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Hergé & Tintin:

Discover A World Of Tintinology

February 25th 2003 marks twenty years since Hergé‘s death, and with it the consequential curtailment, according to his will and his wishes, of any further exploits for his young hero by other hands. Henceforth, Tintin would live on in a panoply of re-editions, facsimiles, picture books, merchandise and multi-media spin-offs, and of course through his continually popular 23 adventures, and the 24th, left tantalizingly unfinished. This oeuvre is such a multi-faceted source, that since 1983 it has roused those in the rarefied field of Tintinology, Tintinophilia, Tintinolatry, Tintinadulation, call it what you will, to feverish industry. No comic creator, and no comic character anywhere in the world, has inspired so many books to be written about them as these two Belgian institutions.

One of the most anticipated of these studies was published last September in French by Flammarion in their Grandes Biographes’ collection: a new biography entitled Hergé, Fils de Tintin (ISBN 2-09-210042-1), by Benoît Peeters, Belgium’s leading Tintin scholar, and a comics scriptwriter notably on the Cities of the Fantastic series with François Schuiten, translated by NBM. You might wonder if the world really needs another life story of Tintin’s creator, when Peeters’ non-exhaustive bibliography at the back of his book parades more than seventy on the man and his work in French, all but a handful written since 1983, including four by Peeters himself. On top of these are listed a further thirty-six collective works, exhibition catalogues and magazines. Even Hergé‘s and Edgar P. Jacobs’ underacknowledged, misunderstood writer-collaborator, Jacques Van Melkebeke (or ‘Jack of Milk Rover’), forced into anonymity as a collaborator, has finally been the subject of intriguing biography, A L’Ombre de La Ligne Claire, by Benoît Mouchart (Vertige Graphic, ISBN 2-908981-71-8).

This outpouring cannot be explained away as one of those Francophone intellectual peculiarities, like Jerry Lewis studies. For a start, this bibliography does not take into account yet more worthwhile books on the subject originated in other languages. Among those in English, you can consult Harry Thompson’s revealing investigation Tintin: Hergé & His Creation in 1991 (Hodder & Stoughton, ISBN 0-340-52393-X), distinctly unapproved by the Fondation Hergé at the time and all the more illuminating as a result. Last year brought British journalist Michael Farr’s visually rich hardcover guidebook, Tintin: The Complete Companion (USA: Last Gasp, ISBN 0-8671-9901-6; UK: John Murray, ISBN 0-7195-552-1). It’s an apt title, if you ask yourself, what better travel companion could anyone ask for than resourceful Tintin? Farr’s writings were subject to the Fondation’s approval and can be doggedly thorough, even dry at times. Still, he was granted access to information and imagery in Hergé‘s private archive, enabling him to contextualize each album and show side-by-side key panels and their references. Alternatively, for a lower-priced, boiled-down crash course, it would be hard to beat the new Pocket Essential Tintin (ISBN 1-9040-4817-X) by Jean-Marc and Randy Lofficier. Across 96 unillustrated paperback pages, they distil each album, giving its publishing history, plot, characters, continuity, influences, trivia and a helpful review. Their opening chapters offer succinct portraits of Hergé and of Tintin, whom they sum up as "the perfect symbol of the 20th century, a true witness of our era, spotlighting with astonishing clarity, all the highpoints of our recent history". They close with an appraisal of Tintin on film, TV, radio and stage and selected resources and websites.

Surely with this much written about Hergé and Tintin, there can be little left to uncover or understand? Benoît Peeters didn’t think so. He had met Hergé several times, conducted his last interview, studied his life and work for more than twenty five years, produced landmark volumes and exhibitions. Like Michael Farr after him, he once enjoyed unlimited access for several years to previously unseen treasures in the archives. In preparing a film documentary Monsieur Hergé, he had talked with and befriended dozens of family members and associates. And yet, two decades after his death, something about Hergé continued to elude and puzzle him.

In 1996, France’s eminent biographer Pierre Assouline wrote what many supposed would be the definitive biography. He had never met the man. He drew mainly on the primary sources of thousands of the Fondation Hergé‘s documents, many of them sensitive and never made public before, relating to Belgium’s occupation by the Nazis and later accusations that Hergé was a collaborator and sympathizer. There was a need for someone to examine methodically and resolve these accusations, resurrected since his death, but in Peeter’s opinion they filled so much of the massive tome, they tilted it out of balance. As Peeters comments in his introduction (the English translations are mine), Assouline’s "insistence on the political aspect… seemed to push the creator into the background. It’s as if Georges Remi, as Hergé, had only incidentally been the author of the Adventures of Tintin."

Peeters wants to understand the private Hergé behind the cheerful blank slate of his public appearances and the fastidious control of his published interviews, the Hergé he had tried to know, revealed in spirited conversations, in chance remarks, in personal letters and scrawled notes, in moments of anger or bouts of despair. To find this ‘other Hergé, Peeters has analyzed important untapped sources, where Hergé expressed himself more freely than anywhere else.

Foremost is his private correspondence. He wrote intimately to his first wife Germaine Kieckens, who encouraged him to persist with the Tintin stories. Their letters disclose the effects on both of them of the constant demands for new Tintin stories, the joys and struggles of their marriage, and his fifteen years of nervous depression brought on by lingering criticism of his wartime conduct. There are revelations that he hardly kept secret from his wife at least two intense post-War affairs with younger women, culminating in a third with vivacious studio colorist Fanny Vlamynck, twenty seven years his junior, for whom he eventually left his wife. Although they separated in 1960, Germaine still kept up appearances in public with him for seventeen years, until they were finally divorced. Peeters chose an atypical photograph of Hergé for the book’s front cover: in his smart jacket and tie, he looks deeply preoccupied, a cigarette in his hand, his wedding ring on his finger. Little wonder - it was taken in June 1955, the very month when Fanny joined the studio. You can almost see his mind racing.

