Pierre Assouline is a journalist and writer whose columns appear regularly in Le Monde and L’Histoire. His book, Herge: The Man Who Created Tintin, translated by Charles Ruas, offers a candid portrait of a man who revolutionized comics. In the excerpt below we learn about the origins of Tintin.
Tintin and Snowy were born on January 10, 1929, in Le Petite Vingtième. On that day the supplement for young readers in Le Vingième Siècle first published a comic strip under the title “The Adventures of Tintin, the ‘Petit Vingtième’ Reporter, in the Land of the Soviets,” the first two places of a weekly comic strip that would eventually number 121 in all.
These are the bare facts, but we are left with the question of why and how Tintin and Snowy came into being. According to Hergé, it was very simple: “The idea for the character of Tintin and the sort of adventures that would befall him came to me, I believe, in five minutes, the moment I first made a sketch of the figure of this hero: that is to say, he had not haunted my youth nor even my dreams. Although it’s possible that as a child I imagined myself in the role of a sort of Tintin.”
Tintin has a prehistory. Hergé made a sketch of a character resembling Tintin in the Totor series, which was a sort of trial run. This period of trial and error in the creation of a character is far from exceptional. To cite only two examples, Mickey Mouse was first called Mortimer, and Inspector Maigret in a previous life was Agent No. 49.
Hergé never denied it. When pressed to explain the origins of Tintin, he admitted that he was conceived of as the younger brother of Totor, the troop leader of the June Bugs. Tintin wore plus fours because Georges Remi sometimes wore them, and they might distinguish Tintin as easily as Chaplin’s vagabond’s baggy trousers did him. Hergé also gave him a tuft of hair that stood straight up on his forehead (first seen during a car chase in Land of the Soviets), drawing it as seen full face. If Tintin is shown in profile or three-quarters to the left or to the right, the facial features are only barely sketched in. The figure is in harmony with the face, the result being neutral, without dissonance. Everyone can identify with him because he is everyman.
Tintin was born at fifteen and therefore never had a childhood. What did Georges Remi look like at that age? Probably like Tintin – like him had the appearance of an intrepid Boy Scout – except that Remi combed his hair flat, he was thinner and taller, and his face was not as round. It has been said that Hergé had unconsciously taken the traits, attitudes, and gestures of his younger brother, Paul.
In terms of graphics, there is nothing simpler than Tintin. He is as uncomplicated as the story line. Tintin is a journalist or, rather, a reporter, which means the contrary of sedentary. He is less often shown writing at the typewriter than out in the field. In his eyes, the investigation of something, not the resolution, is the basis of his profession. Tintin seems to suggest that he is in fact a great reporter, a member of a select group of legendary journalists such as Albert Londres, Joseph Kessel, Édouard Helsey, Henri Béraud, and others. Of course Remi himself had wanted to become one of them – and he would, by proxy. Tintin would accomplish his dream. For one of the youngest people on a newspaper’s staff, belonging to this select group represented the ultimate promotion. For Remi it also symbolized a quest for adventure.
The transformation of Totor to Tintin would continue. Though a reporter, Tintin never loses the spirit of a Scout. On the contrary, he expresses it in his face, his attitudes, and his actions. It could be said of Tintin, as Voltaire said of Candide, that his face revealed his soul. Hergé’s constant dilemma was how to make Tintin lose his naïveté while remaining pure.
Here are Tintin’s vital statistics: he is Caucasian, lacks a first name, an orphan, without a past, a native of Brussels (as opposed to Belgian), about fifteen years old, obviously celibate, excessively virtuous, chivalrous, brave, a defender of the weak and oppressed, never looks for trouble but always finds it; he is resourceful, takes chances, is discreet, and is a nonsmoker.