Hergé: The Man who Created Tintin 
by Pierre Assouline, translated by Charles Ruas.
Oxford, 276 pp., £9.99, October 2011, 978 0 19 983727 4
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Hergé, Son of Tintin 
by Benoît Peeters, translated by Tina Kover.
Johns Hopkins, 394 pp., £15.50, November 2011, 978 1 4214 0454 7
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By the ends of their lives, two great 20th-century stylists had for decades been the heads of their respective trades, monitoring and publishing the younger talent, attracting unmatched levels of scholarly interest and being admired with a special vehemence by conservatives who would once have sneered at the kinds of stuff they turned out. Each man stood for an idea of European culture, preferred cats to children – for whom each wrote successfully all the same – and took an interest in prewar comedy, Eastern philosophy and the Church. In each case a studiedly colourless public persona half-concealed a turbulent inner life: running a magazine while trying to do his own work and undergoing a crisis in his first marriage, each had a nervous breakdown at the height of his creative powers and went to Switzerland to recuperate. Much younger second wives, first met in the workplace, would go on to control their estates with great care, which was needed thanks in part to both men’s youthful connections to various Francophone anti-democrats. Their early ideas about fascism were notoriously slippery; also quite well known were their unfriendly depictions of Levantine Greeks and, in particular, Jews.

Unlike T.S. Eliot, however, Georges Remi, aka Hergé, was very certain of his nationality. He was, according to Pierre Assouline, ‘the personification of Belgium’, and it’s true that he created, in Tintin, one of the few national emblems his squabbling country can agree on. Born in 1907 in Etterbeek, outside Brussels, to a Walloon father and a Flemish mother, he straddled Belgium’s divided language communities, being a French speaker who was also comfortable in Dutch and Marols, a Franco-Dutch dialect associated with Brussels street life. (The made-up exotic languages in the Tintin books are filled with plays on Marols: Mohammed Ben Kalish Ezab, a comic Arab potentate introduced in Land of Black Gold, gets his name from ‘kalichesap’, liquorice water.) Conquering the Dutch-language market – as Tintin did in the 1940s under the name Kuifje, cognate with ‘quiff’ – was an important objective for him. It was the editor of the Dutch-language version of Tintin magazine who coined its famous slogan, ‘for young people from 7 to 77’.

There were other divides he couldn’t cross. From the age of 13, when he was moved from a secular to a religious school at the insistence of his father’s employer, he was closely tied to the institutions and networks of the Catholic right. Though not devout and, with one or two areas excepted, not much of a reactionary in his later years, he was hemmed in by his society’s ‘pillarisation’, as it’s called in the Low Countries, under which each politico-denominational ‘pillar’ – Catholic, Socialist and Liberal, replicated in each language group – has its own university, trade unions, newspapers, hospitals and so on. Throughout his life his friends and professional contacts had a conservative cast, a situation that led to – and was afterwards reinforced by – his decision to let the Tintin strip share space with pro-New Order editorials and advertisements for Jud Süss in collaborationist newspapers during the German occupation of 1940-44. The treatment doled out after the liberation to ‘patriotic’ collaborators such as himself was one topic on which he kept up a bitterly right-wing stance. Even so, he spent the rest of his career doing his best to clean up the strip’s politics, while weathering intermittent attacks from the left.

On the whole, he did a good job. There was little he could do about Tintin in the Congo, and he made only superficial changes to The Shooting Star, switching the chief baddie’s name from Blumenstein to Bohlwinkel and his base of operations from New York to ‘Sao Rico’. (He maintained that he hadn’t known that Blumenstein might be construed as a Jewish name when he attached it to an unscrupulous, hook-nosed financier in 1941.) Otherwise, most of the dubious material, as he and his publishers understood it, was expunged. The postwar adventures took up the anti-imperialist, anti-racist and even anti-fascist themes that he’d dabbled with here and there in the 1930s. By the 1960s, increasingly bored of both Tintin and thriller plots, he was using the vivid secondary figures who’d accumulated around his hero for character comedies and narrative experiments. He acquired a cultish readership among younger intellectuals, and he pored over Barthes and Lévi-Strauss with an art critic he’d met. He also cultivated Warhol and Lichtenstein. After his death in 1983, Libération ran a memorial issue illustrated entirely with frames from the Tintin books. At worst, it was felt, he’d been impressionable and unquestioning when starting out, and he’d paid a price for what he called his ‘youthful sins’.

