Boy's Life

Herge: The Man Who Created Tintin BY Pierre Assouline, Charles Ruas. Oxford University Press, USA. Hardcover, 288 pages. $24.

The cover of Herge: The Man Who Created Tintin

Tintinology is a neglected field of study in the United States, but something approaching a cottage industry in the rest of the world. More than seventy books have been written about the great Belgian Georges Remi, who died in 1983 and was better known by his pseudonym, Hergé. Yet despite this torrent of analysis about the creator of the strangely coiffed boy reporter Tintin; his little dog, Snowy; and Captain Haddock, the drunken sailor with a Tourette’s-like compulsion to shout insults, we still know surprisingly little about the cartoonist, who was famously reticent, granting only a handful of major interviews in his life. When the French journalist Pierre Assouline gained access to the guarded Hergé archives, it was expected that he would produce the definitive biography from the correspondence and journals buried therein. Now, perhaps hoping to take advantage of the renewed interest in Tintin (Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson are adapting his adventures to the screen), Oxford University Press has released an English translation of Hergé: The Man Who Created Tintin, the book Assouline published in 1996.

Assouline, who has also written biographies of such Francophone icons as Georges Simenon and Henri Cartier-Bresson, serviceably captures the major events of Hergé’s life, from his enthusiastic embrace of Boy Scout ideals as a youth to his triumphant but melancholy final years, which were colored by his questionable employment during World War II. Hergé blossomed under the wing of Father Norbert Wallez, an outspoken right-wing Catholic priest and leading figure in the Belgian nationalist press. Wallez saw the twenty-year-old Remi’s illustrations in scout and church-youth magazines and recruited him to create two characters, a boy and his dog, who would serve as exemplars to young Catholics of religious virtue and Belgian decency. “Teach while entertaining” was Father Wallez’s motto. Tintin began appearing weekly in Wallez’s newspaper, Le Vingtième Siècle, in 1929, and his first two adventures took him and Snowy to Soviet Russia, where they witnessed the evils of Communism, and to King Léopold II’s Congo, where they celebrated the benevolence of colonialism. Tintin and Hergé would eventually transcend their paternalistic and parochial origins. This is inspiring material, and one wishes Assouline had made more of it.

Assouline pays due attention to such important subjects as Hergé’s transformative friendship with the young Chinese artist Chang Chong-Chen, who opened the westerner’s blinkered eyes to foreign perspectives; his adulterous affairs in midlife; and the nervous breakdowns he suffered after the war, when he was no longer confident of his artistic worth. However, as a journalist, Assouline is most interested in Hergé’s behavior during the Nazi occupation of Belgium, when the artist published Tintin’s adventures (at the peak of his powers) for the collaborationist paper Le Soir. “I worked, period; that’s all,” Hergé claimed some years later. “Just like a miner works, or a streetcar ticket taker, or a baker. While everyone found it normal that a mechanic made trains run, they thought that people of the press were supposedly traitors.” Assouline provides a valuable service by laying out the evidence once and for all—he credibly makes the case that Hergé was never genuinely a Nazi sympathizer, but simply an unwise businessman in denial who failed to consider the ramifications of his decision.

Despite his work uncovering such unknown (in 1996) details as Hergé’s sterility, Assouline otherwise fails to arrange the facts into a convincing, rounded portrait. As an epigraph, he quotes Hergé late in life: “What if I told you that I put my whole life into Tintin?” And so a reader might expect a thorough examination of the work. As Assouline himself writes, “If there is no Tintin without Hergé, Hergé is of no interest without Tintin.” This is mere lip service; he doesn’t sustain an interest in Hergé’s art, confining himself instead to clumsy plot synopses and rudimentary, repetitive comparisons between comics and film. Celebrity and cinema are of more interest to the biographer, and we get many pages detailing various attempts to bring Tintin to the screen. Even on the final page, as Hergé lies on his death bed, Assouline incongruously changes the subject back to Hollywood: “[Hergé] considered Spielberg a genius. When he exhausted himself by talking, they asked him to stop.”

Until someone commissions a translation of Benoît Peeters’s excellent 2002 biography, Hergé: Fils de Tintin, aspiring English-speaking Tintinologists who want a fuller picture of the man should supplement Assouline’s book with critical studies such as Jean-Marie Apostolidès’s pioneering work The Metamorphoses of Tintin (itself finally translated into English in 2009) and Tom McCarthy’s Tintin and the Secret of Literature (2008). Both authors press the case that Georges Remi’s inner life is most completely portrayed through the twenty-four adventures of a boy and his dog.

Timothy Hodler is the editor of the Eisner-nominated journal and blog Comics Comics and has written for New York magazine and Details.