Reporters, Real and Putative

Since it’s Tintin-creator Hergé’s centennial this year, the rights holders at Moulinsart have organized a large retrospective showing of works from his whole career in collaboration with Paris Beaubourg (that’s the Pompidou Centre to anyone not on the team). The show takes up a large part of the basement area that opens to the main hall, as well as the catwalk behind it. We get a little of everything Totor, the boy scout, and Quick and Flupke, the street urchins, to illustration and publicity work and, of course a large selection of original pages spanning the almost 60 year-long career, as well as sketches other drawn and written preparatory work (no models!)

It’s a real treat to follow Hergés obsessive progress on the fetschistic masterwork that is the Moon story, to see a sampling of the young cartoonist’s single-panel gags, or a rich selection of the fantastic covers he provided both for Le Pétit XXe, in the pages of which Tintin was born and thrived. These are usually extracted from the story being serialised on the inside and more often than not potent condensations of not only the tone and the drive of the story in question, but of what makes Tintin so damn cool – the almost hyperreal clarity of its imagery, the delightful humor and rich suggestiveness of the stories. Hergé’s covers for Tintin magazine, which he co-created in 1946 and in which Tintin’s adventures where chronicled from then on are less innovative, and at times nonchalantly dull, though there are definitely masterful exceptions,

The heart of the exhibition is a room showing the original pages of Hergé’s first masterpiece, The Blue Lotus (1936). all 124 of them. That’s right, you can read the whole thing right there, while marveling at how evocative Hergé’s drawing had already become at this stage, when it’s dynamism and charm was at the same time at its highest. The magic of chinese ink drawing filtered through ligne claire seen in some of the establishing shots provide an exquisite, muted subtext to the portentous images of war and modernization that dominate the book.

However, the exhibition is sadly unhelpful it its presentation of its subject. A very superficial chronology, that requires you to walk the length of the catwalk area and still leaves you hungry is all there is, basically. Other than that, you are left with the spare texts accompanying the individual exhibits. It’s as if it’s assumed that everyone is already familiar with Hergé’s life, career, and the development of his work. A sad but unfortunately hardly unheard of case of the curators taking the easy way out on the conceptual side of things.

And, since Tintin’s a reporter (who never writes), what could be more appropriate than presenting an exhibition of the work of reporters who draw (and write) to go along with the Hergé exhibition? BD Reporters incorporates a mixture of original pages, printouts, sketches and prepratory documentation (photos, etc.), as well as video, to present the work of some two dozen artists who have been fitted into this category more or less comfortably. We thus get a fine section of bona fide comics reporter Joe Sacco’s originals, along with photos and sketches made for Safe Area Gorazde and Soba (you get to se what both Edin and Soba look like in photos! And then there’s the Gorazde Holiday Inn…), as well as original panels and mounted printouts of Emmanuel Guibert and Pascal Lefêvre’s masterful comics reconstruction of the latter’s journey through the war-torn Afghanistan of the early 80s, Le Photographe.

And though not journalism, there’s other masterful work on display here. Especially a suite of original pages by Baudoin from what is arguably his most important and resonant work, Le Chemin de St. Jean. His recreations of the mountain- and forest landscape of his youth almost manage to quell the artsy emotionalism and “joie de vivre” that pervades his work, and instead simply be breathtaking. He cuts and pastes different landscape drawings – some on white, some on cream paper – into a slightly disjuncted but strongly evocative whole, which suits the tone of the book perfectly. He even drops in a couple of real oak leaves for what turns out to be good measure.

Unfortunately, it seems like the allure of “reporting” your experiences whenever you are in an exotic place, or – perhaps even better – when you’re at your dull home, has become too much of a crutch to a large number of francophone cartoonists, just like autobiography did for their American counterparts for a long, sad while. English-speaking readers will perhaps be aware of Guy Delisle’s travelogues, which are reasonably well though rather dully managed, and ultimately rather inconsequential since they never transcend the somewhat mocking attitude of the author’s somewhat banal observervations. Well, there’s much more of that – inqonsequentiality – here, also from seasoned masters; Mattotti’s drawings from Anghkor Wat are lush and sometimes even darkly discomfiting, but leave one hungry for substance – a problem Dupuy and Berberian’s boringly pretty travel sketchbooks suffer from in spades, by the way. Ultimately, the show leaves one wanting for more of a focused, questioning approach to what it is to be a “comics reporter” and especially a good one. And for example substituting the low-quality printouts from Jiro Taniguchi’s unabashedly fictionalThe Walking Man with examples of the work of Philippe Squarzoni, who is certainly not without his problems, but at least does real reporting in his strips.

Actually, the exhibition provides an unspurprising highlight – four pages of naively excuted but thoroughly compelling comics made by indians from Honduras cutting their cartooning teeth at the prompting of Belgian cartoonist Xavier Löwenthal. Like a lot of his colleagues, Löwenthal’s own work is completely forgettable, but these pages sure aren’t.

The pictures show the Blue Lotus-room, the main area of the Hergé exhibition, a view of the BD Réporters show, with Michael Matthys’ regristrations of Brussels traffic and one of the four pages from Honduras mentioned. Photos: Matthias Wivel

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