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.

Clip from 'The Adventures of Hergé.'
The Adventures of Hergé' by Jose-Louis Bocquet, Jean-Luc Fromental, and Stanislas Barthelemy

Also in Slate, Dana Stevens reviews The Adventures of Tintin.

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.”

'The Adventures of Hergé'

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.

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.

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.