Hergé, Son of Tintin, by Benoît Peeters

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Mais ce noir n’a rien de sinistre. C’est seulement la couleur de l’encre. L’adolescent Georges Remi est d’abord un garçon qui dessine : dans ses cahiers, dans ses livres de classe ou sur des bouts de papier dont beaucoup ont été pieusement conservés par ses camarades de Saint-Boniface. Un manuel d’économie politique, une édition scolaire de David Copperfield, tout est bon pour griffonner une petite scène ou esquisser des visages. Il semble d’ailleurs que le jeune Remi ait joui d’une solide réputation au sein du collège.But this blackness has nothing sinister about it—it is, simply, the color of ink. The teenage Georges Remi was, more than anything else, a boy who drew—in his notebooks, in his textbooks, and on scraps of paper, many of which have been piously preserved by his Saint-Boniface classmates. A manual of political economy, a scholastic edition of David Copperfield: anything was a place to sketch a little scene or a face or two. And young Remi, it seems, built a solid reputation for himself within his high school.

Like all good Belgian comics fans, I’m fascinated by the adventures of Tintin and by their creator. This is a really interesting biographical study, by a writer who met Hergé an interviewed him a couple of times, and has now lived long enough to absorb the mass of critical commentary on Hergé’s work that has emerged over the decades.

I learned a lot from it. In particular, I learned that it’s very difficult to navigate exactly how close Hergé came to collaboration with the occupying Germans during the war. He was not brave, and he was close to some of the leading Rexists, in particular Léon Degrelle. On the other hand, he mostly resisted pressure to produce pro-German propaganda, and he never put anyone else in danger; and an exhaustive investigation from the trigger-happy Belgian authorities after the war found in the end that he had no case to answer. Still, it is not a part of his career that he was proud of in later years.

Tintin was very bad for his creator’s health. Once he had rebranded and re-established himself after the war, Hergé’s arrangements with younger artistic collaborators were frankly exploitative; all of their work for him appeared under his name, though in fairness the pressure he put on them to get it exactly the way he wanted it was also part of the process. On several occasions Hergé’s own mental health broke down and the serialisation of the latest Tintin story simply stopped for weeks or months until he felt well enough to resume. But he was so dominant in the Belgian market, and selling so well, that he could get away with both mistreating his juniors and disappearing for long stretches.

Peeters is also very good at looking into the background of each book, and he’s disarming frank about the inescapable fact that the early and late Tintin stories are really not very good. I’ve written before about the early adventures in the Soviet Union, the Congo and America, and the unfinished story of Alph-Art. But it’s good to be reminded that there is a run of genius from Cigars of the Pharaoh to The Castafiore Emerald, and that I’ve yet to reread some of my childhood favourites.

The English version is well translated by Tina A. Kover, though one sometimes senses the French-language flourishes trying to get past her guard. You can get it here (and the original here).

I had incorrectly filed this as an unread comic, but read it anyway when it came to the top of that pile. Next up there will be the Hugo finalists.

Herge Son of Tintin

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