Hergé's influence on comic book artists can't be denied. His distinctive clear style and exquisite coloring make the Tintin books instantly recognizable all over the world with translations in 96 languages and dialects. Investigative journalist, detective and adventurer, Tintin travels the earth and moon in the name of justice and fun. His talking dog Snowy, the irascible Capt. Haddock, Thomson & Thompson, Cuthbert Calculus and a throng of others make The Adventures of Tintin one of the most memorable comic series of all time.
The defining elements of Hergé's art did not evolve in a vacuum, however. Born Georges Remi in 1907 to Belgian parents, he grew up and lived during some of the most important events of the 20th century. And in close proximity—as a Continental European, Remi was directly affected by both World Wars, the rise of Fascism, the post-war period, and the spread of Communism. All these influenced his society; some, far more intimately, influenced his artistry in surprisingly visceral and pragmatic ways.
Remi adopted the pseudonym Hergé (pronounced air-jay) as early as 1924 to sign his drawings. (The name is simply his French-pronounced intials reversed.) The son of a boys' clothier, he was never interested in following his father's trade and spent every spare minute drawing. Other than a handful of drawing lessons he had no formal art instruction, developing his own style through imitation and practice. While much has been made of his various pursuits (as a lifelong Boy Scout, as an Orientalist, as a film fanatic, as a traveler), Hergé is best understood in terms of his lifelong devotion to art.
He drew for Boy Scout magazines, newspapers, children's stories and his own amusement, but without Tintin we may or may not remember Remi. It began as doodle, became a weekly and then a daily newspaper comic strip, and eventually evolved into a narrative art form, in many ways the prototypical graphic novel series. Driven by a desire for narrative and artistic clarity, he developed the ligne claire (or, clear line) style, in which frames remain ungarbled and easy to understand at a glance.
In the 1930s while working on The Blue Lotus (Tintin's first Oriental adventure), Hergé was introduced to a young Chinese sculpture named Chang-Chong Chen, whose name in fact appears in that book attached to a young man befriended by Tintin while in China. Under Chen's influence, Hergé took a particular interest in accurately portraying Chinese art and landscapes, and the two men became close friends. While Chen and Remi were parted during World War II for political reasons, Hergé retained this attention to geographic and cultural detail for the rest of his career.
At the height of the Second World War, due to paper shortages and rationing, newspapers were forced to reduce content, thus cutting the two-page weekly Tintin strip to a single daily strip. The rapid action and constant humor of the Tintin novels began to develop during this period, as Hergé had to make each frame count to keep fans reading. More important, however, was his move during the war away from the political satire he was fond of toward an escapist aesthetic that would offend no censors and still appeal to a broad audience.
That's not to say his work didn't continue to draw some controversy. Writing for Nazi-controlled publishers during the Occupation, Remi's brilliant Tintin and the Shooting Star raised eyebrows in Allied countries for its depiction of a Jewish-looking antagonist and members of Axis countries in company with Tintin. (This in a work of pure fantasy, demanded by censors afraid of social commentary of any kind.) While Hergé later admitted a brief attraction to the Fascist New Order as a replacement of the failed European democracies, he also claimed he was never a Nazi and had no intention of championing their ideology. Nevertheless, his subsequent work was even less political than before.
Later Tintin books included more apolitical social satire and commentary (such as the parody of television excess in Tintin and the Picaros), but also tend to exhibit a more thoroughly personal element. Tintin in Tibet, in particular, draws together two of Hergé's deepest concerns at the time: a desire to find and reunite with his friend Chen (which he later accomplished), and his struggles with nightmares of wide white landscapes following a nervous breakdown due to overwork and relational problems. Tintin himself in the novel searches for and finds his friend Chen, while the Himalayan setting allowed him to confront his nightmares with depictions of similar blank stretches.
Remi died in 1983. His legacy includes the Tintin novels, a French television series, films (both completed and in production), a mass of unpublished work, and since June 2009, a library devoted to the man and his art. Indirectly, he can be seen as the grandfather of the graphic novel, pioneering the use of longer narratives and art to tell a novelistic story. Unlike many artists, however, Hergé is as well-loved as he was influential. Children love the lighthearted adventures of Tintin as well as the appealing artwork, while adults appreciate the deeper subtext and incisive observations. Truly a master artist, Hergé's brilliant and original work continues to attract fans over a hundred years after his birth.
Hergé drawing Tintin & Snowy:
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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