Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Hergé & Tintin: An Appreciation

Lately I’ve been thinking about the Belgian artist Georges Remi (1907-1983), better known by his pen name Hergé, and his marvelous use of color, the bright colors of his idealistic protagonist Tintin’s comic world, populated by funny friends and sunny ideals of loyalty, decency, and valor—their hues as reliable as the tight rows of panels that fill the pages of the Tintin books, as constant as the ever-loyal Tintin himself. Hergé, perhaps in accordance with his personal conservatism, offers readers the pleasures of a steadfast orderliness, a model of stability in form and detail: consistency and continuity are virtues inseparable from the ligne claire style he created. Having begun the series in 1929 in black and white, by mid-century Hergé had a staff of assistants to help him rearrange, color, and extensively revise his earlier volumes; with motives that bridged the commercial and the aesthetic, he went to considerable lengths to revise his earlier books to conform to later choices, in color, style, format, and overall unity. There is no question that the “colorized” versions are final, definitive, canonical. The entire series Les Aventures de Tintin coheres accordingly.

Hergé’s cast of characters exists to charm the reader. Tintin, virtuous but amiably down-to-earth, is accompanied by both his faithful fox terrier Milou (renamed Snowy in the English version), whose opinionated canine perspective is conveyed in thought balloons with human language, and Captain Haddock, a blustering sailor whose outbursts make him a kind of one-man storm-at-sea. Like this sea captain named after a fish, the absentminded and partially deaf Professor Tournesol (a name that means both “sunflower” and “litmus” in French, but became Professor Calculus in English), the blundering detectives Dupond et Dupont (a.k.a. Thomson and Thompson), and the overbearing opera diva Bianca Castafiore, are each a walking bundle of conspicuous comic set-ups, all designed to run afoul of one another, but each is also a figure rendered lovable by its creator’s ability to measure and mix displays of egocentricity, eccentricity, and underlying good intentions into an instantly recognizable portrait of the human comedy. This beloved comic “family” is inseparable from Hergé’s commitment to narrative construction: his creatures require fully formed stories in which to fumble, bumble, and ultimately thrive. Hergé believed in carefully orchestrated plots. He loved cinema and wanted to make comics-as-movies.

Hergé’s habit of peppering a story with mini-cliffhangers every two pages—crises often resolved only a moment after being introduced—is a fortuitous byproduct of having first serialized the stories in brief increments. When conceiving or re-conceiving the adventures as books, he knew to preserve the cinematic pratfalls, surprises, false alarms, and sudden bursts of danger that punctuate and pace the narrative. This, coupled with the almost statically decorative ambience of the art, makes for an interesting balance. Encountering the entire Tintin series is like watching a lovely folded paper dropped into water where it continuously unfolds, not into a flower but into a montage of cheerfully constructed images of amusing characters in impeccably rendered settings, bouncing and bumping along through adventures that despite all the vigorous action and danger and hairbreadth escapes are essentially a succession of pratfalls, punctuated by moments of catching one’s breath, dusting oneself off with dignity, and reasserting, in various ways, goodness and comradeship. The overall effect is of serene chaos, and it is oddly pleasing.

Tintin au Tibet (Tintin in Tibet, 1960), Hergé’s favorite among his own works, is also the favorite of many critics. Often hailed as the best French-language graphic novel ever, it is both the epitome of, and a departure from, the Tintin series. The comedic touches, sense of adventure, exotic locale, and moral idealism are all there, but the regular cast has been narrowed to Tintin, Captain Haddock, and Milou, and there is no villain, no police work, no crime; yet the emotional stakes have been raised considerably. Tintin, inspired by a dream vision, is determined to rescue an old friend reported lost in a plane crash in the mountains of Tibet, and he refuses to give up the seemingly illogical search despite growing evidence that there were no survivors. The enemy, apart from the unforgiving natural elements, is self-doubt, uncertainty, despair—in other words, the hero is faith and the “villain” is excessive rationality. Tintin’s tenacity is put to a test that is more personal, more affecting, than ever before, turning the story into a powerful tribute to unwavering friendship in the face of adversity. Or, as Hergé himself put it (as revealed in Pierre Assouline’s Hergé: The Man Who Created Tintin, translated by Charles Ruas), “It’s the story of a friendship, the way people say, ‘It’s a love story.’” It is also a story of human dignity and spiritual conviction, and graphically, in its contrast of crisp but forbidding white expanses of snow with the otherwise colorful components of Tintin’s world, it is the apotheosis of ligne claire, proof that a style sometimes characterized as flat, rigid, or limited can in fact provide the perfect (and perfectly rich) frame for a consummately humane work of art.

*****

And for further reading... The Paris Review has published my essay on the great French comics artist Jean “Moebius” Giraud, Moebius and the Key of Dreams.

*****