Tintin Pages

Hergé and His Creation - by Harry Thompson

(see also The Tintin Books - by Rob Godfrey)

Over a hundred million books sold. Translated into over forty languages. Pressed to reveal the secret of Tintin's phenomenal success, Hergé said, "I don't know. I absolutely don't know. I'm amazed with his success. I receive letters from all parts of the world, and I'm always surprised that an Indian boy, or even a Chinese boy, writes to me and says that he loves Tintin". His colleagues and admirers put it down to indefinable genius. His first wife put it down to hard work. The answer probably lies somewhere between the two.
The word "genius" is easily bandied about. Hergé was an illustrator of enormous talent, influence and significance. He could be described as the father of the European Bande Dessinée tradition of comic illustration, a movement little known or understood in the UK where the cartoonist is king. The influence of the "clear line" style pioneered by Hergé can be gauged by a quick look around any bookshop in France or Belgium. Scores of volumes can be seen in the Hergé style, attempting to follow the same artistic and commercial path. Yet Hergé's drawing skills were not instinctive, they were painstakingly cultivated. Although highly competent, he sometimes laboured in other mediums. Can a non-instinctive talent be described as genius? Perhaps not. His innovative experimentation with composition and structure mark him out as an artist of exceptional self-taught ability, but maybe not as an artist of genius.
Much the same can be said of Hergé the storyteller. He was a great storyteller, who knew how to hold the attention; but he was not a natural. Again, he created his own set of rules for others to follow, painstakingly revising the structure of each book, until the last frame of every page acted as a teaser for its successor. He developed techniques for the slow introduction of suspense and the sudden injection of surprise. Some of his finest achievements, though, like the Calculus Affair or Flight 714, were let down in the final analysis by their dramatic structure.
What, then, of Hergé the social commentator? The Tintin books map out the twentieth century. Initially, they stayed abreast of new technology, such as television; after the war they began to anticipate developments in the field of space travel and aircraft design. In the political arena, they trace Europe's awakening from colonialism, and the rise of the right in the 1930's, through to the cold war and beyond. At times they managed to ripple the waters of international politics.

The secret of Tintin's success, though, is that each story, whatever its significance at the time of writing, transcends the boundries of its setting today.

Each year, more Tintin books are sold worldwide than in any other previous year, mostly to readers who accept space travel as a normal fact of life, and to whom the Sino-Japanese conflict surrounding the Shanghai settlement in the 1930s means absolutely nothing. Cultural pointers to a particular time and place – Tintin's famous trousers being a case in point – pass the readers of Tintin by without impinging on their appreciation of a story. Tintin has barely dated at all, which is often the test of great literature.
To Hergé, the universality of Tintin's appeal was of far more importance than his worth as a social commentator. By turns, Tintin was innocent, politically crusading, escapist and finally cynical. Hergé's principles were constant and generally admirable throughout, but a degree of life-preserving expediency ensured that Tintin was not always able to follow suit. Hergé was a powerful social and political commentator, but events dictated that he would never mature into a commentator of genius.

Where, then, did Hergé's genius lie? Undoubtedly, in the field of humour; he was a comic genius. It was Hergé's sense of humour that made the appeal of Tintin truly international.

His comedy was essentially character comedy, and his characters were universal. His jokes were mainly visual, instantly appreciable from Dacca to Droitwich, without ever being simplistic. Behind the placid surface of Hergé's personality, undisturbed by the trials and tribulations of his life, lay a rich vein of humour which charmed everyone he met. It is a strange person indeed – adult or child – who does not find funny the sight of two undercover detectives trying to board an oil freighter carrying shrimp nets.
Without Tintin, Hergé's life would have been a lot simpler, and a lot less rich. He could have avoided being variously reviled and claimed as their own by the political right and left, not to mention manipulation – as he saw it – by businessmen, long periods of depression, painful soul-searching and psychosomatic illness. Yet given the chance to lead his life all over again without Tintin, Hergé would almost certainly have refused. Behind his anger and frustration at being unable to escape his protégé lay a deep, almost paternal affection for him. A few years before his death, he sent a drawing to Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper with the revealing dedication, "To Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper, who did so much for my little son". He and Tintin truly had a love-hate relationship.
In 1964 Hergé wrote Tintin an open letter, the most significant part of which reads as follows:

"Perfect… if anyone is, it's you Tintin. I ought to find this quite overwhelming. Why then do I have a sense of disapointment..? I had set great store by Captain Haddock. Because you two spent so much time together he was bound to bring himself under control through your influence, and that part of it worked; but as for you, you absorbed none of his harsher traits, none of his frailties, you took nothing from him, not even a tot of whisky… My wrist was seized by an angel, colleague of that angel who now and then would rescue Snowy from the slippery slope. I had every right to launch your career, but all the same, it isn't up to a father to guide his son in the choice of his shortcomings!
Salutations my young fellow.
… I salute you."

The conclusion to Tintin - Hergé and His Creation by Harry Thompson.
Reviews of this book can be found on Amazon.com in the UK.

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