Interview by Magdalena Ball
Have you always been a Tintin fan?
Although I have lived most of my life in England I am half-Belgian, so to paraphrase Hergé (who was speaking about his love for England), I “imbibed Tintin with my mother’s milk”! On holidays to Belgium to see my uncles, aunts, cousins and other extended family, we would stay at my grandparents’ house in Kampenhout, just outside Brussels. As well as endlessly leafing through Tintin, I enjoyed rummaging through a large box full of other comic books that will be less familiar to anyone outside Belgium: such titles as De Rode Ridder, Jommeke and Suske en Wiske. But back in England I also had Tintin books in English. One thing that I also remember very clearly, was being in awe of a life-size model of the Arumbaya statue from The Broken Ear, which sat on a high shelf just outside my grandfather’s study. While I loved comic books in general, Tintin’s adventures were special as they seemed so real.
Talk to me about how you got involved in the Tintin project.
In 2008 I visited the Studios Hergé, the organisation set up to safeguard and promote the work of Hergé, with a proposal for a Tintin fan site. It was the beginning of a series of visits and discussions. Although the website never materialised, in 2010 I moved to Brussels with my wife and son, to be to able to work more closely with the company as a translator and writer. I became involved with the Little Brown Young Readers project from the moment we arrived, initially working closely with Studios Hergé expert and author Dominique Maricq, before continuing the project alone.
Why do you think, after all these years, Tintin is still drawing in new audiences, especially younger ones?
I think for the same reason Tintin always stood somewhat apart from other comic strips in my mind. There is a kind of realism about Tintin that makes a big impression. There is also a particular clarity to Hergé’s drawings–he was instrumental to the founding of the Clear Line school of European comic strips–that makes them very accessible to children. Also, as many Tintinologists have already said, Tintin is very easy to identify with. There is never any mention of his family background and he has no eccentric character traits that set him apart. His face, while very expressive, is nonetheless nothing more than a few short lines and dots. In this way children from all corners of the globe have no trouble seeing themselves in him. He is endlessly solving clues and having revelatory moments of comprehension, in very much the same way that children experience moments of understanding and learning on a daily basis. Hergé intended his star character to lead his readers on journeys of discovery around the world.
Did you have carte blanche on what type of new material you could include or were you directed?
I had carte blanche. The seven pages included before the story were always going to be short character introductions, but at the outset Little Brown proposed nearly a dozen sections with a series of different headings, for the twenty-three pages at the back. After consideration I proposed simplifying the structure to contain a page each for Hergé and Tintin, and two sections for the rest: “The True Story” and “Explore and Discover”. In The True Story I try to keep to material showing the historical context, both to the creation of the story and to the storyline itself; in Explore and Discover I delve further into the myriad real references to photographs, places and people, which Hergé wove into every adventure. For each section, sometimes for the entire back matter, I keep to the chronological order of the storyline and summarise certain aspects of the story to keep within the spirit of the adventure. I was really lucky to work with a very talented and creative graphic designer from Moulinsart, Barbara Duriau. Hergé’s drawings lend themselves particularly well to being digitally coloured, cut out and blown up, but it takes skill not to overdo it. Barbara’s dynamic page layout brings Tintin graphics together with photos and diagrams, blurring the lines between fiction and reality even more!
Talk to me a bit about the value you believe your material adds, both for new, and existing readers of the series.
While writing the extra commentary I always had in mind a children’s magazine published in Belgium and France from the 1940s to the 1990s: Tintin magazine. The magazine, the brainchild of Belgian publisher Raymond Leblanc, brought together a host of comic strip artists including Hergé, who had artistic control over the magazine for decades. As well as a variety of comic strips the magazine had fun science columns, news and quizzes for kids. The artists often loaned their characters to these sections, for example Professor Calculus had a column called “Trucs et Ficelles” (tips and tricks) that taught kids how to make kites, models and all kinds of things. I wanted to evoke this fun and educational use of the characters by writing short passages about the real history, people, science, technology and culture evoked in the stories or in a particular picture.
