To mark the centenary of Georges Remi, alias Hergé, and to celebrate his life’s work, T. Thorhauge and I decided to represent one of the many spirited conversations we’ve had about it over the years in writing. The following is our informal back-and-forth appreciation of some of our favourite comics. I asked Thomas the opening question in an email, and away we went!
– As a cartoonist, what do you like about Hergé?
– If you’re the kind of cartoonist who likes to examine comic books in order to expand your consciousness or awareness as a creator, Hergé’s Tintin-books are probably the most rewarding place to go. Compared to other masters of his time – such as Kirby, Tezuka or Barks – his output is modest in terms of quantity, but in terms of refined density (sounds silly, but as accurate as I can describe it), the Tintin-books are unparalleled. Every time you re-read or re-examine a Tintin-book, you seem to discover new secrets, ideas or tricks. There are so many things to point out in each and every Tintin-story; little things – almost invisible – that really make the difference between a well-crafted but ordinary adventure-comic book and the work of genius.
If asked for one thing, I would point to the first three pages of The Secret of the Unicorn. These pages recount a straightforward scene at a flea market, but they also display a masterful demonstration of discrete graphic storytelling, in which Hergé shifts between highly detailed pictures and ones with lots of empty space. If all these three pages contained were pictures with elaborate background imagery, they would probably feel so heavy to the eye as to impede the otherwise clear storytelling. But, at the same time, a scene taking place in a crowded flea market requires elaborate imagery to convey an authentic atmosphere. Hergé meets this challenge in the most subtle yet effective way: he alternates between pictures with and without background imagery. And this alternation is determined by a clear storytelling principle: when Tintin is talking to Thompson and Thomson the background disappears! But when one of them turns around and looks out – the world reappears! God is truly in the details…
– I agree. The astonishing richness of these seemingly straightforward comics is key to their appeal. A revelation to me was back in 1998, when [veteran comics scholar] Pierre Fresnault-Deruelle gave a talk in Copenhagen, in which he pointed out how the background detail of the chase scene through the cluttered crypt of Marlinspike in that very same book, provides a kind of commentary on the action without slowing it down or impairing the storytelling in the slightest.
Like for example how when the Brothers Bird think that Tintin is hiding in the suit of armour, there is an almost mocking bust looking back at them while a nude figurine behind it can be seen to be a kind of ‘truth unadorned’-contrast to the armour’s obfuscation. Later, when Tintin is looking at the brothers leaving, hoping to have fooled them, there is a little running white figure echoing his hope of escape in the middle of the picture. When he is subsequently discovered and they fire their gun at him, a Babylonian demon rears behind him on the table. And when he has finally escaped them, has made it to their office in order to call for help, and is disturbed by Nestor, the brothers’ butler, he is flanked by oppressive suits of armour and on the wall above him is an old master painting of a martyrdom in which an executioner is bearing down on him as the disembodied voices of his antagonists resound through the room’s intercom.
These are merely a few examples in a sequence loaded with such imagery. An astonishing achievement of subliminal storytelling. Now, it’s of course debatable how intentional this all was, but given that Hergé was the most reflexive of comics artists, I wouldn’t be surprised that he thought about these details. You’ve often said that reflexivity, or awareness, is a good thing. What do you mean, and how important do you think it is to Hergé’s achievement as an artist and not just as a brilliant comics formalist?
– I believe deeply in awareness, or reflexivity. A fellow cartoonist once warned me about it, suggesting that too much awareness will ultimately lend a rigid and forced feel to a given piece of art or storytelling. But I don’t agree; if your art becomes stiff as a result of awareness or reflexivity, well, then you’re probably not fully aware of what you’re doing in the first place. Awareness is also knowing when to play around, when to improvise, when not to intellectualize or rationalize too much, know what I’m saying? Hergé is a perfect example of this. I’m well aware that some Tintin-fans are not too keen on late works such as Tintin in Tibet, The Castafiore Emerald or Tintin and the Picaros, because they feel that some cold, arty-farty ambitions are at play here. But I maintain that readers should read Tibet and Emrald with a different outlook than they do, say The Shooting Star or Red Rackham’s Treasure. These works are still stunning achievements; brilliant, funny, clever, playful – comic books at their finest. However, clearly from the “third period” of Tintin; like Hitchcock when he did Vertigo and North by Northwest… Am I making any sense here?