That feeling hasn’t really been dispelled by the discreditable material dug up since then, and the Tintin industry still ticks over nicely. (The licensing is overseen – to sporadic controversy – by Nick Rodwell, co-founder of the Tintin Shop in Covent Garden, who married Hergé’s widow, Fanny Vlamynck, in 1993.) It helps that few researchers have it in for the books, which are intricate feats of visual storytelling. The pictures are clear enough for a four-year-old to follow, and classy-looking to adult eyes, with spare yet expressive figures, tasteful colouring, endearingly stylised graphic conventions – like the beads of sweat that halo surprised characters’ heads – and obsessively considered layouts: Hergé aimed to have tension rise and fall across each double-page spread. It also helps that Tintin himself, designed as a focus for identification, doesn’t have much of a personality beyond his narrative function as a goodie. And readers – as Tom McCarthy points out in Tintin and the Secret of Literature – have felt possessive towards the supporting cast from early on.* Captain Haddock, Tintin’s insult-hurling best friend, showed up in 1944 in a vengeful newspaper strip done ‘in the manner of M. Hergé, who is indisposed because of the Liberation’. Clasping a bottle, as he often does, Haddock says: ‘Hergé is a landlubber, a bashi-bazouk, a Kanak. At bottom, I’ve always been an Anglophile.’

Still, broadsides of that sort, and the circumstances they came from, were made more difficult to overlook by Assouline’s biography, which was published in France in 1996. Assouline had the estate’s support, he says delicately, ‘for the duration of my research’ (it was later withdrawn), and he gave ‘the most sensitive files’, as Benoît Peeters puts it, the methodical combing ‘that everyone had been waiting for’. Peeters, a Tintinologist of long standing who once wrote a study of The Castafiore Emerald under Barthes’s supervision, regrets Assouline’s heavy emphasis on politics. His biography, translated into English very badly on the back of last year’s Spielberg film, has more to say about the work but isn’t uncritical, and even throws in extra charges: for instance, that Hergé, who got his break as a cartoonist through the Catholic wing of the Belgian boy scouts, had several friends who were ‘more or less confirmed paedophiles’. Apart from that, the two books don’t differ on much. Both make it clear that Hergé threw his stories together from whatever sources came to hand but agree that he was opportunistic, self-justifying and, in political matters, accident-prone even for a man moving through a landscape littered with banana skins.

In a long interview he gave to Numa Sadoul in 1971, then spent three years revising, Hergé said: ‘My childhood, my adolescence, Boy Scouting, military service – all of it was grey.’ A few years later he made a similar speech to Peeters, saying, however, that scouting had been in colour. His father was in the rag trade and there was a twin uncle. ‘They had the same moustache,’ Hergé recalled, ‘and wore identical bowler hats.’ In addition to resembling – a bit too perfectly – Dupont and Dupond, aka Thomson and Thompson, long-running comic foils to Tintin, the twins had a background that Hergé never spoke of. They’d been born out of wedlock, father unknown, and treated kindly, six years later, by a countess who hired their mother as a chambermaid at a grand estate outside Brussels. As a result, a family legend seems to have given Hergé’s grandfather aristocratic, possibly royal status. All this is of great interest to Tintin specialists because the only change that’s shown happening to the characters in the series involves a grand estate which Captain Haddock comes into by penetrating the secrets of an aristocratic ancestor. Serge Tisseron, a French psychoanalyst, puts the story at the centre of his theory of Tintin, and McCarthy has fun with it in his study.

The Remis weren’t very close or communicative, and there weren’t many books in the house, though the young Hergé wasn’t much of a reader anyway. He did well at school and drew constantly from early on, but spent only one evening in an academic art class, where ‘he was assigned to faithfully reproduce a plaster Corinthian column’. In 1924 he started using the name Hergé – ‘R.G.’; he tried Jérémie and Jérémiades, from his non-reversed initials, first – for his illustrations in Le Boy-Scout Belge. He got further commissions from Le Blé qui lève, the journal of a youth association he was involved with, which described itself as ‘very young, very Belgian and very Catholic’. From there he made his way to Le Vingtième Siècle, a daily paper ‘of doctrine and information’, where he was taken on as a designer and cartoonist in 1927. His boss, Norbert Wallez, was a charismatic priest of anti-parliamentary, Germanophile views – Protestant Prussia excluded – who believed that Jews and Freemasons were behind the Versailles treaty. In his office Wallez kept a signed portrait of Mussolini inscribed: ‘To Norbert Wallez, a friend of Italy and of fascism.’ His secretary, Germaine Kieckens, who agreed to marry Hergé in 1932 after a lengthy siege, would have preferred to marry her employer, Hergé came to feel.

