Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Take 3 panels: Tintin: The Castafiore Emerald

A simple idea behind the Take 3 Panels feature: introduce a book and its authors, with a brief overview/outline of plot, and then pick out 3 panels from it to deconstruct and chat about.

The comic: Tintin: The Castafiore Emerald by Herge, 1963
The story: In a  nutshell, The Castafiore Emerald sees Captain Haddock's most infuriating nemesis, the famed opera singer Bianca Castafiore, arrive at Marlinspike at her own behest, bringing with her her collection of precious jewels. When the jewels go missing, Thompson and Thompson are called in to investigate the crime. Reading this as an adult, it is by no means the strongest of Herge's Tintin adventures (it is one of the few without a villain), and yet for some strange reason it was my favourite as a kid: I found Bianca Castafiore terrifying and hilarious in equal measure, and the sequence in which Captain Haddock has his nose stung by an insect terrified me. His not insubstantial appendage already red, lumpy and engorged (stop sniggering), looks even worse when Bianca applies crushed rose petals onto it, giving the appearance of some weird, fleshy growth. I was also pretty obsessed with emeralds -no, seriously- because some chart I'd read that allocated you a jewel stone according to the month you were born, had informed me emerald was my gem, so it held extra allure. Mostly, I think it was probably the most out-and-out comedic of the books, Herge's usual slapstick and buffoonery- the Thompson's, the broken stair- now heightened with sheer ridiculousness, and the Captain's desperation building to a crescendo. 

Sometimes it's relatively easy to choose 3 panels, and sometimes it's not. The panels selected aren't necessarily my favourite or the most attractive (these are, by far, the most beautiful in the book), they're the ones that just catch and hold the eye when I'm going through it: I don't actively look for points to talk about, but try to discuss what makes the panel of consequence once it's been selected. This is the very first panel in the book, and it also happens to be a beauty- it chooses itself. It establishes setting and the 3 main characters instantly: they're in the countryside and over the course of the opening passage they walk up to Marlinspike Hall. The idyll of it is serene with words unnecessary; although as they come closer, we'll get to hear their conversation. 

The perspectives and framing are so well done: tree on the left in the foreground and therefore larger, trees on the right inhabiting a middle ground so still big, but not occupying huge space. The branches of the two overlap into an archway of sorts, under which Tintin and the Captain are walking in an almost central position (the slight left-placed position helps to anchor the act of walking; coming forward towards the reader, and into frame), with Snowy bounding further ahead and hidden somewhat by foliage. Herge uses varying shades of green to differentiate perspective and depth cleverly- mounds, hills, and trees- the colouring working to measure distance as well as atmosphere. And if we're never to discount anything that's included in a panel, particularly in any semi-prominent position, I love that the nightingale is front and center here- that should tell you something.

As I mentioned earlier, the humour in The Castafiore Emerald is key; the mystery/adventure secondary for a change, and this is one of the more overt panels which makes that tone apparent. Here the Captain's fears and irritations are manifest in dream form: Bianca and the parrot she gifted  him amalgamated into one being, while he's naked and vulnerable in the front row at the opera, with all the little tuxedo-ed parrots (birds of Bianca's feather) looking seriously on. This is how the Captain sees Bianca: all puffed out plumage, screechy, essentially rather ridiculous. Herge was woefully inadequate when it came to the inclusion and representation of female characters in Tintin, and there is a reading of Bianca here that doesn't help his case: a demanding, diva of a woman who schemes and tricks him into a non-existent engagement, the first of which he learns when reading a newspaper. 

However, essentially Bianca is what we would today term 'fabulous.' The whole idea of Bianca is she's famous and ambitious, although she pretends to be oblivious to it all when she's clearly not; she's not even really interested in the Captain at all, apart from using him a little for her own ends. She's not stupid: she knows he's not interested in her, and she's happy to tune it all out and let people assume what they will, which fits in with Herge's depiction of her: Bianca's supposed to be a cartoon depiction, the comic relief (but only because she never bothers to correct people and allows them to think that of her)- it's something she plays up and turns to her own favour, but she is also a successful, strong-willed, and talented woman (as much as the Captain may not appreciate it).  I like the Capatin's mussy hair here, too.

This is a classic, quintessential Herge panel for me. The motion, the physical humour, well-drawn car, the surprised clouds and startled stars. Captain Haddock's empty wheelchair has rolled loose, barreling down the hallway and scooping up Professor Calculus in its wake, the momentum and weight then propelling it down the stairs and straight into Igor, who is just about to get into his car. This is the result: the force of the clash propelling Igor into the car and out the other end, while all that can be seen of Professor Calculus is his upturned, shadowed feet. the little details make this panel, the still-spinning wheels of the chair, that one yellow star in the bottom left corner, the contents of Igor's briefcase sailing through the air. The stars and clouds are all clustered around the car, more than Igor, the pointed ends of that latter suggesting they denote Professor Calculus' stunned exasperation, while the stars are focused largely on the left for the blunt point of impact. So good: a perfect punchline of a panel.