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Comics College | Herge

Tintin in Tibet

Comics College is a monthly feature where we provide an introductory guide to some of the comics medium’s most important auteurs and offer our best educated suggestions on how to become familiar with their body of work.

Welcome and happy holidays to all our Comics College readers. Today, as a post-Thanksgiving treat to you, we’ll be talking a lengthy look at the career of one Georges Remi, better known by his pen name, Herge, and by extension, his most famous creation, the plucky boy reporter Tintin.

Why he’s important

There are only a handful of cartoonists in the world who have had as enormous and significant an influence in comics as Herge has. There’s Osamu Tezuka, Charles Schulz, Jack Kirby and then there’s Herge. The incredible popularity of the Tintin books and their considerable influence on European comics really cannot be overestimated. Artists like Joost Swarte and Yves Challand built their entire careers upon Herge’s style, creating what eventually would be known as the “ligne claire” school. Herge to Eurocomics is sort of like the Beatles to rock music: You’re either influence by it, or you work in opposition to it. There’s no in between.

Plus, Herge’s work remains utterly charming and enthralling after all these decades. Though ostensibly created for younger readers, the Tintin books are some of the few all-ages books that can be read by adults and children alike, without any embarrassment on the former’s part (well, there are one or two exceptions, but we’ll get to that later).

Where to start

The Complete Tintin

Though he did create other characters, Herge is primarily known for Tintin, the crime-solving reporter (even though he mysteriously never files a story) who, with his cadre of friends and little dog Snowy, brings down a rabble of drug pushers, spies, counterfeiters, dictators, warmongers and general bad guys.

Tintin’s American publisher, Little, Brown, has, in recent years, made the decision to package three Tintin stories together in one, much smaller, hardbound volume apiece. It’s not a move I support, quite frankly, as I feel it doesn’t give the reader the chance to fully appreciate Herge’s detailed, precise art in the manner it was initially designed for. Instead, I’d suggest picking up the individual, traditional BD-sized books, most of which are still easily available online. The hardcover volumes are admittedly a cheaper option in the long run though.

Having disparaged the hardcover volumes, I will admit that the Collector’s Gift Set, which collects all of Tintin’s color adventures (minus Tintin in the Congo, more on that in a while) is pretty spiffy looking. Still, at $150 a pop, it’s might not be the first purchase a Tintin neophyte might want to make.

So, all that being said, if you’re going to stick with the hardbound volumes and you don’t want to blow your whole wad on the complete set, then I recommend starting with Volume six, which contains what most Tintinologists consider Herge’s finest moment, the lovely Tintin in Tibet, in which our hero treks to the Asian land in search of a friend he believes has survived a horrible plane crash, even though all evidence points to the contrary. It’s a touching tale about sacrifice, faith and friendship and shows the amount of research and detail the author put into his books. You’ll swear after reading he actually visited the country even though he never did.

Volume 6 is also recommended as it contains The Calculus Affair, one of my personal favorite stories and, I think, a rather archetypical tale, and also quite good Red Sea Sharks.

From there you should read

Explorers on the Moon

Volumes threefour and five contain some of the best and most memorable Tintin tales, including the two-part Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham’s Treasure (in which Tintin searches for buried treasure and we meet the deaf genius Prof. Calculus); the Seven Crystal Balls and Prisoners of the Sun (in which Tintin heads to South America and meets up with some ancient Incans); and the excellent Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon (which contains some rather accurate predictions about space travel). These books are about as good as Herge ever gets.

From there I’d go back to the earlier volumes one and two, which feature Tintin minus his usual boozing companion Captain Haddock (and, in several cases, before Herge became more culturally aware and devoted himself to researching the places he wrote about). Of special note here are The Blue Lotus, which marks a turning point in the artist’s attitude towards other cultures and the world around him. Also good are The Cigars of the Pharaoh, Lotus’ prequel, The Black Island, which finds him in Scotland, and King Ottokar’s Scepter, a great bit of escapist fun involving an attempted coup d’etat in Eastern Europe.

