.
On a parting note, I just read how the makers of the upcoming Tintin feature film expressed the difficulty of recreating a faithful look for the film based on the comics. Technology has only now come to their rescue. How’s that for the power of the medium?
The second part of this post is about the various distinguishing characteristics of comics as a medium of expression. They are very sophisticated processes, though they might not appear to be. They have been used in many imaginative ways that have pushed the boundaries of the medium. These have grown from generation to generation with each adding something new.
The first and most important one is the Panel.
Comics are usually characterized by having the page broken up into smaller rectangles called panels, each furthering the narration. Now it may be presumed that each is like a photograph, a moment frozen in time. Yet, it is not as simple as it appears. Panels are not simply like the borders of 35mm film. Given the limitless powers of the illustrator to bend the medium, the panel becomes an expression, as vivid as colours, as important as the look on a character’s face.
And though they are frozen to our eyes, their contents are not frozen at all. There can be a whole conversation in a flash, and we don’t even notice the passage of time. But time has certainly passed. In fact time, is twisted into a very different progression than in the real world. It is slowed down and sped up at will by the creators.
Unlike in novels, where whole paragraphs can go towards describing a perfect moment, and time might be kept frozen while we construct imagery in our minds, here text and image are presented simultaneously to the reader. We instantly absorb the image and absorb the communication it holds, while the text takes time to be read. As a result of the immediate impact of the visual element not much need is there of descriptive text. Instead the focus is almost wholly on speech and thought.
It is to carry speech and thought that there was the birth of the speech balloon – the second most important element of comics. These balloons are the descendants of speech scrolls found in ancient and medieval art of various cultures. They are the carriers of direct thoughts and words and also point out the speaker with their tails.
Comics, like other visual arts, is heavily performative. Hence it relies on both speech and gesture. While gesture is well represented by the image, text also starts to take on a performative aspect. It is not merely words we see, but words with specific intonations, emotions, and even sounds. Indeed, sounds are also a very intimate part of the whole comic-book reading experience. Words can become an entirely different sensory trigger.
In fact, though we read them, and we attribute meaning to them, to me they seem more real than any other medium. And one of the most fascinating aspects of comics is just this – what people have called the reader’s participation, inhabitation, or closure. We include our faculties in the act of reading comics, much more than in reading text or viewing paintings. We attribute meaning and qualities to them. How else can a paltry sum of words, and pictures that are not the most realistic, take us through a journey that is as encapsulating and vivid in mere hours, that others take much longer to do?
The most important application of this is in the transition between panels. As mentioned earlier, there is more to the panel than meets the eye. In fact, even between panels there is much going on.
We consistently invest the images and text with our senses and add motion, sound, maybe even smell, everything that doesn’t exist on the paper, into it. Different speaking voices come up, and we find ourselves as breathless for our heroes as they would be. Yes, many of these reactions can be seen when one is reading or watching cinema as well, but the power of the reader to assign values is much greater here. The blank spaces in what is offered to us and left upto us are much more.
Books have many times more words, movies have many times more images, and yet at no stage can a sensitive reader say that the impact of comics is far lesser than these. We construct all the action between panels in our head, we can make it all seamless, what we extract is actually far greater than the sum of the parts that we are given.
One of the ways in which comics allow us to get under the skin of characters is by allowing identification. Comics creator and theorist Scott McCloud, someone from whose work a comics enthusiast can learn a lot, says that because of the basic facial structures found in comics, we actually find it easier to associate as well as inhabit the characters.
It is clearly on the plane of universals that we see the characters. We might not be able to see ourselves, or someone we know, in a realistic portrayal, because the details will overwhelmingly exclude us, but in comics we can easily ‘empathise’ with the character, as well as ‘be’ him or her.
On a personal note, I have felt that reading comics can be a very intimate experience. Firstly, in practice it is one of the most physically close visual mediums, there is hardly any space between the reader and the book, and hence there are no mediations or distractions. Secondly, the characters are not putting on a performance, they are not actors, they are real. Hence we are not spectators, we are willing participants or voyeurs. We are exactly like the Common Man in RK Laxman’s cartoons, flies on the wall. Both of these together have the combined effect of making the reader step through a door and into another world.
With that I end my 2-part post. Comics studies is a wide open field with a lot of new discoveries to be made. There are many more practitioners now than ever before, and forms and platforms are ever evolving, yet our understanding of the depths of the medium are highly inadequate. The people who create them have mastered techniques more complex than we can imagine and are pure genius in a so-called juvenile art form.