By Sigurd Neubauer
Tintin is the personification of Belgium. He’s virtues and a permanent 15-year-old whose quest for adventures take him around the world, including to the United States where he helps capture and imprison the most famous gangster of them all: Chicago’s Al Capone.
For generations of Europeans growing up with the comic strip, the beloved reporter is not only a cultural icon but his travels – masterly depicted by George Remi (1907-1983) whose alias became Hergé – introduces them to the broader world, including to Africa, Latin America, China and beyond.
Introduced on January 10, 1929, through a comic strip series in the conservative Belgian Catholic newspaper, Le Vingtième Siècle, Tintin’s first adventure was to the Soviet Union where the communist enterprise is savagely depicted. Remi’s editor, mentor and lifelong friend, Father Nobert Wallez, whose attractive secretary, Germaine Kieckens, would become his first wife, was also a fierce anti-communist and admirer of Benito Mussolini.
The story of Tintin also represents Europe’s complicated history, Belgian colonialism (Tintin in Congo), Nazi-occupation and collaboration during World War II and the subsequent Cold War.
To fully understand the artist behind Tintin, whose profound legacy has influenced a generation of artists such as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Steven Spielberg, I read Pierre Assouline’s biography, “Hergé: The Man Who Created Tintin,” with great interest.
Assouline paints a favorable portrait of both Hergé the person as well of his hero, Tintin
Assouline paints a favorable portrait of both Hergé the person as well as of his hero, Tintin. The French author and journalist, who was granted privileged access to Hergé’s private correspondence by his second wife, Fanny Vlamynck, examines the author’s life in close detail, including his role during World War II when he published The Secret of the Unicorn for the Nazi-collaborist newspaper Le Soir. Assouline, however, does not engage in polemics.
At the same time, he doesn’t cover up any of the controversial aspects of Hergé’s life and legacy, which is why his book has become a must-red for everyone interested in the Belgian artist whose life straddles European colonialism, World War II, and the Cold War.
For instance, Assouline writes that following the war when Nazi-collaborators faced justice in Belgium, “Hergé was saved by Tintin. His character had come to his rescue. For his fans it would have been the height of absurdity to bring Hergé to trial as an incivique when Tintin was the paragon of civic virtue.”
Where the otherwise outstanding biography falls short, however, is in its failure to outline the process leading up to Steven Spielberg’s production of The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, which was released in 2011. The biography was timed to coincide with Spielberg’s film.
Talks between Spielberg and Hergé began as early as in 1982 but eventually collapsed over artistic and commercial differences. “When Spielberg gave up the pursuit of Tintin, he made Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom…The resemblance of Cigars of the Pharaoh, The Blue Lotus, Prisoners of the Sun, and the Red Sea Sharks is not purely coincidental. Spielberg had never hidden what his imagination owed to Hergé’s world: the nostalgic quest for the lost paradise of childhood,” Assouline writes.
In 2002, long after Hergé’s death, “Spielberg, joined by director Peter Jackson and Kathleen Kennedy as coproducers, successfully concluded an option to make three Tintin films.” The successful negotiations had taken place between Spielberg and Hergé’s estate, Assouline adds but provides no further details.
Steven Spielberg’s production of The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn was released in 2011
Remembering fondly my own introduction to Tintin around the age of seven or eight, when my father brough home The Blue Lotus, I read with great interest how the graphic novel – which I have since dutifully introduced to my own three children – came about.
Assouline writes: “China presented him [Hergé] with an enormous problem of documentation. Every detail had to be exact and authoritative. The story had to be credible: emotionally accurate, factually correct, and exact in terms of settings and situations. Hergé could not pretend to be neutral. Indeed Tintin’s ideological position was almost inevitable: he could only side with the oppressed.”
Writing about China became complicated for Hergé as he didn’t want to leave Brussels, Assouline reveals, which is why his relationship with Chinese student Chang Chong-Chen became paramount. Chang provided Hergé with insights into Chinese culture, but the two friends would ultimately reunite during their sunset years. Hergé’s friend also became a fictionalized character in The Blue Lotus who resurfaces again in Tintin in Tibet.
While The Blue Lotus was published in 1936, Hergé was personally invited to visit China towards the end of 1939 – as Europe was heading towards war – by Chiang Kai-shek, the president of the Nationalist government in China who had enjoyed reading his graphic novel. Hergé never traveled during the ‘golden age’ of his career, but the invitation itself clearly illustrates his mounting influence, including internationally.
In 1956, Hergé published The Calculus Affair which focuses on the kidnapping of Tintin’s precious friend, Professor Calculus, by a foreign government whose goal it is to coerce him to share his scientific knowledge so that it can develop a sinister weapons program. The graphic novel depicts the Cold War where neutral Geneva, Switzerland, plays the staging ground for espionage and intrigue between Western and Eastern Europe. “Hergé was ahead of his time because the cold war was not as yet a subject in popular culture. Not until 1966 would Alfred Hitchcock direct Torn Curtain, in which Paul Newman plays an American scientist trying to escape from East Germany,” Assouline writes. The biographer does not mention whether Hitchcock drew inspiration for his film from Hergé’s Calculus Affair.
As Hergé’s fame and stature grew over his lifespan, the artist accepted collaborators but did not provide them with public recognition. His forgotten collaborators and their stories are nonetheless identified by Assouline, including where their influence can be found. Hergé’s, for his part, “refused to list the names of participants in any way at the beginning of the books. In his view their work belonged to him because they were paid to follow his directions. He found it normal to take credit for their ideas. He wouldn’t even permit his books to be signed Hergé Studios.”
The book provides many intriguing details, including Walt Disney rejecting Hergé’s pitches for collaboration. Equally fascinating is that in Hergé’s graphic novel, Flight 714 to Sydney, where the billionaire tycoon Laszlo Carreidas is introduced, he’s modeled on French industrialist Marcel Dassault, the builder of the Mirage and the Mystère airplanes.
Dassault Aviation S.A. is a French legacy corporation manufacturing military aircrafts and business jets. It was founded in 1929 by Marcel Bloch. After World War II, Bloch changed his name to Marcel Dassault, and the name of the company was changed to Avions Marcel Dassault in 1947.
Walt Disney rejected Hergé’s pitches for collaboration