Tintin is a god to me.
Surely this imaginary globetrotter seems real to most of us. He is also the most beloved of all comic-book heros worldwide – except in America, where he is inevitably confused with the dog, Rin Tin Tin - as well as the first literary boho “backpacker.”
Too, Tintin’s second book, Tintin Au Congo, proved misaligned with Yankee tastes with its racist-seeming stereotypes of large-lipped “negroes.” I’m afraid they’re much worse than Al Jolson in blackface singing My Little Mammie or Little Black Sambo turning tigers into ghee, although the amusingly obsolete and offensive tome is still wildly popular in Africa.
Indeed, the cowlicked androgynous-looking (but supposedly not gay, even considering the dearth of dames in the series) boy reporter represents wanderlust in the first degree, inhabiting an extreme alt universe grounded in graphic colorized geography, both real and imagined.
Tintin, a native son beloved by the weepy Walloons of Belgium (but known in Germany with typical Teutonic efficiency as “Tim”), has stumbled upon the Incas in Peru, smoked cigars with the Pharoahs in Egypt, played cowboy in America, and even rocketed to the moon. Also, he uncovers a smuggling ring in The Crab with the Golden Claws, goes hunting for “booty” in Red Rackham’s Treasure, and wows us in the imaginary kingdom of Syldavia (loosely based upon any Balkan country).
No doubt, there is nothing that this young millionaire adventurer, once he departs the luxurious safety of his beloved mansion Marlinspike Hall, that is, can’t do — especially with the help of his loyal cronies Snowy (known as “Minou” in France), Captain Haddock, Professor Calculus, and the Thom(p)son Twins.
In fact, so big a fan am I, one of my proudest possessions is a carved wooden Tintin statue with a fey smile I acquired in Grand Bassam, Cote d’Ivoire, which I deemed perfect for smuggling diamonds or heroin. Hence, I was keenly interested on getting the skinny on his somewhat sketchy creator, the Belgian artist Georges Remi (a.k.a, Hergé). Despite his success as a cartoonist – the Tintin series comprises twenty-four books and has sold millions of copies in dozens of languages – Hergé was often criticized during World War Two for being a “collaborator” with the Nazis only after Belgium was occupied, though in fact the false accusation is assuredly apocryphal.
Pierre Assouline’s recent biography Hergé: The Man Who Created Tintin, though simple, even sketchy (perhaps because the translator Charles Ruas might have rushed it to press to beat the Ruas rushed to beat the clock on the new Spielberg/Jackson Tintin film adaptation) still answered many of my questions. But the elegantly weird Francophone diction, as well as the wealth of extraneous detail, is nevertheless somewhat distracting.
But boring the book is not.
Born in Brussels in 1907, Hergé started his career, like Tintin, as a cub reporter. For all his accolades, Hergé nevertheless maintained meekly, “I was just happy drawing little guys, that’s all.” But Assouline asserts Hergé used his alter ego to champion some of his so-called sociopolitical causes: his love for the Boy Scouts, Catholicism, and the Monarchy, countered by his distrust of Communism and the Soviet Union. Hergé’s first book Tintin in the Land of the Soviets was both a surprising commercial success and a scathing critique of totalitarianism.
Sure, Hergé was also a raging alcoholic who suffered from painful bouts of depression, miserable meals of “moules frites,” and “disappearances” for extended periods of time without explanations, but what artist doesn’t?
Dead as a dodo in 1984, Hergé was self-consciously oblivious to his fame while alive, not only among schoolchildren dreaming of impossible adventures in exotic climes (I initially discovered the series as a youngster in Bermuda), but among adult artistic fantasists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. As we all dust off our collected Tintin oeuvre – with its paternalistic patina of “comic” (funny ha-ha) neo-colonialism and unadulterated intrigue (but hardly any women) – we wonder if the “little guy” in all of us will stand up to wrong and cry out in a cartoon bubble, like Tintin’s uber-“British” seafaring saltydog Captain Haddock, “Bashi Bazouks!”
Here’s hoping that the “surreal” Hollywood film, which Hergé’s wife Fanny helped negotiate, doesn’t negate our subconscious myths and isn’t an egregious flop in DVD sales.
Hergé: The Man Who Created Tintin, written by Pierre Assouline and translated by Charles Ruas, is available through Oxford University Press.