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May 31, 2006

Tintin and I, 2003

tintin.gifIn 1971, a young journalist, Numa Sadoul conducted a series of interviews over the course of four days with Hergé, the introverted, but genial and widely beloved creator of The Adventures of Tintin serial comic strip and pioneer of the ligne claire style of animation for a proposed biography in what would turn out to be an unusually candid, introspective, and insightful conversation with the legendary Belgian animator. However, by the end of these recorded conversations, what would emerge was not only the image of a curious, perennial boy scout brought into animated life through his ageless alter ego, but rather, a complex portrait of a man who, already well into his sixties at the time of the interview, was only beginning to feel comfortable in his own skin - an insecure artist who adopted the pseudonym Hergé from his initials (R.G.) and continued to use it throughout his career in order to reserve the distinction of signing his real name, Georges Remi, for when he would become a "real" artist - a haunted soul still struggling to reconcile his deep Catholic convictions with his misguided, youthful ideology long after coming to the painful realization that Abbé Norbert Wallez, his spiritual and vocational mentor during his formative years between the two world wars, had led him down a repressive, insular, and soul-crushing path of religious conservatism and right-wing politics. Having lived though a self-described mediocre childhood, Remi's fateful association with the charismatic Wallez would resonate throughout every aspect of the young advertisement illustrator's life, from his promotion to create his own serial comic strips for the Catholic right publication Le Vingtième Siècle (and subsequently, its children's supplement Le Petit Vingtième) for which Wallez served as editor, to the personal suggestion that he marry Wallez's own secretary, Germaine Kieckens. Rather than leading a life of adventure as a veritable newspaperman that his alter ego, the intrepid young reporter Tintin would embark on, Remi instead found himself further isolated from a rapidly transforming broader world of pre-World War II Europe, working long hours at his studio where his first completed serials safely and neatly toed the line of church doctrine - or at least, Wallez's version of it - as it extolled the virtues of colonialism and the evils of communism (Wallez was a supporter of fascism).

Fortunately, Remi's cultural naïveté and cursory treatment of social stereotypes would soon come to an end with The Blue Lotus, a serial that ushered a more refreshingly mature phase of creativity, technical fluency, and cultural sensitivity in the Tintin series. A remarkably accurate, painstakingly researched, and culturally attuned adventure, Remi's art was elevated by his collaboration with a Chinese sculptor and university student named Chang Chong-jen whom he had befriended at the instigation of advisor and University of Louvain professor, Abbé Gosset. Although short lived, the collaboration would profoundly mark the rest of Remi's life, as he continued for the next few decades to re-contact Chang in vain, until an astute journalist, sensing tremendous public interest for such a human interest story, tracked down the repatriated Chang in China and arranged for a reunion (and thus, conveniently positioned himself for an exclusive on the story). As filmmaker Anders Østergaard subsequently suggests, Remi's obsession towards finding Chang was perhaps driven more by his own (understandable) need for the continuity of an enduring, idealized friendship than in the actual substance of their association - a means of connecting with his past even as he felt increasingly estranged from the people who represented the rigid institutions and ideologies of his youth.

With the occupation of Belgium by the Germans during World War II came the inevitable closure of Le Vingtième Siècle, and Remi then accepted an offer to continue the Tintin series under a similar arrangement for the rival newspaper Le Soir (dubbed Le Petit Soir), a publication that would subsequently fall under the direct control of the Nazis for propaganda purposes, and ultimately result in Remi's postwar imprisonment and blacklisting for collaborating with the Germans. In an attempt to circumvent their political scrutiny, Remi would shift the focus of his stories from history-based destinations to fantasy adventures, a more pragmatic, if not pessimistic view of the occupation that can also be seen in Remi's shift in character identification from the idealistic Tintin to the world weary and mercurial (and often drunken) Captain Haddock. As the film subsequently illustrates, it is this change in perspective that proves particularly insightful with respect to two subsequent Tintin serials as they chronicled personal turmoil within Remi's increasingly aimless and emotionally uncertain life.

