Speak Memory: The Clear Line

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Tintin is a classic Belgian character–proper, tasteful, disciplined, droll and Catholic. As a kid, the Tintin comic books had an enormous impact on me. Though they were translated into English, Tintin never caught on in the States like he did elsewhere around the world. (Not until the recent movie.) But Herge is national treasure in Belgium, their Walt Disney.

Herge’s work is cinematic but not flashy. It's defined by a strong sense of formalism and control; the drawings are meticulously rendered (as well as researched). He is not the virtuoso that Franquin was–and truth be told, I loved Franquin’s “Gaston LaGaffe” far more than Tintin–but it is Herge’s reserve, his discipline that makes his storytelling so effective.

From Cullen Murphy's 2012 review of Herge, Son of Tintin:

What’s most distinctive about Tintin is the artwork. Hergé’s trademark ligne claire style, which developed gradually, dispensed with shading and relied on inked lines of uniform weight. To accentuate that line — “the true backbone,” Hergé would insist — colors were restricted to a range of relatively soft tones. Although the characters were cartoon figures, the backgrounds were realistic, even elegant. Hergé did a vast amount of research into cars, ships, airplanes, animals. His pacing and composition owed much to movies.

Last year, Luc Sante was good enough to let me reprint his essay, "The Clear Line" over at Bronx Banter:

I began absorbing Tintin before I learned to read. I know that my father’s mother gave me a subscription to the Tintin weekly magazine before she died, which was sometime around my fourth birthday. I’m pretty sure the magazine was then serializing Tintin in Tibet, the twentieth of the twenty-three volumes–twenty-four if you count the one left in rough sketch form by the death in 1983 of Georges Rémi, known as Hergé, who wrote and drew the series and refused to consider a successor. Hergé attained his peak of productivity in the ’40s, right in the middle of the war, when he published his strips in the Brussels dailyLe Soir. The paper from those years is referred to as Le Soir volé–the stolen Soir–because it was overseen and censored by the German occupiers. Unlike most collaborators, Hergé got little more than an administrative slap after the war, and hardly any public opprobrium, because it was so clear he was an innocent by nature. His ideology was conservative, but it was molded for all time by the Catholic Boy Scouts. His world-view was that of a serious-minded twelve-year-old.

A serious-minded Belgian twelve-year-old in, say, 1939 would think of the colonial subjects in the Congo as simple, happy people who derived enormous benefits from being colonized. You couldn’t expect them to understand complex matters, but at least you could send in the White Fathers to convert them to the Roman religion and stop them from eating each other, or whatever it was they did. Tintin in the Congo, book number two, makes for painful reading today, and not only because Tintin is so determined to bag every sort of big game that, unable to shoot a rhinoceros, he blows it up–although he uses too much powder and is left with just the horn.

The caricatures of foreign cultures in the Tintin books are hardly virulent, just indicative of a smug ignorance pervasive throughout the Western world then, but the treatment of the Congolese is shocking because its grotesque simplifications had to have been based on self-serving firsthand accounts by the colonizers. To confirm this, all I have to do is look in my family album. My Uncle René, a drunken ne’er-do-well who lived in the Congo in the 1950s, is pictured with a much more mature-looking African gentleman standing a few paces behind him; this man is identified on the back as his “boy.” The English word was used to mean “manservant” for obvious reasons–it wouldn’t do to think of the Congolese as adults. Tintin is not an adult, either; he is the champion of youth, fighting the scary and corrupt adults of the world on their behalf. In the Congo these inimical adults are nearly all white, while the natives belong to Tintin’s constituency regardless of their ages–it is the only country he visits where everyone recognizes him. When he leaves, the people cry.

Possibly the most striking thing in the Tintin universe is the almost complete absence of women. Of the 117 characters pictured in the portrait gallery on the endpapers of the hardcovers, only seven are female. Women are thin-lipped concierges or very occasionally the silent consorts of male characters; few have more than walk-on parts. The only significant or recurring female character is the overbearing diva Bianca Castafiore, who periodically appears to sing the “Jewel Song” from Gounod’s Faust, a performance that has the effect of a gale-force wind.

My mother is Belgian and we saw her family periodically when I was growing up. I recall visiting my grandparents' home–an old, stone farm house that was roughly thirty minutes outside of Brussels, and even closer to Waterloo. I'd read all of the comics I could find. And there were plenty of them.

I slept in the attic room. It was cozy, the walls were slanted in a triangular shape. A drafting table was next to the staircase. A twin bed lay in the middle of the room, above it a moon window that you could open a crack and smell the cool air, mixed with cow shit. An old, bulky radio nearby, where I’d pick up BBC 4 and listen to soap operas or cricket matches–anything to hear English.

Lined on the floor next to the bed were a series of comic books, fifty, sixty of them. They belonged to my mother and her siblings, leftover from their childhoods in the Belgian Congo. (The room was closed off from the other side of the attic space by a wall with a door–on the other side were dusty crates from my family’s days in Africa—treasure!)

The French comics were hardcover books (though originally printed in magazines or newspapers), not the cheap, disposable comics we had back home. They were respectable. I could never imagine my grandparents in New York reading comics (the only strip I ever knew my father to love was Walt Kelly's hyper-articulate “Pogo” strip). But for my aunts and uncles in Belgium, comic books, especially Tintin, were acceptable reading for everyone.

In Belgium, my family laughed at slapstick humor; my grandfather would chuckle easily at the Muppet Show or Looney Tunes. My grandfather in New York wasn’t humorless, but would certainly not be moved by anything as trivial as a cartoon.

When I was seven or eight, I recall sitting with my uncle Herve in my grandparents’ living room. He was in his early twenties and the picture of European cool–gaunt, stylish, always smoking a cigarette (he rolled his own). Herve would soon turn me on to David Bowie and the Talking Heads and Brian Eno. He spoke broken English and I spoke just a little bit of French.

We looked at Tintin au Tibet (1958), an emotionally harrowing adventure that found Tintin searching for a long-lost friend in the snowy mountains of Tibet (It was Herge’s favorite book and probably his most personal one too).

It was an anxious adventure featuring comedy, isolation, despair and hope. Without understanding a bit of the dialogue, I followed the story with my uncle, leaned into his body to feel close to him.

Herve and I went through the entire book together, panel by panel, using our broken French and fractured English to talk about the story. We didn’t have the luxury of a shared language or even shared experience. But we could relate to Tintin in something beyond words. My family in New York was all about the oral tradition. I learned about their history through stories, told over and again. I learned about my mom’s family through photographs, 8mm movies, comic books, gestures, nuances, and food. The language barrier helped me develop my other senses, smells and tastes.

When a French relative visited New York, I loved the smell when they opened their suitcase–even mundane smells like deodorants, laundry soap, and perfumes would bring me back to Belgium. It was almost overwhelming. Of course, no trip was ever complete without a bunch of Cote D’or chocolate and a new batch of comics.

When I go to Belgium, my relatives say I’m a “vraiment New Yorker.” A real New Yorker. But there would be times as a kid when I didn't feel completely American either. My Belgian heritage is something I'm not always in touch with in a conscious way–but it has informed who I am just as much as anything that has ever happened to me here in New York. From my love of cooking to my fascination with pictures and movies–all of that comes from them.

I'm proud of that.

[Photo of rocket from Ansoknives]