Between 1929 and 1976, Belgian cartoonist Georges Remi, AKA Hergé, penned the
Tintin series. On the occasion of Hergé’s 100th birthday, cartoonist R. Sikoryak talks about why the books, hugely popular around the world, never gained a mass following in the U.S.
BOB GARFIELD: Between 1929 and 1976, Belgian cartoonist Georges Remi, better known as Hergē, wrote and illustrated 23 books. They featured the worldly adventures of a blank-faced protagonist named Tintin. Since that time, the Tintin books have been translated to more than 50 languages, they've sold hundreds of millions of copies, and they attract two million new fans per year.
This year marks Herge's 100th birthday, and European cities are celebrating with exhibitions and retrospectives of his work. Last month, Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson announced that they would direct a series of films based on the Tintin series.
But for all the accolades, Herge has also been criticized over the years. He's been called a fascist, a racist and a misogynist. Cartoonist R. Sikoryak joins us now to talk about Herge's legacy and influence. Bob, welcome to the show. R. SIKORYAK: Thanks. Thanks for having me. BOB GARFIELD: The character himself had just little dot eyes and very simple line drawings for his figure and really for everything around him. It looks very different from the heavily-stylized superhero cartoons of the era. R. SIKORYAK: Oh, absolutely. That's the whole European style that's completely different from the American style. And what's interesting is he's almost like Charlie Brown in his simplicity, and yet, the adventures have more in common with newspaper characters that we'd be familiar with, like Terry and the Pirates or Steve Canyon, which were much more rugged and thick, heavy brushstrokes and dark shadows and much more manly, in an American way, I suppose.
So I think the contrast between this very clean, clear-lined style and the globetrotting adventures was something that Americans hadn't seen before. BOB GARFIELD: Tintin was not Donald Duck. He was not Garfield the Cat. Herge wasn't looking for just universal little strokes of humor. He was exploring cultures and ideas. Can you give me some examples of the subject matter that he explored over the years? R. SIKORYAK: One of the strips that he began in 1940 cast the Germans as villains, and that strip was quickly shut down. During the war he kind of avoided those topics, but certainly into the fifties he wasn't averse to showing nations fighting against nations, stealing weaponry. There were a lot of Cold War references. The last story that was done was about a South American dictatorship being toppled. BOB GARFIELD: Tintin was often caught up in the swirl of momentous world events, and so too, Herge. He was cartooning in Belgium in 1940 when the Nazis occupied. What happened? R. SIKORYAK: The paper that he was drawing the strip for was shut down, and he began working for the approved paper at the time. And he continued working with them through the war. And I don't want to be an apologist for him, but it strikes me as more obliviousness than collaboration. BOB GARFIELD: Although he did officially have to answer to charges of being a collaborator, no?
R. SIKORYAK: Yes, he did. And he continued to have to answer [LAUGHING] for them for the rest of his life. BOB GARFIELD: He's also gotten a lot of criticism for what I guess I just have to call political incorrectness on a grand scale. R. SIKORYAK: Oh, yes. BOB GARFIELD: He's been called a racist. He's taken hits on environmental grounds. Tell me what in the text has exposed him to this criticism. R. SIKORYAK: Well, maybe the worst example is the book where he goes to the Congo and meets the natives and explains to them why it's okay to be part of the Belgian Empire. And I think the nicest way you can put it was that it was naive of him. BOB GARFIELD: So even if he was a creature of his times - his Congo visit was in the thirties, after all - he at least eventually became aware that the caricatures that he was drawing and the ideas they implied really were, in some way, objectionable. R. SIKORYAK: Oh, absolutely. I mean, it's interesting. I don't know exactly where his opinions came up and where his desire to please his publishers arose, but certainly a lot of the stuff that was the most egregious was revised and edited out. I would like to think that that was him just becoming slightly more aware. BOB GARFIELD: Okay, 23 different books. What's your favorite episode? R. SIKORYAK: Tintin in Tibet. It's probably the most personal one of the series. Around that time, Herge was in the middle of a break-up with his first wife, and his psychoanalyst suggested that he stop doing Tintin stories. And I don't think that ever would have occurred to him.
So instead, he basically took Tintin on this quest to find an old friend, a character named Chang, who was in one of the earliest stories. And Chang is in a plane crash in the mountains, and Tintin has to go find him, while no one else believes that he's there. And there's pages of Tintin walking through the snow, and just on a quest, and on a more personal quest, I think, than any other book.
That's a great example of this icon who, in some ways, is incredibly generic, and yet, Herge is able to use that character and all of the associations that we have with that character to sort of reflect his own emotions and his own turmoil. It's actually rather moving. BOB GARFIELD: Well Bob, I thank you very much for joining us. R. SIKORYAK: Well, thank you. BOB GARFIELD: R. Sikoryak's work has appeared in The New Yorker, Nickelodeon Magazine, Drawn & Quarterly and the dear departed Raw Magazine. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Megan Ryan, Tony Field, Jamie York, Mike Vuolo, Mark Phillips and Nazanin Rafsanjani, and edited by - uh - nobody. Brooke is in Moscow.
Dylan Keefe is our technical director and Jennifer Munson our engineer. We had engineering help from Paul Schneider and other help from Madeleine Elish and Andrya Ambro. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl. AMY EDDINGS: Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On the Media from WNYC. Brooke Gladstone will be back next week. I'm Amy Eddings. BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. [MUSIC TAG]