- Sure, so The Black Island would be The 39 Steps, The Calculus Affair would be Notorious, and Flight No. 714 to Sydney Frenzy, I guess… Anyway, I completely agree that Tibet and Emrald fully hold their own with the best of the series. I’m even one of the crazies who find Tintin and the Picaros to be an immensely interesting album. Contrary to its predecessors, which are all great reads – even Flight 714 – I acknowledge that Picaros is very hard going. In a way – and contrary to what you’re saying – I think it’s perhaps the one case of awareness hampering Hergé’s work, but that’s not really my point. What’s compelling about it is that, for once, Hergé has written a story where all his characters, even Tintin the chronic boy scout himself, are compromised. They are roped into helping their old friend Alcazar mount a dubious coup in the banana republic of San Theodoros, replacing one dictator with another and changing exactly nothing. Add to this Haddock’s struggles with his alcoholism, and Calculus’ slightly devilish glee at slipping him his anti-alcohol pills, etc. Herge was interesting till the last: even Alph Art was rather promising!
And Tibet I find to be one of his unequivocal masterpieces. The fundamental gesture of friendship that lies at its core strikes an emotional note beyond anything seen in the series before or after. People criticize it for being a non-story with a sappy ending, but to me that’s entirely missing the point. It is not a suspenseful story with Tintin trying to foil the plans of Rastapopoulos or whatever, and it’s not supposed to be. The whole point is to have it be quiet, to make the story just sit there and breathe, to evoke the feeling of a long, desperate, quiet search in the white of the Himalayas. And here the backgrounds of Jacques Martin and the colours contribute immensely. The book is simply beautiful, with its clear, jagged horizon lines, its pure white and blue color scheme, at times tinged with orange or other stronger colors – such as the yellow of Tchang’s scarf. And yes, the ending can be construed as sentimental, but to me it rings completely true. This is a story about friendship and brotherhood. Marvelous in its simplicity. I know you also dig aspects of it – can you explain some more?
– Well, yes… In comics there’s a certain convention regarding action or movement: when cars or characters move, they very often tend to move from left to right, of course following the direction that we (in the West) read. I’m not sure there’s any scientific proof that action that follows our sense of reading is processed more readily by our brain, but the left-to-right display of action is nonetheless a convention that many cartoonists choose to follow. Most of the Tintin-stories are told in this manner, and Tintin in Tibet uses the convention in an absolutely ingenious, breathtaking way. Throughout the entire book, a lot of physical action is described, and everything follows the left-right sense, narrated in the most clear and non-demonstrative manner. But on the final page… I get the chills down my spine just thinking about it… on the final page, this rule is broken; Tintin, Haddock and Tchang are about to leave Tibet, traveling slowly on horseback – FROM RIGHT TO LEFT! It’s the moment of closure, the moment of departure, the moment of easy sadness, where Tchang wonders about the Yeti’s gentleness and possible human nature – deliberately told in the “wrong way”. I don’t quite know what it means, but since it touches my heart deeply everytime I look at that page (or even think about it!), I’m absolutely sure that it’s not just cold formalism.
It’s funny, because there’s a page in Tintin in the Congo, that was later changed due to a politically incorrect scene in which Tintin blows up a rhino; the original page from 1931 does not apply to left-right-convention, but the newer, revised page from 1975 does, in a very deliberate manner. Unfortunately, I’m not a power-nerd regarding Tintin-issues, so I’m not able to tell, when the “change” happened, but perhaps… you are?