Peeters quotes from several other correspondences: with his first secretary and close friend Marcel Dehaye, his mentors the abbot Wallez and Chinese student Tchang, his unscrupulous agent. It’s also fascinating to read from the dream journals Hergé kept of his most troubling nightmares, which cry out to be turned into comics themselves. Of course, there can be no more interviews with Hergé now, except by seance perhaps, but Peeters has traced some forgotten interviews, often more outspoken as they were for the Flemish press, and an unpublished and unusually candid interview from 1974 by one Henri Roanne-Rosenblatt. Among his confessions here, Hergé admits to him that the reason he quit his first troop of "boy scouts without God" was because he was disgusted by their rough brawling and collective masturbation sessions, into which the older boys lured their juniors. What would Baden Powell have said?

Pierre Assouline’s biography disclosed that the Remis could not have children, as Georges had been made sterile accidentally by ray treatment for some boils. Controversy has been raised, however, by Assouline’s assertion that they had adopted a foreign orphan aged 7 or 8 in the late Forties, but only for about two weeks; this has since been strenuously denied by his niece and nephew, and by his second wife, Fanny, and Peeters has little time for it. Peeters does make other claims that may curl some eyebrows, or toes. He puts forward for the first time, discreetly, but not as a mere rumor, that Hergé was allegedly abused within his family as a young boy. Certain family sources suggest that Georges had been the victim of sexual abuse by his uncle Charles Arthur, ten years his senior, who also lived in the family house at that time. He quotes from a letter from Hergé to Dehaye from 1948, when he was in one of the most depressed phases of his life:

"You don’t know me, Marcel. You know nothing of my youth, my heredity, my atavism. Do you think an effort of will is enough to wipe out the effect of this heredity? To make the images imprinted in the prime of my youth and my adolescence disappear entirely? Without leaving the slightest trace?"

Peeters advises prudence, in the absence of documents or direct testimonies, but suggests that the repression of such a trauma might explain the sadness which Hergé associated with his childhood. As for what link this might have to Hergé‘s work, Peeters claims that it may clarify the lack of any family relationships, not just of Tintin but of his other main characters (even the Thom(p)sons are not twin brothers, after all their surnames are different), and the stories’ rejection of all biological links, and all forms of sex and sexuality. It may also be one key to explain Hergé‘s sombre and tormented temperament throughout his life.

Peeters goes on to quote from Numa Sadoul’s definitive book of interviews from 1975, in which he asked Hergé if the absence of feminine characters in Tintin might mask a repressed homosexuality. Hergé replied, without embarrassment it seems: "I don’t think so. You never know. If I had tendencies towards homosexuality, I don’t see why I’d conceal it."  Nevertheless, Peeters reiterates his claim about Hergé‘s sexual trauma which seems to have marked his childhood and his adult life too, one root perhaps of his professed attraction for much younger women. This might trouble a few Tintin fans, but Peeters is not intent on exposing anyone, not searching for scandal, not besmirching reputations here; throughout, he remains sympathetic, discreet, always empathizing with his subject. But this remains one piece of the puzzle that doesn’t quite fit, at least not yet.

Sexual issues aside, crucially, at the heart of Peeter’s sensitive chronicle, is the thinking behind book’s title. This translates as Hergé, Son of Tintin, a reversal of the usual theory. It’s true that Hergé would often write to his character, like a father to his son, but Peeters feels this always rang false. He rather sees the reverse, Hergé as the son of Tintin, because without his adventures, without the research and discoveries they required, the meetings with vital influences like Tchang, Jacobs and others, Hergé himself would not have evolved and matured. "Beyond their apparent simplicity, The Adventures of Tintin  constitute an indirect autobiography, a sort of journal through which can be read all the events, public or private, which marked Georges Remi, alias Hergé. But in this singular ‘coming of age’ novel, above all it’s the character who constructs his author". This perspective, he argues, also explains why Hergé reached a crisis point, when he had to detach himself from Tintin, just as an adolescent son rebels against his father. In 1947, during an exchange of emotionally honest letters with his wife, Hergé wrote:

"And I have just discovered… that I know Tintin is no longer me, that, if he is to go on living, it will be by a sort of artificial respiration that I will have to practise constantly and which exhausts me, and will exhaust me more and more."

Peeters identifies this as a pivotal point in Hergé‘s creative life, likening it to "an adolescent revolt against a Tintin which has been dominating and monopolizing him for too long. This Tintin which had been the abbot Wallez’s idea and whose patient development Germaine supported. This overly wise, overly virtuous Tintin who weighed down on him more and more. The worst thing is that Hergé was not wrong: the easy creativity is well and truly lost, and he will never find it again. True, he will still manage to give birth to some masterpieces, but this will at the price of inordinate efforts. Playtime is over. From now on he could count on only labour."

With Tintin’s 75th anniversary in 2004, Peeters has brought forth to us that ‘other Hergé’ he was searching for. In this enthralling, deeply considered synthesis, brimming with anecdotes and perceptions, he has enhanced our understanding and appreciation of the creator, the creation, and above all, the man.

Posted: January 15, 2006

The original version of this article appeared in 2003 in the pages of The Comics Journal, the essential magazine of comic news, reviews and criticism.


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