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By Jean-Marc Lofficier, Randy Lofficier
Oldcastle BooksCopyright © 2011 Jean-Marc & Randy Lofficer
All rights reserved.
Tintin – Reporter of the Twentieth-century
"In the end, you know, my only international rival is Tintin! We're both little guys who don't let the big guys walk all over them. You don't see it because of my height."
Charles de Gaulle (1890–1970)
The silhouette of Tintin – a young man wearing golf pants running with a white fox terrier by his side – is easily one of the most recognisable visual icons of the modern world, as much as Mickey Mouse's ears or Snoopy playing World War One ace on his doghouse.
Tintin was born – or made his first public appearance – in Belgium on 10 January 1929. Some sociologists argue that the twentieth century really began only after World War One, and that would indeed make Tintin a child of the last century. His putative birth occurred mere months before the Great Depression, and a decade before World War Two, two of the twentiethth century's defining events.
To put this into the context of comics' history, Tintin was created the same year that American cartoonist Elzie Segar created the spinach-chewing Popeye, and artist Dick Calkins drew the adventures of Buck Rogers, adapted by Phil Nowlan from his own science fiction story. The notion that Tintin is, in fact, nine years older than Superman and ten years older than Batman usually causes mild cultural shock on both sides of the Atlantic, even among the most educated comics fans, who somehow regard the character as timeless.
It is that very timelessness that makes Tintin the perfect symbol of the twentieth century, a true witness to our era, spotlighting with astonishing 20/20 clarity all the high points of our recent history: Tintin was a Western European coloniser in Africa in the 1930s; he battled bootleggers in Chicago during Prohibition and fought alongside the Chinese against the Japanese; he walked on the moon; and in the 1970s he sided with South American guerrillas. Tintin always fitted in; anywhere, anywhen. And more so, he always made us aware that there were two sides to every story and did it with a smile.
When we read Tintin, we simultaneously hold two images in our minds: the image we see and Hergé's amazingly symbolic vision. Apollo XII and Professor Calculus' red & white chequered rocket become inseparable from each other in our collective photo album. The story of Tintin is the story of our times.
When symbols pass away, the outpouring of grief is out of proportion with the actual event, because people do not mourn the person who died but the part of themselves that is floating away on the river of time. On 3 May 1983, when Tintin's creator, Hergé, passed away at age 76, for many it was Tintin who died that day. It symbolised to all who had shared in the young reporter's adventures that a portion of their lives had suddenly come to an end.
The leading French and Belgian newspapers devoted their front pages to the news, illustrating it with the by-then famous panel culled from Tintin In Tibet showing Tintin shedding a tear over the seeming death of his friend Tchang, or the one where Snowy stands over his master's unconscious body. Tintin mourned his father; fans mourned Hergé.
Never had the passing of a cartoonist – other than perhaps that of Walt Disney – generated as much public grief and news stories, a vibrant testimony to the deep and everlasting importance of Tintin in French-speaking culture.
When one first looks at Tintin, there may be a tendency to dismiss it as being simplistic. It is, after all, supposed to be a story for children. But as one begins reading, the clarity and expressiveness of the design is revealed, almost like a blurred image slowly coming into focus. Very few artists ever had Hergé's ability to blend coherent storytelling, depth of characterisation and outstanding expression of emotion in such a fashion.
Contemporary comics scholars like to point at the progress made by comics in becoming more 'adult' (whatever that means) in the recent past by rightly singling out the works of writers such as Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman or Los Brothers Hernandez. But in fact, the Tintin comics were the first to have 'gone adult'. As early as 1934, encouraged by his friend, Chinese student Tchang Tchong-Jen, Hergé had plunged his hero into the midst of the Japanese invasion of China. The publication of The Blue Lotus in the pages of a Belgian newspaper provoked the ire of Japanese officials and several personalities protested the alleged harm done by Hergé to Nippo-Belgian relations. Conversely, the artist was invited to China by Tchang Kai-Chek's wife. No comic since then has ever provoked so much interest or controversy from the adult world, or has been treated as seriously as The Blue Lotus was in 1934.
And no comics writer or artist has been called before a tribunal to explain and justify his work, as Hergé was after the war, when the authorities of a newly-liberated Belgium questioned his book The Shooting Star. Drawn in Nazi-occupied Belgium for a Nazi-sympathetic newspaper, the book happened to give all the good roles to the pro-Axis and neutral states, while making America into a villain.
For good and bad, Hergé blazed a trail – his comics were not only 'adult', they were the product of adult choices, reflected adult concerns, were read by adults and ultimately judged by adults. Can that be said about any other comic works or creators?
Artistically, Tintin was the first comic ever to offer its reader a fully self-contained, totally coherent fantasy universe. Long before the intricate universes of Marvel Comics and its rivals, Hergé had built a rich and complex world centred around a simple hero, a teenage reporter – not unlike Clark Kent – flanked by his faithful pet and which included a gallery of wonderful supporting characters. The humanity of Haddock, the eccentricities of Calculus, the goofiness of the Thompsons, the mercurial nature of the Castafiore and the obnoxiousness of Jolyon Wagg become more familiar to us than the antics of our own relatives. The Tintin Family forms a Human Comedy that rivals that of Balzac.