Conclude your Tintin reading with the final volume, number seven, which contains the Castafiore Emerald, Flight 714 and Tintin and the Picaros. The latter two verge dangerously close to self-parody and you get a sense Herge was growing tired of the formula and perhaps even feeling a little trapped by his creation. Emerald, however, is a great little drawing room comedy, with Tintin staying at home for once.

Further reading

The Calculus Affair

Herge was working on Tintin’s 24th adventure when he died. The preliminary script, notes and sketches were collected into the posthumous Tintin and Alph-Art. While the tale, which has the boy reporter rooting out corruption in the modern art world, is sadly uncompleted, it provides about as good a glance at Herge’s working methods and inspiration we’re ever likely to get.

In his early days, Herge serialized his stories in magazines in black and white and only later collected and printed them in color volumes, often redrawing the stories from scratch. Last Gasp has released a number of these early, original black and white versions in English and they provide a nice point of comparison regarding Herge’s considerable artistic growth during this time. So far they’ve released Tintin in America, Cigars of the Pharaoh, The Blue Lotus and Tintin in the Congo (more on that in a minute). I’m still waiting for an English version of Black Island, which I understand is quite different from its final volume.

Last Gasp also published Tintin’s first adventure, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets. The art is crude and minimal and shows little of the charm and flair that would later typify Herge’s work. It’s mostly worth noting because it’s Tintin’s first adventure and because it shows just how far he came.

The upcoming Peter Jackson/Steven Spielberg film is not the first time Tintin has appeared in the cinema. A number of attempts have been made before, including some odd-looking live-action films. One of the best might be Tintin and the Lake of Sharks, which, though not anywhere near as strong as the core canon, is closer in tone and style to the source material than anyone would have a right to expect. While you can’t easily get a copy of the film on DVD, you can score an English “book of the film” on the Internet easily enough.

Ancillary material

Tintin: The Complete Companion

Books about Herge and his famous creation abound, many of them released by (you guessed it) Last Gasp and several of them by or edited by one Michael Farr. Farr wrote a biography of Herge, entitled (appropriately enough) The Adventures of Herge, Creator of Tintin (you may also want to check out The Man Who Created Tintin by Pierre Assouline).  He also penned Tintin: The Complete Companion, which goes book by book through the series and compares different versions as well as provides valuable information on influences, origins and research methods. Tintin and Co., meanwhile, takes a closer look at Herge’s cast of characters.

For my money though, the book to check out is Art of Herge: Inventor of Tintin by Philippe Goddin, which offers scores of early sketches, advertising art, original art, paintings and other illustrations that throw a new light on the man and his work. There are two volumes out now, and I’m hoping a third is on the way soon, as they’ve proven to be quite invaluable.

Avoid

There’s a reason why Tintin in the Congo has (apart from the afore-mentioned Last Gasp release) never been published in America. It’s horribly racist. Indefensibly so, with the boy reporter schooling a bunch of big-lipped, dull-witted savages in basic arithmetic and the glories of occupying power Belgium (he doesn’t treat the surrounding wildlife much better either). It’s an especially egregious attitude considering how Belgium treated its colony and the people who lived there in real life. Herge was deeply embarrassed about the book (which he blamed on his own youth and naiveté), and his later work reveals a great sensitivity and sympathy for other races and cultures that belies Congo’s simple-minded bigotry. Still, it’s not a book for newcomers — especially those with an easily offended sense of moral outrage — to tackle on first blush. In fact, it’s probably a book best saved for last.

Next month: Charles M. Schulz

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Comments

26 Comments

This is one of the differences between Canada and the U.S. that I have a hard time wrapping my head around.

In Canada, Tintin and Asterix books are widely available. School libraries, regular libraries, bookstores… a dedicated Tintin spinner rack is an unexceptional sight.

How is it that Tintin and Asterix never really caught on down in the States?

Another great installment!

Did Herge ever do any non-Tintin work once the character took off?

