Tintin: The Complete Companion
Attitude: Some Care Needed → Fairly Positive
In Brief: Accessible but not superficial view of the creation of the Tintin series. Passing references to Hergé's divorce and remarriage. Hergé's attention to detail and eye for authenticity. (2010: Currently out of print).
Publisher: John Murray
Published in: 2001
Age Range: Young Teens+
Journalist Georges Rémi created the character of the young journalist Tintin in 1929 for the children's section of the Belgian Catholic newspaper “Le 20ème Siecle” using the reverse of his initials as a nom de plume. As the series became popular, he reworked the weekly strips into the familiar book format. When “Le 20ème Siecle” was closed by the occupying powers in 1940, Hergé moved to the Nazi-controlled “Le Soir” which led to his being branded a collaborator. He continued to produce the stories both in newspaper and in book form, eventually setting up a studio of assistants to take up some of the increasingly demanding workload.
This is an unusual choice for a review on this site. So unusual, in fact, that I've had to create a new genre for it: Documentary. This book is a book about a series of books. A book which charts the history of the popular Tintin stories, following their lifetime and the parallel lifetime of their creator Georges Rémi, better known by the name under which he wrote the Tintin stories: Hergé.
I'm bound to say that I've been a Tintin fan for a long time. I've not met anyone who wasn't, at least when they were younger, and most people still are when they're older, given the chance. Young people simply enjoy the books for their ease of reading and their well-drawn graphical format. Boys are especially drawn to them on account of their adventure-driven plots, but girls can be found reading them as well, in spite of the male-dominated dramatis personae. Older people can enjoy the quality of the presentation and the amazing amount of detail shown in each frame. They can admire how concisely the author paints a political picture, either a entirely fictitious (albeit credible) one, such as the Alcazar / Tapioca rivalry, or one very close to reality, such as the Japanese troop movements and political posturing in The Blue Lotus.
And so we open Tintin: The Complete Companion. This book is not an obsessive fan's encyclopaedia of each and every fact in the series. I imagine there are online resources for that (I haven't looked: I'm not that much of a fan). It is is a journey through the “life” of Tintin, taking each book in turn and explaining what was going on in the life of the series' creator journalist Georges Rémi. The books are presented in the order in which they were written, going back to the earliest (Soviets, America, Congo), long unpublished in English and including the final unfinished draft Alph-Art. The stories were originally serialised in comic-strip form and only later published as books, not necessarily in the same order, often with considerable alterations. And then altered again in some cases for reasons of cultural translation and sensitivity.
Broadly, four strands make up Michael Farr's narrative: the events in the life of Hergé; the political events occurring at the time; the changes in style and approach within the Tintin storylines and characters; and examples of the detailed, accurate and wide-ranging sources used by the illustrator author to ensure the stories had a air of solid authenticity. The first two of these strands, dealing with the author's life and world, are factual and informative, highlighting the interplay between the Hergé's own state of mind, the situation in the world, and the development or otherwise of the story series. (The Shooting Star with its ominous and disturbing motifs was written as war clouds darkened over Europe; later, while the author was employed in a Nazi-controlled newspaper, the conflict-based Crab with the Golden Claws was shelved and the escapist Unicorn / Red Rackham pair was written). The illustrations of the changing style of the drawings and characters are interesting as well although Hergé was so consistent that, once he'd settled into the period of the bound Tintin books, there's little which is truly striking. Although changes were made, for example, for the books' English editions to address concerns of the British publishers.
The aspect of the book which most interests me — and which I believe makes this book worthwhile for younger readers, albeit with some adult help — is the idea of Hergé as craftsman. A casual reader (which will include most young readers) will enjoy the Tintin stories without consciously appreciating the authenticity of the images. But one point that Farr's book makes very clear is just how concerned Hergé was to produce scenes which were as accurate, as authentic as possible. There are countless examples of vehicles which match a very specific model and which have visibly correct number plates; of local costumes and artefacts, even from the remotest parts, which are as genuine as possible; of buildings and airports and surroundings which are instantly recognisable to people who know the place. You may remember that The Calculus Affair sees Tintin & Haddock narrowly missing Calculus in the Hotel Cornavin, a real hotel in Geneva. The hotel was so realistically portrayed that the it now has a Tintin display with a sign regretting that “Professor Calculus' room” does not in fact exist. Similarly, this time from The Seven Crystal Balls, the port from which Calculus is taken to Peru is identifiably the real St-Nazaire (the fictional Westermouth in the English). And the Port authorities have now paid homage to this connection by mounting a series of panels showing scenes from that story.
For much of his life, Hergé was an armchair traveller. He hadn't been to any of the places he'd depicted so vividly until Tintin was well established as a phenomenon. But he was a collector of clippings, magazines, books and any other sources which he could call upon to help him set the scene. The Complete Companion is full of comparisons between a photo or a drawing from Hergé's collection and a detail from one of the frames in a Tintin book. The resulting image is simpler and a little idealised, but is recognisably the same. It's worth highlighting this for younger readers: that behind the Tintin stories is a real world and an author — a craftsman — who has gone to the trouble of presenting that world to you. That the sub-creation of Tintin and his world is not merely an invention entirely from the author's imagination or from half-remembered ideas, but is rather a hand-crafted copy of many individual facets of the world we live in, in some cases making extremely perceptive guesses as to how things might be. Most famously in the case of the moon rocket from the Destination / Explorers pair for which Hergé and his team built a scale model.
In many ways Tintin himself is a plain-clothes representative of the Boy Scout movement on which Hergé was very keen. He's resourceful, brave, generous, neat and tidy, loyal and presumably does a good turn every day. But that does not leave the books free of criticism and controversy. The author of Tintin, starting to write in the 1920s, was a product of his time. His depiction of the Africans in the early stories as somewhat childlike, needing the Belgian colonials to help them, reflected the paternalism of the time. Certain stories outraged defenders of animal rights as for example when a shark comically swallows a mine and later explodes (not graphically). Interestingly, Farr notes, although the Japanese are hardly sympathetic characters in The Blue Lotus, that story is the most widely read in Japan of the series. In real life, Hergé was accused of collaboration when he continued to work for Le Soir in spite of its Nazi control.
I heartily recommend this book even to quite young readers with an adult to help, certainly to older children. Since the book divides into chapters, each a few pages long, along the lines of the invidivual stories it's quite easy to read just the chapter relevant to a story just read. It should be noted that the discussion of Tibet includes some few details of Hergé's divorce and remarriage. The most surprising thing, however, is that the book appears to be out of print. I was fortunate to borrow a copy from a friend and then to find a copy in the local library. You may have to resort to second-hand bookshops.
Sunday 21st March 2010