Tintin and the Well of Dissatisfaction: Benoit Peeters’ Hergé: Son of Tintin

Alexandra Kulik

Reviewed: Peeters, Benoit. Hergé: Son of Tintin, trans. Tina A. Kover. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011.

“What if I told you I put my whole life into Tintin?”
                                                         —Hergé, 1983

Was Georges Rémi (or Hergé, as he became universally known) simply reflecting aloud when he posed this question to Benoit Peeters—the man who would go on to write his comprehensive biography? Or was he intentionally raising a serious and formidable challenge to his storyteller, just days before his death? Hergé confesses to fusing his identity with the cartoon hero, safely locking the gamut of his passions, experiences, ambitions, and anxieties in the unalterably inked and printed pages of The Adventures of Tintin. Had he summoned Peeters to the task of transliterating a careers-worth of comic sketches into an autobiographical report? Or perhaps he meant to reassure the biographer that his death would not be an end, that the life would continue as long as the books were read. Wherever this arresting remark was headed, it is clear that Peeters undertook the charge of understanding the character and life of Hergé with pure curiosity and without judgment. And the study, unfolding the thesis that the cartoonist emerges less as a father than a son to his animated hero, culminates in an insight which Hergé himself probably failed to perceive: that “it was, more than anything else, the character that built its author.”

<em>Les Cigares du Pharaon</em>

Peeters consistently describes the early years of Hergé’s life as gray and static—so different from what would become his chief fascination in drawing: the artistic command of dynamism. What appears to have saved his childhood from being a dingy drag was his joining the boy scouts. It was the values and culture of le scoutisme that whet his appetite for the adventure, heroism, and companionship that would kindle the imaginative mind behind Tintin. But this childhood feeling of existential flatness would reappear throughout Hergé’s life; particularly in later years where the notion of undersaturated ‘grayness’ would be superseded by the oversaturation of the blasé.

Peeters draws upon the conceit of defining life in terms of intensity of shade by dividing the chapters of the cartoonist’s young life into three measures of lightness. The earliest phase is white, representing Hergé’s inquiry into his familial origins and his sense of himself originating from a blank slate, able to invent his story from scratch; then come the gray years, characterized by Hergé’s life as barren, lacking any stimulation aside from what was afforded through drawing, a scanty literary collection, and the new magic of motion pictures. The latter became fundamental to his interest in movement, the art of situational absurdity, and gag-writing—the Tintin comics have much in common with the slapstick style of Chaplin, for example: the unrelenting, ‘everyman’ protagonist consistently set against forces of an antagonistic world. Finally, there came the era of blackness—which the biographer uses emblematically to represent the color of ink, the hatching of Herge’s genius. These “black” years are, ironically, the lightest and most resplendent, ablaze with the persistent fire of ambition. Peeters depicts a young man inspiredly bound to his drawing pad, alive with the stamina and wide-eyed enthusiasm that converts ambition into triumph, the enchantment that falls under the web of passionate love for the first time and is thwarted, and the romantic ideology that believes art is the radiation of moral guidance—and the artist the diffuser of instruction. During this same time, Hergé’s first serial publication, The Adventures of Totor (what can be seen as the raw material for Tintin) first appeared in Le Boy-Scout, and he had begun cultivating a unique style. The lightness of this “black” period would not last.

What seems to have underscored Hergé’s actions and decisions, for the best part of his life, was not only a general feeling of unfulfillment but an almost neurotic anxiousness and indecision that made self-direction a real challenge. This often resulted in depression and a need to escape. “When his life made him too unhappy,” writes Peeters, “Hergé never confronted the problem directly; instead, he ran away without warning anyone” and he demonstrated this both literally and by submerging himself in work. Peeters’ epithet for Hergé—the “Son of Tintin”— falls into place with the image of young Rémi, amateur cartoonist for the Catholic-conservative newspaper Le Vingtième Siècle, employing his artistic talent to forge a new identity: assuming a pen name, baptizing himself in the manifestation of his fictionalized ideal—a character standing outside the temporal pattern of the world, lacking history and familial roots: a self-generated hero. Hergé’s dissatisfaction with (we might even say aversion to) the prosaic nature of his past was the major catalyst for Tintin. It is through this need to remake himself that the invention of Hergé and Tintin occur simultaneously.