Tintin made his debut in the children’s supplement, Le Petit Vingtième, in January 1929. He was drawn up to Wallez’s specifications: a patriotic Catholic boy reporter to fill readers in on the horrors of Bolshevism, the appeal of the missionary life in the Congo and the distressing qualities of the machine civilisation being thrown up by American capitalism. Wallez dictated settings and source material, and he permitted the use of speech bubbles, a recent US export which the editors at Le Boy-Scout had disliked. Influenced by George McManus, an American cartoonist whose way with noses Hergé particularly admired, the first Petit Vingtième strips are strange to look at now. Tintin’s instantly identifiable outline – the reason he wore plus-fours for so long – isn’t yet in place, and he’s more thuggish and prayerful than he later became. His dog, Milou, named after Hergé’s first girlfriend and known as Snowy in English, is wirier and talks. Not surprisingly, the earliest strips are filled with scheming commissars and paternalistic racism, often conveyed in expository dialogue (‘It’s very nice of these blacks to bear us triumphantly to our hotel’) of a redundant kind that Hergé soon prided himself on leaving out.

By the standards of Le Petit Vingtième, which presented Mussolini as the man who’d abolished homework, Tintin’s propagandistic efforts were mild, and now seem comically dated. The columns for young readers by ‘Uncle Jo’, often written by Hergé’s friend Paul Jamin (who hotfooted it to Germany in 1944), were more in line with the paper’s concerns. A piece from February 1934 in praise of ‘severe laws for the protection of minors’ ends:

Here, children … can buy any publication they please … Most publications justify blackmail. They praise crime, vice, rape, they exploit scandals. It sells, it sells! The Isaacs, Felsenbergs and other Levys fill their pockets and make fortunes. Slowly they poison the world, by corrupting the young. Christ curse those who cause scandals, especially if those scandals touch the young. They should take all these rotten publications and make a packet of them, tie it up to a millstone and throw it to the bottom of the sea. After also having tied to it all those who live by these shameful and unhealthy activities. – Uncle Jo

Le Vingtième Siècle as a whole was in two minds about Hitler but broadly approved of his policies on Jews, except insofar as they pushed refugees into Belgium.

Hergé took all this in his stride, and during the 1930s his freelance portfolio – most of it blamelessly commercial – included a few political commissions. Fortunately for him, he fell out with Léon Degrelle, the leader of the Rexist party, who went on to found a Walloon SS brigade. They quarrelled over an image credit; then Degrelle cut his ties with the rest of the Catholic right and Rexism became one rake the cartoonist managed not to step on. Instead he befriended the journalist Raymond De Becker, an admirer of Charles Maurras whose ‘ferociously neutral’ weekly, L’Ouest, was subsidised behind the scenes by the German ambassador. Hergé drew cartoons for the magazine and illustrated some of De Becker’s pamphlets, among them one called Pour un ordre nouveau. These involvements were plainly more than mercenary, yet there was a mercenary element too, which worked to the Tintin strip’s advantage in the 1930s, as did Hergé’s malleable thinking. He was funny, and learning fast how to shape longer stories. He would have known that his readers weren’t interested in Uncle Joe. Ignoring Wallez’s suggestions, he started looking for material in a satirical magazine, Le Crapouillot, which sometimes published leftist writers, including Victor Serge. And his work’s growing fame started to bring him into contact with less conservative Catholic figures, among them a Trappist monk who’d joined the Sioux by correspondence.

So the prewar strips – republished as books from 1930 – lurch drunkenly across the ideological spectrum. They’re hostile to the British empire, American business interests, oil companies and arms dealers, and their most developed villain, Roberto Rastapopoulos, is a film producer with a cigar-shaped nose who’s unmasked as the head of an international criminal conspiracy. (Hergé pictured him, he wrote in a letter in 1973, as ‘more or less Greek, a shady Levantine character, without a country … Another detail, he is not Jewish.’) They’re sympathetic to noble if simpleminded savages, boyishly excited by new technology and – from 1934, when a priest provided Hergé with an introduction to Zhang Chongren, an art student from Shanghai who agreed to help him with a story set in China – consciously satirical towards European notions of cultural superiority. The Blue Lotus, the result of Hergé’s tutorials from ‘Chang’, introduces a concern with detail and comes down hard on Japanese imperialism. (The Japanese embassy protested.) Towards the end of the decade the baddies are as likely to be Germans as shiftless cosmopolitans, and in King Ottokar’s Sceptre, started in 1938, Tintin prevents the annexation – modelled on the Anschluss – of a lovingly imagined Balkan country where an offstage demagogue called Müsstler plans to overthrow a Belgian-style monarch.

