For those counting, Hergé, Son of Tintin is anywhere from the third to sixth high-profile English-language biography of Georges Remi (a.k.a. Hergé), translated from a 10-year-old French edition to coincide with the arrival of Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin in an apparent attempt to capitalize on an unlikely subsequent surge of interest in the great Belgian cartoonist. Hergé’s is a story that merits telling, retelling, and exporting to other nations, if only due to the effect of his life’s work, and the author of this particular version, Benoît Peeters, adds a substantive volume to a crowded and growing library.
Characterized most by what it lacks, Peeters’s biography omits graphics in favor of verbal explication; throughout the book we’re told about the development of Hergé’s style of cartooning, from the active black-and-white panels of his earlier newspaper work to the stoic, multicolored spreads of his later work. We’re told about the movements of his lines and his arguable disdain for exposition and the kinds of clothes his characters wear, but never to prove a point. The images matter, of course, but just not here; what matters, instead, is the influence the images had on the shifting moods of their creator. This, with the book’s awkward title, becomes a recurring message—that Hergé’s life follows Tintin’s, and that the critical focus should follow suit.
The book begins as a linear chronology of Hergé’s life, only occasionally speculating about the origins of certain aspects to the Tintin world—most notably introducing the possibility that Hergé was molested as a child by his uncle, which could offer an explanation to the appeal of a hero with a perpetually adolescent figure and a pervading disinterest in sexuality. Graspings of this nature are truly occasional, however, appearing only two or three other times in the book, with the greater emphasis on the origins of Hergé’s curious story. Tintin, then, serves not as a blank canvas for Hergé’s projections, but as a means by which for him to mature, delight, and suffer.
Also lacking (aside from the uncle) are many mentions of scandal, another trait that sets this biography apart. Having worked for a newspaper in Belgium at the time of the Nazi occupation, Hergé prioritized the continuation of his work over any reservations he may have felt about the sympathizing masthead. During the subsequent war trials, the Tintin comics of the WWII years were cited as a crucial enough section of the paper to consider them an accomplice in propaganda and anti-Semitism, accusations only furthered by the ambiguously Jewish profiles of some of the comics’ more prominent villains. Peeters admits some amount of interest in this chapter of Hergé’s life, but not so much; certainly less than his interest in Hergé’s marriages and financial contracts. When Hergé says, on the record, that his decision had less to do with Naziism and more to do with simply wanting to continue working, the narrative moves on. Similarly, when Hergé leaves his wife of 20 years for a young girl they used to babysit, and then returns in defeat, only to leave her again a few years later for an even younger intern at his studio, the narrative keeps its cool—always linear, rarely sensational, dealing only with facts and the opinions of others.
For those of us too anxious about the Tintin movie to even think about ever seeing it, those of us who thought our childhoods would always be safe from the rest of the world, Hergé, Son of Tintin offers little in the way of consolation. The myth of Hergé is not added to, nor is it attacked; it is, instead, scrutinized, panel by panel, with a collected style reminiscent of his own.
The John Hopkins University Press released Benoit Peeters’s Hergé, Son of Tintin on November 22. To purchase it, click here.