The Tintin Universe is also comprised of a veritable atlas of imaginary countries, from Syldavia in the Balkans, to San Theodoros in South America and Khemed in the Middle East. They become shadow versions of Hitler's Germany, Nicaragua or Saudi Arabia, according to the changing needs of the times. As the twentieth century changes, so do the Tintin books.
As a result, both the literary reputation of Tintin and its popular image were not the product of a fixed or stabilised set of works, as is usually the case, but rather of a complex interplay of the same works set against a variety of different cultural and ideological backgrounds.
Tintin acquired its mythic status because it created an illusion of reality in its readers' minds, very much as JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings or JK Rowling's Harry Potters have. Every facet of the mundane world becomes transformed by and finds its equivalent in the underlying truth of the imaginary world. However, where the other two writers succeeded because of their prose, Hergé achieved his success through the symbolic power and visual clarity of his art.
Hergé's style is concerned with finding the right line that embodies the right expression, the right movement, the right shape. It is a quest for the essential and simple truth that lies under the cumbersome trappings of the mundane, and can only be revealed through clarity and focus. His visual approach incorporates the influences of both Western Masters, such as George McManus, and traditional Chinese brush technique. Like another modern comics artist whose work also hangs in museums today, Charles Schultz, Hergé understood that less is more.
In Europe, Hergé's artistic influence cannot be underestimated. His style became a school – the so-called 'Clear Line' style, which now includes Dutch artist Joost Swarte, French artists Yves Chaland, Serge Clerc, Floc'h and Ted Benoit, and Spanish artist Daniel Torres.
There is yet one other, possibly even more important, aspect of Tintin's history that makes it the most important comic series in Europe, possibly in the world – the business factor.
The concept of collecting comics and publishing them as children's books was a new one in 1930. With the publication of collected editions dubbed "albums", comics creators were guaranteed a place on the bookshelves and royalties for years to come. They were then motivated to produce their best work on a schedule that ensured quality of craftsmanship.
In America, by contrast, the syndicates which owned the comics, treated them as a disposable item, read today, gone tomorrow, a mere circulation-boosting device for throwaway newspapers, not worthy of book publication. And even if they had deemed them good material for books, the men who owned the syndicates were not book publishers and there was no synergy to be had. As a result, American creators were forced to toil deprived of artistic respectability and financial security.
The face of European comics would have been different if Hergé had relinquished his ownership of Tintin – as he could have. Luckily for him, the owners of Le Vingtième Siècle, the newspaper which first published Tintin, were Catholic priests who sought to evangelise, not squeeze a buck out of every venture. If not, things may have well turned out differently. But whatever the reasons, it was Tintin's success in the bookstores and its creator ownership that virtually gave birth to the entire European comics publishing industry.
And ultimately, perhaps that was its most significant contribution to the History of Comics.CHAPTER 2
Hergé – I Am Tintin
'It's quite simple really, and at the same time rather complicated.'
Captain Haddock – Land of Black Gold.
Hergé was born Georges Rémi in Etterbeek, a suburb of Brussels, on 22 May 1907, to Alexis and Lisa Rémi. Alexis worked in the children's clothing business and his twin brother, Léon, in military uniforms. The identity of Alexis and Léon's father remained a mystery – their mother had them out of wedlock – and neither Georges, nor his younger brother, Paul, born in 1912, ever knew their paternal grandfather.
According to Hergé's later recollections, his parents used to give him a pencil and paper to keep him quiet and out of mischief, and this is how he came to discover his passion and talent for drawing. The margins of his school books became filled with art and the adventures of a small boy fighting against the German soldiers of World War One.
Young Georges spent his teenage years at the Catholic school of the Institut Saint-Boniface and received excellent grades, although paradoxically not in art classes. He joined the Catholic Scouting Federation and eventually became 'Curious Fox', the leader of the Squirrel Troop. Scout summer camp activities included group travel to Spain, Austria, Switzerland and Italy, which opened up Georges' horizons and gave him his first taste of adventure. It was also during his scout years that Georges acquired a romantic interest in the Native Americans.
The experience of being a scout became a dominant factor during Georges' crucial, formative years. When the young man's artistic skills blossomed, it was natural that his first outlet was his school's scout magazine, Jamais Assez (Never Enough), to which he began contributing illustrations, including a travelogue of a school trip to the Tyrol, in 1922.
In 1923, René Weverbergh of the Belgian national scout publication Le Boy-Scout, invited Georges to contribute illustrations to that magazine as well. His first professionally published illustration appeared in February 1923. He coined the pseudonym 'Hergé' – a reversal of his initials G R – almost two years later, in December 1924.