Tintin had recently, believe it or not, been kidnapped by the Irgun in the newspaper version of Land of Black Gold when the Germans invaded Belgium in May 1940. Hergé drove to France with his wife, sister-in-law, niece and Siamese cat, which according to Peeters he sometimes took for walks on a lead. Leopold III surrendered on 27 May; placed under house arrest in his palace at Laeken, he tried to come to an arrangement with Hitler and refused to acknowledge the government in exile, all of which would cost him his position later on. Hergé took his cue from the king, whose actions he always defended, and returned to Brussels. Le Vingtième Siècle had been shut down, never to reopen. The German military administration commandeered Le Soir, a liberal daily, and made De Becker its editor under the direction of the Propaganda Abteilung. ‘I don’t think it’s the moment to let myself be forgotten,’ Hergé wrote to his book publisher, mentioning the ‘absence of French competition’. He joined the staff of Le Soir on 15 October, selling the Flemish translation of his strip to another requisitioned paper. For the time being he abandoned Land of Black Gold, judging Mandate Palestine an inopportune setting, and after the war he took out all mention of Zionist insurgents.

Several key ingredients of the Tintin series – Captain Haddock, Professor Tournesol/ Calculus, Moulinsart/Marlinspike Hall – were introduced in Le Soir, where other attractions included book reviews by the young Paul de Man. Most of the adventures from the period are pure fantasy, and in The Secret of the Unicorn, from 1943, a sinister-seeming, possibly Russian-Jewish character turns out to be a goodie after all. (In the Spielberg film he does the opposite.) By then, though, Hergé had made an irreversible pratfall with The Shooting Star, which starts out as a wartime fever dream – an incoming meteorite, dazed crowds in the streets of Brussels – before starting to seem a bit like a disturbing allegory. Tintin joins a European expedition, recruited only from Axis and neutral countries, to retrieve the fallen meteorite. The tension comes from a rival expedition, which is near homicidally unsporting, American, and controlled by Blumenstein. For good measure, one panel depicts a pair of German-accented Orthodox Jews gloating over a rumour of the imminent end of the world, an event that would stiff their creditors: ‘Hé! Hé!’ Assouline’s discussion of this drawing is missing from the English translation of his book, and Peeters’s translator doesn’t rise to the occasion, writing: ‘Of the seventy thousand Jews living in Belgium in 1940, around 32 million were exterminated.’ But you understand what’s meant.

Hergé removed that panel when The Shooting Star went between hard covers in 1942. He may well have thought of it as a throwaway gag using a licensed comic stereotype that circumstances had rendered, through no fault of his own, rather tasteless. (A few panels earlier, an eccentric scientist is delighted to have detected a coming global cataclysm: ‘Tomorrow I shall be famous!’) Years later, when asked about his anti-semitic caricatures, he had many explanations, some apologetic, some evasive. The most direct was: ‘That was the style then.’ On the wider question of collaboration, he admitted to thinking briefly that ‘the future of the West could depend on the New Order,’ which was obviously a terrible mistake, ‘given everything that happened’. But ‘I didn’t feel like the war had anything at all to do with me,’ and as for ‘the Resistance thing … I found it contrary to the laws of war.’ No one complained about bakers and ticket collectors working during the occupation. Why were people who worked for newspapers ‘supposedly traitors’? On the contrary, he had been practicing ‘the “policy of presence” advocated by the king’.

He also had more practical concerns. His book sales rose sharply during the occupation, and his closeness to the authorities got his publishers better access to paper supplies. The competition worried him too: in France Le Journal de Mickey, a Disney offshoot, was soon back in print, with Pétainist editorials. Warned in 1943 that his newspaper work might soon be a liability, he replied:

Now is the time to appear in the greatest number of newspapers possible, even if some of these papers are destined to disappear or change direction after the war. In any case I will have reached the largest public … an excellent plan considering that when it’s all over, American comic books will reappear on the scene backed by the propaganda of animated films. The reactions you fear are entirely possible … But I’m already considered a ‘traitor’ for having published my drawings in Le Soir, for which I should be shot or hung (people haven’t made up their minds about which one yet). The worst that can happen to me is that, having been shot (or hung) for my collaboration with Le Soir, I will be re-shot (or re-hung) for my collaboration with Het Laatste Nieuws … Being shot for the first time is the most terrible part; after that, it seems you get used to it.

