#72: TINTIN, BOY REPORTER. Moving on to another author-illustrator, we come to a protagonist whose province is a good deal wider than Mr. McGregor’s garden; I speak, of course, of Tintin, the globe-trotting boy reporter who stands with Goscinny and Uderzo’s Asterix as one of the two great early heroes of the French bande dessinee. Tintin and his fox terrier companion Milou (Snowy to you Anglophones) were the creation of the Belgian cartoonist Georges Remi, who, reversing his initials, came up with the pseudonym Herge. Tintin, after a brief stutter of an existence as the Boy Scout Totor, appeared in propria persona in 1929 in his first adventure, Tintin au pays des Soviets (Tintin in the Lands of the Soviets), and kept on adventuring through twenty-three completed titles, one unfinished story, and over four decades, with a Balzacian expanding cast of recurring characters. Under the editorial hand of Father Walles, a conservative Catholic priest, a couple of Tintin’s early adventures smelled so distinctly right-wing that Herge later disowned them and tried to prevent their being reprinted; they have surfaced again, cemented into the Tintin canon, and the second, Tintin au Congo (Tintin in the Congo) is currently being banned by the Congolese government, who are understandably underwhelmed with Herge’s 1930s petit-maitre-blanc approach to race relations. And when the German army occupied Brussels in 1940 Herge, in a combined moment of patriotism and Wodehousean naivete, stayed on and allowed Tintin to be published in what became a collaborationist newspaper. All this clouded Herge’s reputation so deeply that for years I’ve avoided reading about him—I didn’t want to know the worst. But having recently been given Michael Farr’s Tintin: The Complete Companion (San Francisco, Last Gasp, 2001) the worst, it turns out, is not so terrible: Herge seems to have been largely on the side of the kindly and good. Indeed, as Anthony Lane has pointed out in a canny and sensible New Yorker essay (“A Boy’s World,” May 28, 2007), Herge’s artistic love of accuracy and realism shifted into a love of emotional accuracy and truth which pushed him past his earlier and narrower views. It’s documenting those forms of accuracy which makes Michael Farr’s book so splendidly amusing and absorbing. Herge kept an enormous archive of photographic reference material, so that cars, planes, boats, weapons—even furniture and clothing—largely sprang from verifiable models. He consulted specialists, scientists and historians, so a good deal that you might assume merely cartoonish or imagined is instead precise and grounded. And for the political background, Herge’s stories turn out to have some fairly pointed satire in amidst the heroics and hair’s-breadth escapes. Farr gets into all this with a digging-for-gold enthusiasm and a wonderfully thorough eye. An old man getting into his car (in The Broken Ear), we find out, is from a photo of Octave Mirbeau; details like the one-man shark-submarine (in Red Rackham’s Treasure) or the costumes of the Jolly Follies (in Tintin and the Picaros) are closer to life than you could easily believe. Farr’s best discovery, a photograph of two mustachioed, bowler-hatted, black-coated, umbrella- toting French policeman who are Thomson and Thompson to a T, just might make you whoop out loud with laughter. (It did me, at least.) The whole book is one delightful discovery after another—a deserved tribute to pleasures we might just have been taking all too lightly.
Another commendable book for the budding Tintinologue is Tintin et Moi: Entretiens avec Herge, by Numa Sadoul (Champs/Flammarion, 2000), in which Tintin’s creator comes off as unflaggingly modest and engaging. And for a true bit of arcana there is the recent book Le Lotus Bleu Decrypte, by Patrick Merand and Li Xiaohan (Editions Sepia, 2009) which gives the historical background of the fifth Tintin adventure—set in Shanghai in 1931—and translates all the Chinese calligraphic decorations. And Tchang au pays du Lotus Bleu, by Tchang Tchong-Jen (Librairie Seguier, 1990) is the autobiography of the Chinese sculptor-painter who was the model for Tchang, Tintin’s young Chinese friend in The Blue Lotus and Tintin in Tibet—it’s a modest and charming book. Tintin: Herge and his Creation, by Harry Thompson (with a “p”) (Murray, 1991) is a bit pedestrian in style but amusing and a quick read. The first full-length study of the stories, The Metamorphoses of Tintin, by Jean-Marie Apostolides, recently reissued by Stanford, gets mired in academic and psychoanalytic jargon—fastest fun-killers in the west. Tom McCarthy’s too-clever-by-half study Tintin and the Secret of Literature (Counterpoint, 2008) I found almost unreadable—a tiresome example of the higher hogwash. Pierre Assouline’s compact 2009 biography Herge: The Man Who Created Tintin (well translated by Charles Ruas for Oxford University Press) deals with the dark issues of Herge’s collaborationism and racism without smugness or rancor. Herge: Fils de Tintin, by Benoit Peeters (Champs Flammarion, 2006) tells the story in lengthier and darker detail—a more deflating version, but well-written. Peeters’s Tintin and the World of Herge (Bullfinch, 1988) is another pictorial album; less text and fewer surprises than Farr’s book, but little overlap in the illustration, with some delightful reproductions of the covers of Tintin’s serial appearances. The Adventures of Herge, by Jose-Louis Boscquet and Jean-Luc Fromental (Drawn and Quartlerly, 2011) is a graphic biography, illustrated by Stanislas Barthelemy in the clear-line style of Herge himself; it’s an amusing read but not finally all that informative. Tintin: The Art of Herge, From the Archives of the Herge Museum (Abrams/ Editions Moulinsart, 2013) has a modest trickle of text by Michel Daubert, but lots and lots of drawings and photos and paintings, which may convince you that all that’s been said of Herge’s compositional skills may not just be hyperbole; it’s pricey, but exceptionally well-produced.
As for the Tintin stories themselves—from Tintin au pays des soviets to the unfinished Tintin et L’Alph-Art—they are in print in various formats and combinations and almost innumerable languages. My preferred format is the French mini-album, a bit smaller than the standard editions, a little larger than novel-size. Just the right size and weight, I’d say.