In 1925, following a recommendation by Weverbergh, the 18-year-old Georges was hired by the Catholic newspaper Le Vingtième Siècle (The Twentieth Century), which was edited by an entrepreneurial and enthusiastic priest, Abbott Norbert Wallez. Georges was hired in a minor administrative capacity and put to work in the subscription department – but that did not stop 'Curious Fox', or Hergé, as he now regularly signed his work, from continuing to contribute to Le Boy-Scout, by then retitled Le Boy-Scout Belge (The Belgian Boy-Scout).
In 1926, military service beckoned. Georges went in the army as an ordinary foot soldier and emerged a year later as a reserve lieutenant before returning to another kind of active duty at Le Vingtième Siècle. Meanwhile, in July 1926, he begun Les Aventures de Totor, Chef de Patrouille des Hannetons (The Adventures of Totor, Scout Leader of the Beetle Troop) in Le Boy-Scout Belge.
At the end of 1928, Wallez asked Georges Rémi to edit a weekly children's supplement, to be entitled Le Petit Vingtième (The Little Twentieth Century), fashioned after the American model. At that time, Rémi was performing various editorial tasks, contributing illustrations etc., for the magazine, while continuing to freelance for Le Boy-Scout Belge. He was also engaged to Germaine Kieckens, Wallez's secretary.
The first issue of Le Petit Vingtième came out on 1 November 1928. At first, Hergé merely illustrated Les Aventures de Flup, Nenesse, Poussette et Cochonnet, a strip written by another of the paper's journalists. But in issue 11, on 10 January 1929, he launched his own series, Tintin In the Land of the Soviets, at first a remake of Totor in a slightly different context – Totor was a scout, Tintin a cub reporter.
A year later, on 23 January 1930, Hergé created Quick & Flupke, two Brussels street urchins whose nemesis is Agent No. 15, a brave policeman who looks exactly like the Thompsons.
Hergé became aware of Tintin's growing popularity after a publicity stunt planned by the editors of Le Vingtième Siècle. Upon the conclusion of the first story on 8 May 1930 it was announced in the paper that he and Tintin – in reality, a child made up to look like the character – would arrive from Russia at Brussels' rail station. Hergé thought no one would show up; instead, he and his companion were greeted by nearly a thousand screaming children.
By the end of the year, Tintin was collected in book form, albeit only by Le Petit Vingtième, and was published in France in the prestigious Coeurs Vaillants magazine. Hergé had become a star. In 1932, he married Germaine and signed a better contract with Belgian publisher Casterman, who would ensure that his books received a greater distribution.
In 1934, Hergé had another dramatic encounter: that of Tchang Tchong-Jen, a Chinese student at the Fine Arts Academy of Brussels. Tchang not only helped him with the research necessary to make Tintin's fifth adventure The Blue Lotus a better book, even drawing the Chinese ideograms used in the story, but he also introduced Hergé to the techniques of inking with a brush, and the importance of injecting a sense of realism in the story to balance its fantasy.
The publication of The Blue Lotus also made Hergé realise how important he and Tintin had become. Because of its pro-Chinese slant, the story provoked angry reactions from Japanese officials and other personalities. Le Vingtième Siècle's new editor, Schmidt, asked Hergé to change his story, but bolstered by Tchang, the artist refused to back down and fought to retain his independence; he won.
In 1934, Hergé created the 'Atelier Hergé,' a small art studio designed to handle the, by then, numerous requests to create commercial and advertising illustrations. He launched a new comics series in Le Petit Vingtième, a funny animal adventure entitled Popol & Virginie Chez les Lapinos, a parody western in which two pooh bears go to live among Indian rabbits in the Far West.
In 1936, Hergé created yet one more comics series, Jo, Zette & Jocko, this time at the request of Abbott Courtois, the editor of Coeurs Vaillants, who had expressed the desire to see a series featuring real children with a real family. Jo and Zette were the children of Engineer Legrand, and Jocko was their pet monkey. Two double-length Jo, Zette & Jocko sagas were published between 1936 and 1939, the first dealing with a mad scientist seeking to conquer the world from an underwater base, the second with a futuristic stratospheric plane.
During that time, Tintin books were produced like clockwork, one after the other. Even Germaine occasionally assisted with the inking of her husband's work. This golden age of Hergé's career came to an end in 1939.
That year, as rumours of war intensified, Hergé was mobilised and sent into the army. Nevertheless, he continued to work diligently. In early 1940 he became sick and was sent home for health reasons. In May, the Germans invaded Belgium. On 9 May 1940, Le Vingtième Siècle and its weekly children's supplement were discontinued. As a direct consequence, Tintin's ninth adventure Land of Black Gold was left uncompleted. The darkest period of Hergé's life and career was about to begin.
Excerpted from Tintin by Jean-Marc Lofficier, Randy Lofficier. Copyright © 2011 Jean-Marc & Randy Lofficer. Excerpted by permission of Oldcastle Books.
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