Brave words – if that’s what they are – notwithstanding, Hergé began to have depressive episodes, and stopped work on The Seven Crystal Balls, the scariest Tintin story, a month before the Allied landings. After the liberation he was arrested four times and barred from publishing in newspapers; many of his friends were imprisoned. Still indignant in the 1970s, he said to Peeters, quite seriously: ‘It was a glimpse of absolute intolerance.’

His case was considered by a military auditor. On the one hand, it could be said – as it was, in court, of an art director at Le Soir volé – that his output had been ‘the silver wrapper on a poisoned bonbon’. On the other, the auditor wrote, ‘an opposing argument – just as theoretical and just as irrefutable – could be made by saying: “By taking up space in the newspaper … I reduced the space allotted to propaganda in favour of the enemy, and I accomplished something patriotic.”’ The friendly drift of these reflections was partly the result of string-pulling by Raymond Leblanc, an entrepreneur with good Resistance credentials (royalist branch) and contacts in the new administration, who’d noticed the Tintin strip’s increased commercial clout and proposed a partnership to its author. Hergé was cleared for work in 1946, having been found ‘more inept than traitorous’, and launched Tintin magazine that year with Leblanc as publisher. Helped along the way by a moral panic about comics, which in 1949 led to a law in France aimed at keeping out American product, his clean-cut hero rapidly dominated the European market, much as he’d hoped in 1943.

Overwork, and the psychic aftershocks of the liberation, took their toll. For a while he considered moving to Argentina and wrote to a Rexist journalist, who’d moved there in a hurry, to ask about children’s weeklies under Perón. In the late 1940s and 1950s he had several depressive breakdowns, usually heading to Switzerland – he liked the village of Gland and sometimes visited the exiled Leopold – without warning Leblanc, who would fume and announce in the magazine that ‘our friend Hergé needs a rest.’ He got rashes on his hands and for long stretches couldn’t draw. ‘Tintin is no longer me,’ he wrote in 1947, ‘and though he continues to live it is through a sort of artificial respiration.’ (By the 1970s he was saying: ‘I hate Tintin.’) His marriage fell apart, aided by a manipulative clairvoyant – the paranormal phenomena in his later stories came from a genuine interest – and affairs with younger women. He fell in love with one of his colourists, Fanny, in the mid-1950s and left his wife in 1960, though it took him 17 years to divorce her. ‘If she had been a great actress, or an artist,’ Germaine Remi said, ‘there would have been a certain flair to it. But a nobody, a little colourist from the Studios, no!’

The Studios Hergé, set up in 1950, was where ‘The Adventures of Tintin’ – the multimillion copy-selling book series – reached its final form. Almost everyone there shared Hergé’s political background, and from time to time old friends with legal troubles were given real or notional freelance assignments. When Robert Poulet – sentenced to death in absentia for his wartime journalism, later a famous Holocaust denier – turned out to have been writing for the magazine under a pseudonym, Leblanc was alarmed. (‘That fucking Hergé,’ he recalled in 2000, ‘surrounded me – without warning me – with a knot of former collaborators’.) For different reasons, Hergé was similarly cagey about his many assistants. He stopped working with E.P. Jacobs, who did many of the backgrounds for The Seven Crystal Balls and helped update the early books, after Jacobs asked to be billed as a co-author. After that it was made clear to the artists hired to draw clothing, vehicles, furniture, landscapes and so on – Hergé did most of the characters – that being credited was out of the question. Having so many employees to keep busy encouraged a rigid perfectionism, and Peeters deplores the overproduced quality of the last few Tintin adventures.

Hergé never really understood how people could expect him to have known that drawing an anti-semitic comic strip for Nazi-controlled newspapers wasn’t a good idea. For him that was as unreasonable as expecting him to have known that the Belgian Congo was widely viewed as the heart of colonial darkness rather than a game park staffed by golliwogs. Yet most of the books as they’re published now are almost lacquered with innocuousness, and most of the things serious fans like about them – the technical polish, the late-period recursive humour, the loopily elaborate Ruritanian settings – can’t interestingly be discussed in relation to Hergé’s life. Among the later books the main exception is Tintin in Tibet, a more emotional story than usual, which was assembled during the break-up with Germaine. A complicated traitor redeems himself in Explorers on the Moon, and in The Red Sea Sharks the US navy saves Tintin from Rastapopoulos, who’s decided to point up his non-Jewish credentials by staffing a U-boat with former Nazis. In the same book, Captain Haddock blows his top after finding some black Africans being transported towards a nasty fate in cattle truck-like conditions. The pidgin-speaking Africans aren’t quick on the uptake and their oppressor is an evil-nosed Arab, but in bungling yet another political gesture, Hergé wasn’t untrue to himself.

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