BOB GARFIELD: Between 1929 and 1976, Belgian cartoonist Georges Remi, better known as Herge, wrote and illustrated 23 books. They featured the worldly adventures of a blank-faced protagonist named Tintin - or as I say, because I'm not French, 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 marked Herge's 100th birthday, and European cities celebrated with exhibitions and retrospectives of his work. Last spring, Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson announced that they would direct a series of films based on the Tintin series.
But there has been criticism along with the accolades. Herge has been called a fascist, a racist and a misogynist. This summer, I asked cartoonist R. Sikoryak about Herge's legacy, his influence and his style. He said the sparse line drawings and little dot eyes were a departure from the 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 '50s 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 answers 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 '30s, 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're pages of Tintin walking through the snow, and just on a quest, and 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 and Quarterly and the dear departed Raw Magazine.