Did the past century belong to Tintin? That’s the suggestion in Pierre Assouline’s new biography Herge: The Man Who Created Tintin when Assouline, using redundant hedges, writes, “some speak with some justification of a ‘Tintin century,’ signfying the 20th.” Writer and Vanity Fair editor Bruce Handy, writing in The New York Times Book Review begs to differ. “I wouldn’t even give him a decade,” Handy says, lumping him into year-or-two sensations “like Zonker Harris and the Fantastic Four.”
Handy admits that his is a typical Ameri-centric opinion (Handy like Mickey and Batman for the century- owning comic characters). Tintin’s popularity in the U.S. has, to this point, barely registered. Indeed, my local library has a solid collection of the cow-licked reporter’s adventures from his U.S. publisher Little, Brown which seem little touched by my fellow comic enthusiasts, young and old alike. This will change when director Steven Spielberg’s movie The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn is released in time for Christmas, 2011. Until then, Tintin must be content with whatever controversy the biography and the American release of his adventures brings. Little, Brown pulled Tintin In the Congo after news of the 1931 publication’s re-release brought protests of racism…shades of Babar! Herge had long since cleaned-up the adventure after its initial publication as well as having removed some of the anti-Semitic representations in his drawing from The Shooting Star and others.
All this doesn’t mean that Tintin isn’t the perfect cartoon character for the French century. Like the French themselves, Tintin has dealt with the demise of the French colonial empire, such as it was, as well as showing as much resignation as resistance to its occupation. Herge apparently fell more on the resignation side. During World War II, he worked for the pro-German paper Le Soir and after the war was arrested, but not convicted, for being a collaborator.
It’s this ability to survive even while maintaining a false of dignity that marks Herge’s life (Handy notes that Herge “shrugged off accusations of anti- Semitism by saying ‘That was the style then'”). Some of this carries over to the character he created who, like Batman and the Fantastic Four, was trying to do the right thing among the tenor of his country and its times. The innocence of this, not yet lost even after years of cultural and social change, can still be admired despite its flaws. Herge’s genius lies in his story-telling, his panel construction and plot sequencing, his articulate drawing and wit, even as the stereotypes and racial arrogance are called out. —Cabbage Rabbit