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Hergé: The Man Who Created Tintin – by Pierre Assouline, translated by Charles Ruas

Review by Jay Benedict.
“Assouline gets behind the genial public mask to take full measure of Herge’s life and art and the fascinating ways in which the two intertwine. Neither sugarcoating nor sensationalizing his subject, he meticulously probes such controversial issues as Herge’s support for Belgian imperialism in the Congo and his alleged collaboration with the Nazis. He also analyzes the underpinnings of Tintin–how the conception of the character as an asexual adventurer reflected Herge’s appreciation for the Boy Scouts organization as well as his Catholic mentor’s anti-Soviet ideology–and relates the comic strip to Herge’s own place within the Belgian middle class. “
……………………………………………………………………(Oxford University Press – Publicity material.)
Hergé’s real name was Georges Rémi.  His artistic alias was born when he simply reversed his initials:  RG in French is  ‘air-zhay’.  When Brussels was liberated in 1944, his name was on a list of forty journalists denounced for collaboration.  In fact, it was the only name that was on twice – once as Georges Rémi and once as Hergé. He was taken in for questioning four times but the authorities never made the connection …
Hergé: The Man Who Created Tintin is the first full biography of  Hergé  in English and has been published to coincide with the release of Steven Spielberg’s eagerly-anticipated film  The Adventures of Tintin: The secret of the Unicorn.
Assouline comments in the book:  “For all his huge success – achieved with almost no formal training – Herge would say unassumingly of his art, ”I was just happy drawing little guys, that’s all.”
Was he being disingenuous, or was it a total inability to explain what he created: a cast of characters whose stories have sold millions of volumes in dozens of languages for decades, without any sign of letting up?   Tintin’s adventures reflect not only a world, but a whole society with its secrets and rituals;  that they have come to constitute an international language is their greatest triumph.  No other body of graphic work has given rise to so many books, articles and monographs – hugely impressive considering they feature a hero who has remained 15 years old for half a century – not to mention a talking dog.
If there is no Tintin without Hergé – there is no Hergé without Tintin. They owe everything to one another. Unlike Georges Simenon, another famous Belgian who had a rich life as a writer independent of his creation Inspector Maigret, or Jean-Philippe Smet who, as Johnny Hallyday, turned himself into  the French Elvis Presley – or Jacques Brel who escaped Belgium, and ended up in Tahiti never to return – Hergé is an example of the work as a life.
As Assouline points out: If Tintin’s character is fully formed, clear-headed, and positive,  that of his creator is complex, contradictory and inscrutable.
He was born on  May 22nd in 1907,  to a Walloon Father and Flemish Mother.  So – schizoid to start with and a Gemini to boot …  As anyone who’s been round the Brussels ring road, unable to get off it because  everything’s posted in three languages, will bear witness, Belgium is not so much a country as two communities  in which French is the language of the elite and Flemish the dialect of the people.
In Georges’ family everything was average;  even the slices of buttered bread topped with grated chocolate  were bland.  His world was colorless, scentless and of no interest. Consequently, he was everywhere but home.  A good student with many friends, the only way his parents found to control this hyperactive boy was to give him a good hiding and then hand him paper and pens to draw with.  You can’t have people beat you up and then say ‘I love you’, so instead you beat them up and give ‘em a pen and paper, and in his case, boy  did it work!
When out in restaurants he kept himself from being bored by drawing on the cardboard beer coasters. Very soon he went from simple scribbles to stick figures and then scenes drawn with a story line. He was one of the pioneers of text placed in speech balloons, not done in Europe at the time.   Before Hergé, most text was printed under the illustration.
Scouting and the movies became Georges’ main avenue of escape. He was heavily influenced by the silent pictures of the day in particular Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, whose burlesque qualities had a greater influence on him than any book.  Indeed, film would determine the internal structure of his future work – the invention of the visual gag. Coordinating image to celebrate humour in motion was more than a technique, it was an art in itself.
But it was as a  Boy Scout that George really came into his own. He became an Eagle Scout,  troop leader of the Squirrel patrol and known as ‘Curious Fox’.  This meant trips abroad to summer camps in Spain, Italy, Switzerland etc.  More than giving him a love of nature and camping,  it was to give him a moral compass for the rest of his life.  It also offered an opportunity to publish his drawings in Jamais Assez, the Saint Boniface Scouts’ newsletter, and it was there that he was to cut his artistic teeth.
Hergé attended art school but, soon disenchanted, started thinking of becoming a graphic designer in advertising.  His old scout master, now a journalist, got him a job on Le Vingtième siècle (20th Century) through the back door.  It was more than a newspaper:  it was a gathering place. It offered political and financial news and the main platform for Catholic doctrine, presided over by Norbert Wallez, a bellicose right wing priest  to whom Hérgé was to owe everything.  His motto was “Teach while entertaining”.
Tintin and Snowy were born on January 10th 1929 in Tintin in the land of the Soviets. Caucasian, lacking a first name and an orphan without a past, Tintin was a native of Brussels (as opposed to Belgian):  resourceful, celibate and chivalrous, a defender of the faith who never looked for trouble but always found it.   His constant companion was Snowy, his white haired fox terrier and a man’s best friend. Add Hergé’s gift for dialogue,  a far from negligible advantage for the creator of a comic strip – and the rest quickly became history.
It was sold to foreign periodicals and the Adventures were published in a separate book. Tintin in the Congo quickly followed and stirred up no controversy because it was paternalistic rather than racist, which perfectly reflected the times. Later, when accused of racism Hergé said to a reader, “Negrita was a brand of shoe polish. It was the most natural thing for a country to have colonies”.