– I’m not sure, he pretty much seems aware of the left-to right principle from quite early on. Already in books such as The Blue Lotus and The Black Island, he seems to make quite conscious usage of it, but more on a panel-to-panel storytelling level than the thematic one you describe.
That page with the rhino is funny. It was redrawn in the 70s when the 1946 version of the book was first released in Scandinavia; Hergé improved the storytelling while softening the gag. Funny how it was the mistreatment of a rhino, and not all the other goings-on in that album, that got the editors’ gall… which kind of brings us to the early work, which even more than the late books is seen as imperfect, if not downright inferior. Of course, Tintin in the Congo is notorious and understandably so – it remains offensive today, but at the same time it is a rather indicting account of colonial thinking of the early 20th Century, even if unintentionally so; the comics’ very own naive telltale Heart of Darkness! Also, all the mean gags about killing animals are rather funny, I think.
Anyway, the story everyone dumps on is the very first, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, which is always described as primitive, propagandistic and passé. And while I concede that it is rough, it is precisely this aspect of it that makes it so compelling. Witnessing the young Hergé energetically improvising week-by-week is exhilarating, and the drawing is so energetic! Also, it is funny how the book’s anti-Communist propaganda, which was previously – especially in the 70s – widely decried and excused as youthful folly, even by Hergé himself, has now come around to ring rather true as satire, even if it’s very simplistic. Any thoughts on the early work?
– Yes, I completely share your view; the early works seem to be both underappreciated and undervalued, and I don’t get it. I really adore Tintin in the Land of the Soviets; I think it has great graphics, great gags and a freshness to it that most of Hergé’s later production lacks because of his striving for clarity and perfection. You and I both went to see the great Hergé-exhibition in Centre Pompidou earlier this year, and were both amazed by the display of the original pages of the entirety of the first edition of The Blue Lotus. I’ve never seen that version before, but it was close to a revelation… Again, the drawings are somehow funnier, they have a fresh feel to them, and though the stories – and the way they’re told – are admittedly more naive and simple, it doesn’t mean they are of less value than the later, more complicated, carefully constructed and thoroughly researched ones. They’re just different…
– Yeah, seeing the original pages to The Blue Lotus was amazing. It is for good reason that it’s widely acknowledged as the first mature Tintin book. It is here that Hergé starts achieving the visual richness I mentioned earlier, and because he does it in this, his first and still one of his most emotionally resonant stories, it remains one of his finest books. The rain-drenched streets of Shanghai, the military checkpoints, and the establishing landscape shots that recall Chinese ink drawing all convey a sense of place and history. It grounds the story in the world. And it is this track through Hergé’s work that I find so compelling: the clarity with which the world around the characters is represented. While the early work is indeed funny and energetic, I admire enormously the artistic maturation that sees Hergé and his studio develop the vision of the world we see in the magnificent albums around the middle of the run – from the Secret of the Unicorn to The Calculus Affair, even if it does at times veer into excessive fetishism – fascinating, but sluggish fetishism – as in the Moon story.
Many fans hold the Calculus Affair in especially high regard, I think mostly because of its tightly constructed story, its impeccable storytelling, its suspense, and its humour. But most important and widely unacknowledged, I think, is that it’s the high point of Hergé and his studio’s ligne claire. Not only does it convey the astounding sense of place I’ve just mentioned, but it provides us with a highly original vision of the world. There is something eminently modern about the ligne claire vision of the world. It is at once clear and egalitarian; everything is given its due, but never at the expense of semantic efficiency. We’re never lost. We see everything straight on, from a human perspective. There are very few shadows or other obscuring factors – I don’t think the importance of the almost total absence of cast shadows can be overestimated. But there’s another thing: while the clearness of representation feels enlightened, the active framing of the images, which cuts up people and objects equally, to further the action, reminds us of the fragmented understanding of reality that modernity has made a basic condition of our experience. Seen on their own, the images are invariably fascinating because they’re so patently fragments of a whole we cannot grasp, even if we look over the page they’re part of. Although they seem so clean, there is something mysterious about them. They make their fragmentary nature a virtue, while at the same time being active parts in the telling of a gripping story.