I’ve heard countless artists cite Herge has an influence, so I was looking forward to reading Tintin when Little, Brown started releasing those little hardcovers. I got Volume One, and I’m sad to say I didn’t see the big deal. So I’m glad to see you say that the formatting isn’t the best way to take in those stories and that later stories are stronger. I’ll have to take another look.

“How is it that Tintin and Asterix never really caught on down in the States?”
*shrugs* Who cares. More for us.

Very good recommendations on where to start reading. All Tintin books are good. But those should have the spark to make you want to read them all.

My suggestion for the next european artist would be Franquin and his Spirou et Fantasio.
And then there’s Goscinny and Uderzo with Asterix and Moebius and Lewis Trondheim and so many more. And those are just the franco-belgian ones.

Take a look at Romano Scarpa’s Disney stories. Or Don Lawrence’s epic Trigan Empire. Or Ralf König’s gay comics. There’s a wealth of great european comics that americans have never heard of.
(Actually Scarpa’s stories are currently being reprinted occasionally by Boom studios, but let’s pretend you didn’t know.)

“How is it that Tintin and Asterix never really caught on down in the States?”

no large built-in first language audience?

I think you downplay the greatness of Castiagore Emerald. After Tintin in Tibet, it’s the best one! Perhaps not for the younger set (since it lacks adventure), but it’s a rich book. Benoit Peeters wrote a whole book analyzing it panel by panel!

Great Comics College post. Chris did a really good job at picking out the gems. Herge and Tintin started me in comics and still stand up to re-reading 25 or so years later. The collector’s edition is a beautiful set and matches the complete dvd set of the 19990′s cartoon which was an extraordinarily good adaptation.

Definitely not for newcomers, but Tintin in the Congo is kind of required reading to get a full understanding of Herge.

Michael Grabowski

November 30, 2010 at 8:09 pm

“This is one of the differences between Canada and the U.S. that I have a hard time wrapping my head around.

In Canada, Tintin and Asterix books are widely available. School libraries, regular libraries, bookstores… a dedicated Tintin spinner rack is an unexceptional sight.

How is it that Tintin and Asterix never really caught on down in the States?”

I don’t know about Asterix, but it’s not that hard to find Tintin volumes on the shelf at Borders or B & N in the US. Not a complete set, but I can find a decent selection of both the individual albums and the newer smaller compilations. So there must be some kind of market for Tintin. (There was an attempt in the late 70′s to run Asterix as a daily newspaper strip but it didn’t last long.)

Drawn & Quarterly Vol. 4 (2001) has “The Adventures of Herge” by “Bocquet, Fromental and Stanislas,” an affectionate homage to Tintin doubling as a comics biography of his creator, that’s an interesting supplement to this list.

Both Tintin and Asterix were popular in the U.S. during the 1970s and into the early 1980s. I knew a number of boys my age who collected them and loaned them to their friends. They had the added advantage of being -printed with quality binding that made them easy to bring to school in one’s bookbag or put on shelves– which quite simply, one could not do with anything published by Marvel or DC at that time.

Asterix even had a syndicated newspaper comic strip.

Yeah, Tin Tin isn’t as popular in the States as elsewhere, but its not like he’s totally unheard of. You’ll find a similar situation with Carl Bark’s duck stories, old Mickey Mouse comics and “pulpy” characters like Prince Valiant, The Shadow, etc. People know them, but don’t seem to get really pumped about them.

I first found out about Tin Tin as a kid via the animated cartoon, which ran on HBO on weekday mornings. Thinking back to that time, I’d most American kids expect a lot of flash, high-drama, high-octane entertainment, so by comparison Tin Tin looks boring.

That said, I quite like the character and I think more Americans would like him if given the chance. I’ve meant to read the whole of Hergé’s work for quite some time now…

I was big into tintin in the 80s, and they were at my local library. Ironically enough my mom and her friend from Canada loved them – her friend was who may have shown my mom the books. Nearly 20 years later I found them at a different library in a different region. They are around, but are not in plain sight.

I dont know what edition of “Tintin and the soviets” Last Gasp did publish in the US, like many other Tintin adventures, Herge did rewrite and redraw them overtime..

