What gave Herge the artistic resilience to survive black-listing?

What is it about the character Tintin that engenders magnanimous feelings toward his creator?

Look at Tintin’s face. His regular demeanor is the universal expression of neutral, unadulterated surprise. Psychologist Paul Ekman, in his book Unmasking the Face, describes it:

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"surprise" as illustrated in Ekman's book

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Tintin, eternally surprised

  • The brows are raised, so that they are curved and high.
  • The skin below the brow is stretched.
  • Horizontal wrinkles go across the forehead.
  • The eyelids are opened; the upper lid is raised and the lower lid drawn down; the white of the eye – the sclera – shows above the iris, and often below as well.
                        • The jaw drops open so that the lips and teeth are parted, but there is no tension or stretching of the mouth. (pg. 45)

When Tintin does register a response, and moves beyond simple surprise, he takes on the blend of surprised happiness expressed in the iconic Smiley face.
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Most of the time Tintin appears simply stunned. He maintains a detached look of astonishment, of non-judgmental wonder and amazement – that instant when a person is caught unaware, rendered speechless, taken aback. “Surprise is the briefest emotion,” according to Ekman, a resourceful researcher who’s branded himself as a guru on facial expression. He writes, “[Surprise] is sudden in its onset. If you have time to think about the event and consider whether or not you are surprised, then you are not. You can never be surprised for long, unless the surprising event unfolds new surprising elements.” (34)

The constant unfolding of new surprises describes Herge’s storytelling style, fast paced and full of the unexpected. Tintin comes honestly by his perpetual shock. But Ekman stresses the brevity of real-life surprise. It is of the moment. “Surprise lasts only until you have evaluated just what it was that occurred. Once you have determined the nature of the surprising event, you are no longer surprised.”

Herge’s plots are episodic and rapidly resolved. Each event leads to a quick punch-line. The reader can take time to react, but Tintin does not. He is on to the next situation. He simply CC_No_19_Huckleberry_Finn.JPGacts. He does not process events … does not analyze or judge. He is the wide-open innocent, the holy fool, who responds instinctively, from his hero’s pure heart, without assessment or reflection. He always chooses rightly. We cheer his good results because they prove his inner goodness.

Like all romantic questers, Tintin embarks on a thrilling, magical, pulse-pounding adventure guaranteed to yield a victorious, yet (and this is crucial) bittersweet ending. It is the formula for a coming-of-age story … except that Tintin doesn’t age.

In the real world, the surprises resulting from innocence lead to reflection, and that develops into experience. Every time we are shocked into wonder, we are stimulated to reconsider what we know of the world and to integrate the new piece of information. Somehow, we will react, and our initial surprise melts into another cognitive state with which we interpret the event. Ekman writes,
  • Once you have evaluated the unexpected or misexpected event, you move quickly from surprise into another emotion. … [S]urprise itself is neutral in hedonic tone. It is, rather, the following emotion that gives a positive or negative tone to the experience, depending upon the nature of the event. Surprise turns to pleasure or happiness, if the event is or foretells something you like. Disgust greets the noxious or distasteful event. If the event is provocative of aggression, surprise yields to anger. And if the event poses a threat which you cannot obviously mitigate, you feel fear. (35-6)

So what does it mean when Tintin breaks this emotional “rule”? ... when his face remains fixed in a stunned look and does not morph as expected?


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