January 13, 2010

Few cartoon characters have been loved”€”or argued over”€”more than Tintin, the Belgian reporter-cum-detective whose adventures have been translated into over 50 languages and sold over 200 million books. To be precise, it is not Tintin as such who is controversial but the “€œcontradictory and inscrutable”€ man (as Pierre Assouline describes him) who dreamed him up and guarded him jealously until his death in 1983. Assouline is the highly-regarded biographer of Georges Simenon and Henri Cartier-Bresson, and his penetrating study, Hergé: The Man Who Created Tintin, will add to a growing international reputation.

Georges Remi”€””€œHerg销 was derived from the pronunciation of his reversed initials”€”was born in Brussels in 1907, the first of two sons of a Walloon factory worker and a Flemish mother. His parentage symbolizes his persisting political importance to his deeply divided country. “€œHergé was the personification of Belgium. He remains one of the last great myths of a Belgian Federation,”€ notes Assouline.

Hergé enjoyed adventure stories, drawing, American cartoons, Charlie Chaplin, and Buster Keaton; these influences gave his stories clarity of line, camera-like angles, and inventive typography, including the use of text bubbles to indicate who was speaking (of which technique he may have been the first European practitioner). He began drawing for Scout journals, then got a job contributing cartoon strips to the children’s section of the respected Le Vingtième Siècle newspaper, Le Petit Vingtième. He invented a Scout called Totor, who eventually became the 15-year-old Tintin”€”a round-faced, snub-nosed, fair-haired, plus-four wearing Bruxellois, invariably accompanied by a white fox-terrier called Milou (Snowy in English).

Tintin is brave, chivalrous, pure, intelligent”€”but without a past, a family, even a Christian name. It is curious how little personality Tintin has; the humour is almost all provided by his much more interesting friends”€”the hot-tempered alcoholic Captain Haddock, the incompetent detectives Thomson and Thompson, the deaf Cuthbert Calculus, the odious insurance salesman Jolyon Wagg, and the opera-singer Bianca Castafiore. Tintin is always a combination of Parsifal and straight man.

But despite Tintin’s many appealing characteristics, Hergé’s reputation is today often occluded by generic allegations of racism, anti-Semitism and wartime collaboration”€”with frequent attempts in some European countries to have some of his books edited or even removed from circulation.

Much of this controversy centers on Tintin in the Congo, published over 1930-1. Tintin goes to the Belgian Congo (now Zaire) as a reporter, and in his spare time goes big-game hunting. Hergé portrays the Congolese as being lazy and foolish”€”and it is assumed that they are better off being run by Europeans. (Such social solecisms impelled Britain’s Commission for Racial Equality to urge a ban on the book in 2007.) Yet the Congolese are also kindly and well-meaning while all the baddies are white, and the book is extremely popular amongst modern Zaireans.

“To add to his charge-sheet, Hergé also retained ties after the war with some ex-collaborationists”€”although seemingly not former Vingtième Siècle colleague turned SS officer Léon Degrelle, who claimed later that he had been the model for Tintin, which, says Assouline, “€œhardly seems likely”€.”

Hergé disliked big business as much as he disliked communism, and an unfortunate characteristic of anti-plutocracy is that it often merges into anti-Semitism, and Hergé was unquestionably guilty of producing caricatures such as the unscrupulous financier Blumenstein in The Shooting Star (later bowdlerised to “€œBohlwinkel”€) and, some feel, both Laszlo Carreidas in Flight 714 and Tintin’s persistent enemy Rastapopoulos.

Other evils were battled by the plus-foured preux chevalier. Tintin in America bemoans the dispossession of the Indians. The Land of Black Gold assails the oil industry. The Red Sea Sharks attacks slavery. The Castafiore Emerald features gypsies being unjustly accused of theft. The Calculus Affair warns against the misuse of science for militaristic ends. Such concerns would hardly preoccupy a real fascist. Nor would a fascist have produced The Blue Lotus, Hergé’s first masterpiece, a denunciation of racial stereotypes and the cruel Japanese occupation of Manchuria in the 1930s, written in conjunction with a life-long Chinese friend.

Congo aside, Hergé’s reputation as Hitlerian fellow-traveller rests on his continuing to work for the Belgian press during the German occupation. His wartime strips (The Shooting Star, The Secret of the Unicorn, Red Rackham’s Treasure and The Seven Crystal Balls) were apolitical, but they appeared sometimes alongside pro-Nazi editorials, and were thought by some to be legitimizing those opinions. Assouline writes in respect of Congo, “€œ[Hergé’s] talent was an anæsthetic. It disarmed all challenges to the established order”€”€”inferring that his wartime work may have had the same effect.

But Assouline also observes that Tintin was read “€œavidly”€ in prisons and camps; would the inmates really have been better off without the cub reporter’s expeditions to find meteorites, latter-day Incas or pirate treasure? Hergé said afterwards that he saw his work as being no more politically significant than that of a plumber or carpenter. For Hergé, the cartoon was always more important than the context”€”to the extent that when in 1943 he received friendly advice to scale back his output in order to minimize likely Allied repercussions, he replied defiantly: “€œNow is the time to appear in the greatest number of newspapers possible…In any case I will have reached the largest public”€.

To add to his charge-sheet, Hergé also retained ties after the war with some ex-collaborationists”€”although seemingly not former Vingtième Siècle colleague turned SS officer Léon Degrelle, who claimed later that he had been the model for Tintin, which, says Assouline, “€œhardly seems likely”€. Hergé believed always in loyalty to friends, a Scoutlike virtue for which he would now be honoured had his friends been on history’s winning side.

Hergé was arrested on the day the Allies liberated Brussels, by resistants clutching a bulletin showing him as part of a “€œGallery of Traitors”€, with the threat that “€œThe punishment that we will exact from them is merciless”€. He was saved because of the popularity (and profitability) of his creation, but also because he had never been involved in politics and his brother had been a prisoner of war. But the legal process lasted almost two years, while professional disadvantage persisted long afterwards.

Although he threw himself back into making Tintin perfect (including canny redrawing to chime with new sensitivities), he was riven by doubt. He took unscheduled absences, and moved in with a mistress without divorcing his wife. He developed interests in Jungian psychology, jazz, Taoism, “€œcryptozoology”€, and abstract art. His inner conflicts emerged into his output; the frigid tableaux of Tintin in Tibet were drawn from recurring nightmares of the time. “€œElegant to the last”€, notes Assouline, “€œhe adhered to the dictum that humour is the courteous expression of despair”€.

But Hergé’s genius has never been in doubt”€”giving rise to the term “€œhergémony”€ to describe his importance. His inventiveness, sly wit, slapstick humour, and the ever-growing period charm of his universe (not to mention that the first of a series of Tintin films should be released next year) means that Tintin will continue to be read for many decades to come.


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