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Once, back in my editing days, I was needling a staffer over his failure to provide me with copy. Working the arts desk, I had no real pull with the front-of-the-book guys, but I was doing my best to make this one squirm. The writer, a princely bullshitter who had stiffed me five weeks running, at last blurted, “Whatever happened to just listening to the music, man? Why do we always have to write about it?”
I’ve often suspected that the popularity of funny-paper inkslinger Tintin, particularly among journalists, is due in no small way to the fact that he is never required to do his job. After witnessing a single Herculean effort in his first adventure, we never again see “the world’s best known boy reporter” attempt anything that could be misconstrued as newspaper work. He is content to “just listen to the music,” which in his case means tramping around the world turning up conspiracies, getting into scrapes, and setting all aright.
And his employer, Brussels children’s weekly Le Petit Vingtieme, is fine with it, having decided early on that it could afford to assign Tintin his own Boswell, cartoonist Georges Remi. Reversing his initials, Remi became Herge, sending his eternally youthful hero to such far-flung locales as Tibet, the Red Sea, and the Belgian Congo in 23 complete adventures, and launching a foray into the world of contemporary art in a story that remained unfinished upon his death in 1983 at the age of 75. Even after Herge Studios, which produced the comic from 1950 on, was converted into the Herge Foundation, Tintin remained an industry unto himself. Known in all corners of the globe, his exploits have been translated into more than 30 languages, from Afrikaans to Welsh, even Esperanto.
Ideally, any journalist, and particularly the foreign correspondent, is a melding of two types, the adventurer and the drudge; the former goes out and finds the story, and the latter makes sure he’s gotten all the facts straight. As a newspaperman’s fantasy, Tintin was all adventurer, and as perhaps the most accuracy-obsessed cartoonist ever, Herge was all drudge. Resentments were bound to mount up, and Herge once produced a drawing depicting Tintin as stern taskmaster, scowling and brandishing a cat-o’-nine-tails as the cartoonist struggled to meet a deadline.
Much is made of this scenario by British journalist Michael Farr, who has produced what promises to be “the first book to explore the sources in real life of all the Tintin adventures.” More researcher than explorer himself and thus sympathetic to the cartoonist’s plight, the former Brussels-based Reuters correspondent endeavors to unmask the prodigious labors that made possible each fast-paced episode in the life of our dashing journalistic poseur. Farr goes through the series one at a time, comparing serialized black-and-white versions with later color retellings, dutifully logging secondary characters’ appearances and ransacking Herge’s voluminous files for the sources of his drawings. Tintin: The Complete Companion is beautifully produced and lavishly illustrated, and it answers a lot of questions, including some you’d never think to ask. (Who’d have guessed that Peggy, the shrewish mate of the Castroesque General Alcazar in Tintin and the Picaros, was based on a venom-spouting Klan wife Herge saw on TV?)
But the book is thwarted in its quest to be both Herge bio and Tintin atlas by Farr’s mammoth appetite for minutiae and pedestrian grasp of structure, which drain virtually all of the life out of the enterprise. As soon as I track down a couple of the harder-to-find volumes and complete my set, I plan on re-reading Tintin from the beginning, and Farr’s book will be on my bedside table, ready with the introductions. But I no more recommend reading it straight through than I would the encyclopedia.
U.S. Tintin fans are so hungry for literary companionship, however, that we’ll willingly share the company of a bore. Although the bibliography on Herge and his most famous creation is extensive, almost all of it remains in the original French. (As it stands, the best English-language biography of the cartoonist is The Adventures of Herge, a 50-page comic written by Jose-Louis Bocquet and Jean-Luc Fromental, drawn by the single-named Stanislas, and translated for the most recent volume of the Drawn & Quarterly anthology, which makes the most of those rare moments when Herge wasn’t hunched over his drawing table.) With the field so thin, Farr’s knowledgeable, albeit tedious, effort is welcome. The book it will likely be nestled against in the libraries of American Tintinophiles, Benoit Peeters’ Tintin and the World of Herge: An Illustrated History, was translated by Farr—a fact he apparently does not wish to advertise, perhaps because its book-by-book intertwining of biography and textual examination constitutes a virtual blueprint for his own work.
But where Peeters keeps things brisk, giving his attractive coffee-table book just enough written glue to hold it together, Farr responds with reams of turgid verbiage. Publication histories, translation quirks, and tidbits concerning Herge’s personal life, and above all, his penchant for technical verisimilitude abound; Farr’s big mistake is in assuming that all this information naturally constitutes a narrative. Scrupulously, obliviously, with copious notes close at hand, he writes:
The Arab colonel scrambles two British designed Hawker Hart fighter-bombers in pursuit, a task for which they would have been well suited with a top speed of 277 kph against the Puss Moth’s maximum 203 kph. While the Harts are already obviously identifiable in the original black and white version, Tintin’s aircraft is somewhat more basic than the Puss Moth so accurately depicted in the later editions. The two-seater Hawker Hart which went into production in 1928 was highly regarded by pilots for its reliability and manoeuvrability and, though by then outdated, was used by the Royal Air Force in some of the first air attacks of the 1939-45 war.
