The Adventures of Tintin: In the Blue Lotus (1936).
Who was Tintin? Indeed, who was his creator, Hergé? Tintin was the determined and resilient hero of a comic book series that took him on thrilling adventures around the world — and on some voyages not quite of this world. Actually, though Tintin is not as well known in the U.S. as in Europe, his distinctive tuft of ginger hair and Hergé’s no less distinctive drawing style will ring a bell with many Americans. Appearing from 1929 to 1982, the series took Tintin to the planet’s most exotic places to confront all sorts of danger, treachery and political machinations, with an emphasis on the fast-paced visuals of trains, planes, cars, bombs and other new technologies.
Both character and creator were unambiguous. Tintin was literally and emblematically a Boy Scout who always lived up to the Boy Scout code, no matter how dire, dark, strange or adult the situation. Tintin was the ideal with which Hergé totally identified. But, as revealed in Anders Østergaard’s Tintin and I, it was the treacherous and uncertain world around Tintin into which Hergé poured the reality of his own life. Based on 14 hours of audio interviews recorded in 1971 — heard here for the first time — Tintin and I shows that Hergé, while trying in life to live up to the idealized Tintin, ended up creating in art a powerful graphic record of the 20th century’s tortured history.
In 1971, the French-born Numa Sadoul (later an actor as well as a writer) was a young journalist doing a series of interviews with comic-book artists. Drawn to Brussels, the center of European cartoon art, Sadoul took a chance and knocked on the door of the artist he wanted most to meet. He had no reason to expect a welcome from Hergé, nom de plume of Georges Remi, whose creation, The Adventures of Tintin, already had been captivating millions of European children and not a few adults for over 40 years. Since World War II, Hergé had had to face a blacklist for working under the German occupation, the embarrassment of abandoning his Catholic marriage and a nervous breakdown. The naturally reticent artist had grown even more reclusive.
But Sadoul wanted to ask what Hergé thought was so enthralling about the Tintin series. Tintin, the forever-young art deco Boy Scout who never shied from danger or from doing the right thing, seemed too simple to explain the series’ iconic status. To Sadoul’s tremendous surprise, Hergé not only welcomed him into his studio but also consented to being interviewed on audiotape. The encounter turned into 14 hours of audio interviews, recorded over four days, in which Hergé, despite protesting that he neither wanted to talk nor had anything interesting to say, proceeded to open up with remarkable candor. Though the interviews later became the basis for a book, they were so heavily edited and rewritten by Hergé — perhaps recollecting the reasons for his former reticence — that the book was far from a faithful representation of his thoughts over those four days in 1971.
Now, 30 years after the fact, and with the full support of the Hergé estate, Hergé’s talks with Sadoul have formed the basis for Tintin and I. Hergé’s own voice — gentle, prodding, laughing — takes us through the twists and turns of a life he readily admits was written into the adventures of the Boy Scout he once thought he was, or at least strove to be, even as the European world was spinning violently out of control. Director Østergaard, who has obvious affection for Hergé’s visual universe, does the master’s art homage by animating archival footage of Hergé to sync up with Sadoul’s audio, lending Hergé’s voice an uncanny visual presence. He has also turned some of the Tintin series’ most famous panels into 3-D scenes through which Østergaard’s camera moves, yielding new insights into Hergé’s art, especially its detail and dramatic formal structures.
Sadoul is also on hand, still in awe as he recounts his fortuitous meeting with Hergé. Scholars Harry Thompson (who died in 2005), Fanny Rodwell and Gérard Valet add their appreciations and accounts of the social and artistic circumstances under which Hergé worked. Even Andy Warhol, in archival footage, turns up for at least 15 seconds in appreciation of Hergé’s popular — and just maybe Pop — art. But it is the voice of Hergé himself, intertwined with his animated image, striking family and public archival footage, that forms the drama of Tintin and I.
As recognizable in Europe as Superman or Mickey Mouse in the States, Tintin had neither super powers nor an anthropomorphic fantasyland to provide his fans with escape from a world of economic depression and war. In fact, Tintin, a very proactive Boy Scout, flew right into the face of predicaments that, in detailed visuals and ever more complicated story lines, all too chillingly replicated the world’s real dangers. Colonialism, war, oppression, criminal conspiracies and the promise and terrors of technology accelerated Tintin through the 20th century — and his creator through an evolution of consciousness.
Given the use of comic art for realism in Europe (and Japan), as distinct from the penchant for escapism in the U.S., it is no surprise that Tintin began as a strip in a right-wing Catholic newspaper, explicitly meant to teach political lessons. Norbert Wallez, a charismatic if fanatical and odd Catholic abbot, first suggested such a strip to Georges Remi, who adopted the pseudonym Hergé. Hergé remained under the influence of the abbé Wallez and his reactionary views for many years. He even married Wallez’s secretary, Germaine Kieckens, who — as Hergé later caricatured in Tintin — played the role of mother hen.
A turning point came when a story set in colonial Africa featured egregious racial and geographic stereotypes. Stinging from the criticisms these drawings elicited, Hergé engaged the collaboration of a Chinese artist, Tchang Chong-chen, to ensure that his next book, The Blue Lotus (1934), did not portray Chinese culture as a Western cliché. Working with Tchang provided Hergé with an artistic and moral epiphany. He became absorbed with Tchang’s — and Asian art’s — dedication to pictorial realism and accuracy of detail. This led Hergé to exhaustive research on the settings and people of his succeeding tales — and a greater respect, it would seem, for humanity’s diversity. (So great was Tchang’s impact on Hergé that the latter spent nearly 40 years famously trying to track Tchang down after distance and war separated them. Their reunion, part genuine and part marketing comeback for Hergé, is documented in Tintin and I.)
By 1938, King Ottokar’s Sceptre was widely seen as a damning parable of Hitler’s invasion of Austria. However, the most controversial part of Hergé’s career began when the German army occupied Belgium and Hergé continued his strip in Le Soir. He jettisoned politics and real-world scenarios during the occupation years to send Tintin off on more traditional adventure fare involving buried treasure and sunken wrecks. In Tintin and I, Hergé tells Sadoul that, once Belgium had surrendered, he saw continuing his work as no different from a baker continuing to bake bread. Yet, throughout occupied Europe, the work of artists, writers and even entertainers was not seen as equivalent to ordinary work, and Hergé — along with other intellectuals who claimed only to be doing their jobs — was quickly arrested after the war.
Though he was just as quickly released, his reputation came under a cloud and he faced a professional blacklist. It took a broken marriage, a nervous breakdown, a new love and years of soul searching for Hergé to rebuild his personal and professional lives. Tintin and I recounts the crisis in his life in the late 1950s in part through an exploration — literally entering 3-D animations — of the strip that many regard as Hergé’s masterpiece, Tintin in Tibet (1960).
“Millions of kids in many different countries have grown up with the adventures of Tintin, which is reason enough to make a portrait of Hergé,” says director Anders Østergaard. “But Hergé’s story, the life of a dreamer whose inner clarity was so much in conflict with the world outside him, was very moving itself. Can’t you, especially if you are an artist or other creative type, just remain inside the dream? You can’t. Not without paying a high price. It’s a sad story, I guess, but the result was Tintin, a visual icon of the 20th century.”
Tintin and I is a production of Angel Production (Denmark) and Moulinsart Production (Belgium) in co-production with Periscope Productions (Belgium), Dune (France), Leapfrog (Switzerland), RTBF (Belgium), Avro (Netherlands) in Association with France 2, VRT, DR TV, France 5, Suisse Romande, SVT, NRK, YLE-FST and RUV.