Monday, 30 October 2017

Le ‘Manitoba’ ne respond pas and L’Eruption du Karamako, by Hergé

Hergé wrote these two books, which together make up one adventure, about his other characters, Jo, Zette and Jocko. The story starts with masterful suspense as all the passengers and crew pass out on a transatlantic liner, on its way to America, waking up to find themselves lightened of any jewellery they had. At the same time Jo, Zette and Jocko get lost at sea in a fog, which starts a Jules Verne-esque adventure, on the sea, under the sea and over the sea, on a desert island, peopled by a primitive tribe, with appearances from mad scientists and other archetypes from contemporary fiction.

The artwork is, in my opinion, of a higher standard than the other books about these characters, which, at times seems lacking the detail of Hergé at his best. Some of the frames and illustrations in this book are among Hergé’s finest: the cover of L’Eruption du Karamako is wonderful, and seems to have been the inspiration for the cover of Tintin and the Picaros. Some of the storyline seems to reappear in the film Tintin and the Lake of Sharks, namely the scene in the underwater craft on the seabed.

It is a great shame that the books have never been translated into English, and I am assuming the reason is the way the tribe on the island were portrayed, which is similar to Tintin in the Congo (but no worse!) The editions I have are facsimile editions of the first edition published in 1952, and are exquisitely produced, with uncoated paper and board covers.

I think the time would be right to release them in English, as Tintin in the Congo has been. The sensitivity of the publisher is commendable but I think, if they are sold as interesting items from the Hergé archives, rather than books for children, I can’t see what harm it would do. I managed to find my way around them with my virtually non-existent French and some help from google translate, so don’t let the fact they are not in English deter you from buying them.

The Hergé Museum

The Hergé Museum, in Louvain-la-Neuve, an hour’s train-ride from Brussels, is the Museum set up by Hergé’s widow, Fanny Rodwell, as a home for the Hergé archives.

The Museum, in its custom-built home, is imposing, but also fun, with eccentric angles and shapes, covered with enlarged pen-stroke graphics, maybe from the backgrounds of some of Hergé’s work, but abstract at such a large size. The shop is housed in a block that is reminiscent of Tintin in America: a New York style apartment block, a building within a building.

You take a lift to the top floor, and start a chronological journey, from Hergé’s birth and first drawings, ending up with his death, mourned by many fans around the globe. In-between are examples of his output, including graphic design: posters, advertising and logos. This work, although looking of its time is of a high quality, and Hergé’s professionalism, meticulous approach and work ethic can be clearly seen here. At this early point in his career his drawings were not his ‘serious work’, but, as is often the case, it was where is heart lay. Hergé’s prodigious talent as a draftsman was abundantly clear from sketches he did as a young boy: the energy, observation and wit visible in them was what defined his work. Even when people more technically proficient than him were assisting him, it was Hergé’s vision and energy that drove Tintin and all his other projects.

The main-stay of the exhibition are examples of artwork from the Tintin books, with some from his other series’: Bob and Bobbet and Quicke and Flupke. There is the finished line artwork from pages of the albums and book covers, in all its messy glory, with squares of paper pasted in and white opaque masking out mistakes and redraws. There are also preliminary sketches showing early versions of various scenes, a page of Tibetan portraits, sketches of different poses, all testimony to the painstaking work that went into the stories. There are also some colour proofs of the colour plates, although sadly no original painted colour artwork, which would have been interesting to see.

My 12 year old daughter enjoyed the Museum very much, saying she liked it because it was small! Maybe the never-ending size of some of the large Museums is overwhelming to a child. My own impression was also positive, especially as an illustrator, to see the original artwork and techniques of such a master, and understand just what went into his work.

I could not help but compare the difference in approach that Somerset House took with their Tintin exhibition in 2015. This exhibition, in reality not much more than a few window and wall vinyls, was playful, engaging, delightful and immersive, and while the Hergé Foundation see themselves as repository of Hergé’s memory, another light in which to see his work was visible at the Somerset House exhibition. Thinking back to my childhood when I first discovered Tintin, the books immersed me in their world, and I really felt that I was traveling to the Middle East, to Eastern Europe, Peru, that I was on a merchant ship in the Red Sea, or a Chateau in rural Belgium. It was the way the simple window vinyls drew one into Tintin’s world that I loved so much about that exhibition. The vinyls in the fireplace of Dr Muller emerging, sneezing, or snowy covered in soot. The windows of Somerset House became windows onto different scenes in the books: the broken glass of The Calculus Affair, the stick bouncing off the bars of the castle in King Ottokar’s Scepter or a view of New York from Tintin in America. There was also an entire wall with the end-paper graphics from the hard-back books – the wall of portraits, enlarged to the size of an entire wall, and looking like the wall of a room in a chateau.

Part of me thinks the Hergé Museum was a lost opportunity to captivate a new, younger audience. There could have been, for example, a Middle Eastern souk that you could walk down, with life sized figures of Tintin, in disguise and Captain Allen, or maybe the Emir on a donkey with the Thomsons in the background. How about a life-sized rocket that you could walk through, and see Calculus at the controls, or, even better, sit at the controls yourself. Or maybe a jungle, with a warm breeze blowing through the palm trees, and swearing parrots in the branches and the Francis Haddock idol. (This is starting to sound more like Disneyland than Tintin… maybe it just needs to stay in my imagination!)

What Hergé achieved with his Tintin books was to transport his readers to a different place: they are a trigger for the imagination, a frame with which to see the world: much more than pen and ink, rather the magic of story-telling, taking a place in a tradition that encompasses both Greek Mythology and the films of Steven Spielberg.

Written by Mike Stonelake, illustrator, cartoonist and designer. See