'Herge:' the man behind Tintin's adventures

New York Times News ServiceJanuary 3, 2010 

'HERGE: The Man Who Created Tintin'

By Pierre Assouline; translated by Charles Ruas 276 pages. Oxford University Press. $24.95.

For some reason, the comic book character Tintin, beloved just about everywhere else, has never quite caught on in America. This may change in 2011, when Steven Spielberg brings the first of three planned Tintin adventures to the movie screen, but for now he remains underappreciated - a little too odd and earnest, perhaps, in a landscape ruled by superheroes.

Tintin, a virginal, 15-year-old journalist with a perpetually upswept quiff of reddish blond hair and a wire-haired fox terrier named Snowy, is the hero of 23 book-length adventures - what we now call graphic novels - completed by the Belgian artist Herge, who died in 1983 at the age of 75. Most of them are little masterpieces of the form, combining inventive and suspenseful comic storytelling with drawings that are clear, precise and as thrilling as movie stills. Andy Warhol was a big fan, and so was Roy Lichtenstein.

Regrettably, though Pierre Assouline summarizes the books in great detail, his biography of their creator, "Herge: The Man Who Created Tintin," is unillustrated, so if you don't already know the work, this is not the place to start. And even if you do, the story is a little depressing. Herge here is frequently reminiscent of the Charles Schulz depicted in David Michaelis' recent biography: an artist far happier and more interesting in his work than he ever was in life. Assouline, a journalist and film producer who has also written a biography of Georges Simenon, manages to misspell Schulz's name and also that of the great Winsor McCay, creator of Little Nemo, but is generally judicious and fair, determined to make his subject sympathetic. Ultimately, though, he reveals far more about Herge's publishing life and business affairs than about what made him tick.

Herge was born Georges Remi in May 1907. (The pen name came from flipping his initials, as pronounced in French: RG.) He grew up in Brussels and led a life of almost comic Belgian blandness until as a teenager he came under the sway of Norbert Wallez, a right-wing Roman Catholic priest who idolized Mussolini. Wallez encouraged Herge's drawing and got him a job with the children's section of Le Vingtieme Siecle, a conservative Catholic paper that Wallez edited. He shaped Herge's thinking, eventually chose a wife for him, and even suggested that for Tintin's first adventure - "Tintin in the Land of the Soviets" (1930) - Herge dispatch his hero to Russia, so he could expose the evils of Bolshevism.

Tintin's next mission was to the Congo, where he preached the virtues of King Leopold's colonialism. The drawings in this volume, "Tintin in the Congo," were so appallingly racist that Herge later redid them, though not entirely removing a hint of condescension. He also redid a later book, "The Shooting Star," removing anti-Semitic details like a villain named Blumenstein and two panels in which characters named Isaac and Salomon look forward to the end of the world because it means they won't have to pay their bills.

Through Herge later repented, and brought to his best work an almost reportorial accuracy, accusations of racism and anti-Semitism never entirely went away. Even more problematic was his conduct during World War II when, unlike many Belgians who refused to have anything to do with the Nazi occupiers, Herge went to work for Le Soir, which had become pro-German. After the war Herge, whose work flourished in Le Soir, was arrested four times on charges of collaboration and avoided prosecution only by entering into a convenient business alliance with some former members of the Resistance.

Assouline suggests that Herge was less a traitor than a self-involved obsessive for whom continuing Tintin was more important than anything else. Unlike P.G. Wodehouse, who was also accused of collaboration during the war, he wasn't an innocent, exactly, but to the end of his life he never accepted that he had done anything wrong or understood why so many of his countrymen resented him. "I worked, period; that's all," he said, defending himself. "Just like a miner works, or a streetcar ticket taker, or a baker."

In the postwar years, when he published most of the best Tintin adventures, Herge, depressed, overworked, drinking heavily and still smarting from criticism, had several breakdowns, disappearing for weeks at a time. He and his wife (who once admitted that Wallez was more her type) grew apart and in an effort to repair things adopted a child. After just two weeks, though, Herge couldn't stand the disruption and had the boy sent back. He began to stray from rigid Catholicism, becoming interested in Eastern philosophy, and eventually fell in love with a woman almost 30 years his junior, with whom he lived for 17 years before finally getting a divorce and marrying her.

In this, too - the depressions, the religious questioning, the relatively happy second marriage - he resembles Charles Schulz, and like Schulz he enjoyed a late mellowing. In the 1960s, with most of his best work behind him, he openly admired, among other cartoonists, Johnny Hart and even R. Crumb, whose sexual frankness didn't put him off at all. Now wealthy, he became an art collector, buying Rothko, Rauschenberg and Lichtenstein, and even took up painting himself, finishing, Assouline says, some 37 abstract canvases (here again, one wishes for photographs) before abruptly putting down his brush and returning to Tintin.

As Assouline readily admits, next to Tintin's life, Herge's was a dim shadow, of interest mostly for the way it reminds us, yet again, that there is no accounting for genius. Herge wrote to his first wife after one of his breakdowns, "Tintin has been for me the means to express myself, to project my desire for adventure and violence, the bravery and resourcefulness within me," and yet in the end the character seems less a projection of Herge'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.

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