The Real Hergé: the Inspiration behind Tintin, by Sian Lye, White Owl, 167 pp, £19.99, ISBN: 978-1526763907
In the seventies, during the school summer holidays, the BBC used to run an animated cartoon series based on Hergé’s Tintin books. Produced by Belgian TV, it was, in its English version, narrated and voiced by Larry Harmon, previously Bozo the Clown, subsequently sundry villains on Scooby Doo. It was Larry you heard at the start of each day’s five-minute episode announcing “Her-jay’s Adventures of Tinn-TINN!” in the démodé style of a 1930s cinema serial. And like those serials, each day’s instalment comprised a brief, clunking cliff-hanger complete with an infuriating synopsis that took up approximately half the slot.
Hergé, by all accounts, loathed those cartoons ‑ the all-expense-spared look of them and the unpardonable liberties they took with the source material. His Tintin, the real article, had been cool and innovative right from its 1929 debut, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, and would remain so for a good thirty years.
Though sketchy and propagandist, Land of the Soviets proved so popular that, as soon as it had ended its run as a newspaper serial, the whole story was republished as a standalone album. Hergé, self-taught and only twenty-three, had created a distinctive European form ‑ the bande dessinée ‑ for which the Tintin books would, in time, become a kind of template, right down to their very format ‑ a slim hardbacked volume featuring a single story, latterly in colour, with the same cast of regular characters and a standard number of pages.
In the post-war years Tintin, and bande dessinée in general, would become a staple of the popular culture of Western Europe, or the continental part of it anyway. In English it had an uncertain start and was always that bit more niche and, I dare say, more middle class. It didn’t help that, back in the seventies, the books were sixty pence each, a sizeable sum at the time, twelve bob in the old money. Only by chance did I come upon them when a Francophile primary teacher put a few in the class library. But children elsewhere, and in Belgium and France especially, came to Tintin, Snowy and the rest of the series’ ensemble cast as a regular part of their childhood. As adults, some of them would go on to chronicle, analyse and interpret the twenty-four official Tintin adventures and the life and times (and psyche) of their creator, establishing, in the process, a veritable Hergé industry.
There has been less of this in English ‑ just Tom McCarthy’s lively Tintin and the Secret of Literature (2008) for acid-sharp analysis, and three biographies in as many decades, of which this new work by Sian Lye is the most recent. In contrast to her predecessors ‑ Harry Thompson (Tintin: Hergé and his Creation, 1991) and Michael Farr (The Adventures of Hergé, 2007) ‑ Lye focuses more on Hergé’s life than on the series of books that made him famous. Drawing on previous, French accounts by Benoît Peeters and Pierre Assouline, she describes a life lived, in the main, quietly and industriously during interesting times. If Hergé himself did not participate much in these times, Tintin, his creation, did so on his behalf, opposing fascism and, selectively, imperialism in the 1930s, later treasure-hunting, walking on the moon and close-encountering extra-terrestrials and the Yeti.
Hergé was born Georges Remi in Brussels in 1907. His pseudonym, which he adopted almost as soon as he began to draw professionally in his late teens, was based on his initials – GR ‑ reversed. A gift for drawing had been noticed during his time as a boy scout, and it was in scouting magazines that some of his earliest published work appeared. This talent largely spared him the need for conventional, quotidian work. No early struggles for Hergé. By the start of his twenties he was already making a good enough living from his drawings both as a freelance and as a staffer on Le Petit Vingtième, the children’s section of Le Vingtième Siècle newspaper. That was where Tintin first featured and where he would continue to be serialised right up to 1940.
It was not that Hergé was especially prodigious: the early Tintin stories are evidence enough of that. What was novel was the comic strip form which he had adopted in imitation of American classics like the Katzenjammer Kids. New to Belgium, to Europe, it made him famous and successful while still at the apprentice stage. That is why to read the Tintin adventures back-to-back is to watch them evolve from collections of slapstick and sight gags linked together by a rambling, largely ad libbed storyline, to the run of crafted, character-driven albums that made the series classic—from 1935’s The Broken Ear to The Castafiore Emerald in 1961.
