Tintin creator was moved to tears by his comic books’ global appeal, ‘Tintinologist’ recalls as Hong Kong show of artist’s work opens
Michael Farr tells of Hergé reading in wonder a letter from a young Indian fan 50 years after he began drawing his famous comics about a boy detective and his dog Snowy
When cartoonist Georges Prosper Remi first breathed life into an intrepid globetrotting reporter called Tintin and his canine sidekick Snowy 88 years ago, little did he know that his work – which was created, primarily, for children in his naive Belgium – would become such a cultural phenomenon.
And he was moved to tears by the global response The Adventures of Tintin received, the world’s leading “Tintinologist”, Michael Farr, recalled this week in Hong Kong, where an exhibition of the cartoons by Remi, better known by his pen name Hergé, is being held.
Hergé showed him one of his fan letters during a visit to his office, he says. Addressed to Mr Tin Tin, it says: “Dear Mr Tin, when I grew up, I want to be like you and do all the good you are doing.”
“Hergé showed me this letter with tears in his eyes and he said, ‘When I started this in 1929 for Belgian schoolchildren, I could never have realised that 50 years later, a boy in Delhi would be writing to me’,” says Farr.
The 64-year-old, who started reading The Adventures of Tintin when he was four, interviewed Hergé in 1983 when he was a reporter for Reuters.
The comic book series spanned five decades, and has been translated into more than 100 languages. It has been read by the Dalai Lama, and influenced the art of Andy Warhol.
Hong Kong fans of the investigative duo, and other characters such as Captain Haddock and twins Thomson and Thompson, can find out more about the popular comics in an exhibition presented by the Hong Kong Contemporary Art Foundation in collaboration with the Hergé Museum.
Featuring original covers of Le Petit Vingtième, a supplement in the weekly Catholic magazine where the comic was published, as well as replicas of his sketches, “The World of Tintin” will run until December 26.
“Visual art has played an important role in documenting historical events, and the series serve as vehicles to express Hergé’s views on the conflicts and topics of his time,” say the exhibition notes.
Farr believes the graphic novels – which show Tintin travelling to Sydney, Tibet and even the moon, fighting villains and solving mysteries – appeal to readers of all ages.
“Younger readers love it for its excitement. Older readers will see the social and political implications and love the details and accuracy,” he says.
Farr notes the amount of research Hergé had put into each book. When he had to draw Captain Haddock in a wheelchair, he bought three catalogues for wheelchairs to find the right one, according to Farr.
“He was interested in everything and trying to absorb it and use it. That gives it the depth you wouldn't expect a comic strip to have.”
But Hergé did not always get it right, especially at the beginning of his career. The second volume of the series, Tintin in the Congo, drew criticism for its racist tone – something that Hergé later had to apologise for. The book, which sends the reporter to the former Belgian colony, shows Tintin being worshipped by an African tribe and portrays the natives as inferior and naive.
As the exhibition shows, Hergé would later find inspiration in Zhang Chongren, a Chinese sculptor and artist studying in Brussels.
“They met every Sunday. Zhang would bring books on Chinese philosophy, calligraphy, religion, brushes: all things that fascinated him,” says Farr.
Zhang informs the drawing of The Blue Lotus, the fifth volume of The Adventures of Tintin, in which Tintin fights a Japanese spy, who runs an opium den in Shanghai, with the help of his Chinese friends.
“This made The Blue Lotus, I would argue, the first masterpiece,” says Farr.
Zhang made another significant contribution to Hergé’s career as an illustrator by introducing him to Chinese brushes, which were finer than European brushes and could draw smoother lines than the British steel nib pens he had been using.
Equipped with the new brushes, Hergé invented the technique of ligne claire, French for clear line, where strong, even lines are used to outline every subject in the frame. This style of drawing continues to influence the comics world and beyond.
Farr thinks it apt “The World of Tintin” is being staged in Hong Kong. “Hergé would be particularly pleased about the interest in China and in Hong Kong because China was so important to him,” says Farr.
The World of Tintin
ArtisTree, 1/F, Cambridge Hse, Quarry Bay, Nov 17 to Dec 26, Wed to Sun, 12pm to 8pm, free admission