'Tintin and the Secret of Literature'
An excerpt from Tom McCartney's new book in The Guardian.
All of which raises the question: is it literature? Should we, when we read the Tintin books, treat them with the reverence we would afford to Shakespeare, Dickens, Rabelais and so on? Should we bring the same critical apparatus to bear as when analysing Flaubert, James or Conrad? In the last two decades of the 20th century and the first of the 21st, writers of cartoons, hugely indebted to Hergé's work, have deliberately launched bids for literary status, producing "graphic novels" that are often quite self-consciously highbrow and demanding. The huge irony is that the Tintin books remain both unrivalled in their complexity and depth and so simple, even after more than half a century, that a child can read them with the same involvement as an adult.
Adults do read them: there is a wealth of studies assessing Hergé's work from psychoanalytical, political, thematic and technical angles, just as critics might assess the work of poets, novelists and playwrights. Does it follow that if the same analytical criteria can be applied to one thing as to another, the two things must innately be the same? Or is this bad logic, fit only for cultural theory seminars and Buffy-the-Vampire-Slayer-as-Postmodern-Signifier conferences? As soon as we ask if Tintin should be treated as literature, we raise another question: what is literature? What makes a piece of writing "literary" rather than journalistic, propagandistic, scientific or so on?