It is a commonplace, in the anglosphere especially, that Belgium is boring, and that what culture it has is in reaction to that tedium. There is a little of this in Lye’s book ‑ how scouting offered Hergé respite from the monotony of middle-class Catholic conservatism, and so on. An alternative and kinder view might be that Belgium is not so much a boring country as an improbable and unsettled one, a buffer zone willed into existence so the south coast of England could sleep soundly, its disintegration predicted for longer than I have been alive, the communal and class fissures all too obvious. In these unpromising circumstances, a common Catholicism provided the initial stability in which an innovative and often edgy creativity has since emerged ‑ Magritte, Brel, Amélie Nothomb, Jaco van Dormael. And Hergé, surely the most famous Belgian of all. Nothing in Lye’s book suggests that he was unhappy with that nationality. He lived in Belgium his entire life, never thinking to question it let alone to reject or revolutionise. Only his work was radical and then solely in the sense that it broke new ground. Le Vingtième Siècle (The Twentieth Century), which gave him his break, was a Catholic paper. (Its masthead declared it to be the national Catholic paper of doctrine and news and a poster that Hergé designed for it in the early 1930s described it as a paper that covered all shades of Catholic opinion). Founded at the end of the nineteenth century, it was closely associated with the Catholic Party, the usual party of government up to 1940.
Tintin was at least in part intended to epitomise Catholic values and a decidedly Catholic view of things occasionally surfaces in the stories. In The Broken Ear, for instance, there is that somewhat surreal scene towards the end where the villains are killed (a rare enough occurrence in a Tintin story), then hurried down to Hell by demons. Or Explorers on the Moon, in which Hergé, admittedly with some reluctance, softened Frank Wolff’s suicidal self-sacrifice lest that mortal sin detract from the heroism of the deed.
Belgium itself would shape the series, particularly in its early days. Syldavia, the fragile, fictional kingdom in King Ottokar’s Sceptre is, in part, Belgium reimagined in the Balkans, while Brussels locations feature in several of the stories ‑ Parc de Bruxelles at the start of Ottokar, the antique market in the Place du Sablon in The Secret of the Unicorn. The Arumbaya fetish in The Broken Ear and the Inca mummy in The Seven Crystal Balls were copied straight from exhibits in the city’s museums, while several of the made-up names that Hergé used for people and places—Bab El Er, Kurvi-Tasch, Wadesdah, Kih-Oskh—are taken from bruxellois, the city’s English-derived homophonic slang. Marlinspike Hall, the stately pile where Tintin and his friends rest between adventures, is Chateau Moulinsart in the French original, the name a reversal of Sart-Moulin in Brabant.
Lye says that, in the post-war years, Hergé would begin to scale down the series’ Belgian references in step with its increasingly international appeal. In the English language edition, for instance, the stories are implied, in the face of overwhelming evidence against (Morris columns, pavement cafés, armed police and left-hand drive cars) to be set somewhere in England.
Family would be another important influence. Hergé’s younger brother Paul provided the model for Tintin while Thompson and Thomson were almost certainly based on Alexis and Léon Remi, respectively Hergé’s father and uncle, identical twins who dressed alike in the style of Magritte’s Golconde.
Alexis and Léon’s outward conventionality belied the Remi family’s backstory, which was unusual for the time. Hergé’s grandmother, Marie Léonie Dewigne had been unmarried when the twins were born in 1882. Only a decade later did she tie the knot with her cousin Philippe Remi, who adopted the boys, hence the Remi family name. But Philippe was an improbable father, says Benoît Peeters, in his Fils de Tintin (2002), as he would have been just eleven years old the year the twins were born.
Philippe lived until 1941, never having met his by then famous grandson. Hergé himself would sometimes airbrush his grandparents from the record, claiming that Alexis had been an orphan, or occasionally, the illegitimate son of the Belgian King, Leopold II, which would have made Hergé himself a kind of royal. “Not everyone can be an orphan,” Hergé once told an interviewer, as though orphanhood were almost a kind of privilege, and both Tom McCarthy and the French psychoanalyst Serge Tisseron (Tintin et le Secret d’Hergé, 1993) have noted how frequently orphaned or abandoned children feature in the Tintin series ‑ Chang in The Blue Lotus, Zorrino in Prisoners of the Sun, Abdullah in The Red Sea Sharks. Indeed Tintin himself is a kind of orphan ‑ his parents are never seen or referred to, nor has he any obvious past outside of the books. He has no surname or, conceivably, no forename. And “Tintin”, what kind of name is that anyway? A “grotesque” one, says a concussed Captain Haddock in Tintin and the Picaros, the series’ sour finale. Perhaps Tintin’s lack of past, and lack of family, reflects, as Tisseron has alleged, Hergé’s preoccupation with his own origins. Then again, it might just be that this made the character easier to write. When Hergé, in his heyday, was commissioned to create a new series with children in a regular family as the central characters, he found the resultant Jo, Zette and Jocko something of a chore to deliver, in part because of the need to write the parents.
