He was born in 1907 as Georges Remi, the son of a tailor, and took his pen name from reversing his initials (G.R. becoming R.G, pronounced Hergé). When young, he thought that his grandmother might have had a royal lover, making him heir to the throne. Could this explain the persistent hunt for genealogical mysteries in the series, notably the treasure hidden by Captain Haddock’s distant forbear, Sir Francis Haddock?
As a youth, Hergé was active in the Catholic Boy Scouts, whose spirit of fair play and wholesomeness certainly contributed to the Tintin ethos. The Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano has even claimed that Tintin is “a Catholic hero.” While understandable, this pious appropriation of Tintin is undercut by the cartoonist’s biography. Hergé’s Catholicism was more social and political than religious. In middle age, he left his wife of many years to live with a much younger lover. In his maturity, he was fascinated by Zen Buddhism and spiritual nourishment in Eastern thought. Tintin in Tibet is perhaps the most emotionally potent book in the series because it conveys Hergé’s passion for Asian culture while telling a story that reaffirms the Boy Scout values of persistence and loyalty.
Politically, Hergé was a mixed bag. An intelligent conservative, in the 1930s he commendably opposed the rising tide of tyranny, taking a notable stance against Japanese imperialism in Asia and Nazi expansionism in Europe. But after Germany conquered Belgium, Hergé compromised himself by publishing his comics in a collaborationist-run newspaper. The stench of that deal with the devil, along with a storyline featuring an international Jewish financier as a villain, has never lifted from Hergé’s reputation.
He came to regret his wartime activities as well as the early comics celebrating European colonial rule in Africa. Typical of many conservative Europeans, he thought that the continent had a noble mission to “civilize” Africa. Tintin in the Congo, originally serialized in 1930-31, shows the boy reporter paternalistically educating child-like Congolese, drawn in the unfortunate minstrel show tradition. The book remains controversial and was only translated into English in 1991. As Hergé ruefully told an interviewer late in life, “I was fed the prejudices of the bourgeois society that surrounded me.”
In his daft and overheated 2006 critical study Tintin and the Secret of Literature, British novelist Tom McCarthy likens Hergé to Chaucer and Shakespeare while also finding parallels between the Tintin series and the recondite ideas of Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes. For all his high praise, McCarthy does Hergé a disservice by severing the cartoonist from his actual tradition, not high culture but popular entertainment. Hergé belongs to the noble line of boys’ books and thrillers that includes Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, John Buchan’s The 39 Steps, Rudyard Kipling’s Kim and Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda. One regrettable aspect of this lineage is that these books tend to be one-sidedly masculine. There are very few female characters in Hergé’s stories.
This is largely a literary tradition, but Hergé brought to it his special skill set as a visual artist. More than any other cartoonist of his era, he was attuned to the modernist revolution in the arts. Once he was wealthy, he became a discriminating collector, buying works from Joan Miró, Serge Poliakoff and other painters. Trained to see by the great modernists, Hergé applied to his cartooning an aesthetic of purification: He struggled to distill each image to the bare minimum of lines needed to convey physical information.
Belgium-born American essayist Luc Sante wrote the best single analysis devoted to Hergé in the English language, a critical eye-opener distinguished by the attention given to the cartoonist as a visual artist. Hergé, Sante notes, “enclosed every particle of the visible, no matter how fluid and shifting, in a thin, black unhesitating line; made that line carry the burden of mass and weight without modelling; and endowed the line with an accomplice in the form of pure, clear, emphatic but not garish colour.” (Sante’s essay can be found in his collection Kill All Your Darlings).