Book World: Michael Dirda reviews 'Herge' and 'The Metamorphoses of Tintin'

By Michael Dirda
Thursday, November 26, 2009


The Man Who Created Tintin

By Pierre Assouline

Translated from the French by Charles Ruas

Oxford Univ. 276 pp. $24.95


Or Tintin for Adults

By Jean-Marie Apostolidès

Translated from the French by Jocelyn Hoy

Stanford Univ. 295 pp. Paperback, $24.95

Some years ago I was teaching English in a lycee -- a French high school -- in a poor, working-class district of Marseille. One afternoon I asked my class to tell me the names of their favorite writers. Would they, I wondered, pick Stendhal or Boris Vian or maybe Françoise Sagan or even the pulp detective writer San-Antonio? To my surprise, many of these 16-year-olds sang out "René Goscinny" and "Hergé." They laughed when I failed to recognize either name.

Goscinny, I soon learned, was the co-creator of the comic-book hero Astérix, whose witty, pun-filled and sometimes anachronistic adventures are set during the Roman occupation of ancient Gaul. In effect, Goscinny wrote what we now call graphic novels. I soon bought and read most of them. As for Hergé: Not knowing his name revealed to everyone that I was but a callow, provincial American, a mere aspirant to European culture. For Hergé was, of course, the Belgian writer and artist who, between 1930 and 1976, chronicled the Indiana Jones-like adventures of the immortal boy reporter Tintin and his dog, Snowy. Just this past June, an Hergé Museum opened near Brussels, with considerable fanfare.

Nowadays, the 23 canonical Tintin albums, translated into English, can usually be found in the children's section of most public libraries. Yet fans range from philosopher Michel Serres to novelist Marguerite Duras to filmmaker Steven Spielberg, who is at work on a series of Tintin movies, starting with "The Secret of the Unicorn" (1943). Moreover, there are scores of scholarly books and articles about the young reporter, including that foundational work of Tintinology, the 1984 study by Jean-Marie Apostolidès, which has now been translated as "The Metamorphoses of Tintin." This last is a labor of love but also of sophisticated analysis, examining the evolution and changing character of the Tintinesque universe.

A new Hergé biography by Pierre Assouline highlights yet again that all-too-common divide between the flawed private man and the admirable creative genius. Tintin was originally conceived as the ideal Boy Scout: virtuous, brave, resourceful and (in his earliest days) religious, as well as eternally 15 years old. Children were virtually encouraged to practice the imitation of Tintin. After all, Hergé -- born Georges Remi -- himself grew up a devout Catholic conservative. He invented his hero for the juvenile section of a Catholic publication called Le Vingtième Siècle (The Twentieth Century), and for years followed closely the spiritual and artistic direction of its charismatic editor, Father Norbert Wallez.

It's especially deplorable, then, that the initial versions of "Tintin in the Land of the Soviets" (1930), "Tintin in the Congo" (1931) and "Tintin in America" (1932) were spattered with crude political caricatures, fanatical Belgian nationalism, colonialist attitudes, anti-Semitism and racism. Villains, for instance, bore Jewish names and exaggerated features. Good Africans loyally pledged their allegiance to their homeland, Belgium. Tintin's friend, the short-tempered, moody and alcoholic Captain Haddock, spluttered racially offensive epithets in his colorful bouts of cursing.

Still, one might excuse such things as being period prejudices, typical of the time. It's an argument that Hergé later made himself. But the artist's behavior during the Nazi occupation of Belgium is another matter. In order to keep working and, quite callously, to advance his career, Hergé agreed to supply Tintin strips to Le Soir, a collaborationist newspaper whose editors toed the Nazi line. So, while other writers and artists chose an honorable silence, Hergé blithely earned pots of money as a valued member of the Le Soir team.

After the war, Hergé barely escaped prosecution as a collaborator, largely because he opportunely accepted a chance to collaborate again -- this time by starting Tintin magazine with the very men in a position to save him from indictment. For a long time, he was nonetheless widely considered a traitor or "incivique" (noncitizen).

Little wonder that by the late 1940s, the once highly energetic Hergé began to suffer from severe depression, sought escape in casual love affairs and grew increasingly absolutist in his business arrangements and artistic views. To produce the postwar Tintin adventures, Hergé established an almost medieval-style workshop, relying on talented employees for historical research, story development and a fair amount of drawing and coloring. Yet he always took sole credit. In his art, at least, there could be no hint of collaboration.

Still, the mature Hergé never found real contentment. In his later years he divorced his wife and married a woman nearly 30 years his junior, studied the quietist "Tao Te Ching" for spiritual solace and published nothing new after 1976. He died in 1983 at the age of 75.

Most readers of the Tintin albums generally agree that those produced in the late 1950s and early '60s were Hergé's most heartfelt, deepest or funniest: "The Calculus Affair" (1956), "The Red Sea Sharks" (1958) and "The Castafiore Emerald" (1963) are often mentioned as his best, while Hergé's own favorite was "Tintin in Tibet" (1960). In the first I ever read, "The Crab With the Golden Claws" (1941), a discarded tin can leads our hero to a ring of opium smugglers. In short order, Tintin and Snowy meet Captain Haddock for the first time, suffer near drowning, and almost die of thirst in the Sahara, where they eventually fight a pitched battle straight out of "Beau Geste." I know that Hergé eliminated some objectionable elements in the original story, but what now remains is clear, fast-moving and surprisingly sweet.

Tintinatics of a scholarly turn will certainly want to acquire Jean-Marie Apostolidès's "The Metamorphoses of Tintin," while those fascinated by the strange lives of creative geniuses may want to read Assouline's fine, if somewhat disillusioning, biography. But, "blistering barnacles!," as Captain Haddock would say: All that really matters are those 23 albums, perennial classics of reposeful adventure.

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