Hergé himself was childless and like several other children’s writers appears to have had little patience with real-life children. Lye describes how time with Hergé was no pleasure for his niece and nephew. Like many creative people, she comments, he needed uninterrupted solitude to work – “a child would have thrown his precious routine and peaceful environment into chaos”. The spoilt and disruptive princeling Abdullah, who visits mayhem on Marlinspike in The Red Sea Sharks surely taps into this anxiety.
Tintin was a success in the decade before the Second World War, but in the postwar years the series would become a phenomenon. By the 1950s, the books were selling a million copies a year in France alone and had started to register outside the world of bande dessinée, featuring in mainstream publications as diverse as Paris-Match and the Times Literary Supplement. Pol Vandrome’s Le Monde de Tintin (1959) was the first considered assessment of Hergé and his work ‑ the first of many ‑ and quite possibly the first serious look at any comic book creator. All in all, some achievement by anybody’s reckoning, but in Hergé’s case particularly remarkable. As Lye explains, the last year of the war and the immediate postwar period were an anxious time for him. He found himself blacklisted and likely to remain so, with a spell in prison not entirely out of the question. For Hergé, it was alleged, had been a wartime collaborator, an incivique.
Lye gives the background. Alarmed at the prospect of a German invasion, Hergé had quit Belgium in spring 1940. However, following the Belgian surrender and the subsequent German occupation, the king, Leopold III, who might or might not have been Hergé’s relative (probably not) requested all Belgians who had left the country to return and resume their lives. Hergé obliged. With Le Vingtième now gone (despite the success of Tintin, it had been struggling financially), Hergé began working for Le Soir, then as now Belgium’s main francophone daily. Le Soir was one of a number of publications that had operated pre-war and which, after May 1940, continued to appear, using mainly new staff, some of whom were accepting of the Nazi occupation and some openly sympathetic to it, Raymond DeBecker, its editor, for example, who Lye says was, for a time at least, a very supportive collaborator. To the civiques ‑ the Resistance, the government in exile and their supporters ‑ Le Soir under this new management was a “pirate” paper, stolen ‑ Le Soir Volé.
Hergé, though, more or less put his head down and got on with his life and work as best he could. Wartime Tintin albums such as The Crab with the Golden Claws and The Secret of the Unicorn represented a step forward in terms of draughtsmanship, storytelling and characterisation. But they understandably eschewed the politics of their immediate predecessors. King Ottokar’s Sceptre, say, where the fictional Syldavia is menaced by fascists within and without led by a prospective dictator whose name, Musstler, combines those of the two best-known dictators of the day. Or Tintin in the Land of Black Gold, the serialisation of which was in progress when the German invasion began, and which features Nazi agents busy sabotaging Belgian fuel supplies in the middle of a war scare. In contrast to these pre-war stories, the wartime adventures are apolitical and make no reference to the war or its effects. There are no signs of military occupation in the Brussels of these stories, the police are the regular Belgian police, and Tintin and his friends can travel the world unhindered. It is as if the pre-war world has continued uninterrupted, or been restored.
Only in The Shooting Star ‑ as Lye says, the strangest and most controversial of the wartime books ‑ is there any hint that things have changed. Here Brussels seems dead, bleak and underinhabited, like a de Chirico painting. The threat of imminent global destruction, albeit by an oncoming meteorite ‑ the star of the book’s title ‑ rather than by world war, builds tension over the first few pages. In the newspaper version Hergé included some Jews celebrating the coming catastrophe ‑ the world is ending, they will not have to honour their debts. It might be that this lazy and unpleasant squib was Hergé slipping into the ways of his city’s new political masters. If so, they would have found the main storyline of the original version of the book equally to their liking.