There is, for example, a panel where Tintin pushes Haddock out of the way of an encroaching black car – entering the frame right-to-left, incidentally – while Snowy disappears off the right panel border. An exciting, but on the face of it rather banal action scene, but the more one looks at it and thinks about it, the more its eminent design and the menacing presence it evinces becomes apparent. Great stuff.
This is true for all of Hergé’s best work, but especially the first two sets of double albums (the art in the Moon story is slightly hampered by the obsessive three-dimensionality of the sets) and The Calculus Affair. As for the later work, Tibet is of course beautiful but for good reasons more spacious in its feel, while I find The Red Sea Sharks impeccable but strangely overloaded, the Castafiore Emrald more expressive (the latter sees the return of a kind of chiaroscuro almost totally eschewed since the very early work), and Flight 714 and especially Picaros use too many close-ups and varying camera angles, they’re too much Bob de Moor and studio, too little Hergé, too little life.
In other words, I think Hergé’s most significant contribution to world art is the ligne claire – an achievement in the pictorial arts as important as almost any other in the period of Tintin’s life. Any thoughts on this? Or on the frequent accusations by certain parts of the comics intelligentsia that Tintin never transcends kid’s adventure stories and therefore cannot be regarded as great art?
– To tell you the truth I don’t care much for ‘Tintin-as-art’-discussion. To me, Hergé is truly great, and his work continues to amaze me. I can point to only a handful of other cartoonists I respect as much, not many. Hergé’s great, all right? That a certain part of the ‘comics intelligentsia’ is obsessed with the notion that fun is fun, and art is art, and never the twain shall meet is outright ridiculous, of course. I would say that Hergé is one of the most influential cartoonists in the world, and I suspect his legacy will only grow in the years and decades to come.
I agree that ligne claire is a major contribution to world art, but I don’t perceive the ligne claire-thing as an isolated aspect; I guess I see it as an organic part of a larger strategy of utterly amazing graphic storytelling. I think the mastery is in the whole, not in the parts. Well, I guess you do as well?
– Absolutely, I just like to pick things apart and analyze. But yeah, it is Hergé’s vision as a whole that’s so remarkable. Tintin, to me, is an ideal projection of the world, where the boy scout ethos of Hergé’s childhood – in contrast to the compromises of his or any other’s reality – can be lived out, and where complicating factors such as sex are left off the page. It is also a world where genuinely unsettling, surreal doomsday scenarios, such as that of The Shooting Star, can play out next to unabashedly wondrous treasure hunts where Haddockian insults can be passed down through the centuries by generations of parrots, such as in Red Rackham’s Treasure. The sheer joy of reading Tintin; its humor, the colorful characters and their patterns of interaction, the excitement of the stories, are essential to the enduring life of Hergé’s work. But they’re not simplistic escapism – the suggestiveness of the imagery, the mystery that lies behind its apparent simplicity, suggests a larger more complex reality. One Tintin invites us to dream of.
Images from Prisoners of the Sun (1946-49), 2 x Secret of the Unicorn (1942-43), 2 x Tintin in Tibet (1960), Tintin in the Congo (1946 vers. and Scandinavian 1975 ed.)Tintin in the Land of the Soviets (1929-30), The Blue Lotus (1934-35), The Calculus Affair (1954-56), Red Rackham’s Treasure (1943-44) and The Seven Crystal Balls (1943-48). We apologize for the Babel of national editions used here; we had to make do with what we had available on the fly. Tintin on the web: One of the best resource sites (in Swedish, alas!) can be visited here, and the Tintinologist website is definitely also worth a visit. The official Tintin website can be found here. Also, for a fine overview of Hergé’s life and work, check Paul Gravett’s article here.