Los Angeles Times television critic Robert Lloyd is a longtime “Tintin” fan and he will be writing a series of posts on the heritage of the character. This installment explores: Who is Hergé?
Hergé is the pen name of Georges Remi, who created, and for 54 years wrote and drew “The Adventures of Tintin.” I will just call him Hergé here.
Hergé — Remi’s initials backwards, pronounced in French — was born in Etterbeek, Brussels, Belgium on May 22, 1907; like his hero, he was a city boy with a taste for the outdoors. His first published drawings, after his school paper, were for the monthly Le Boy Scout Belge; he had been a Scout himself, and made his first comic-strip hero — Totor, a kind of Tintin prototype — a Scout as well. Tintin arrived in 1929, setting off for “The Land of the Soviets” in the pages of Le Petit Vingtième (of which Hergé was also the editor), the comic supplement to the daily Le Vingtième Siècle.
The strip was quickly a great success, and over the next decade Tintin and his dog Snowy would find intrigue and comedy in the Congo, the United States, South America, China, Scotland, the Balkans and the Middle East. Hergé also wrote and drew other comics in this time, most notably “Quick & Flupke,” a gag-based strip about a pair of Brussels urchins, and “Jo, Zette and Jocko,” a more juvenile adventure serial whose title characters were a brother, a sister and a monkey, and which continued intermittently into the 1950s. He also did commercial illustrations for hire, quite beautifully, in styles remote from his comic art. But “Tintin” was always his main, and finally his sole, focus.
Then in May 1940, Germany marched into Belgium and a four-year occupation began. Le Vingtième Siècle was shut down, and Le Petit Vingtième with it, and Hergé — who had already lived through one German occupation in his youth — improvidently accepted an offer to continue “Tintin” in the Nazi-friendly Le Soir. It was a decision that would come back to haunt him following the country’s liberation in 1944, when he was accused of collaboration and detained and questioned four times. “Tintin” was in abeyance until 1946, when a dedicated weekly “Tintin” magazine began, published by Raymond Leblanc, a sympathetic hero of the resistance.
Interestingly, the books that Steven Spielberg chose to adapt for his new, big-screen “The Adventures of Tintin” all date from the Le Soir years, when Hergé turned away from geopolitics and excised any hint of the ongoing war from his work. The stories from this period unroll in a seemingly unoccupied Belgium and in various neutral territories: the high seas, a tropical island, the Arctic, the desert. Their subjects are a treasure hunt, drug smuggling, the race to claim a meteor.
On the overwhelming evidence of his work, Hergé was an enemy of despots, a champion of the underdog, and a friend to all peoples. Nevertheless, his early strips are marked by quaint notions about the world outside Belgium and feature a range of broad ethnic stereotypes (many, to be sure, not much different from what Hollywood was selling at the time). And although with “The Blue Lotus” (1934), he began to strive for accuracy in his representation of foreign places and peoples — inspired in part by his friendship with Chinese sculpture student Zhang Chongren, to whom he paid tribute in “Lotus” and, years later, in “Tintin in Tibet” — there were now and again troubling exceptions, most notably some passages in the original “The Shooting Star” (1941-42) that closely echo the Nazi view of the Jews. (The offending panels were altered in or cut from later editions.)
It’s impossible to say to whether this was a sop to his Aryan overlords or an expression of his own prejudice, but Hergé never satisfactorily addressed the matter in public — indeed, he could be quite disingenuous about it. Globe-trotting hero notwithstanding, the artist in his younger years, at least, was something of a provincial. He studied the wider world through books and pictures and journeyed to its four corners on the back of his hero, but for much of his life he knew it only secondhand; he didn’t travel substantially until most of his work was behind him. (Indeed, he chose to stay in Belgium during the occupation.)
After the war and into the 1950s, Hergé experienced a series of nervous breakdowns variously attributed to the stress of his political difficulties and to overwork. (He also felt trapped in a loveless marriage.) Studios Hergé was founded in 1950, as the complicated “Destination Moon” was being prepared, to take some of the pressure off him, establishing a team of collaborators to help with research and fill in backgrounds, details and color. He had already worked, in the 1940s, with Edgar P. Jacobs, later the creator of the popular “Blake and Mortimer”; Jacobs, who had participated in the redrawing of the early black-and-white Tintin stories for new books in color, felt that his contribution to “Tintin” was substantial enough to ask Hergé for a co-credit. (He was refused.)
Hergé’s mature drawing style would come to be called “ligne claire” — clear line — and exert a strong influence on European comic art. “Clarity, neatness, readability” were the visual qualities he prized and he encouraged them in other artists who drew strips for “Tintin” magazine. Some of these also worked alongside him on “The Adventures of Tintin,” notably Jacobs, Bob de Moor and Jacques Martin. Later practitioners of the style include Ted Benoît, whose work appeared in the United States in the comics monthly “Heavy Metal” (and who was one of the artists to carry on “Blake and Mortimer” after Jacobs’ death) and Joost Swarte (who coined the term “ligne claire“), now a regular contributor to The New Yorker.
At times, Herge felt he had to defend himself as to Tintin’s authorship, asserting that his was the hand that sketched and inked every character and that, while others might be capable of continuing the comic in his absence, even improving upon it, the result would, by definition, no longer be Tintin. “Tintin, c’est moi,” he said, his creation, his reflection, his alter ego. It’s true that he wasn’t the only person to write a Tintin tale — the live-action films “Tintin and the Mystery of the Golden Fleece” (1961) “Tintin and the Blue Oranges” (1964) and the 1972 animated feature “Tintin and the Lake of Sharks,” were the work of other hands. But they are non-canonical larks no one really takes seriously.
Indeed, Hergé had left orders that, after his death, Tintin would go no more a-roving. That is not how it is with many fictional characters — or “properties.” as they are sometimes called, perpetually prey to the whims of whoever holds the deed. James Bond has long outlived every thing Ian Fleming ever thought to do with him; a single comic-book hero may be the work of any number of cooks, prepared for a range of readers in a variety of flavors, from plain vanilla to something laced with rum, coke or Lithium.
But Tintin without Hergé is as unthinkable — or if thinkable, still as wrong — as Charlie Brown without Charles Schulz. There will be no official reboot of his characters, although authors and artists have long appropriated them unofficially to many ends, serious or casual, worthy and less than worthy. (The deep and wonderful website Tintin est vivant! catalogs and describes these pastiches, parodies and variations thoroughly.) But Tintin is stronger than any mockery that might be made of him.
Herge’s output slowed toward the end of the series: From 1961 to 1975 only three new Tintin stories appeared. But he had a life in those years. After a last period of crisis, in the late ’50s, marked by dreams of enveloping whiteness — which some say he confronted and worked through in the snowy panels of “Tintin and Tibet” — he separated from his first wife and began a relationship with Fanny Vlamynck, now Rodwell, a former “Tintin” colorist. (They finally married in 1977.) He traveled, he painted. Among his interests, as Rodwell later listed them, were Zen, Jung, animals (especially cats), hiking, good food and wine and modern art — the subject of the last Tintin adventure, “The Alph-Art,” unfinished when Hergé died March 3 1983, at the age of 75.
The $21-million Musée Hergé, designed by Christian de Portzamparc, and privately funded by Rodwell, opened in Louvain-La-Neuve, Belgium, in 2009.
– Robert Lloyd
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