Sunday, January 8, 2012

Book Review: HERGE, THE MAN WHO CREATED TINTIN by Pierre Assouline, translated by Charles Ruas (Oxford University Press, 2009)

It won't surprise you to learn that the release of Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson's TINTIN movie has been accompanied by an upsurge in publications (or reprints of publications) devoted to both the intrepid reporter and his rather unassuming creator. This particular biography has been available for several years and is a fairly decent starting point for those who want to learn more about Georges Remi and how Tintin and his "world" came to be. Numerous flaws plague the narrative, however. These include both avoidable errors of fact (such misspellings as "Charles Schultz" and "Max Sennett"; Richard Nixon's historic first trip to China being dated 1976, rather than 1972) and a somewhat shaky English translation by Charles Ruas, which, bizarrely, includes dialogue from the TINTIN books in addition to the main text. The English TINTIN translations by Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper and Michael Turner have been available for many years and are superior to Ruas' versions in every particular. It is not clear why they were not used.

Assouline is at his best when describing Herge's wartime and immediate postwar activities, which are, to say the least, controversial. While making it clear that Herge was not an active collaborator during the German occupation of Belgium -- he avoided politics in his wartime stories and "merely" published in an "officially sanctioned" newspaper that was subject to Nazi censorship -- the author extends the "gray area" of passive collaboration to somewhat wider dimensions than I have seen in other publications. Herge was very solicitous of old friends and associates who had much more involvement with the occupation regime, and he became well known after the war as a willing source of aid to those on employment blacklists. This reflected Herge's personal loyalty and stubbornness more than it did his political views, but it also left him open to similar, albeit non-government-sponsored, excommunications. (LE SOIR, the "compromised" paper for which Herge worked during the war, did not even mention his name for more than 20 years after the liberation of Belgium.) Herge's feelings of resentment and persecution are understandable, but so are the feelings of some of his critics that he managed to get off lightly and was essentially "saved" by the popularity of TINTIN.

Herge's "dark years" of the late 40s, during which he suffered greatly from depression and worked only in fits and starts as a result, also acquire a far more sombre hue in Assouline's narrative. That Herge was overworked (due to his duties as artistic director of the new TINTIN magazine and the need to reconfigure older stories for the reprint market) is well known; I did not know, however, that he felt so far gone as to seriously contemplate emigrating to Argentina (a rather questionable choice, given the famed ex-Nazi exodus to that country). Herge also tried to interest the Disney studios in his creation, only to receive a rebuff. Not until the Herge Studios became formally organized as a support group in the early 50s did original TINTIN stories resume a reasonably steady pace of production. Even then, Herge's output noticeably slowed down after 1950, as his standards for starting and executing new narratives became more and more unforgiving.

Despite the factual goofs, I would recommend this bio for those with a budding interest in Herge and the TINTIN phenomenon. A definitive critical biography, however, lies somewhere in the future.

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