But it was not only a rejection of his life—the life of Georges Rémi—that became the chief function of drawing; burying himself in his own imagination also granted him flight from the unpleasant realities of the world, notably the continual fear of war and the rise of fascism. Even if his earliest Tintin albums have a patently political coloring, reflecting the racially prejudicial overtones of the time, their parodic and burlesque nature—the caricatural rendition of the despotic villain, for example—made the seriousness of its realistic analogue somehow less dark and threatening. And just as his craft became a way to transform the weight of reality’s burden, it also dramatically affected his own existentiality. Peeters writes of Tintin’s “Sartre-esque” ontological embodiment; undoubtedly Hergé created a world where existence begins not in time, but in synchronicity with action—by following the next adventure, living only in experience. Peeters writes quite rightly that “Tintin exists only through his actions;” omitting the fact that Hergé, too, was existing through Tintin’s actions.

Hergé’s career, after a brief and distressing stint in the military, began full throttle at the age of twenty, when Le Vingtième Siècle welcomed him as a steady contributor, though many years were to pass before his style would become distinctive and his ligne claire revolutionary. A cautious period of learning-through-imitation was required before he became self-sufficient in his craft; and despite his being prolific, most of his projects yielded only mediocrity. Yet his time at the newspaper proved fateful. Under the affectionate prodding of editor-in-chief Abbot Wallez, Hergé would come to fully envision and actualize the world of Tintin. It was also here that he met Germaine, the woman who would excite and elude him for many years, and finally agree to marriage.

Creative control was yet a far distance away. At least up until The Blue Lotus, the Tintin series was to a large degree informed and supervised by the political dogma and partisanship of Abbot Wallez and the inherent values of Le Vingtième Siècle. Despite the fact that these early volumes spurned some of the biggest crowd-pleasing features and characters, including the evil genius Rastapopoulous and the blundering duo of Thompson and Thomson, it seems that Hergé was ultimately being employed to circulate rabid sentiments of xenophobia. How closely Hergé identified with anti-Semitic views is a question left open. All we can tell from Peeters’ narration is that change occurred gradually in response to the artist’s breadth of creative autonomy; and by the time of The Blue Lotus, Hergé had not only abandoned the injection of racial propaganda in his comics, but began transparently criticizing it. The undefeatable, globetrotting super-child now suddenly wore the face of democratic hero of the people. Hergé was evolving at the same as Tintin; his capacity to write plot-driven narratives was strengthening and he was mastering the ingenuity of dynamic form, geographical realism, and what would become his trademark ligne claire technique. Thanks to the new friendship of Zhang Chong Ren, he was also introduced to the ideas of eastern philosophy that he would revisit throughout the years.

Hergé was gaining unstoppable momentum and escalating stardom, but his ambitions were insatiable. The Adventures of Tintin was not being widely publicized, and Hergé was worried about commercial success. Perhaps it was his old demon, the perpetual feeling of unfulfillment, that made Hergé look for ways to make the exploits of Tintin and his loyal sidekick, Snowy, more of a commodity. His stories were moved from the pages of Le Vingtième Siècle into books with new, extremely detailed cover art that could now be sold in stores. Per the advice of his friend Charles Lesne, these books would also introduce a predetermined amount of color into the strips. Hergé worked without interruption; relaxation was not an option. Once the primary source of escape, drawing had now become, quite literally, the thing that kept him confined in a corner. And, though he did not know it, these seemingly climactic years, riddled with neglect of self-care and swelling anxiety, were slowly eroding his mental health.

But despite his bouts of depression, the cartoonist was able to maintain an incredible output of creative work for two decades: churning out ever more breakthrough Tintin stories, not to mention the lucrative but less-beloved side projects of Quick and Flupke and Zo, Zette, and Jocko. Early on he was also a subsidiary contributor to a number of periodicals, producing mostly unremarkable gags commissioned for political chaffing; and, in the attempt to make Tintin as pervasive as possible, even co-authoring two plays with collaborator and friend, Jacques Van Melkebeke. Hergé’s middle-phase career was largely occupied with the assiduous task of revamping and colorizing all the original Adventures for the 62-page standardized book format, wherein Hergé was finally able to apply his mastery of the ligne claire formula to his earliest comics: “no shadows, equality in the appearance of lines, inking that closed to form a receptacle, and colors applied flatly to tint areas.” The flood of activity throughout these 20 or so years was abated only when war conscripted him and the German invasion shut down Le Vingtième Siècle.

