Georges Remi, who created, wrote, and illustrated the Tintin books series under the penname Hergé, died in 1983 at the age of 75, from a rare form of bone marrow cancer.
The Tintin books, starring an intrepid boy reporter’s globe-trotting adventures, have sold 120 million copies in 40 languages over the last 90 years.
Although Hergé himself was a very private person who rarely travelled from his native Belgium he inserted himself as a passing character in each of his books (along the lines of his hero Alfred Hitchcock’s cameos in his films) as a tall, thin, blonde man with a craggy face and a pointed nose.
Hergé came from a lower middle class conservative Catholic family and never had any formal art training. His first cartoons were for Catholic Boy Scout publications.
He later joined Le Vingtième Siècle, a Catholic magazine with decidedly anti-Semitic and right wing leanings. It was there that Hergé created Tintin, whose adventures were first serialized in 1929 and then issued as hardback books.
Tintin’s first adventure was Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, which was meant to teach Belgian children about the evils of communism.
Tintin’s second adventure was Tintin in the Congo. The Congo was then a Belgian colony (although strictly speaking it was the private property of King Leopold II) and again, the book had a propagandist purpose, to teach children the benefits of colonialism, depicting the Africans as childlike and inferior.
Many of Hergé’s early books were full of racist depictions of the people Tintin meets – lazy and stupid Africans, backward Native Americans, wily Japanese, cut-throat Arabs, and scheming hook-nosed Jews.
Hergé himself never really apologized for these depictions but he was embarrassed by them. He did try to suppress some of them and later redrew and edited out some of the worst scenes.
But he only ever issued platitudes, such as this to an interviewer late in life, “I was fed the prejudices of the bourgeois society that surrounded me.”
A colleague later noted that Hergé was more pragmatic than ideological, “When it was fashionable to be a Nazi, he was a Nazi. When it was fashionable to be a colonial racist, that’s what he was.”
Le Vingtième Siècle was closed down during the Nazi occupation of Belgium in World War II and Hergé moved on to a collaborationist paper, Le Soir, where Tintin’s adventures continued. After the war Hergé was arrested but never prosecuted, although he was blacklisted as a collaborationist traitor. He managed to return to work in 1946, but he never escaped the stigma.
Postwar, Hergé made great efforts to better research the locales Tintin visited and he took on assistants to help refine his drawings and storylines.
Hergé was a man of contradictions. He grew wealthy and famous but felt trapped by his association with Tintin and tried unsuccesfully to become a “serious” artist. He had periods of severe depression. He was a Catholic but cheated repeatedly on his wife. He was a deeply flawed man who entertained children for most of his life.