Books: Hergé, Son of Tintin

I came across this book in the library’s electronic catalog while looking for Tintin books for my son to read. I have never cared much for reading biographies (and I was more than a little dismayed when my high school guidance counselor suggested biographer as a good career choice for me), but the title intrigued me. In what sense was Hergé, who created the character, Tintin’s son?

I also wondered what made the Tintin books so popular in the Europe but much less so here in the U.S. Where they part of a larger cultural difference? There are plenty of popular comic books in the U.S., but they are actually periodicals, not books. The Adventures of Tintin, and other popular series such as Asterix, are published as books. I also saw the periodical-type comic book when I was in Europe, but I have trouble thinking of examples of U.S. equivalents of Tintin or Asterix.

There were other questions I wondered about as well. Where did Hergé get some of the names of his characters? I read recently that the name Tintin refers to the character’s prominent tuft of hair. But what about Professor Calculus? Why in the world is he named Tournesol, which means sunflower, in French? And where did Hergé dream up some of the outlandish adventures in which Tintin finds himself?

Hergé, Son of Tintin didn’t give me any answers regarding the differences between comics in Europe and the U.S., or much about the characters’ names, but I did learn a lot about where the ideas for the adventures came from. What had struck me as extraordinarily imaginative and highly unlikely adventures were in fact generally based on current events at the time they were written. As most of them were written before I was born, naturally I had no reason to connect them to real-world events. But for Hergé, basing comics on current news was a way to get children interested in what was going on in the world.

I thought of going back and rereading the books in light of this. But near the end of the biography, I learned that Hergé revised many of his earlier works, trying to make them “timeless” by removing many of the details that rooted them to a particular point in time. Since the editions that I have access to would most likely be only these revised versions, I would probably have trouble establishing the linkages that would interest me. I tend to agree with the biographer, Benoît Peeters, that making these changes reduced from rather than added value to the books.

I also learned a great deal about the cartoonist, Georges Remi – who came up with the pen name Hergé by reversing his initials. (Using French pronunciation, R. G. sounds like air-zhay, and would appropriately be spelled Hergé.) While I had no great interest in his life apart from his work on Tintin, it was interesting to learn how his work was so closely connected to his life, such that for a long time he effectively had no life except his work.

We’ve probably all seen videos on “the making of” some well-known movie, and in some cases those are more interesting than the movies themselves. Much less often do we have the opportunity to learn about “the making of” a book. One of the features that delighted me about Jasper Fforde’s books is that they tell the reader where to find special features, such as “the making of” the book, online at Fforde’s website.

A biography, of course, can’t capture all those details, as it is generally written long after the works were created, when the creator has been famous enough for people to be interested in reading such a biography. And perhaps most writers leave fewer notes, or have fewer ties between their personal and professional lives. But in the case of Hergé, the work on Tintin so dominated his life that it truly shaped the man he became as much as he shaped the character (hence, the title of the book).

There are times when a writer becomes known for one single strand of his work, not necessarily the one he would like to be known for. Gelett Burgess would have loved to be known for something other than his “Purple Cow” poem. A.A. Milne, beloved by millions for his stories about Winnie-the-Pooh, resented the fact that his fame as the writer of the Pooh books made it hard for him to be taken seriously as a writer of anything but children’s books.

During his most productive years, Hergé worked on a variety of projects, though Tintin consumed more of his time than any other. Far from resenting his growing fame as the creator of Tintin, he seems to have enjoyed it and in fact capitalized on it. (For a number of years he was in charge of a magazine named for Tintin, though there was plenty of non-Tintin content, and sometimes no Tintin content, when Hergé was having one of his depressive episodes and had no heart for work.)

Peeters tries to give a balanced picture of Georges Remi, neither overly critical nor withholding criticism where due. I don’t know how well he did, since I have nothing but his book to go by, but overall I got the impression that I would not have cared for Remi personally. (Peeters often refers to him as Hergé where his work is concerned, and Georges Remi where his personal life is concerned.)

He was apparently a perfectionist, difficult to work with or to work for. (I tend to be a perfectionist myself, and I wonder sometimes how well I would like myself if I had to deal with me as a friend or colleague.) He allowed himself to be chronically overworked (from the book it’s hard to see how much this was due to unavoidable circumstances and how much it simply fit with his temperament).

I get the impression of someone who tended to take the path of least resistance, except when it came to his artwork itself. It was easier to work hard than to carve out a time reserved for family and relaxation. It was easier to write comics that expressed attitudes of the larger culture than to find fault with the society of which he was a part.

And it was easier to cooperate with the Nazis, once they had invaded and taken over his country, than to join with the Resistance. I had read vague references, in the past, to Collaborators, and I knew that they were despised as spineless traitors once the Nazis were defeated. But I had never given much thought to the process by which one might become a Collaborator.

In Hergé’s case, it was because the Nazis took over the newspapers, including the one he worked for. He seems to have been mostly apolitical, but with a background that predisposed him and others like him to appreciate the Nazis’ professed goals of law and order and promoting tradition. In any case, drawing children’s comics seemed an honest way to make a living, even if one’s employers had taken charge through the use of military force.

He worked for a newspaper though, and newspapers were used to spread Nazi propaganda. Once the Nazis were defeated, all those who had worked for the Nazi-run newspapers were faced with blacklisting and/or imprisonment. Hergé actually got off fairly easily, perhaps due to the popularity of Tintin, but some of his close friends fared far worse, and he never completely escaped the criticism aimed at the Collaborators.

For many artists, middle age and onward is a time of great accomplishments, as skills honed in earlier years find their full fruiting. For whatever reasons – overwork, disillusionment over how he was treated after the war, marital problems, depression – Hergé turns out to have done most of his work when he was relatively young.

There is a sense in which the work of an artist or writer (and a cartoonist is both) stands on its own, apart from the life of its creator. I enjoyed the Tintin books long before I ever took notice of who wrote them, much less knew what kind of person he was. And I will continue to enjoy them, because they are well-drawn and well-written (most of them, anyway – the ones at the very beginning and end were not as good).

But I will also read them with a new awareness of the troubled life of the man behind them, who seems to have had trouble finding the same kind of joy that he produced in the people who eagerly anticipated each installation of Tintin’s adventures.

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