Two Biographies Explore the Complicated Life of Tintin Cartoonist Hergé

Reading between the lines.
Dec. 22 2011 4:45 PM

Tintin’s Father, Nobody’s Son

The complicated life of Hergé, in two new biographies—one written, one drawn.

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In a scene from The Shooting Star’s 1941 newspaper run, omitted from the collected version, two bearded, hook-nosed merchants discuss the end of the world as an opportunity to shirk their debts, an anti-Semitic caricature in line with the politics of his wartime outlet, Le Soir, which actively supported the Nazi occupation of Belgium. Peeters unhelpfully concludes that Remi “was no more racist than the next person”—which next person, exactly?—but the overriding impression is that of a man too naïve, even immature, to consider his own views.

The Adventures of Hergé, a comic-book biography written by José-Louis Boucquet and Jean-Luc Fromental and illustrated by Stanislas Barthélémy, is episodic by design, compressing Remi’s life into a scant 62 pages. But the progression of discontiguous two-page segments aptly mirrors the style of the Tintin books, whose plots were often devised week by week, with each lower right-hand panel stranding the heroes in some predicament or other. A handful of expository passages notwithstanding, it’s hard to imagine following the book’s story without a significant familiarity with Remi’s life. A coy smile between Remi's wife, Germaine, and his editor, Wallez, is confined to a single panel, implying that she might have held her husband's employer in higher regard than Remi himself—a notion Peeters, in his more detailed account, pinpoints as an early sign of their marriage's weaknesses.

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Barthélémy wisely evokes Remi’s style without attempting to copy it, but he’s close enough that it’s almost jarring when women work their way into the narrative. These are not the pillowy caricatures of the Tintin books themselves, but sexualized adult women: Hergé’s wife, his mistresses, and the objects of various unrequited affections. The Adventures of Hergé is by no means a comprehensive portrait, but by telling Remi’s story in an approximation of his style, the book evokes an unspoken fusion between its subject and his work, implying resonances that Peeters struggles to consign to black-and-white type.

Both books attempt to craft a continuous narrative out of the life of a man who resolutely resisted analysis, by himself and by others. As the strain of producing the Tintin strip, as well as other assorted other projects, took its toll on him, Remi suffered an array of psychosomatic symptoms, including outbreaks of eczema and boils, and was plagued by recurring nightmares of whiteness. (Evidently there was nothing more terrifying than a blank page.) Remi seems to have retained an unhealthy distance from his own life, disappearing into his work until the work itself became the problem. In many respects, it seems as if the most interesting parts of Remi, and certainly those he was most willing to share with the public, went into his art, leaving little for his chroniclers to pick over.

One can almost imagine slipping the pages of The Adventures of Hergé between the Tintin albums themselves, filling in blanks and bridging gaps. Somewhere between this episodic but evocative comic-book bio and Tintin’s own adventures lies the story of Georges Remi, hidden in the white expanses that separate one panel from the next.

Sam Adams writes for the Los Angeles Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Time Out New York, the Onion A.V. Club, and the Philadelphia City Paper. Follow him on Twitter.