I never had much interest in comics, so the current craze for Tintin and its creator, the Belgian artist Hergé, passed me by — until I read a few intriguing reviews offered on the 80th anniversary of Tintin’s debut.
The fêtes, touting the adventure boy whose stories foreshadowed the the advent of the “graphic novel” in the West, have found several reasons for celebration: Tintin devotee Steven Spielberg is directing The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, which is scheduled for a 2011 release; it is the first of a projected series. The second volume of The Art of Hergé, a planned three-volume anthology from Last Gasp press, will be out in March.
Also, two newly published books have brought Tintin into the MSM: Pierre Assouline’s Hergé: The Man Who Created Tintin, published by Oxford University Press, and, at Stanford University Press, Jean-Marie Apostolidès‘ The Metamorphoses of Tintin.
Both books document the troubling story of the author who, according to Charles McGrath, writing in a New York Times review, was “far happier and more interesting in his work than he ever was in life.” Hergé worked for a collaborationist newspaper in Belgium during the war, and his cartoons participated in the antisemitism and racism of the era.
Apostolidès recounts a critic fulminating, “This hypocrite, this boy feigning innocence, this ugly little monkey cannot fool us any longer. It’s time we exposed him for what he really is. Tintin is a forty-year-old dwarf, a colonialist, and a zoophile, with homosexual tendencies to boot. This is the despicable character we set up as a hero for our dear little children.”
Hergé, who was much criticized by his compatriots after the Nazi defeat, revised most of the offensive portions in later editions of his books, but possibly never truly understood his own offenses. In 1945, when a friend who had been a slave laborer in Germany returned to Belgium and described Jewish concentration camp prisoners he had seen, Hergé replied: “You mistook what you saw. … And first of all, how do you know they were Jews? They were surely common law criminals.”
In the end, Hergé concluded: “Tintin has been for me the means to express myself, to project my desire for adventure and violence, the bravery and resourcefulness within me,” — McGrath added, “and yet in the end the character seems less a projection of Hergé’s inner self than the repression of it. What makes Tintin so appealing is that he never grows up and has no inner life at all.”
The Adventures of Tintin was translated into 60 languages, and has sold more than 200 million copies to date — a figure that’s likely to balloon after the current round of publicity.
Not bad for the boy with no back-story. “Tintin is a character without a past,” Apostolidès writes in the introduction to his book. “We don’t even know why he insists on having his hair cut like a blue jay’s,” notes Bruce Handy in the New York Times Sunday Book Review.
Handy continues: “I think Hergé’s greatest achievements are formal: his precise yet witty line, like mechanical drawing with the giggles; and especially his gifts for timing, pacing and action, clearly movie-inspired.” Apostolidès noted that the French philosopher Michel Serres considered Hergé a “twentieth century classic, an enduring masterpiece.” On the occasion of Hergé’s death, Apostolidès noted, “Serres confided to a journalist that ‘no other author can be compared to him in influence and reputation.'”