When the meteorite fails to destroy the world and instead pitches into the Arctic Sea, rival European and American expeditions race to reach it. The European team is made up largely of scientists from neutral, Axis or defeated countries. They are eccentric and characterful and their whole enterprise has an endearing makeshift quality about it. In contrast, the Americans, who have the latest in technology, are undifferentiated, faceless and anonymous. Nor are they merely rivals: they are unscrupulous, out to nobble the Europeans at any opportunity. And masterminding them is Blomenstein, a stereotypically Jewish plutocrat who looks unsettlingly like he has stepped out of a Nazi propaganda poster.
It was not until the 1950s that Hergé reworked The Shooting Star and then primarily on account of American interest in publishing the series. The unscrupulous rival expedition was reattributed to a fictional state, Sao Rico, and its mentor renamed Bohlwinkel (once again from the bruxellois word bollewinkel, meaning sweetshop), but otherwise unamended. When Bohlwinkel also turned out to be a Jewish name Hergé declined to amend it.
According to Lye, Hergé, like many others, began to have doubts about his wartime behaviour following the Normandy landings. As the tide of the war turned, many inciviques, including some of Hergé’s own colleagues, fled Belgium. Even the king decamped to Dresden. When Brussels was liberated in September 1944, the pirate Le Soir was put back under civique management. Hergé’s wartime involvement on the paper was enough to have him denounced as a traitor and prohibited from practising his profession, while several of his friends and fellow inciviques received lengthy terms in prison and even the death penalty (not always carried out).
That might have been the end of Hergé and the adventures of Tintin had it not been for Raymond Leblanc, a businessman with impeccable Resistance credentials who recognised the series’ commercial potential in postwar Europe. Leblanc wanted to launch a weekly comic book, called Tintin, that would feature not just new Tintin adventures, but comic strips by other European writers. But Tintin, and Hergé writing Tintin, was, he argued, essential to this venture.
Officialdom agreed. Having left Hergé to languish unemployable, it now changed its mind and decided that “it would be a mockery of justice to attack the author of inoffensive drawings for children”. Not only that, in a fine moment of bureaucratic waffle, it was even suggested that Hergé had been acting patriotically when he worked on the pirate Le Soir since every Tintin strip took up space that might otherwise have been used for outright propaganda. Unsurprisingly, some of Hergé’s contemporaries thought, resentfully, that he had been treated with suspect leniency ‑ a brief blacklisting followed by a lavish return to favour. The popularity of the Tintin series, his own centrality to that series, and the strong political will to rebuild a Francophone popular culture in the postwar years when everything might easily have gone Anglo-American, all worked in his favour. Bluntly, Tintin saved Hergé in a way that his lesser creations such as Quick et Flupke could never have done. In return, Leclerc expected Hergé to sing for his succour ‑ two pages of story for each edition of the weekly Tintin, a demanding schedule that would soon take its toll. Hergé seems to have been all too aware that he had been lucky, not to say privileged. The depressions and the surely related physical conditions, such as eczema and lethargy, that would plague him for the rest of his life date from this time and might have been, in part, symptomatic of this awareness and the survivor guilt it inspired.
Hergé would remain loyal to many fellow inciviques, including some who had not got off so lightly. Thanks to Hergé, for example, Jan Van Malkebeke, imprisoned for his work on the wartime Soir, was able to resume his career, while Robert Poulet was able to write for Tintin magazine using his wife as a front. Poulet, a fellow-traveller of the Nazis and subsequent Holocaust denier, would later describe Hergé as “the guardian angel of the inciviques”. Leblanc, in contrast, thought he was turning Tintin magazine into a “nursery for collaborators”.
It is easy with hindsight to criticise those who, like Hergé, went along with the king’s request to accept the fait accompli of Nazi occupation. But no one in 1940 could have had any idea how the war might work out. Moreover, while Nazi antisemitism was blatant, few could have imagined Nazi genocide, either the fact of it or the scale. Hergé, like all Belgians who returned home following their country’s surrender, was coming to terms with what looked like a comprehensive defeat and its likely long-term consequences ‑ a Western Europe dominated by the Third Reich. This was why, as Lye says, he had little sympathy with the Resistance – “he felt it was contrary to the laws of war … for every one of the Resistance’s actions, hostages would be arrested and shot and he wanted no part of their work”. It is also possible that Hergé was influenced by the previous invasion of Belgium in 1914 when an informal, not to say ineffectual, resistance had prompted reprisals.
