Monday, June 4, 2012

The Line Is Not Always Clear: The Adventures of Herge'

When the slightly abridged version of The Adventures of Herge' appeared in Drawn & Quarterly Volume 4 a decade ago, I remember being knocked out by the story. The episodic nature of the vignettes about the creator of Tintin really did work as a flowing, kinetic adventure story of sorts. The handsome hardback album that D&Q released in 2011 retains most of those thrills, though at 72 pages it feels a little thin to be a book in the American market. From the perspective of a reader who has only the most basic knowledge of Herge's work (I've only read a couple of volumes, unlike the scores of European kids who are steeped in Tintin from a very young age), it's still fascinating to see the authors (Jose-Louis Bocquet & Jean-Luc Fromental) which of  several key moments in the cartoonist's life they choose for artist Stanislas Barthelemy to illustrate.

In many respects, the very first anecdote (from 1914) holds the key to unlocking the rest of the book. Young Georges Remi is hell on wheels, partly because he's been raised to feel as though he's special. The result is a singular opposition to authority and a certain callousness as to the results of his actions. Remi's talent and strong will draw the attention of those who are in a position to aid him, though it frequently put him in a position of controversy. He was accused of being a collaborationist during World War II because he was allowed to still publish; only his fame and popularity spared him from the firing line, something the authors note wasn't true of all those who suffered at the hands of a kangaroo court. He cheated on his wife and denied close collaborators cover credit. To some degree, the writers suggest that Remi himself didn't hold his work in the highest esteem as true art, longing to hang out with the avant-garde' art crowd and even dabbling in painting himself for awhile.

The authors also suggest that Remi was only too aware of his own failings in the way they explore his chronic depression but also in how much his relationship with Chinese national Chang Chong-Jen meant to them both. The inspiration for both The Blue Lotus and Tintin in Tibet, Chang in the book is depicted as a serene figure who was the center of much intrigue.  In their 1934 encounter, thugs sent to silence Herge' & Chang exposing Japanese abuses of the Chinese are silently dealt with by unknown Chinese nationals in a sequence worthy of a Tintin book. Chang's influence on Herge' is the opposite of the bellicose Catholic priest who helped give him his start, emphasizing freedom of spirit and a curiosity about other cultures built on respect instead of parochialism. In their 1981 meeting, the newly freed Chang frees a boyish glee from Remi, after Chang had to jump through a lot of hoops to be allowed out of China. This is during the period where Herge's work started to dip in popularity as he faced charges of racism from his earliest books, even as his interest in other cultures was at its zenith. The authors don't let Remi off the hook for his actions, beliefs or good fortune, but this is the farthest thing from a hatchet job. Indeed, it's a warts-and-all celebration of a cartoonist whose work has had a profound effect on millions over the span of several generations, up to and including the recent Tintin film. While there were many who had a hand in Tintin's success (including writers, colorists and editors), it was Herge' who created a highly influential and beautiful storytelling style (clear-line) and it was Herge' who ultimately did the bulk of the work that has meant so much to so many. It should come as no surprise that the artist couldn't live up to his creation's clarity of purpose and self, given the complex world in which he lived, but it's obvious that he strove to evolve as a person and tried to show that in his later works.  The Adventures of Herge's episodic bent helps prevent the authors from putting too much of a narrative capstone on the events of Herge's life, keeping things loose but connected and allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions.

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