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A scene from Steven Spielberg’s The Adventure of Tintin.

Although not as obsessively self-referential as Alfred Hitchcock, the cartoonist Hergé shared the film director's habit of making occasional cameo appearances in his own stories. Once you've seen a photograph of the Belgian artist with his blond hair, telephone-pole lean body and beaky nose, you can start playing a variation of Where's Waldo? by looking for Hergé doppelgängers tucked away in odd corners of the 24 Tintin books he produced from 1929 until his death in 1983. One Hergé look-alike stands nonchalantly upright in a museum in The Broken Ear, while another is a rather gallant-looking cavalry officer in the royal court in King Ottokar's Sceptre. Hergé adored Hitchcock and one trait he borrowed from the film director was a peekaboo sensibility, a desire occasionally to break away from the frame of the story and greet the audience with a sly wink. In the new movie, Spielberg pays homage to Herge's game of self-reference by including a Herge stand-in.

The game of "searching for Hergé" does not have to be so literal-minded. More than a century after his birth and on the eve the North America premiere of Steven Spielberg's Tintin blockbuster, Hergé remains an immensely popular cartoonist but also an enigmatic one. The Tintin books have sold more than 120 million copies in more than 40 languages. You can find Tintin shops devoted to Hergé's boy's adventures not just in his native Belgium but as far afield as Ethiopia, India and Japan.

Rather like the game of soccer, Tintin enjoys an almost global popularity, although only recently gaining a foothold in English-speaking North America. In large parts of the world, Tintin is a cultural icon as familiar as Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan or Snoopy. Yet if Holmes is an avatar of reason, Tarzan an emblem of natural living and Snoopy a symbol of imaginative free-spiritedness, what qualities does Tintin embody? Compared with other popular icons, Tintin seems mysteriously empty, a tabula rasa rather than a fixed identity. Even his creator described Tintin as resembling "the degree zero of typeage." i.e. a typographical vanishing point. [I pinched this clarification off Google.]/p>

As beloved as Tintin is, his charm can be difficult to explain to those who haven't fallen under the spell of the books. On the surface, the recurring plots seem simple enough: Tintin is a young reporter and his search for stories leads him to run afoul of evildoers (drug dealers, spies, slave-traders) in many exotic climes, ranging from bustling streets of Shanghai to the lonely heights of the Andes.

As he solves various international mysteries, Tintin's constant companion is his white wire fox terrier Snowy (Milou in the original French version), who peppers the adventures with sarcastic theatrical asides such as, "Tintin, you're a real Sherlock Holmes!" Comic relief is also provided by a motley assortment of pals, including the obstreperous, invective-sputtering Captain Haddock and the accident-prone detective duo of Thompson and Thomson (Dupont et Dupond in French), and the proverbial operatic fat lady whose singing causes cringing, Bianca Castafiore.

While Tintin might be a cipher, his colourful posse gives the series zest and life. But leaving Hergé's character-creating abilities aside, the Tintin books are distinguished by their unique atmosphere, the mental headspace that readers can find in the series and nowhere else. Defining this atmosphere is difficult, and has taxed the resources of numerous critics. The library of Tintinology is large, consisting of more than 70 volumes that try to solve the riddle of the series from a variety of methods, from the biographical to the political to the religious to the deconstructive to the psychoanalytical, among others.

Hergé's biography has provided a rich mine of clues for critical sleuths. Reticent about his private life, he once asked rhetorically: "What if I told you that I put my whole life into Tintin?"

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).

The solution to the mystery of Hergé is hidden in plain sight. His style, his famous "clear line," is the key to explaining the trance he can induce in well-disposed readers. The clear line allowed Hergé to create the world of his books, a world that is wonderfully inviting because everything seems laid out before us with diagrammatic clarity. Tintin inhabits a world of objects: bowler hats, pirate ships, argyle socks, sceptres and countless other oddments. The surfaces Hergé created are so pleasing to the eye that we linger on them and imbue them with meanings deeper than those found in the adolescent plots of the stories themselves.

Hergé's legacy is more visual than narrative. It's no accident that the best biography of Hergé is a graphic novel that borrows from his art. The Adventures of Hergé, by Jose-Louis Bocquet and Jean-Luc Fromental, illustrated by Stanislas Barthelemy, pays Hergé the honest tribute of stylistic thievery. It's drawn in the Hergé manner (circa 1934) and covers the main points of his career while locating constant overlaps between the life and the art. While the casual reader can use it to get the main outlines of Hergé's life, the hard-core Tintin fanatic will be more interested in the innumerable allusions to the series woven into the story and images.

Aside from Barthelemy, many of the world's best cartoonists continue to draw inspiration from Hergé. The continuing power of the "clear line" tradition can be seen in artists as disparate as Chris Ware, Seth, Charles Burns and Joost Swarte. Hergé's art remains a not-so-secret treasure that rewards all those who go in search of it.

Jeet Heer has co-edited many books of comics reprints. With Chris Ware and Chris Oliveros, he co-edited the just published Walt and Skeezix 1929-1930.

In filmland

The Art of the Adventures of Tintin

By Chris Guise

Harper Design, 200 pages, $44.99

Tied to the release of Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson's motion-capture movie The Adventures of Tintin, this gorgeous work from New Zealand's Weta Workshop (Guise is its lead conceptual designer) includes images at all stages of development, scenes that didn't make the final cut and quotations from the participants. Andy Serkis, who provided the live-action reference points for the animated, bulbous-nosed Captain Haddock, says, "You know it's not real because of the caricatured nature of the characters, but you feel that they're real and it really plays with your head."

Warren Clements