Firstly I should say that I haven't read any Tintin in a long time. That might surprise you, but there's a reason for it. When I started The Rainbow Orchid I wanted it to be a British comic but in the mould of European classics such as Tintin, Blake and Mortimer, Freddy Lombard, Yoko Tsuno and their ilk. But being so heavily influenced from the start I wanted to find my own feet with the style and story, so I pretty much cut myself off from reading Tintin (the best-known of the influences) over the next few years. I perhaps sneaked in one or two reads in something like eight years.
In that time I was given a hugely generous 40th birthday present from Egmont - the UK publisher of Tintin (and The Rainbow Orchid) - in the form of a complete set of Tintin in hardback. In the US the Tintin books have been published since the 1970s by Little, Brown, and recently they released a series of young reader editions, sporting newly designed covers and - the best bit - fascinating bonus material at the back of each book.
The new covers are the first thing you'll notice about the books, each one enlarging an extract from one of the story's panels on a flat colour background. There have been mumblings from some Tintin fans that the original albums shouldn't be messed with, but I have to say I think, for an offshoot edition, they're good; deliciously designed and rather attractive. The next thing you'll notice is the size - these are digest books measuring roughly six by nine inches but they're mostly perfectly readable (a few of the illustrated documents and longer balloons can be a bit of a struggle for older eyes) and they double up as an ideal and portable travelling edition.
Before you reach the start of the story you'll find seven pages, each devoted to a key character from the album with a little introduction to them and the part they play in the adventure ahead. So, in Cigars of the Pharaoh we get Tintin and Snowy, Sophocles Sarcophagus ("Doctor Sarcophagus only has one thing on his mind throughout this adventure: Ancient Egyptian pharaohs!"), Rastapopoulos, Thomson and Thompson ("The world's silliest police detectives make their first appearance in this Tintin story. Right from the start their investigations are in a hopeless muddle!"), Sheik Patrash Pasha, The Fakir, and The Maharaja of Gaipajama ("The dignified Maharaja of Gaipajama welcomes Tintin into his palace, and the heroic reporter returns his kindness").
The bulk of the book is, of course, made up of the most important bit, the Tintin adventure itself. I don't think I need to go into any more detail than to say that Hergé was a master of graphic storytelling, tight and exciting plots, wonderful characters, and sublime clear-line drawing ... do I? There's a very good reason the Tintin books are still selling in their hundreds of thousands to this day. There are currently ten titles in the Little, Brown young reader series; in order of publication: The Secret of the Unicorn, Red Rackham's Treasure, Cigars of the Pharaoh, The Blue Lotus, Tintin in America, The Broken Ear, The Black Island, King Ottokar's Sceptre (all 2011), The Crab with the Golden Claws, and The Shooting Star (2012). In the UK Egmont have so far published The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham's Treasure in this format, with further titles to follow in 2013.
The most interesting unique feature of these young reader editions is the bonus material at the back of each book. Entitled 'The Real-Life Inspiration Behind Tintin's Adventures', this section provides twenty-two pages of behind-the-scenes notes, research, facts and figures relating to the story, and sketches and photos to help provide context. All this has been put together by Stuart Tett, working directly out of the Moulinsart vault with access to the entire Hergé archives, and he's done a terrific job. There's no doubt these are written with a junior audience in mind, but - even with my own well-stocked library of books about the making of Tintin - I found them fascinating and informative.
Let's take a look in more detail at one particular volume, one of my favourites, The Black Island ... First of all you get a Hergé timeline, from birth to death, placing the volume in the chronology. The main text kicks off with Hergé's connection and interest in England and then moves on to a bit about Tintin's role in the story as he takes on the guise of detective. Next we learn about the book's publication history and the vital part played by Bob De Moor in the final updated version, including some of the reference photos he took on location and a postcard he sent to the Hergé Studio from Dover. We then come to a section common to all the books, 'Explore and Discover', where particular scenes from the story are looked at in detail with the research that informed them and connected trivia: the model of trains used in different editions, Dr Müller's country house, Craig Dhui Castle, a bit of cryptozoology, the real-life Dr Müller, and aerobatics. We end off with six post-it notes of trivia - all interesting stuff. All of this is profusely illustrated with gorgeous Hergé art and related photographs.
These Little, Brown and Egmont young reader editions will be a nice addition to any Tintin collection, no matter the age of the reader, but for children in particular they will really help to give some idea of the work put into these comics, and a new dimension is added with the very well constructed and written supporting material from Stuart Tett. I highly recommend them!
If you'd like to know a little more about the work behind these new editions, there's an interesting interview with Stuart over at The Compulsive Reader. And, if you're on Facebook, do check out the Tintin Facebook page.