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In and Out of History: Tintin and Hergé
February 4, 2010 8:45 AM   Subscribe

"To really write for children, you have to think like a child. And to read a children’s book, you probably have to let go of grown-up reasoning. These thoughts occurred to me as I read two newly-translated books about Tintin and his creator, Georges Remi, better known to the world as Hergé. (The pen name is composed of Remi’s initials backwards, pronounced as in French.) There is much to be learned from these studies and others by “Tintinologists”—about Hergé, about the “world” of Tintin, even about twentieth-century politics. But as I read Pierre Assouline’s well-written biography of Hergé and Jean-Marie Apostolidès’s erudite study of the Tintin books, a version of the question we Jews love to ask kept coming to mind: Are they good for Tintin?" A review of The Metamorphoses of Tintin or Tintin for Adults by Jean-Marie Apostolides and Herge: The Man Who Created Tintin by Pierre Assouline at The New Republic.
posted by ocherdraco (17 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
Despite the review, I can only recommend Assouline's book. It may be somewhat arduous for those unfamiliar with XX century Belgian culture and politics, though.
posted by Skeptic at 9:22 AM on February 4, 2010


When I was in fourth grade my neighbor brought me two TinTin and Snowy comics from France. I spent hours and hours with a French dictionary puzzling out what was going on in each frame. Between the context of the picture, the latin roots to words, and the dictionary I eventually pulled out a middlin' understanding of both comic books. One of my favorite things was the French style of obfuscating cursing in comics. Instead of a series of punctuation marks it was a series of pictograms. Maybe a little round bomb, a swastika, a frowny face, and a lightning bolt.

The amount of effort I put into understanding those two books burned TinTin into my mind. Years later in high school I was amazed to see Sting wearing a TinTin and Snowy sweater in some video. It didn't really occur to me until right then that TinTin wasn't nearly as obscure as my impression of it. My impression of course was based on the amount of effort it took my fourth grade self to translate my copy of L'Hombre Sans Corps.
posted by Babblesort at 9:24 AM on February 4, 2010


Tintin is too good a trick to spoil with explanations. That sums up my feelings about it. I understand the desire for academics to fit artistic works into this or that category (what are its political, sexual, social ideas; how do they represent - or run counter to - their era; etc.) but in the end it's a children's adventure series. Maybe it was never intended to be put under such scrutiny, and maybe it should just be appreciated for what it is.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 9:28 AM on February 4, 2010


But I am not sure that we want this. Tintin is too good a trick to spoil with explanations.

An interesting thesis for an academic.

(But also, I don't know if this--"And to read a children’s book, you probably have to let go of grown-up reasoning"--is borne out either by the rest of the article or my own experiences reading children's lit. It strikes me as one of those ways that people unaccustomed to reading children's lit generally deny its complexities, as well as the fact that children do pick up on more nuance than adults generally assume.)
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:28 AM on February 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


There was a good PBS program on Remi and have read a bit about him from time to time. While I love getting to know the creator of Tintin better I, personally, have real reservations about reading adult orientated critical reviews/essays about Tintin. I kinda get why people write them (I proudly belong to Over-thinkers Anonymous myself), but at a certain point I get real bitchy about people needing to analysis every-single-fucking-thing in pop culture from every-single-fucking-angle.

Here's a start: neither Huck Finn, nor Tintin where gay.

Sometimes an adventure story is just an adventure story.
posted by edgeways at 9:32 AM on February 4, 2010


I do not care for the article (Unaware of the importance of dream sequences, really? Herge didn't really do anything bad during the German occupation, yet the author points out he took no responsibility for his wartime behavior, really?), but I am glad to hear there is a new biography.

IIRC, this one wasn't horrible, but it did leave a lot to be desired.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 9:41 AM on February 4, 2010


To really write for children, you have to think like a child.

....I agree and I don't. There's a certain type of thinking that people think is "thinking like a child", and then there really is thinking like a child. Some people mistake "pandering to a child" for "thinking like a child", or "dumbing down" for "thinking like a child."

It's easier to come up with an example in theater -- I saw the Broadway production of You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown back in 1999, with Anthony Rapp, B.D. Wong, and Kristin Chenowith. Anthony Rapp was Charlie Brown - and he had this weird, wide-eyed, speak-slowly-and-overenunciate-everything acting style that I've seen inexperienced actors use in "Children's Theater". It came across as mannered and forced; it felt like he was just overly conscious of the fact that "I Need To Pretend I Am A Child, And I Am Acting For Children." But B.D. Wong and Kristin Chenowith didn't have any trace of affectation or mannerisms at all -- Wong was Linus, and he especially did well coming across as a "kid".

It's easy, when you're trying to "think like a kid," to fall into the trap of "thinking the way you THINK Kids think" or "thinking the way you've heard kids think", that bears little resemblance to the way kids actually do think. And smart kids can tell the difference, and have very, very little patience for it. Which is why Tintin worked pretty well -- Herge really did think like a kid.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:46 AM on February 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


Skeptic: "Despite the review, I can only recommend Assouline's book. It may be somewhat arduous for those unfamiliar with XX century Belgian culture and politics, though."

We are all quite familiar with 20th century Belgian politics, thank you very much.
posted by Joe Beese at 9:52 AM on February 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


I heard the author Diana Wynne Jones speak, and she said that she liked writing for young adults because "they were used to making an effort." When she wrote for adults, they would complain because she hadn't fully developed some part of a world, while, when she wrote for kids, they would write about how they imagined that part of the world could be filled in.