The suppression of essentially all publications not in partnership with National Socialism led Hergé to accept a position sketching weekly panels for Le Soir—an unequivocally pro-Nazi enterprise. Guilt by association would render him a ‘collaborator,’ his portrait and name printed in the “Traitor’s Gallery,” his politics an unavoidable point of controversy even today. But Le Soir was an opportunity to keep himself and Tintin thriving, and he was not inclined to pass that up. After all, Hergé was only thirty-three and at the zenith of his career; he had at least seven more years of fervent allegiance to The Adventures of Tintin. But working for Le Soir involved compromise, and he was clearly falling back on the anti-Semitic caricatures of old (The Shooting Star, published in 1941, is undoubtedly Hergé’s most self-incriminating piece). For his part, Peeters withholds any final judgment regarding the ambiguity of his subject’s political ethos—concentrating, rather, on the artist’s compulsion to create new experiences for his hero, and to live vicariously through them while he still could. At any rate, Hergé was too thoroughly engrossed in his work to “have taken [any serious] notice of the war raging all around him.”

Le Soir collapsed immediately following the end of the German occupation. Hergé, unlike his many colleagues facing imprisonment, managed to escape the interrogation trials relatively unscathed. Karmic reckoning met him, nevertheless, in other—less physical—ways. Despite the fact that the loss of Le Soir actually resulted in greater artistic success for Hergé—for now he was artistic director of his own magazine, simply titled Tintin, produced by a hand-picked team of collaborators—his susceptibility to psychosomatic depression was rising, and he was becoming more and more mercurial and less and less enchanted with adventure stories. Relations with his boundlessly patient and forgiving wife had been teetering for years, and he took more frequently to extramarital affairs. Powerless to sever himself from Germaine, he nevertheless tended to fall swiftly and madly in love with whoever held his fancy. Years of overwork had, in addition, driven him to a state of utter exhaustion and apathy toward his lifelong passion. Suddenly, the artist—who had in truth starved his spiritual health for twenty years in a constant campaign for Tintin—found himself existentially disoriented.

The final stage of Hergé’s life was a determined search for meaning and lasting serenity. Living inside his own imagination could no longer suffice. Peeters notes how an irreversible “chasm had opened between the man…and the stories he was creating.” A newfound need to identify with human complexity and fallibility led him, when he did project his self into the series, which he now seldom worked on, to identify not with Tintin, the essence of simplicity itself, but with Captain Haddock. He was also increasingly interested in realism, the fictionalized rendition of current events, the lifelike and multifaceted nature of his new characters. But these latter years were not at all centered on Tintin, which had by now become an international phenomenon. The interludes between stories were becoming protracted—Hergé having to wait oftentimes many months for a flash of inspiration, or desire, and finally having to admit to his readers via publicized letter that he was essentially burned out.

Separation from Germaine—whom he associated with his Tintin-centered past—and dissociation with former colleagues were further unfortunate expressions of his deep desire to relinquish Tintin. In 1955, five years after the kickoff of Hergé Studios, the cartoonist met Fanny Vlamyck, his final mistress and second wife. With her, life seemed to, and in many ways did, begin anew. Along with newfound love, a self-education in depth psychology and eastern philosophy (especially Taoism) seemed to give him the tools for the calmness and silence that he craved. Sadly, despite his quest for peace, one is left with the impression that Hergé was forever searching for a feeling of fullness. And we feel that this condition, summarized below by Marcel Stal, was what ultimately defined his life:

Georges had a kind of anxiety, which he bore to an astonishing degree. It was his own mental state. The fact that man never attains perfection made him sad. He wanted more…he didn’t have the knack for happiness. He never knew how to experience life like a normal person. There was always some problem, a well of dissatisfaction that affected everything in his life. And fame changed none of this.

Peeters concludes the book by pondering some age-old questions concerning aesthetic importance: will The Adventures of Tintin withstand the test of time as a work of revolutionary genius, or will it be reduced to a merely mechanically reproduced image, deprived of all authenticity? The answer, I think, lies in how alive we keep the story of the man who “put his whole life” into it: Georges Rémi, son of Tintin.

ALEXANDRA KULIK is a recent graduate of Lake Forest College, where she studied English literature and philosophy. Within the next few years, she will be working toward writing and publishing her first book, as well as beginning her graduate studies.