Tintin in America was undeniably noble. Rather than denouncing Bolshevik terror or praising missionary work in Africa he was defending the American Indians expelled from their ancestral lands – and all this from a desk in Brussels. Hergé never set foot outside  Brussels for many years and this was the happy pattern right up to the outbreak of World War Two.
By 1940 Belgium had fallen to Nazi Germany – and this is where the story gets interesting.
He was in the middle of Land of Black Gold when Le Vingtième siècle was shut down, but shortly afterwards pragmatically accepted an offer from Le Soir – Brussels’ leading French daily which had recently been taken over by the Nazis – to continue with Tintin.   He opened with The Crab with the Golden Claws, the first of six Tintin books he produced during the German occupation.
Wartime paper shortages necessitated a change from the old full-page layout to a ‘strip’ format, which in turn meant that there had to be a cliff-hanger and/or visual gag at the end of each strip.  Additionally, in an attempt to avoid political controversy, he turned away from ‘realistic’ storylines to escapist ones involving Inca curses, an expedition to a meteorite and a treasure hunt.  Characters were emphasized over plot, leading to the introduction of two of Tintin’s most memorable companions, Captain Haddock and Cuthbert Calculus (or  Professeur Tryphon Tournesol as he was in French).
His attempts to avoid contention failed, however.  Jewish characters were introduced as classic anti-Semitic caricatures and in   The Shooting Star, featuring a race to a passing meteorite, Tintin was with a team from the neutral or Axis countries while the nefarious rivals flew a Stars and Stripes and were financed by a character with a Jewish name and – again – exaggerated Jewish features.
Hergé was among those who had done well during the occupation and was really not prepared for what was to follow.  The threat of becoming an incivique (non citizen), was almost too much for him to bear, but that’s what happened.  The 18th century French adjective had fallen out of usage until WW1  and the post liberation political purges gave it such a new lease of life in Belgium that historians of WW2 believed it to be a Belgian term.  All Belgians were presumed inciviques until they produced proof to the contrary. For five years they’d needed a document to prove they weren’t Jewish, now suddenly they needed one to prove they were a ‘good’ citizen.
Hergé was accused of being a collaborator but he counterclaimed that he was simply doing a job under the  occupation like a plumber or carpenter, and it’s substantially true in that the storylines of the Tintin adventures which were published during the war were a carefully a-political. Nonetheless, in 1945 Hergé was forbidden from working with the press in any capacity whatsoever.
Afterwards, he admitted:
“I recognize that I myself believed that the future of the West could depend on the New Order.  For many, democracy had proved a disappointment, and the New Order brought new hope. In light of everything which has happened, it is of course a huge error to have believed for an instant in the New Order.”
Tintin’s exile was, however, short-lived.   In 1946, with help from Raymond LeBlanc – a publisher who had turned resistance fighter during the war – Hergé launched a weekly magazine entitled Tintin.  It featured two pages of Tintin’s adventures plus other comic strips and articles and quickly became a runaway success, selling in excess of 100,000 copies every week. Inevitably the success of the magazine and the increased artistic demands on Hergé took their toll and his physical and mental health suffered. By the end of 1950 and in spite of a couple of lengthy sabbaticals he had suffered two breakdowns and,  disillusioned by the way he and many of his colleagues had been treated after the war, had even planned to emigrate with his wife Germaine to Argentina.  This was to be achieved courtesy of the Catholic church, who seemed to be helping every criminal on the planet escape.  It was an odd country to choose considering the number of ex-Nazis who’d emigrated there. Perhaps he too intended to become a  gaucho on the pampas, or a ski instructor?   Anyway, instead he embarked on a love affair.
The Hergé Studios were set up in 1950 to lighten his workload.  The studios employed several assistants to help Hergé in the production of The Adventures of Tintin, and by 1957, with the assistants doing the donkey work, he had managed  to produce The Calculus Affair followed by The Red Sharks. With the success and survival of Tintin assured, his financial future was secure -  but his already shaky marriage of 25 years was heading irretrievably for the rocks.
In 1982  Steven Spielberg first came on the scene to negotiate with Hérgé over the film rights to Tintin,  but his demands were draconian. He wanted total control over the film and merchandising plus the rights to all the characters for any eventual spin offs.  Hergé agreed to the terms, but they came unstuck when Spielberg assigned the right for someone else to direct the film.  Hergé had only made the financial concessions because he thought Spielberg himself would be in charge. Spielberg went off to make Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, with more than a dash of Tintin, instead. After Hergé’s death Spielberg obtained an option to make three  Tintin films from his widow. Using ‘performance capture’ techniques The Secret of the Unicorn has just been released and is out now at a local cinema near you.
Hergé died on 3 March 1983, after a prolonged illness.  The exact cause of his death is not clear – both leukaemia and porphyria have been suggested – but whatever it was, it was hastened by an HIV infection contracted from his weekly blood transfusions.  He was 75 years old.
If you were raised on Tintin as I was – that’s actually how I learned French – you will love this book and I wholeheartedly recommend that you go out and buy it now.  Despite the flaws and inconsistencies of the man, you have to admire his creative genius. My one regret is not having kept hold of the books. I had them all as a boy in Paris in the late ’50s early ’60s …. Do you realize what kind of money I’d be worth today if I’d kept them all?
Oxford University Press USA.  2011.  ISBN: 978-0199837274.  336pp.

"It's a damn poor mind that can only think of one way to spell a word. "
Andrew Jackson

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Fiction writing is any kind of writing that is not factual. Fictional writing most often takes the form of a story meant to convey an author's point of view or simply to entertain. The result of this may be a short story, novel, novella, screenplay, or drama, which are all types (though not the only types) of fictional writing styles.