The 5th Annual Sybille Pantazzi Memorial Lecture: TinTin: A Hero for the 21stC

Last Thursday, I stole out of my evening class at half-past seven to scurry off to this Tintin lecture to be given by Tintinologist Michael Farr, a 20 minute walk away. I know now to steal out earlier next time. I was certainly not prepared, as I descended into the bowels of the library, for the congregation I’d find in the lecture room, spilling out from the seats and onto the walls. Low kiddy benches (or tables?) had to be sent for to accommodate the spillage. I was one such spilth who was lucky enough to get even a patch of a table (or bench?), which Mel graciously yielded to me, since we’d worked out that I’d be blogging about this event (taking notes while standing isn’t fun).

We’d decided this because I used to love Tintin as a child when I lived in Belgium, Hergé’s own country. I used to watch the shows on TV, though I can’t remember any of it now. A quick search online informs me that I must have watched Les Aventures de Tintin by Belvision–an odd feeling it is to have such sources as Wikipedia tell you about your past. I’d hoped that perhaps Michael Farr’s talk might awaken some latent vestiges of Tintinophily in me, but no such luck. That didn’t prevent me, however, from enjoying his lecture. An hour of cramped perching on a corner of bench (or table?) taught me that the Tintin comics had an interesting relationship with real life:

1) That the comics were heavily indebted to real life and research. I was surprised to learn that several of his main characters were each inspired by a real person in his life. Hergé’s inspiration for the eponymous adventurer was his own younger brother, Paul, a soldier, whose colleagues later saw the resemblance and consequently christened him “Major Tintin,” to which Paul responded with a new haircut, which he liked and kept ever afterward. Hergé, ever on the lookout for material it seems, then created a villain, Colonel Sponsz, with the same coif.

1. Tintin, Paul Rémi, and Colonel Sponsz.

Tintin’s furry companion, Milou, or Snowy, as we call him in English, was named after Hergé’s first girlfriend Maggie-Louise, or Malou for short. The detectives Thomson and Thompson were inspired by Hergé’s father and uncle, who affected bowler hats, umbrellas, and large moustaches. I discovered that the duo aren’t really twins, evidently, as the latter’s name is spelt “with a ‘P’ as in psychology.” Nor are Thomson and Thompson their original names. In French, they were initially referred to as X33 and X33bis (or X33b) and later named Dupont et Dupond. In Spanish, they are Hernandez y Fernandez. (And in Latin, Clodius et Claudius.) Swiss physicist Auguste Piccard was the model for Professor Calculus, though the original was so tall that Calculus had to be shrunk to be able to fit into the frame.

2. Professor Calculus and Auguste Piccard.

Chang Chong-Chen, good friend of Tintin’s, was based on a good friend of Hergé’s, Zhang Chongren. They met when Zhang was an art student in Brussels and when Hergé was looking for someone to verify the accuracy of his depictions of China in the next Tintin installment, The Blue Lotus. They were the same age, had the same zodiac sign, and became fast friends. Sadly, they were separated later in life and Hergé, after much searching, was only reunited with Zhang just a few years before his own death.

3. Zhang and Hergé with Tintin and Chang Chong-Chen behind them.

And to mention a minor character, the extremely obnoxious Abdullah was modeled after Faisal II of Iraq.

4. Faisal II at age 5 and Abdullah.

Hergé was also a hoarder of newspaper clippings and pictures, which he kept in an impossibly incomprehensible filing system. Often he used these pictures as templates for his own drawings, sometimes copying almost entire backgrounds.

5. Original photo and frame from The Blue Lotus.

Funnily, he was averse to opera, until he discovered Maria Callas, wherefore the opera singer Bianca Castafiore (whom Haddock despises) was glamourized, often decked in such designers as Chanel and Dior. Hergé clothed her in real couture pieces that came out the same year as the issue in which Bianca appeared.

6. Bianca Castafiore, in a Chanel dress of that year, trundling poor Haddock.

2) That the comics were based on and exceeded real life. One particular building featured in the comics is the Hotel Cornavin in Geneva, depicted with admirable accuracy. Professor Calculus stays here in The Calculus Affair and for a time, there was a cardboard Tintin in the nonfictional hotel advising, “Please do not ask to stay in Room 122. It doesn’t exist.”

7. Real Hotel Cornavin and Hotel Cornavin with Room 122.

In Destination Moon, Tintin and company landed on the moon 19 years before Neil Armstrong, in realistic circumstances, and then came back. Hergé was meticulous in his research, and Tintin’s expedition was executed with the best technology available at the time.

3) That pure inventions in the comics came true! One main character who did not have a real-life counterpart was Captain Haddock. Hergé was stumped for a name for the seafarer, when he asked his wife what she was preparing for dinner, and she replied with “that boring fish they name ‘haddock’ in English.” As far as Hergé knew, he’d made the name up, it wasn’t a real surname. It turned out, however, as these things often do, that there was in fact a Sir Richard Haddock in the 17th century, an admiral to boot, and with a distinguished naval pedigree!

8. Captain Haddock and Sir Richard Haddock.

It was enlightening to see how much Tintin owed to research; the comics had essentially a dialogue with reality. I had been carrying the unaccountable, ignorant notion that while authors did do their research, most of their work was pure invention. I certainly didn’t think anybody stocked newspaper cutouts for future reference, but probably that has now been obsoleted by the internet. And perhaps that Hergé was an artist too accounts for his need for visual models. By the end of that hour, Hergé seemed almost more researcher than comic book creator to me–not unlike an academic!

All this and much more can be found in Michael Farr’s Tintin: The Complete Companion, first published in London by John Murray in 2001.

All images of drawn Tintin characters are of course © Hergé.

1. “clip-art-tintin-369483.jpg.” Image from “Tintin Clip art.” (10 November 2011).

Mortimer, Ben. “paulremi.gif.” Image from “Looking For Tintin In Brussels.” (10 November 2011).

Comic Vine. “1164576-herg___aka_georges_r_mi__cartoon_018___colonel_sponsz_as_esponja_large.” Image from “Colonel Sponsz.” (10 November 2011).

2. Image courtesy of the Osborne Collection, Toronto Public Libraries (3 November 2011).

3. “Zhang_and_Herge_in_1981.jpg.” Image from “Zhang Chongren.” (10 November 2011).

4. “Faisal2_5_edit1.jpg.” Image from “Faisal II of Iraq.” (10 November 2011).

Tintin Wiki. “Abdullah.jpg.” Image from “Abdullah.” (10 November 2011).

5. Photo image courtesy of the Osborne Collection, Toronto Public Libraries (3 November 2011).

Humbert, Frederic. “2480175243_c1e10fd1ae.jpg.” Image from “Colonial Rugby… China, 1929.” (10 November 2011).

6. de Dardel, François. “Castafiore.gif.” Image from “Tintin’s Cars, page two.” (10 November 2011).

7. “geneve8_5.jpg.”Image from “mortimer à l’hotel cornavin.” (10 November 2011).

Karasyuk, Dmitry. “1277b.jpg.” Image from “Tintin in Hotel Cornavin.” (10 November 2011).

8. Joffre. “Haddock.jpg.” Image from “Dad Is Like Captain Haddock.” (10 November 2011).

“Sir_Richard_Haddock.jpg.” Image from “Richard Haddock.” (10 November 2011).


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