The adventures of this author’s ageless boy-journalist around, and even out of, our world are not only among the most-read cartoon capers but had fans as varied as Satyajit Ray, Steven Spielberg and Charles de Gaulle. The boy-journalist also made a “discovery” that would only be validated by India’s Chandrayaan half a century later.
But in Tintin, Herge also drew from his own life — and found some peace too.
The two dozen adventures of Tintin were not the only creations of Herge, whose 110th birth anniversary is on Monday (May 22), but are his most famous with hundreds of millions of copies sold in the over 70 languages they have been translated into.
The reason is not difficult to ascertain. Herge’s trademark “ligne claire” (clear line) drawing style, creating a most realistic feel, is complemented by engrossing, well-researched stories. Usually based on real-life events, these address — quite unobtrusively — serious social and political themes: Crime, wars, drug and slave trade, racism, political subversion and regime change, fuel crises and so on.
And then there is the array of colourful characters (Captain Haddock, Thomson and Thompson, etc.), both slapstick and satire, and cliff-hangers galore.
But what sort of a man was Herge and what inspired him’
The latter’s answer may be found on the series’ official site describing Tintin as “created from Herge’s subconscious desire to be perfect, to be a hero…” Asked once what would happen to the boy-journalist after him, Herge said: “Tintin is me and we will disappear together.”
Born in a lower-middle class Walloon-Flemish family in Brussels, George Remi “Herge” (1907-83) began drawing right from his primary school years. Fond of films, especially those of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, he also adored the works of Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain and Alexandre Dumas and was also a fan of Sherlock Holmes.
All these would be key influences, as would be other familiar elements — Tintin’s quiff was based on his younger brother Paul, Milou (whom we know as Snowy) was named after his girlfriend, and loud opera singer Bianca Castafiore based on an aunt whose arias he was forced to listen as a child.
Another vital influence was the scouting troop Herge joined in secondary school. His drawings also began regularly appearing in the Scouts journal and it was here his first serial character — Totor the Scout — appeared.
After his schooling and mandatory military service, Remi, who began signing his work as Herge (the French pronunciation of his reversed initials), finally found a job as a cartoonist in a staunchly conservative Catholic newspaper. In 1928, he was made in-charge of the children supplement, and Tintin debuted here in January 1929.
But Herge was not yet master of his work, with the first two stories being rather crude propaganda — “Tintin in the Land of the Soviets” was anti-communist and “Tintin in the Congo” pro-colonialist, slightly racist as well as cruel to wildlife.
The third, “Tintin in America”, has a rather dated though satirical view of the country, while the next, “Cigars of the Pharaoah”, has a stereotypical portrayal of Raj-era India but is spot-on in depicting some embryonic “gau-rakshaks”.
It was, however, with “The Blue Lotus” that Herge hit his stride. Like most of his countrymen, he had a stereotyped view of China but he sought help from unbiased experts, as well as Chinese art student Zhang Chongren (who would figure in it as Chang) to faithfully depict contemporary China. And in a remarkable scene, Tintin and Chang tell each other of ingrained stereotypes of each other.
It also showed the depredations of the Japanese military — leading to a complaint from the Japanese mission in Brussels.
This attention to detail and fairness in depicting cultures around the world became a hallmark of Tintin (who is once even shown practising yoga), and explains his popularity, to the extent de Gaulle considered him his only rival; Topshe, the narrator of Ray’s Feluda stories was a fan (several of Ray’s films also showed a set of the comics) while Vikram Seth also dwelt on the reasons for his fame in “The Golden Gate”.
In some respects, Herge was ahead of his times — and not only in fairness. In “Explorers on the Moon”, he showed ice on the moon and was “corrected” by scientists, but has been proved right by Indian scientists.
But Tintin also had a therapeutic effect on Herge. Having been “forced” to marry co-worker Germaine Kieckens in 1932 by his conservative editor despite both being unhappy about it, Herge had numerous affairs. This caused him to feel guilty and have recurrent nightmares of what he described as “the beauty and cruelty of white” — visions of white and snow.
He even consulted a psychologist and was counselled to leave his art, but rejected the advice and found expiation of sorts in drawing the desolate landscapes of “Tintin in Tibet”.
But while this again has a small Indian interlude, it largely features a “holy cow” — Herge could be quite prescient.
(Vikas Datta can be contacted at email@example.com)
By Vikas Datta