“I had to think of my survival,” he later said. “ … I never did anything other than draw my comic strips during the war. I did no German propaganda. I wouldn’t consider myself what they called an ‘incivique’.” It is surely significant that redemption features in several of the postwar Tintin stories. In those later adventures, there are supporting characters who, whether through frailty or necessity, begin on the wrong side but later do the right thing ‑ Wolff in Explorers on the Moon, Skut in The Red Sea Sharks, and perhaps most telling of all, the ex-Nazi Krollspell in Flight 714 to Sydney.
The charge of wartime collusion continues to damage Hergé’s reputation and has been compounded with allegations of racism, especially in his pre-war books, so that Hergé and his work have become generally suspect. Some of this dubiousness has been traced, unfairly I think, to Le Vingtième Siècle/Petit Vingtième, where Tintin first featured. The Vingtième’s political links were, as I’ve said, to the Catholic Party, which had dominated Belgian politics at the end of the nineteenth century and in the 1900s was still a major party of government. It headed the final Belgian administration of the pre-war period and the subsequent government in exile and in the postwar period became the Christian Social Party ‑ left Christian Democrat and an enthusiastic European unifier. Even in its pre-war variant, it seems to have been a broad church, so to speak, centrist in the main but with some parts of it leaning left and some right.
The far right of Belgian Catholicism, a grouping centred on the publisher Christus Rex, gradually evolved into a political movement, Rex, in the early1930s. And Rex was decidedly fascist by the time of its short-lived electoral peak in 1936 when it won twenty-one seats out of a possible 202. By then, however, Belgian Catholics were being asked from the pulpit to abandon it, which they did in droves in the final election before the war. Rex’s leader, Léon Degrelle, had been a contemporary of Hergé at Le Vingtième and would later falsely claim to have introduced him to American comics and even to have been the model for Tintin.
More important to Hergé (and to Tintin) than Degrelle was the Vingtième’s editor, a priest, the Abbé Norbert Wallez. It was Wallez who saw Hergé’s potential and plucked him from the soul-destroying part of the paper where he had been languishing. And it was the Abbé who suggested that Hergé work up an earlier, dashed-off cartoon about a boy and his dog into a full-length serial, hence Tintin. Sian Lye describes him as an “ultraconservative fascist” and, like almost all Hergé biographers, notes Wallez’s admiration for Mussolini, which was ardent enough to have earned him a signed photograph from Il Duce – “To Norbert Wallez, a friend of Italy and fascism, with friendship”.
If Wallez in the late twenties and early thirties had a weakness for Mussolini he was far from alone. And his admiration does not appear to have extended to Hitler, as Benoît Peeters in his Hergé ‑ Fils de Tintin makes clear. Though Wallez was by all accounts an antisemite with an appetite for conspiracy theories, the Vingtième on his watch criticised Nazi repression, especially its treatment of German Jews. Both Lye and Peeters quote a Vingtième report from 1934 in which the writer, on the one hand, welcomes the supposed relaxation of Nazi antisemitic legislation and, on the other, hopes, bluntly, that this will mean that the Jewish refugees in Brussels might now go home. Though an ugly and insensitive comment, it dates from after the Abbé’s time on the paper. He had been removed from his editorship the previous year, having embroiled the paper in a defamation case.
That was not the end of Wallez, however. Sent to the low-profile parish of Aulnes he might have spent the rest of his days doing up the local church and writing a history of Wallonia. However, the German invasion rekindled his taste for politics and he became supportive of both the Rexist Party and Nazi Germany. In 1947, he was sentenced to five years in prison and a 200 thousand franc fine. Released on compassionate grounds in 1950, he died two years later. Hergé remained in contact with Wallez during and after the war, including during his time in prison. He was, Lye comments, angry at the way the Abbé had been treated. Hergé’s main interest here, aside from maintaining a valued friendship, might have been to obtain spiritual guidance, something he would seek from a number of priests and others his entire adult life. Pierre Assouline (Hergé, 1998) has suggested that Hergé might have been naive in his wartime dealings with Wallez, not appreciating how close the priest was to the Nazi authorities. However, there appears to have been no political influence from the relationship since Hergé reputedly refused offers to work for the Rexist paper, Pays Réel, or to become a Nazi informer.