The first edition is blatantly primar anti comunist, with all the cliches you can imagine, later revisions are more …readable ;)

lets not forget that Herge did rewrite his first stories during german occupation in europe ( Casterman editions from 42 ans 43) so they didnt hurt the occupant view. (interesting to read and compare to other editions )

Tintin and Asterix have been very common reading in Quebec (french Canada), since initially published in French. I don’t know about english Canada, but I’ve never been aware that they were read by that part of the country. Heck, Marvel and DC were hugely read translated in french in Quebec, but barely really got respect and recognition until the X-men and Spidey movies were big time. Jack Kirby is known of by afficionados, but otherwise doesn’t have the reputation of Stan Lee.

There was probably a wide cultural gap between Europe and America that is being catched upon now. If French comics is now getting attention, just imagine that there was a huge kid magazine market in the ’50′s, ’60′s and ’70′s with Tintin magazine and Pilote magazine amongst them, with many great illustrators and story-tellers. Asterix was being published in Pilote, with Lucky Luke and many other classic characters…

Nice article. Tintin is my favourite comic of all-time.

You can’t buy the the full-sized albums in the US? Wow, that’s strange. In Canada you can get all the albums in full-size hardcovers or softcovers. I agree that the small three-in-one editions aren’t as good.

“I dont know what edition of “Tintin and the soviets” Last Gasp did publish in the US, like many other Tintin adventures, Herge did rewrite and redraw them overtime..”

“Soviets” was never revised actually. Only Tintin album that wasn’t.

“Tintin and Asterix have been very common reading in Quebec (french Canada), since initially published in French. I don’t know about english Canada, but I’ve never been aware that they were read by that part of the country. ”

I live in BC and Tintin is very well-known, here, so I imagine it is in most of the country. I was quite surprised to hear that it’s not well-known in the States because Tintin’s in just about every bookshop and library here. And a lot of people have one or two Tintin albums kicking around the house somewhere. The only person I know who didn’t know Tintin moved here from the States.

Thanks for coming out with an installment on my favorite comic! I’ve been a fan of Tintin since I was 5, and for the longest time I devoured every Tintin comic I could lay my hands on. I’m proud to say that I have almost every Tintin published by Mammoth (the European publisher) with me, and that my cousins share a love of Tintin with me, which makes story time a whole load of fun!

About the availability issue, I’d say Matthew E. has pretty much hit the nail on his head. Here in India, Tintin is an ubiquitous sight. Several bookstores have them; there are even pirated editions that are being hocked on the streets. I’ve never had to go far to get my Tintin fix; what’s more, the BD-size editions were CHEAP, at about 200 rupees (around $4.50) per issue.

@ spencer

I do have the “fac-simile” edition put out almost 20 years ago by Caster, [ The one in B&W, smal format, reprinting each album is it was in its first instance ( as i also do have Alph'art first edition, the one with Sketchbook and Script as 2 different books) , did see the expo at Beaubourg some years ago too ... and i am not a fan of Herge]

I clearly remember a scene where tintin discover russian manufacture are nothing more than ‘papier-mache’ in the B&W reprint, and nothing of the same scene in ‘standard’ edition

Generally speaking I think it is more an issue that American shops specializing in comic books tend not to sell Tintin, but you will find them in shops that specialize in children’s books: a place that the adult comic book fan does not typically shop, and since Tintin isn’t sold with “mainstream” comics, it doesn’t necessarily serve as a “gateway” to superheroes.

How is it that Tintin and Asterix never really caught on down in the States?

I suspect because they didn’t fit in with the standard US comics distribution methods of the time. They were never available at newsstands or in the spinner racks down here. You typically had to find them in bookstores which is not where most kids went to buy comics.

