May 31, 2006
Tintin and I, 2003
In 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.