Wallez took a decidedly hands-on role with regard to the first two Tintin adventures ‑ Tintin in the Land of the Soviets and Tintin in the Congo, the latter being, as Lye rightly says, “possibly the most objectionable in the Tintin canon in terms of violence, stereotyping and general racism”. Hergé allegedly had reservations regarding both those books, more I think because neither was the story he wanted to write than on account of any political concern. While Soviets merely offers a hostile take on the Bolshevik regime, Tintin in the Congo is replete with appalling colonial stereotyping, the Africans either childlike or malevolent, unviable without ongoing Belgian guardianship, which is overtly presented as both good and necessary. But Tintin in the Congo is not a fascist book, by which I mean that it is not a work influenced by Mussolini or Hitler. Its worldview ‑ that colonialism is a good thing, especially for the colonised ‑ was a lot older than fascism or Nazism. Belgium was neither its source nor its main practitioner. And as an advocate of it, the Abbé Norbert Wallez barely registers.
Once Hergé was free from Wallez’s influence, the stories generally became more conventionally liberal in sympathy. Tintin in America, though still firmly in the series’ slapstick phase, is markedly out of sympathy with the United States on account of that country’s perceived greed, racism, mob rule and abusive treatment of Native Americans, all of which feature in the story accompanied by a clear tone of authorial disapproval. As for The Blue Lotus ‑ the first of the books that Hergé felt truly proud of ‑ I think Lye is wrong when she says that Hergé simply exchanged one form of racism, the European imperialism of the Congo book, for the anti-Japanese perspective of Chinese nationalism. As Hergé saw it, in the beleaguered China of the 1930s, the Chinese were the victims and the Japanese, the victimisers. It was on that understanding that he grotesquely caricatured them (along with the corrupt Westerners of the International Settlement), and why he had Tintin take a moment to counter some negative European perceptions of the Chinese.
It is only relatively recently that these political concerns regarding Hergé and his work have resurfaced. They were largely absent during the time of Tintin’s rising popularity, the great years of Europe’s postwar boom ‑ les trente glorieuses. This was also, paradoxically, the time when Hergé’s disinclination to work on Tintin set in. Readers of Tintin magazine became used to his frequent absences that would interrupt the current story, often for several weeks. The adventures of Tintin had not only made Hergé rich, they had rescued him from postwar ignominy, and yet his appetite for them was diminishing. Oddly, this was not to the detriment of the series, which now entered its classic phase.
Part of this was down to a change in perspective. Where Tintin had been Hergé’s alter ego in the earliest stories, it was now Captain Haddock that stood in for him and who echoed his begrudging interest in adventures. The 1943 Red Rackham’s Treasure marks the Captain’s fourth outing as a Tintin character, but it is the first that establishes him as the grounding and sardonic commentator he will be from then on in.
“Has Tintin gone diving?” asks Professor Calculus about halfway through the book when Tintin has, indeed and quite obviously, just gone diving. “No,” says the deadpan Haddock in the French edition. “He’s gone to pick daisies.” (The English translation – “He’s picking daisies down below” ‑ is a bit flat but the Italian is withering – “No, he’s gone to visit his great aunt Elizabeth.”)
Perpetually cross, pressured to the point of self-medicating with alcohol (as might be said today), the ever-thwarted, luckless Captain Haddock is the increasingly weary adult trying to keep pace with Tintin, the ageless ado who seems to have near endless supplies of energy, enthusiasm and forbearance. Like Hergé, Haddock benefits from his association with Tintin. It is through Tintin that he is rescued from the pitiful state we see him in on his first outing in Crab with the Golden Claws, and through Tintin that, against his own inclination, he lives a dramatic, even heroic, life. Thanks to Tintin he regains his ancestral home and becomes the wealthy lord of the (Marlinspike) manor. But, also like Hergé, he wants to settle now, disconnect. In the later books, from The Seven Crystal Balls on, the pattern is the same allegory of Hergé’s own situation ‑ an eager or at least intrigued Tintin embroiling a reluctant Captain in just one more escapade.
In the same way the fictional Tintin disrupts the leisure of the fictional Captain and drags him back to the adventures, so Hergé’s own peace and desire to achieve in other fields (notably painting), were thwarted by the need to deliver more Tintin product. Hergé would eventually caricature himself, stressed and flat-out at his desk, with a hard-faced Tintin overseeing him, brandishing a whip. It is neither a doodle nor a rough sketch, but a finished drawing, inked and coloured. The pressure was on. To deliver. To maintain or surpass an already high standard and, from the early 1960s, to beat Astérix, the new kid on the block. Although he publicly dismissed Goscinny and Uderzo’s work as mere wordplay, Hergé was privately concerned by the rival series’ spiralling popularity as well as by the productivity of its creative team ‑ around two books a year compared with his own post-1960 rate of two books a decade.
