Is That All There Is?
Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin chose substance over style, emphasizing the adapted story’s narrative thrust in cutting edge CGI rather than worrying over the aesthetics of Belgian cartoonist Hergé’s beloved graphic novels. Overcoming initial skepticism, the film has been a popular success and has fared well enough with critics. Lost in the translation from page to screen, however, is Hergé’s iconic drawing style: what has come to be known as the ligne claire or “clear line” style, which characterizes not only Hergé’s work, but that of an entire school of international cartooning.
If Spielberg shed the skin of Hergé’s style in an effort to get to the heart of his stories, the compelling work of Dutch cartoonist Joost Swarte performs the procedure in reverse. A prime mover in the Dutch underground comics scene of the 1970s and a stalwart of international avant-garde comics, Swarte, like many European artists, was steeped in the Hergé style—and engaged it more fully than most. Swarte himself coined the descriptive term “clear line” (klare lijn in Dutch) for a 1977 exhibit that traced the historical roots of Hergé’s style and analyzed its unique properties. These include a thin, fixed (rather than varying) line-weight that outlines form to provide both volume and detail, complemented with a careful use of color (rather than shading) to enhance pictorial depth and provide visual focus. Most importantly, this clarity of line supports a clarity of storytelling, which compels the reader’s mind and eye from panel to panel.
Many European artists of the clear line school have emulated Hergé’s content as well as his style, producing Tintin-like adventure series. Swarte, equally inspired by the underground comix that emerged from the American counterculture of the 1960s and ’70s, adapted the clear line and reanimated it with subversive content unlike the perennially chipper Boy Scoutism of Hergé’s Tintin. Swarte’s ironic comics confections feature a cast of distinctively modern European character types, including Anton Makassar, a befuddled pseudo-intellectual grasping after the zeitgeist, and Jopo de Pojo, a libidinous rockabilly Tintinoid who may ne’er do well, but not for lack of good intentions. Swarte, who trained as an industrial designer, has largely moved away from comics in the past two decades, pursuing a multidisciplinary career that includes witty illustration for clients ranging from the New Yorker to the Dutch postal service, ingenious product design, and lively architectural projects. But Is That All There Is?, collecting the bulk of his comics oeuvre to date (excluding a body of children’s comics), provides an overdue opportunity to linger over and consider his narrative work.
Swarte’s architectural line is well suited to depicting the fanciful urban landscapes and careening classic cars that surround and confound his characters. But his vision of the world is humanistic rather than mechanistic, even if he expresses the conflict between the two as clockwork tragedy played for laughs. Two of his stories feature hapless humans run afoul of oversized mechanisms designed for precision (a church bell and a massive pendulum each crack skulls). A crisp, one-page political allegory of left and right subtly denies the intellectual mechanism of rigid ideology. The ultimate collision between human nature and the tools of progress—war—is part of Swarte’s farcical critique of Europe’s colonial legacy in Africa.
In “Waiting for Reinforcements” and “Caeser Soda?” Swarte’s colonial adventurers and overlords, like members of the privileged class throughout his work, are depicted as foolish, selfish, and morally diseased. Their antagonists are indomitable North African Berbers, depicted with iconography that draws from the cartooning stereotype of the coon image. This is of a piece with Swarte’s purposeful pillaging of historical visual vocabulary from international comics culture, and persists elsewhere, principally, to provide a through line from that history toward a present depicted in balletic high tension.
Most significantly, the design of Swarte’s goggle-eyed, button-nosed Jopo de Pojo, his signature protagonist and most sympathetic character, is, as Chris Ware perceptively notes in the book’s introduction, a “disquieting amalgam of animated cartoon African-American stereotype and lily-white Euro-Tintin.” Jopo is both visually and culturally—if not literally—biracial, performing (badly) upon his guitar alongside Swarte’s affectionate tributes to blues musicians like Albert King and Fats Domino, and genially maneuvering a post-imperial Art Deco landscape that represents a fusion of form and function, of high art and daily life.
Although often luckless, the overtly synthetic Jopo’s capacious pleasure-seeking resolves some of the tensions of the culture in which he finds himself at odds. Likewise, Swarte balances Old World European civilization against the New Worlds of high Modernism and low American popular culture, all teetering upon the eternal fulcrum of frail human foolishness. Like a Rube Goldberg machine designed according to De Stijl aesthetics—with a rhythm and blues soundtrack—Swarte’s comics communicate a historically freighted, European sense of the absurd, poised toward a globalizing, postmodern present.
Bill Kartalopoulos is a comics critic, educator, and curator. He is the Series Editor for the Best American Comics series and teaches classes about comics at Parsons and SVA.