SPX 2008: Herge & The Clear Line

Monique fell asleep and Sammy spent the hour drawing a thicket of dicks on a cardboard cup coaster (see Twitter to your left), but the Herge panel at SPX, hosted by Bill Kartalopoulos, and featuring Jason Lutes of Berlin, Joost Swarte, and Fantagraphics' Kim Thompson, was pretty fascinating. It was based around Swarte coining the term "clear line" in describing the style of "Tin Tin" creator Herge and spread out from there to a general celebration of Herge's work, his influence on the two artists on the panel, and even made some time for some interesting critiques of Herge's art, namely the super-busy backgrounds of his late work and the ever-looming spectre of racism, anti-semitism etc.

"Herge & the Clear Line" began with a half-hour power-point presentation by Kartalopoulos, which attempted to provide some pre-Herge precedent for the "clear line" style and ultimately to define (unsuccessfully) what exactly the "clear line" style is. Kartalopoulos came off as much too mannered and equal parts deferential and overly confident and it added a slight feeling of unease during his presentation, but once the panel opened up to the three guests, things worked out better. Jason Lutes was direct and sincere, Kim Thompson was brutally honest, and Swarte was informative and modest, but none of them really jibed with Kartalopoulos' very New York, twee, intellectual style.

It didn't help that he admitted that his knowledge of "Tin Tin" wasn't exactly vast--personally, it made me feel ready to disagree with him--and his definition of "clear line" although interesting and engaging, lost some of its weight by trying to force categories and meaning onto the work that it simply does not have. Mainly, there was the assertion that the "clear line" style does not follow the thick-to-thin brush strokes of most comics (especially American comics) and that it maintained the same line thickness throughout. While Herge's style certainly never gets into the thick lines of Jack Kirby or something, it was sort of weird to hear Kartalopoulos say this and then look at a projected Herge image where varied thickness of line had been employed.

This highlights the problem with the conventional "Academic" approach to anything; the academic feels the need to over-explain and define anything and when it doesn't fit, force it to make sense anyway. An approach like this is especially absurd because comic books--even the kind championed at a place like SPX--are about fun and joy and wonder and mystery...and here's a guy trying to fucking explain it all. Kartalopoulos would've been better off, although yes, less intellectually "sound", discussing and touching upon the features of the "clear line" style while remaining comfortable admitting that an exact definition's kinda nebulous.
Still, his discussion and presentation encouraged discerning thoughts and disagreement, which was great for getting one to sit there and really consider Herge's work. And overall, his definition of "clear line" made sense and had he tweaked it to simply say something like "line-work that remains relatively similar in thickness throughout", he maybe wouldn't have lost some of the audience so early.

Or, had he simply left it up to interpretation and discussion--it was odd that a panel began with an admitted Tin Tin n00b defining Herge's style--Kartalopoulos would've come off better. For example, Jason Lutes had to take the time out to politely but aggressively point-out the difference in line width in a Herge piece being projected and Joost Swarte it seemed, was put in the uncomfortable position as being touted as the heir apparent to the Herge style when in fact, clear line's rather pervasive. If Kartalopoulos' attitude towards comics and the definition of "clear line" weren't so rigid, any number of post-Herge artists could've been cited. Upon seeing image after image of Herge's work, intercut with Swarte and numerous turn of the century clear line predecessors' art, the work of Moebius and Geoff Darrow came to mind as defining and in some small ways, updating "clear line".



Both certainly employ more lines and especially more hatched line, both artists' work looks remarkably similar in style and even color to the work of Herge and/or Swarte. One got the sense that we were there to simply learn about the "clear line" style and never actively ponder or discuss it really. The panel itself sort of took it this way too, mostly taking their half-hour to appreciate and celebrate Herge's work rather than discuss the "clear line" style.

On the topic of anti-semetism and racism, it was nice to see a panel that was intended to be very intellectual, sort of aggressively and angrily dismiss this are not really that important, or rather, something of a given. Thompson discussed a recent article that's reading "Flight 714" as anti-semetic and said he disagreed with it, while also acknowledging the very overt stereotypes of Jews in early work by Herge. Jason Lutes, who came off as joyfully conservative--with a lower-case C!--when interpreting and discussing Herge, and in many ways, spoke-up for the artist, tired of getting his work mangled and fucked around with by smarty-pants type into any and all interpretations.


Karen Peltier said...

and that one bitch at the end was like "i found it really interesting that you said tin tin was a symbol in a world of symbols and blah blah blah semiotics" and its like, chill out. im pretty sure all he meant by that is that because tin tin is a cartoon a swiggly line can represent running better than it could for a real person.

dick thicket.

brandon said...

Ha yeah...I totally deleted a part of this essay about her. As someone who actually knows about French Semiotics, it's pretty easy to see how dumb she was being. It's as if she entered the panel wanting to talk about Roland Barthes and jumped at her chance when "symbols" were discussed...

david e. ford, jr said...

ha! i wasn't even there and can puzzle out from karen's description what an idiot she was.

thinking about the line work of herge and moebius and darrow it seems like one thing that the three have in common (relatively speaking) is a sort of well-defined articulation in their lines, which seems less to do with notions of variance of thickness (or lack thereof) of the lines and more to do with a surety and simplicity in their execution.

Anonymous said...

I remember being really excited to see the Tintin cartoons when they were on TV. but when I saw that they removed the black face, alcholholism and opium dens, it killed it's appeal.

Goddamn I love some Tintin.

I like the idea of exploring the influences/roots of Herge's style.

I like what you said about the Academic approach to comics.
fools forget how fun it's supposed to be. tra la la.

Monique R. said...


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