An initial glimpse of this sense of crisis is manifested in the eerily prescient, apocalyptic scenario of The Shooting Star, as the threat of a meteorite hurtling on a direct trajectory towards Earth (and subsequently, the ominous discovery of the mysterious matter with strange, radioactive-like properties that mutate organic life) reflects Remi's struggle with the demoralizing pressures of occupation, creative censorship, and a protracted - and perhaps annihilating - world war that was being fought with increasingly sophisticated weapons made possible by rapid advancement in nuclear fission technology during the early 1940s. Another manifestation can be seen in what is perhaps his magnum opus, Tintin in Tibet, an adventure destination that had been inspired by Remi's tormented, recurring nightmares of enveloping whiteness. Created during a time of profound spiritual crisis caused by his long-term separation from his estranged wife and his increasing attraction to an Hergé Studios illustrator, Fanny Vlaminck, Remi's identification with the character Captain Haddock proves especially metaphoric within the context of Haddock's thoughts of self-sacrifice in order to save his friend, as he hangs precariously from the end of Tintin's tether at the edge of a cliff: a self-resigned albatross determined to cut himself free and plunge inexorably into the white abyss so that the other can survive.

With his personal demons exorcised upon the finalization of his divorce from Kieckens (which also represented his symbolic, final break with Wallez's early influence), Remi would settle into a comfortable married life with Vlaminck and the full creative autonomy of the Hergé Studios. However, the orchestrated media circus of the Chang reunion also publicly revealed a gaunt Remi visibly weakened by complications stemming from a long-term blood disorder, an ailment that he sought to treat with meditation. It was, therefore, perhaps inevitable that with his failing health and the absence of motivational conflict in his life that Remi would increasingly indulge in peripheral self-distractions (that may have included, as Sadoul muses, his entertainment of a young journalist's request for an exhaustive series of interviews), resulting in fewer and fewer published Tintin adventures over the years. By the time of Remi's death in 1983, his friends would describe a certain clarity in his demeanor that they would attribute to his frequent meditation during the final years of his life, a sense of peace that had been denied him by the fateful tide of history and naïve alliances that silenced his moral compass. But within the consciousness of his own insecurity and intrinsic sense of Catholic guilt, his newfound inner peace can also be seen as a sign of acceptance and self-forgiveness that he had, throughout much of his adult life, denied himself.

Posted by acquarello on May 31, 2006 | | Filed under 2006


Fascinating, Acquarello.
I'm a big fan of Herge's cartooning. Grew up with it, and then as an adult, purchased his comic-book oeuvre all over again after I moved here.
I never picked up on the subtext when I was a kid, but it was a bit of jolt to do so as an adult.

Were you a fan of the Tintin books growing up, I wonder?

Another cartoonist I love, and in whom I see Herge's influence, is Jooste Swarte, also a "ligne claire" guy. He draws fingers like nobody else; I could look at them (and try to copy them) for hours.

Posted by: girish on May 31, 2006 5:29 PM | Permalink

That's funny, me too! We used to have several of the books in French growing up (The Blue Lotus was my favorite), but lost most (all) of them to termites when we had them shipped (by boat) in one of our many relocations as kids...and the others were thrown out in case they were infested too. That was a huge trauma growing up. :( I didn't pick up the whole set though until about 10 years ago now, when I discovered TT Globetrotter (now Kar'ikter) in San Francisco (I also picked up several Tintin prints that now decorate my living room).

Speaking of subtext, The Shooting Star was actually one of the ones I didn't like as a kid because not much happened; now, of course, I think it's brilliant. I was really fascinated by the backstory of Tintin in Tibet, I didn't know anything about his "arranged" marriage, but I could completely related to the whole Catholic guilt thing. :) Oddly enough, the moon books never did anything for me.