I'll also add that that, while I like good academic writing a lot, there are an awful lot of academics whose approach to their topic seems to begin with draining the life out of it to better view what it would be like as a badly-embalmed corpse. It can make me less likely to want to read the author/view the film genre/whatever they are discussing.
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:57 AM on February 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


We are all quite familiar with 20th century Belgian politics, thank you very much.

The important parts, anyway.
posted by pracowity at 10:04 AM on February 4, 2010


Herge didn't really do anything bad during the German occupation, yet the author points out he took no responsibility for his wartime behavior, really?

I had read that Herge was identified after the war as a collaborator simply because he continued to publish strips in the newspaper. It's not an ideal scenario, but one has to eat.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:55 AM on February 4, 2010


It's easier to come up with an example in theater -- I saw the Broadway production of You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown back in 1999, with Anthony Rapp, B.D. Wong, and Kristin Chenowith. Anthony Rapp was Charlie Brown - and he had this weird, wide-eyed, speak-slowly-and-overenunciate-everything acting style that I've seen inexperienced actors use in "Children's Theater". [...] But B.D. Wong and Kristin Chenowith didn't have any trace of affectation or mannerisms at all -- Wong was Linus, and he especially did well coming across as a "kid".

I actually saw that same production! I was 10, and it was my first broadway show.

I was mostly ambivalent towards Anthony Rapp/Charlie Brown; I liked some of his songs, but wasn't in love with him. In retrospect I can see what you mean about his style. On the other hand, I loved Kristin Chenowith, B.D. Wong (and Roger Bart.) I was obviously able to connect with them and it didn't go over my head.

So from personal experience, I'd vouch for your theory about that example.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 9:19 PM on February 4, 2010


I'm Solon and Thanks and this has been an episode of "making people on the internet feel old."
posted by Solon and Thanks at 9:21 PM on February 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


We are all quite familiar with 20th century Belgian politics, thank you very much.

The important parts, anyway.


OK, I may have been a little too terse, and the book itself gives a good primer, but here's a digest:

Before WWII, Belgian politics (as those in other European countries) was divided into three main "families": Catholics, Liberals and Socialists. The Catholic party was socially conservative and often nostalgic of the aristocratic Ancien Régime, but also generally pacifistic. It found its backing mainly in the rural areas, the lower middle classes, but also in the aristocracy. The Liberals were pro-business but socially liberal, not to say anti-clerical. Their supporters were mainly among the upper middle classes and the large industrialists and bankers. The Socialists obviously got most of their support from the working classes, but also from the most socially-conscious Liberals, and were often in the same Masonic lodges.
During the Great Depression, the Liberals almost disappeared, whereas some sectors of the Catholics and Socialists became radicalised. Radicalised Socialists became Communists. Radicalised Catholics followed the "ultramontane" movement, which basically wanted to reverse the effects of the French, American, and Industrial Revolutions. It was also intensely anti-Semitic and anti-Communist and for these reasons openly flirted with fascism and Nazism. The Belgian political expression of the "ultramontanes" was León Dégrelles Rexist party.
Now, Hergé's background was staunchly Catholic and he was close to several notable ultramontanes, nearly all of whom would be found guilty of collaboration after the war.
As for Hergé's own collaboration, it must be noted that, before and after the was, "Le Soir" was (still is) a liberal leftyish paper, and certainly didn't employ Hergé. It was only after the Germans closed nearly all other papers and put their own redaction in place in "Le Soir" (including many of Hergé's close friends) that Hergé joined. To make a parallel, imagine that a foreign power invades the US, puts Sarah Palin, O'Reilly and Glenn Beck in charge of the "Village Voice"...there would be some bitterness wouldn't it.
It didn't help also that some anti-Semitic scenes and themes crawled into the first version of the wartime Tintin comics...
In short, although I love Tintin, I must admit that Hergé wasn't a particularly pleasant character himself. He was egocentric and weak-willed, much the opposite of his "son".
posted by Skeptic at 12:40 AM on February 5, 2010


Most notable among Hergé's "ultramontane" friends was Father Norbert Wallez, a sort of Belgian Father Coughlin. He mentored Hergé during his early career and also very much arranged his first marriage. Another dangerous friend was the genial but unscrupulous Jacques van Melkebeke. Léon Dégrelle claimed that Tintin was inspired by him, but that should be dismissed as self-important posturing from a rather vain character. By all accounts, Dégrelle and Hergé only had a fleeting acquaintance.
posted by Skeptic at 1:38 AM on February 5, 2010


Wikipedia also has a good article about how anti-Semitism crawled into wartime Tintins, including an infamous scene from the first version of the "Shooting Star".
posted by Skeptic at 1:51 AM on February 5, 2010


From Skeptic's Wiki link:

After the war Hergé admitted that: "I recognize that I myself believed that the future of the West could depend on the New Order. For many, democracy had proved a disappointment, and the New Order brought new hope. In light of everything which has happened, it is of course a huge error to have believed for an instant in the New Order".[14] The Tintin character was never depicted as adhering to these beliefs. However, it has been argued that anti-Semitic themes continued, especially in the post-war story Flight 714.[15]

A lot of occupied Europe regarded the struggle against Bolshevism more important than anything else, and I recall reading a book during my undergrad called Ashes of Honour about a French volunteer with the Waffen SS who enlisted for exactly this purpose.

The utter depravity and horror of the Nazi experiment overshadows a lot of the "intellectual" (such as it was) history of Europe at this time, but the Nazis really did consider themselves revolutionary - officially, the whole point of the Waffen SS was to create a multinational, pan-European military force to combat Bolshevism and eventually eclipse and eliminate the German army.

I guess Herge admitted his "error", but it's pretty chilling to consider what his point of would have been if the Germans would have won.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:34 PM on February 15, 2010


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