I’m probably older than a lot of you posting here (a blind assumption), but I discovered Tintin in elementary school when a bunch of us kids found some honest-to-god comic books on the school library shelf. My little school had several Tintin and Asterix volumes on the shelves and I and my comics-loving friends read all of them. We loved it because the teachers couldn’t speak ill of our reading them. After all, we’d checked them out from the school library!!! And we loved the books too. I think if Marvel or DC had owned the US rights, both characters would be much better known here. Of course, they’d probably have been marketed past the point of recognition (“Tintin Meets Spider-Man”!, “Asterix and the Mighty Thor”!). Okay. Done just right, the Asterix cross-over might actually work…

@Gnubeutel,

Could you please share some more European titles you would recommend? Many of those you named I had never heard of before.

I feel you should have mentioned the excellent The Adventures of Tintin animated series, which I feel stay really close to the source material well.

I agree with the writer in avoiding the small $150 hardcover collection, Herge’s artwork is so small, it’s minimalized.

ottocars scepter is a rather sharp pun at the nazi movement in neighboring germany and “escapist” really doesnt do it justice

Why isn’t Tintin wildly popular in the US? I have a few notions, since I respect Herge and his work, but I have a difficult time getting into it. Nothing below is meant to be offensive, and I apologize beforehand if it strikes anyone that way. What I say isn’t meant to slam Tintin, but the American perception of Tintin.

1) Jack Kirby, a great talent, ruined the way we in the US read comics. When I think of Kirby, I think of all of these wild action packed points of view, “camera” angles, etc. that sometimes ate up two pages at a time.. When I think of Herge (and this isn’t fair, but it’s true), I think of a polite stage play or an animation storyboard that takes place in fairly small, regular panels.

2) The simple, unwavering line Herge drew with doesn’t catch the American eye like the thick-and-thin brush strokes we’re used to. In some respects it’s like trying to read an entire book in an Arial font rather than a regular book font.

3) It’s a bit like trying to give someone raised on burgers, fries and pizza a delicate dish made with artichokes or a bowl of gaspacho. Sniff, raise eyebrows, walk away. “Why are all of these people in old fashioned clothes going boring places and doing boring things? And why is someone even more boring than Jimmy Olsen the hero?” None of this may be true, but it’s a problem of PERCEPTION.

4) The format (at least the one I’m familiar with) makes it look like a cross between a coloring book and a childrens’ book. – with little of the graphic design “zip” that says “pick me up” to a comics reader.

5) Again, perception. I remember many years ago showing a Tintin volume to someone and telling him it was a European comic. Darned if he didn’t seem disappointed that it wasn’t pornographic. “We awready have Walt Disney over here. Who needs it?”

You can translate the story into English, but the graphic style is just too foreign for most of us.

Nice article, you should mention the live action movies made in the 60′s? which were very true to the look of the books, but slightly boring by today’s standards.

Tin Tin and the Golden Fleece and Tin Tin and the Blue Oranges.

@ollieno:

Well, the edition you can buy now is B&W and very anti-communist.

Ian Thal said: “Generally speaking I think it is more an issue that American shops specializing in comic books tend not to sell Tintin, but you will find them in shops that specialize in children’s books: a place that the adult comic book fan does not typically shop, and since Tintin isn’t sold with “mainstream” comics, it doesn’t necessarily serve as a “gateway” to superheroes.”

True. And that’s a shame, really. Tintin is the only comic book my parents have read and really enjoyed (and even respected). Heck, my grandfather read them!

@Theozilla:

The TV series was okay but not nearly as good as the comics. And they dumbed them done -taking out drug references and cutting out violent scenes.

@ hugo Sleestak:
Interesting perspective; I am european, and for me its quite the other way round; I grew up on Asterix and Tintin, and when introduced to american comic i thougt they looked great but the stories where so utterly pointless, just there to provide alibis so that the artist could draw half- naked women strangulating squid (or the other way round ). These days I get sort of a kick out of especially marvel comics, just because I find it breathtaking just how far they will push that idea without ever going beyond it. It seems its a dying art, too, because theres loads of that on every TV-channel these days , and the solution they come up with? MORE SQUID! CLONE WOLVERINE! There is just so much more going on in Tintin and , even more, Asterix..(theres lots of american stuff I enjoy, too, but the perception that the superhero comic is the true form buggles me..

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