On a British newspaper, Tintin would have been fired years ago

A sumptuous volume accompanies the Hergé exhibition at Somerset House (until 31 January 2016) celebrating the intrepid young reporter who never seems to file a story

21 November 2015

9:00 AM

21 November 2015

9:00 AM

Tintin: Hergé’s Masterpiece Pierre Sterckx, translated by Michael Farr

Rizzoli, pp.238, £35, ISBN: 9780789329479

Reading Tintin when I was a child, in Britain in the 1970s, I always assumed Georges Remi’s creation was just a harmless bit of fun. However, when I went to Belgium I discovered, to my amazement, that over there they take him very seriously indeed (this year, a single Tintin picture sold for €2.5 million in Brussels). In Britain, the fearless reporter in the plus fours is a quaint juvenile amusement. In his native Belgium he’s seen as high art, and his creator Hergé (Georges Remi’s initials, backwards) is revered.

The late Harry Thompson wrote a brilliant book about Tintin from the British perspective. It was informed and affectionate, but stopped short of adulation. Pierre Sterckx’s bulkier book belongs in the Continental camp. It’s designed to sit alongside proper monographs, not children’s comics. It’s no surprise that Sterckx’s credits include a book about Vermeer.

To be fair, Sterckx knows his stuff, and his sources could hardly be better: he was close friends with Hergé from 1965 until his death in 1983. A curator and art historian, he taught Hergé about fine art (the chapter on Hergé’s art collection is particularly interesting — I never knew he collected Lichtenstein).

Sterckx clearly knows Hergé inside out, so why does his scholarly prose feel so detached? There are some intriguing insights into the origins of Hergé’s style, his use of monochrome and his debt to Chinese brushwork, but I yearned for more personal revelations. His two marriages, his depressions, his difficulties during (and after) the second world war — all these fascinating incidents are dismissed with frustrating brevity. Sterckx must have enough first-hand info to write a fine memoir about this elusive, enigmatic man, but his lavish tome is more primer than proper biography, which is a pity.

Never mind. The illustrations are beautiful, and there are lots I’ve never seen before, mostly from the snazzy Hergé Museum in Belgium: not only Tintin, but all sorts of ephemera, from adverts to portraits. These images are far more revealing than Sterckx’s quasi academic commentary. Tintinologists tie themselves in knots trying to justify Hergé’s war record, but his cartoons from the 1930s show he was no Nazi. Sterckx says he was a liberal, but above all he was a dreamer who wanted to be left alone. He loved being a boy scout and Tintin allowed him to carry on being a boy scout throughout his life.

So was Hergé an artistic genius or just a gifted draughtsman? Whose assessment is more accurate, the Belgians’ or the Brits’? Much as I adore Hergé, I can’t quite go along with Sterckx, who likens him to van Gogh and Cézanne. Even so, there is something about Tintin that sets it apart from other comics, even Asterix.

So what makes Hergé unique? Well, his pictures are a stunning blend of simplicity and complexity, but above all he was a superb storyteller, whose absurd, enchanting characters bear comparison with Waugh or Wodehouse. He’s part of a picaresque tradition that stretches back to Cervantes (Sterckx also cites his fondness for Alexandre Dumas, Mark Twain and Jerome K. Jerome).

Hergé’s clear, clean lines inspired countless grown up artists, but I still think children understand him best. He’s endlessly enjoyable, and that’s what makes him special. How many other artists can make you howl with laughter, and simultaneously hold you in suspense? ‘A work that does not unsettle is not worth the effort,’ says Sterckx, quoting Duchamp, but what’s so splendid about Hergé is that his work isn’t unsettling in the slightest. In fact there’s only one thing that jars about Tintin’s breathless adventures: despite landing so many scoops and breaking so many front-page stories, have you noticed how this ageless journalist never actually gets around to filing any copy? On a British newspaper, he’d have been fired years ago.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £29.75, Tel: 08430 600033. Tintin: Hergé’s Masterpiece is at Somerset House, London (12 November–31 January 2016).

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Show comments
  • Tom W Huxley

    His copy? You were reading it. (How many journalists include the process of filing copy in their reporting?)

    • simondoyle

      I agree with Tom! The first panel of “Soviets” tells us:
      ‘The editor of “Le Petit XXe” guarantees that all photographs
      are absolutely authentic, taken by Tintin himself, aided by his faithful dog
      If he hadn’t filed his pictures and copy, we wouldn’t have the books, and if you can’t take the word of a newspaper editor at face value, what is the world coming to?

      Oh and any newspaper which had a reporter who has 24 best-selling books of reportage available in 90-plus languages after so many years would be daft to let him go! 😉

  • freddiethegreat

    “he was a superb storyteller, whose absurd, enchanting characters bear comparison with Waugh or Wodehouse.”

    Now that you mention it, that’s right.

    “The late Harry Thompson wrote a brilliant book about Tintin” – would that be Detectvie Thompson with a ‘p’?

    • Lorenzo

      His post WWII problems resemble Wodehouse’s as well.

  • TrippingDwarves

    Regarding “Hergé’s clear, clean lines”, the real genius was that his pictures were also accurately drawn. If he drew a car or an aeroplane, it was never just a car or an aeroplane, but a specific car or a specific aeroplane, with all the little bits in the right places and every line exactly as it should be. He was an extremely skilled draughtsman.

  • Roger Hudson

    All boy scouts should remain boy scouts all their lives, keeping the Promise.

  • kuffir

    I must say I found the Tintin cartoons a joy to look at, really artistic and better in that way than Asterix, although Asterix was a lot of fun..

    Tintin would indeed probably not have done very well in the modern newspaper racket, because they are more concerned with publicizing minor tiffs about religion on public transport, than catching real crooks. He also might have spotted (and being honest would have reported) that what is supposed to be a simple refugee crisis actually includes a terrifying influx of young men from backward places who either don’t care about their families or were simply not running away from danger in the first place.

  • Tamerlane

    Blistering Barnacles ‘Tintin’ is a fictional cartoon character who never actually existed. Unlikely he would (or could) ever work for a British newspaper therefore.

  • Mr. Bernard Wijeyasingha

    Every character of the Tintin comic books were a story unto itself and they worked together in perfect harmony.
    from Tintin to Captain Haddock, The “Thompson and Thomson” twin detectives, the Butler, Professor Calculus, La Bianca, and of course Snowy the Scottish dog and all the arc rivals played well together to create this legacy.

    It would be hard to imagine any of these characters by themselves being a success without the compliment of the others.