And yet, when the option was available, he would not give his character up, would not allow others to take it over. Just as, in the books, Haddock grudgingly follows Tintin and cannot let him down, so in life Hergé could not let him down either, could not hand what he had created over to people who, he thought, would in all likelihood vulgarise it. And judging by the film and subsequent book Tintin and the Lake of Sharks, written entirely by Greg (aka Michel Régnier), he was absolutely right. Others ‑ Edgar P Jacobs, Bernard Heuvelmans ‑ might have chipped in ideas, perhaps a good number of them, or drawn backgrounds, but Tintin was Hergé’s and the canonical books are credited to him alone. When Heuvelmans and Jan Van Melkebeke scripted what would eventually become Tintin’s moon adventure Hergé found he could not work to their storyline ‑ a bizarre plot featuring Rita Hayworth ‑ and restarted using his own, more realistic ideas. After the success of the moon stories, and the Hitchcockesque Calculus Affair, proposals for further Tintin adventures set in space, or for cold war thrillers, left Hergé unmoved; he managed to draw four pages of Greg’s Tintin in Berlin before throwing in the towel. In reaction, he wrote smaller stories, closer to his own life and his own preoccupation and anxieties. Tintin in Tibet, say, where Tintin searches for his friend Chang who, against all odds, has survived a plane crash in the Himalayas. Beautifully drawn (aside from the somewhat buffoonish Yeti), and more revealing than anything before of its author’s state of mind, it would later provide the basis for Anders Høgsbro Østergaard’s mesmerising documentary Tintin et Moi.
The other contender for Hergé’s best is The Castafiore Emerald, to some, even now sixty years on, the finest bande dessinée album ever. It is certainly the last wholly satisfactory Tintin story ‑ a series of incidents and misunderstandings, a banal mystery, but nothing dramatic. It is a kind of French farce or, as Tom McCarthy has suggested in wonderful detail, a fine opera buffa. Bewildering to many a child reader, myself included, the Castafiore Emerald was, says Sian Lye, in its time anyway, commercially the least successful of all the Tintin books. Time (and adulthood) has revealed the story’s charm ‑ Tintin and his circle at rest as spring turns to summer at the start of the 1960s and what might have been the apogée of Europe’s postwar calm. It would have been an excellent moment at which to round off the series.
Instead, two underwhelming books followed in slow succession, the second of which, Tintin and the Picaros, suggests only its author’s weariness and resignation. A further book had been seven years in the making when Hergé died in 1983, leaving it largely unfinished. And, unfinished, it was published three years later to be studied endlessly and, thus far, fruitlessly for signs that it might have been the book that stopped the rot.
Lye ends with an upbeat assessment noting the continuing popularity of the Tintin series ‑ a quarter of a billion books sold, in more than one hundred languages (Irish being a recent addition). There are the Tintin boutiques that whatever else, do little to dispel the series’ middle class image. Also, a new animated cartoon version from Canada that worked well, possibly because it stayed faithful to the books, and the Spielberg/Jackson film adaptation from 2011. That was a so-so effort, I thought, and I am surprised to learn that it grossed many times more than Hergé, a wealthy and successful man, earned in his entire life. To all of that ‑ the film, the cartoon series, the book sales ‑ I would add the books about the books, which by now outnumber the books themselves, the canonical twenty-four, by three or four to one. That is a sure sign of Tintin’s continuing relevance and cultural significance. If intellos like Michel Serres analyse Tintin it is ultimately because it is a widely shared point of cultural reference, one that is beloved and downright good. If psychoanalyst Serge Tisseron probes the depths of the Tintin stories, it is because there are depths to probe. And if Sian Lye retells the Hergé biography for an anglophone readership, and with such verve and enthusiasm, it is because Hergé’s was a life well-used that still fascinates. Perhaps the saddest aspect of the story of that life ‑ one that comes across in this new biography as in all the predecessors ‑ is that Hergé might not have grasped the full extent of his achievement.
Martin Tyrrell will be discussing Hergé’s The Castafiore Emerald on March 31st as part of the World Literature, Global Voices series at Queen’s University, Belfast, Open Learning.