Writing that title, I immediately heard the iconic voice from the “Belvision” animated series of the 1960’s, which I suppose was my first awareness of the character. But my first real encounter with Hergé’s creations came at Junior school, or “Primary” as it would now be called. I was 8 years old, and I can still clearly remember the classroom in the corner, and our teacher, Mr Kennick. He was always my favourite teacher, (to be fair, he didn’t have much competition) and on certain afternoons, lessons would be suspended so we could all choose a book from the book-case in the corner. (What else would we choose from a book-case?)
My choice was alway the same. I would immediately grab one of the limited number of large format hardback books about Hergé’s – George Remi’s – famous boy reporter/detective, TinTin, where I’d read and pore over the pictures of the eclectic cast of characters, all beautifully rendered and involved in such exciting things as car chases, rides to the Moon in a spaceship, exploring under the waves in a shark-shaped submarine, or battling villains, dictators or gangsters. I was entranced by the action, the vehicles, and the colours – but mostly, I suppose, by the colours. I didn’t know then, of course, that Hergé’s style would come to be famous and much copied as ‘ligne claire’, or ‘clear line’.
I wasn’t aware that he’d begun creating TinTin in 1929, or that he’d got into trouble during the war for continuing to draw in a Belgian magazine which was controlled by the Nazi occupiers. And even if I’d known this at eight I wouldn’t have fretted that, in his earlier stories, he’d created images and storylines which conformed to the now (rightly) discredited cultural attitudes of the day. These ran the gamut from patronising to downright racist attitudes towards people in European colonies and elsewhere; this would later become controversial as cultural art such as this was reappraised. I just loved the books. I was eight.
And I still love them. When I pick up some of these now, the covers immediately transport me back to Mr Kennick’s classroom. The one which does this most readily is probably the one I most identify with that jigsaw-piece of my childhood – ‘The Seven Crystal Balls’.
‘The Seven Crystal Balls’ is a story of excitement and danger. I won’t go into the details, because these are well covered elsewhere, and anyway, this post’s more about my relationship with Hergé’s work. Suffice to say that I was, and ever since have been, entranced.
The school didn’t have anywhere near a complete collection; I wasn’t aware of the full collection of titles until several years later. But some of the others which certainly return to memory as being part of that book-case include the two ‘Moon’ adventures, ‘The Shooting Star’, ‘The Crab with the Golden Claws’, and ‘Red Rackham’s Treasure’, which has my other most favourite cover.
I loved those books. I loved the feel of them, the look, the colours, the characters, the exciting and dangerous world they occupied; and like any child, I loved the reassuring fact that whatever jam TinTin and Snowy found themselves in, they always won through at the end.
When I saw the series available in the paperbacks of the Magnet/Methuen editions in the 1990’s. I began to buy them, and immediately enjoyed again the adventures of this cast of characters, all odd, larger-than-life, and eccentric in the extreme. I subsequently acquired, (in a boxed set given to me as a gift from my always generous wife) the collection of the television animated series from the early 1990’s, a notable improvement on the Belvision series of the 1960’s. Then, a couple of years ago, I bought what I really wanted – the complete canonical books, in hardback, including ‘TinTin in the Land of the Soviets’, and ‘Tintin in the Congo’, the latter the cause of much controversy due to its outdated treatment of Africans. Hergé himself addressed the issue of his attitudes at the time in later interviews, with varying effect.
What definitely impressed me about his work on TinTin was when I read Michael Farr’s excellent book, ‘TinTin – The Complete Companion’, and realised how much research Remi put into his creation. For instance, not only is every story crammed with vehicles, trains, aircraft, ships, railway stations, large country houses, but they’re all surprisingly faithful representations of the actual cars, houses, stations etc. Remi’s files, examined after his death, were just as crammed with photos and descriptions of the originals. Just as his characters are often believed to be based on people Remi knew, encountered, or was related to, so are his fabulous scenes rooted in fact.
It’s clear that whilst George Remi was one of the most influential and prolific creators of illustrated fiction of our time, and his creation not only delighted and continues to delight generations of children young and old, it became a burden from which he never escaped.
In a future post on the subject, I’ll consider more about the controversies and racism in the books, the difficulties Remi got into during and after the Nazi occupation of Belgium, and how he sought to explain and reconcile these issues.
(This Post was first published elsewhere in September 2018)
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