The great thing about working so closely with the Studios Hergé was having access to Hergé’s archives, in which the author kept an enormous collection of newspaper clippings, magazines, photos, maps and diagrams of all kinds, in his quest for realism. The archive exists in the very state it was when Hergé himself used to browse it, with each and every element carefully ordered under such categories as architecture by country, botany, marine life, etc. I tried hard to find unpublished links between these archives and the Tintin stories, and photos that Hergé used that had not yet been noted. I also tried to do more research into less well-known aspects of Hergé’s own research. For The Shooting Star for example, I visited the Royal Observatory in Uccle, Brussels, and was fortunate to meet an astronomer, Dr Jan Cuypers, who provided a wealth of anecdotes about Hergé’s visits to the Observatory, gleaned from older colleagues. When he was unable to find a photo of a scientist name Eugène Delporte, Dr Cuypers went to the trouble of retrieving a large oil portrait of the scientist from another part of the building! You can see a photo of the portrait on page 7 at the back of The Shooting Star, Young Readers Edition.
I hope that the extra educational material may encourage any parent flicking through the books in a shop to buy them for their children.
Are there Tintin books that Little, Brown haven’t yet released that you’re keen to do (and why)?
There are feasibly another eleven titles that could be published in the Young Readers series. I am very keen to work on these titles and there is more than enough material at my disposal to be able to do so. Indeed, if asked to redo the existing ten titles I would have no problem writing all-new material, thanks to Hergé and the amount of research he carried out. There are big topics that I have not yet sufficiently explored, such as the story of the original Studios Hergé, the team of artists that Hergé formed to help him with the artwork and colouring in later stories. Some of the biggest names in Franco-Belgian comic strips worked for Hergé at one time or another, including Jacques Martin, Roger Leloup and Edgar Pierre Jacobs. I have already written about Hergé’s main assistant and right-hand man Bob De Moor in the Young Readers The Black Island. So dedicated to realism were Hergé and his team that when, at the request of the British publisher Methuen, they had to re-work The Black Island to show a more modern Britain, Bob De Moor visited the country to sketch and photograph scenery in person! One title I am particularly looking forward to working on is Tintin in Tibet, as I have a passion for Tibetan Buddhism. And it was Hergé’s favourite story.
Who is your favourite Tintin villain?
That’s a very good question. I would like to stick my neck out and say General Alcazar, the on/off ruler of the fictional South American country of San Theodoros. Although for the purposes of the stories and in the minds of young readers Alcazar is on Tintin’s side (mostly!), reading the stories as an adult it is impossible not to see Alcazar as he really is, a ruthless dictator who is the mirror image of General Tapioca, his arch-enemy and rival for power. Hergé was, of course, fully aware of this duplicity, and he uses the ambiguity between the two sides in a series of scathing satirical puns.
In Flight 714 Hergé enjoys giving Tintin’s foe Rastapopoulos a dressing down by exposing his pathetic character in several sequences; tellingly he also gives Alcazar the same treatment in Tintin and the Picaros–despite all the tough talking Alcazar is never a match for his nagging wife!
Do you have other projects on the burner/other books in the works?
I am currently assisting Dominique Maricq from Studios Hergé, in the creation of a magazine–the Amis du Musee Hergé (http://admh.museeHergé.com–published for patrons of the Hergé Museum in Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium. Each issue of the magazine includes in-depth articles, news and special features related to the Museum and to the world of Tintin, from a selection of authors and experts in the field. I am working on other early-stage Tintin-related projects for the Internet, and also as an administrator on Tintin’s Facebook page. Keep your eyes on www.tintin.com and http://www.facebook.com/Tintin !
What can fans expect to see next (sneak preview!).
When the rest of the Young Readers Tintin series is commissioned, readers will find out about the time when Hergé drew a real-life Tintin fan into one of Tintin’s stories, learn about the Tibetan Buddhist leader known as the Karmapa and see a picture of Tintin welcoming Neil Armstrong onto the Moon.
Read our review of Cigars of the Pharaoh and The Black Island here.
About the interviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and many other collaborations and anthologies. Find out more about Magdalena at www.magdalenaball.com.