In Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin, adapted from the comic books that have enthralled generations, the intrepid boy reporter joins forces with the perpetually soused skipper Captain Haddock to unravel the mystery of Haddock’s birthright. But Tintin himself has no origin. He simply exists, with no ties to past or future generations, a fate that his creator might have wished for himself. The Belgian cartoonist Georges Remi, better known as Hergé, became an international celebrity thanks to the success of Tintin’s collected adventures, which have sold more than 350 million copies worldwide. But he showed little taste for the spotlight, and still less for those who wished to poke into his past.
The Tintin books are models of economy and grace, mixing meticulous detail and stylized tableaux in perfect proportion so that the story is neither generic nor bogged down by excessive rendering. Two newly translated biographies, Benoît Peeters’ traditional Hergé: Son of Tintin (Johns Hopkins University Press) and the comics biography The Adventures of Hergé (Drawn and Quarterly), attempt to achieve a similar balance, and together suggest the challenges in telling the story of a man who subsumed himself in his work.
Georges Remi’s back story is as convoluted as any of Tintin’s adventures, if somewhat less romantic. His father, Alexis, was one of twin boys born to a Belgian chambermaid by a man who immediately disappeared. The boys’ upbringing was provided for by their mother’s employer, a countess; their surname came from their mother’s cousin, who signed the marriage certificate as the boys’ father despite the fact that he was only 11 when they were born. Although he dispenses with the prenatal intrigue in a few pages, Benoît Peeters, the author of Hergé: Son of Tintin, returns again and again to the structuring absence of Hergé’s bloodline, suggesting that his pen name—the phonetic pronunciation of his initials, reversed—was a means of “closing off this false Remi.”
Peeters also makes brief, and strangely distant, mention of a far more troubling aspect of Remi’s childhood: “It seems the that young Georges was the victim of sexual abuse by his mother’s younger brother, his uncle Charles Arthur, nicknamed Tchake, who was ten years his senior.” Apart from a letter written by Remi to a friend in which he makes reference to “the images seared into my mind during my youth and adolescence,” Peeters offers only vague references to childhood trauma as proof, and certainly nothing to support the specificity of the charge. (He also lists, without elaboration, a number of “more or less confirmed pedophiles” among Remi’s close associates.) But it’s undeniable that there’s an arrested quality to the Tintin books, which Peeters accurately calls “resolutely asexual and antifamilial.”
In reading the Tintin books—23 completed between 1929 and 1976, plus an unfinished 24th—it’s hard not to be struck by the uniformly masculine universe in which they take place. “For me, women have nothing to do in a world like Tintin’s, which is a world of male friendship,” Remi told an interviewer. In The Secret of the Unicorn, which forms the basis for a large chunk of Spielberg’s film, a grand total of four lines are allotted to female characters, giving new meaning to the term “boy’s own.” The only woman among the series’ cast of recurring characters is the voluptuous opera singer Bianca Castafiore, a grotesque caricature of feminine excess whose surname translates as “chaste flower.”
Although Remi eventually gave Tintin’s age as 17, the same as Remi’s when he left school, the character is truly ageless. He’s old enough to hold a job as a journalist, although he does little actual reporting after the first few books, but his interests—treasure, adventure, gadgetry—are uniformly those of a boy, and that went for his creator as well. For all the attention Remi paid to the design of automobiles and the details of place, exquisitely rendered in the clear-line style, his characters are two-dimensional, as simple as the flat planes of color that fill their “clear-line” outlines. It’s not hard to see the appeal of Tintin’s world to Steven Spielberg, a child of divorce forever exploring the aesthetics of adolescence.
Peeters wrestles mightily, and often tediously, with the accusations of racism and right-wing bias that have attached to Remi since the Second World War. Remi began chronicling Tintin’s exploits for the Catholic newspaper Le Vingtième Siècle, whose editor, a priest named Norbert Wallez, dictated the setting for Tintin’s first two adventures: Tintin in the Land of the Soviets and Tintin in the Congo. Although the latter’s colonialist attitudes and thick-lipped caricatures were toned down when Remi and his associates reworked the early black-and-white stories for republication in color, both books are routinely omitted from otherwise complete collections. (In the Land of the Soviets circulated primarily as samizdat until the 1980s.) The stories’ propagandistic origins are clear—in Soviets, Tintin observes Russians being forced to vote for the Communist Party at gunpoint—but their agenda is carried out without conviction.