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Los Angeles Times
Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009
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Herge: The Man Who Created Tintin

by Pierre Assouline

'Herge: The Man Who Created Tintin' by Pierre Assouline

A review by Charles Solomon

With his plus-four knickers, button nose and "squiff" hairdo, Tintin ranks as one of the most recognizable and best-loved characters in comics. However, his creator, Georges "Herge" Remi (1907-83), remains "an elusive figure," as Pierre Assouline notes in this unsatisfying biography: "Most people expect his life to be as straightforward as the lines in his drawings. But it was full of complexity and contradiction, conflicts and paradoxes, of jagged peaks and crevasses."

The basic outline of Remi's career has been reported many times: Born into a stuffy, middle-class family in Brussels, he got his big break when Catholic priest and editor Norbert Wallez put him in charge of a children's supplement for the newspaper Le Vigntieme Siecle ("The 20th Century") in 1928. He had adopted the nom de plume Herge (the French pronunciation of his initials, reversed) four years earlier.

In 1929, Herge introduced a comic strip about a boy reporter and his fox terrier, Tintin and Snowy, in the supplement Le Petit Vigntieme ("The Little 20th") -- and scored an immediate success. The cartoonist presented Tintin's adventures in weekly installments, which he later reworked into books. Herge's work has influenced a generation of cartoonists, as well as pop artists Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.

The resourceful Tintin displays all the virtues traditionally ascribed to a Boy Scout, but as Assouline observes, Herge was a mass of contradictions. A conservative Catholic and patriotic Belgian, he worked for the collaborationist newspaper Le Soir during the Nazi occupation when Le Vigntieme was shut down. A generous friend, he nevertheless refused to share royalties or credit with his assistants. Herge, who professed to value loyalty, left his first wife, Germaine, for the younger artist Fanny Vlamynck in 1956 -- although he didn't divorce Germaine and marry Fanny until 1977.

Assouline devotes more space to Herge's work during the Occupation than do most popular studies. Many of the Le Soir writers were later tried and given prison sentences. Herge wasn't prosecuted, although he was blacklisted. Assouline suggests that Herge never grasped the moral failure of working for the collaborationist press.

Although he talks about the drawings, Assouline fails to communicate any sense of what distinguishes Herge's style: "the clear line" (la ligne Claire). He reports that Herge listed Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens and Honore de Balzac among his favorite writers without considering how those consummate storytellers influenced his narratives.

Assouline muddles dates and facts. He states that diva Bianca Castafiore "made her entrance into Tintin's world with the theft of King Ottokar's sceptre, in the series that appeared the same year as the Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera. " He goes on to compare Herge's drawing of Tintin's reaction to her singing to "Chaplin pacing in front of the opera house, unsettled by the sounds coming from inside."

A Night at the Opera was released in 1935 and Charlie Chaplin wasn't in it. Several chapters earlier, Assouline reports -- correctly -- that the adventure "Tintin in Syldavia" was published in Le Petit Vigntieme in 1939;" it appeared as the album "King Ottokar's Scepter" later that year.

Some of the book's many problems may be traceable to the translation and editing: When the book appeared in France in 1998, it ran to 820 pages. It's not clear why the editors at Oxford University Press chose to release it in a radically abridged form -- or why they didn't correct such elementary mistakes as the spelling of pioneer animator/comic strip artist Winsor McCay's name.

But "Herge" feels like a slog at 275 pages. And it's silly to publish a biography of one of the greatest cartoonists of the 20th century with no illustrations. Ultimately, Assouline contributes little to a field crowded with more attractive books: Michael Farr's conversational The Adventures of Herge: Creator of Tintin, the first of Philippe Goodin's handsome three-volume survey The Art of Herge, Inventor of Tintin (the second is due out next year) and in the 23 volumes of Tintin's adventures, which remain as entertaining as when they first appeared.

This review was originally published by the Los Angeles Times.

Solomon's The Art of 'Toy Story 3' is due next spring.

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