Thanks for the link to Jooste Swarte; I'm not familiar with his work, but I can definitely see a hint of Hergé in the images, with maybe a bit more art deco-ey touch. Of course, the engineer in me automatically gravitated to that Kind en Techniek illustration. :) Awesome!

Posted by: acquarello on May 31, 2006 7:30 PM | Permalink

Wow, that Kar'ikter site is something; hadn't seen it before.
I should send the link to my mom; she collects Tintin memorabilia.

The posters in your living room sound cool. I should look into getting a couple.
I gave Tintin calendars as gifts last year.

And I have a special fondness for Red Rackham's Treasure; it was the first one my parents bought me as a kid.

Posted by: girish on May 31, 2006 8:46 PM | Permalink

Ooh, yeah, that's one of my favorites too. I actually ended up picking up two of those prints in SF 'cause I couldn't decide between the horizontal one and the vertical one, so one's in the living room and the other's in the kitchen. :D

Posted by: acquarello on May 31, 2006 9:34 PM | Permalink

I love 'em both but the kitchen one just might get my vote by a hair because of the curly-cornered parchment with the tres cool French writing on it.
Now to go blow some $. :-)

Posted by: girish on May 31, 2006 10:44 PM | Permalink

Tintin was also my childhood hero, and the political subtext was lost on me then. I still haven't seen this documentary... Oddly it hasn't been released in France yet.
Is it a narrator commentary or do they include these interview tapes?

Posted by: HarryTuttle on Jun 03, 2006 4:49 PM | Permalink

Hey Harry, woo hoo! Next online project, Tintin cinephile fanclub! :)

Yes, the narrative was mostly from the interview tapes, which was what made really quite special. They had set up the Hergé-image cartoons (like the picture above) as the talking head. There are also interviews with Sadoul and two British Tintin experts. Apparently, after Sadoul sent Hergé the original transcript of the interviews, he began to rewrite and overwrite and re-rewrite the transcripts many times over, realizing that he had probably revealed too much in the interviews, and this severely edited/sanitized version is what was published as the Tintin et moi book. So this documentary is a more honest encapsulation of that actual interview than the book.

Posted by: acquarello on Jun 03, 2006 5:13 PM | Permalink

I just did a small Tintin post myself today (about the moon books I'm afraid), but I hadn't checked my feeds yet. So I was surprised to see SFS doing a post about this documentary (of which I hadn't heard before either) a few days earlier. I updated mine with a link to here, so those more interested in Hergé can do some background reading.

I've read quite a few biographies of Hergé by now and it keeps surprising me how sensitive and appealing the subject remains to many. I remember many 'adult' TV programmes and books from my youth that I only later began to understand as well. Still, I'm glad things are quieting down somewhat and we are again 'allowed' to simply enjoy the albums and the wonderful stories.

I use to have tons of collectibles, but many were lost too (such as all the newspapers from the day of his death), but I have a few small things left, such as a pin of the Tintin (magazine) Club. Club nor magazine exist anymore and I hear the pins have become rare. To me, however, it's not the politics or the collectibles that matter, but those wonderful stories I keep going back to, even now.

Thanks for writing this great review.

Posted by: Napfisk on Jun 04, 2006 8:12 PM | Permalink

"Still, I'm glad things are quieting down somewhat and we are again 'allowed' to simply enjoy the albums and the wonderful stories."

Amen! :) The Tintin albums are exactly the perfect definition of what a "children's book" should be: engaging enough to stimulate the imagination, artistic enough to cultivate aesthetic taste, and also multilayered so that it grows with us and remains relevant.

I must admit, by the time I read the moon books, I was already working at NASA, so while I was very familiar with the evolution of the US space industry, I was still pretty naive about the European, Asian, and then-Soviet space programs. So I think I was looking at them with an eye towards comparing "technical specs" and not really at the adventures. You're right just allowing ourselves to just enjoy the stories. I may even dig up Tintin in the Congo again. ;)

Posted by: acquarello on Jun 04, 2006 9:14 PM | Permalink

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