Tintin: Hergé’s Masterpiece

John Westbrooke goes to an exhibition on the life and times of Georges Remi and his most famous creation.

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The world’s most famous Belgian has come to London: Somerset House is staging an exhibition on the adventures of the young reporter with the quiffy hair.

Most children will have encountered the full-colour 64-page books, recounting adventures around the world, and even grandparents will remember them. But they’ve come a long way from the simple comic strips Remi began drawing for a children’s newspaper supplement, Le Petit Vingtième, in 1929.

He’d first worked there as a clerk but, as some of the displays here show, he’d had a talent for cartooning and caricature when he was a teenager. (“Hergé”, the pen name he adopted, is his initials GR reversed and pronounced in French.) All the same, his earliest work is nothing much like the later books: black and white, comparatively unrefined, the individual strips barely adding up to a coherent story. Tintin doesn’t even have a quiff: it arrived during an open-air car chase. Most of the books were rewritten and redrawn much later in preparation for colour printing, so seeing the originals is an eye-opener.

The boy reporter never actually filed a story (he became half-detective, half-spy); but those were the days of roving international journalism, and Hergé made the most of them, sending his creation off round the world with press barons competing for his services. Most of what he knew came from the right-wing newspaper he worked for himself, and the initial result was some wildly caricatured views of exotic places.

The Soviet Union becomes a nation where electors vote at gunpoint and Moscow is crumbling. The USA is characterised by gangsters, cowboys and lynch mobs. Most embarrassingly, in the Congo, Tintin lectures black schoolkids on their homeland (Belgium) and slaughters wildlife, by dynamite if necessary. This is childish, knockabout stuff, for which Hergé later apologised; if he’d retired in 1932 he’d have been forgotten.

Instead, he started to take his work more seriously. He did more research. He introduced a regular cast of characters: Thompson and Thomson, the detectives with the barely distinguishable moustaches, based on his identical twin uncles; Captain Haddock, the expletive-mouthing sailor; Bianca Castafiore, the diva who only ever sings two lines of one song (like rugby crowds at Twickenham). He developed the ligne claire, the clean, regular black line he used to produce the beautifully uncluttered appearance of his panels.

His richest work, The Blue Lotus, arose partly out of a meeting with Chang Chong-Chen, a Chinese student who became a close friend, as the exhibition relates; he appeared in that book and Tintin in Tibet. It was Chang who pointed out the infinite variety of people in any country, to an artist who had previously only drawn Chinese as pigtailed torturers. The result was a nuanced portrait of China at the time of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria – as well as a rattling good yarn.

Detailed research kept Hergé ahead of the game, like any good journalist. King Ottokar’s Sceptre, depicting an attempted fascist coup by Müsstler (a combination Mussolini and Hitler), appeared in 1938, well before war broke out. The two extraterrestrial books – Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon – got the science generally right, even 20 years before Neil Armstrong landed there.

Hergé continued working during World War II for a newspaper controlled by the occupying Germans, which later brought charges of collaboration, They came to nothing, and his fame after the war became international: so far the 24 books have sold 200 million copies in 70 languages. A weary Hergé died in 1983, leaving his last work, Tintin and Alph-Art, in sketch form and incomplete.

Still his renown has spread. Numerous film adaptations have been made (none of them really works). Tintinologists have written books. Murals taken from his work appear on walls around Brussels. There’s a Hergé museum in Louvain-la-Neuve, 20 miles outside the city, which has provided much of the material in the exhibition. The artist is acknowledged as one of the great graphic storytellers of the century, along with Goscinny and Uderzo with Asterix and Carl Barks with Scrooge McDuck.

By its nature, the Somerset House exhibition is mostly documentary – some of the documents placed on walls so high that they’re hard to read. But there are also installations that demonstrate Hergé’s use of windows in his work, and there’s a reconstruction of Tintin’s apartment, a tribute to the artist’s meticulous draughtsmanship in creating a world of the imagination.

Now at Somerset House util 31 January 2016; entry is free.