Glad that’s taken care of.
Trainspotting or, in this case, planespotting is a peculiarly British pastime, by which the hobbyist colors himself amused via the amassing of useless expertise. In an unwitting lampoon of the loftiness of the educated classes, energies otherwise quashed by social impotence are diverted into nonsensical scholarship. In every basement, a frustrated Oxford don. (It could be argued that the fanboy, as apotheosized on Beat the Geeks, is the U.S. trainspotter, but here there doesn’t seem to be the same depressing sense of the water of nerddom not having been allowed to seek its own level.) In Farr’s case, all I can figure is that in the U.K., the journalist retains the taint of the tradesman; otherwise, why would he adopt such a fruitlessly pseudoacademic approach to establishing himself as a bona fide author?
What our makeshift professor needs is a primer in the presentation of information. At the very least, Farr could have benefited from Peeters’ example. In the earlier book’s “Names of the Characters of the Adventures of Tintin in Different Languages,” lots of data, interesting but unsuitable for prose, are economically imparted in a clear table. Farr instead strews related nuggets throughout his text, forcing the reader to consult the less-than-adequate index. He hasn’t realized that the life story and the series annotation call for drastically different structures. As it stands, the cobbling-together of jumpy plot synopses, spotty illustration-sourcing, and haphazard biography—all punctuated with outbursts of severe niggling—serves no purpose well.
It’s easy to understand Farr’s motivation, though. Herge placed his hero in the middle of a world dense with particulars. Even as the cartoonist combined geographically and temporally scattered details into a single fictional milieu, he insisted that they remain faithful to their bases in fact. For example, the Balkan conflict at the center of King Ottokar’s Sceptre, which finds Tintin siding with Syldavia against Bordurian aggressors, is based on elements of Albanian, Bohemian, German, and Polish history; soldiers’ uniforms are Czechoslovakian-German hybrids, the lemonade seller is imported from Macedonia, and a battle scene is based on a 15th-century Mongol miniature. Throughout his career, Herge scoured a wide range of publications for background, from Collier’s and National Geographic to L’Hebdomadaire du Cinema and Charles Wiener’s Perou et Bolivie.
Although homebody Herge did not himself undertake preparatory travels until the mid-’50s, two-and-a-half decades after he began the Tintin series, he sometimes sent employees to scout locations and was diligent in his library work. Farr is able time and again to match cartoon vehicles, objects, and interiors to their real-life counterparts, often via photos and drawings that inspired not only the content but also the composition of Herge’s final panels. When the cartoonist was accused of having gotten the facts wrong—as when nautically minded readers questioned the suitability of the Aurora to the polar expedition undertaken in The Shooting Star—he took it personally.
Buckling under the pressure of producing the strip, Herge, who throughout his life was susceptible to bouts of psychosomatic illness, took an extended break in 1950 and 1951. As Farr relates, Herge Studios was founded to divvy up the workload. Of course, increased manpower permitted the work to be even more exacting. For the two-part adventure Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon, the cartoonists consulted technical experts and constructed scale models of the spacecraft (interior and exterior), establishing a tradition of meticulousness that would culminate years later in studio aircraft expert Roger Leloup’s detailed cutaway drawing of Flight 714’s Carreidas 160 jet for a two-page spread in Tintin magazine.
Unlike Herge’s team, Farr repeatedly fails to throw the full weight of his researches behind any point—artistic, critical, or rhetorical—contenting himself with heaping another shovelful onto the data pile. Every now and then, he provides a tantalizing glimpse of the book he—or, more likely, a more astute author granted the same access—could have written. Claiming that Herge Studios functioned in much the same fashion as a Renaissance master’s workshop, he likens Herge to Raphael and the cartoonist’s colleague Bob De Moor to the painter’s student Giulio Romano. But other than noting De Moor’s inferior work on Flight 714, Farr is happy to repeat his point about the relative standing of teacher and pupil, rather than extending it. Why not offer a thorough lesson in the individual styles of the two men? Surely Farr had at his disposal documentation that could reveal exactly which parts of the later books were Herge’s own work.
Nowhere does Farr suggest that he possesses insights beyond those that arise out of dogged study. If Herge’s reluctance to have his boy journalist write anything up implies that he knew action to be more thrilling than words, Farr should at least have understood that an original take on the series required more than just transcribing the thousand words each of Herge’s pictures is worth. I’m certainly not one to say that theorizing about or criticizing Tintin is necessarily a killjoy’s game, but cataloging him is another thing altogether. As always, the danger with trainspotting is that while you’ve stood by the siding logging all the locomotives’ numbers, the most captivating part of the journey has already passed you by. CP