Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Review - Tintin: Hergé and His Creation by Harry Thompson

Short review: A loving and mostly uncritical biography of Herge told by chronologically analyzing the adventures of Tintin.

Hergé and Tintin
Are inextricably linked
Locked in love and hate

Full review: There are few artists who are as closely associated with a single character as Hergé is associated with Tintin. There are certainly no other cartoonists whose career is so clearly defined by a single character. So it is fitting that when Harry Thompson sat down to write a biography of the moody and notoriously difficult Hergé, he wrote it through the lens of his plucky and boyish alter ego. With the exception of the first few chapters which cover Hergé's childhood and early work as a newspaper editor and cartoonist, the entire book treats Hergé's life as reflected in the installments of the Tintin series, describing the influences then current events had upon the course of the Tintin story, and loosely connecting the themes in each book to the events taking place in the cartoonist's own life.

Telling the story of Hergé's life using the Tintin books as a lens shows the close connection between Hergé and his work. Starting with Totor as proto-Tintin, and progressing through the entire course of the Tintin sequence up to the unfinished volume Tintin and Alph-Art, Thompson charts Hergé's life, connecting each character to the author, from Tintin himself, to Haddock, to Thompson and Thomson, to the various eccentric scientists leading to Professor Calculus, and even to the significance of such minor characters as Jolyon Wagg and Bianca Castafiore. And by doing so, Thompson not only explains the Tintin books, he also explains Hergé.

Few Americans truly understand the phenomenon of Tintin. Even those Americans who are fans of the series find it hard to understand the almost rock star status that Hergé held during his lifetime, and the pedestal that Tintin himself was put upon. After all, at first glance, the series doesn't seem like that big of a deal: twenty-two graphic novels, two of which are so embarrassingly bad that they have never been released in the United States, plus another partially finished volume. But, as Thompson demonstrates at the very outset of the book in which he recounts the massive awestruck crowds that gathered to witness "Tintin" (in the form of hired actor Henri de Donckers) return from his adventures in the Soviet Union. And Thompson uses this event to show the inherent irony of the Tintin phenomenon as Hergé himself stood by Henri almost unnoticed by the adoring crowd. Hergé was a celebrity cartoonist, but while his name was instantly recognizable by the masses, he was almost completely anonymous.

And this dichotomy serves to describe much of the relationship between Hergé and his creation. Tintin was in many ways the child of Hergé's own childhood, reflecting his boyish adventures as a Boy Scout living in a conservative Catholic middle-class neighborhood. But as Hergé grew older, Tintin remained idealized as a youthful adventurer who was always willing to stick up for the little guy and poke his nose in to right an injustice. But as revealed in the book, while Hergé might have aspired to be Tintin, he was not Tintin. The most revealing chapters in the book are those that cover the six books made from strips produced during the Nazi occupation of Belgium during World War II. While Hergé suffered from somewhat unfair accusations of working for the Nazi occupiers, the reality was probably worse for Hergé. The cartoonist regarded himself as a patriot - he had served in Belgium's armed forces that were crushed under the invading Wehrmacht - but it turned out that he was not cut out for resistance work. Whereas Tintin would have almost certainly jumped at the chance to carry the fight to the occupiers, Hergé simply didn't have the stomach for intrigue and covert action.

It must have been a devastating realization for Hergé to realize that he was not the hero he imagined himself to be. And given that the curmudgeonly Captain Haddock, a character that Hergé increasingly identified with, was created during the war years, it seems that the cartoonist felt out of step with his hero, and yet unable to escape him. And this seems to be the narrative of the post-war years - Hergé seeking to distance himself from Tintin, but at the same time compelled by public demand and his own demons to continue writing him. And this contradiction manifested itself in Hergé's increasingly quixotic behavior and recurring ailments. Tintin was, it seems, both Hergé's greatest love and the thing he hated most in the world.

The evolution of Hergé and the parallel evolution of Tintin seems like a small subject. But it is also a testament to the potential for human growth, and at the same time a testament to human venality. From one perspective the evolution of Hergé's personal views concerning race and culture, developing from the crude caricatures of Tintin in the Land of the Soviets and Tintin in the Congo to the more nuanced and realistic depictions of later books such as Tintin in Tibet is almost impossibly remarkable given the cartoonist's background. But on the other hand, the descent of Tintin from the crusading hero who makes a real difference found in Cigars of the Pharaoh and King Ottokar's Sceptre to the ineffectual busybody of Tintin and the Picaros is a sad commentary on Hergé's own personal failings and ambivalence about his own work.

Tintin: Hergé and His Creation is a must read for any Tintin fan. By tracing the intertwined existence of Hergé and his boyish hero, Harry Thompson has found the true face of the artist and at the same time done much to explain his work. While Tintin himself was a fairly straightforward and uncomplicated fellow, Hergé was anything but, and this book illustrates this quite clearly. At times Thompson is a little too close to the subject, excusing some of Hergé's peccadilloes and failings a little too glibly, but overall, this is an interesting look into a man who became famous almost by accident, and then held on for dear life and rode the wave the rest of his life.

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