A boy who never grows old gets bigger

LOUVAIN-LA-NEUVE, Belgium — Tintin is a quintessentially Belgian story, its spirit indissolubly linked to this small northern European land. And yet the adventures of the dynamic cub reporter — which began in 1930 with "Tintin in the Land of the Soviets" and ended in 1986 with the unfinished and posthumously published "Tintin and Alph-Art" — have sold 230 million books worldwide and been translated into 80 languages.

The Chinese have just discovered him and love him. Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson are working on a Tintin adventure film. Philosophers, novelists, semiologists, sociologists and psychoanalysts have bent their capacious brains over each of the series’ 24 volumes, finding hidden meanings.

And on June 2, the first-ever museum devoted to the work of the Belgian comic strip artist Herge (1907-1983) is to open in Louvain-la-Neuve, a university town 20 minutes from Brussels. The airy glass and concrete building was designed by fashionable French architect Christian de Portzamparc, and the inside was thought out by Dutch comic strip artist Joost Swarte, who does covers for The New Yorker. The bill of between 15 million and 20 million euros ($21 million to $28 million) was footed by Herge’s second wife, Fanny Rodwell, 27  years his junior and now married to British businessman Nick Rodwell.

The preservation of Herge’s work by this single-minded pair has annoyed many a researcher over the years when denied access to the archives. But the fact is that Nick and Fanny Rodwell — who went so far as to buy back expensive franchises — now own most of Herge’s oeuvre, from drawings, sketches on napkins, letters and photographs to his private art collection that includes works by Andy Warhol (who did his portrait) and Dan Flavin. Herge himself was a compulsive keeper of things.

A slim, elegantly dressed man, he was raddled with self-doubt, regularly feeling canibalized by his creation and succumbing to writer’s block and psychosomatic ailments. Much in Herge’ strips was inspired by his own life, from the detectives Thomson and Thompson evoking his father and his twin brother to the spicy “Marollien” dialect his mother spoke at home that he sprinkled throughout the speech of exotic characters in his strips. And yet he touched children and adult readers across the world.

“Herge was a first-rate illustrator and storyteller, and an early believer in comic strip art,” said leading Tintinologist Benoit Peeters. “But one key to Tintin’s success is that although Herge came from a small country and barely traveled, his main character was the very incarnation of movement and curiosity about the world. And the world paid him generously back.”

From the primitive anti-communism and benevolent racism displayed in his early albums, Herge developed into a sophisticated art collector who dabbled in Jungian psychology and Eastern mysticism. During World War II, he worked for a German-run newspaper and produced a couple of anti-Semitic drawings, although he was always more observer than militant. “Herge was like a sponge,” Peeters said. “He soaked up good things and sometimes bad ones.”

 

Herge was born into a Brussels family of modest means, and remembered his childhood as uniformly gray. He discovered excitement with the Boy Scouts, on one occasion going on an almost 200-mile trek in the Pyrenees. Tintin, his cypher of a boy hero, was very much the Boy Scout, more globe-trotting justice-seeker than wordsmith (we get to see him writing one article in the whole series). If, in pre-Internet days, his explorations of the globe were an education to his enthusiastic young readers, his enduring appeal resides elsewhere.

A young counterculture artist in the 1970s, Joost Swarte, met Herge and found a very open, intellectually curious man with a keen interest in underground U.S. comics and an analytical approach to his work. “As a child, I discovered other cultures through Tintin,” Swarte said, “but it is with his qualities as a storyteller that he really scores. He used the cinema’s framing techiques and ended every page with a cliff-hanger.” Movement was his mantra.

When Fanny Rodwell asked him to design a “script” for the museum, Swarte was delighted. He worked on it with a small team for two years, deciding what to show and how. After de Portzamparc had designed the museum building, with four spaces standing on end like boxes (inspired by a comic strip) and linked by footbridges within a light-filled atrium, they organized the permanent collection’s chronological presentation into a potpourri of themes. The displays range from cats, fast cars and Scouts — Herge’s passions — to a laboratory showing the character Professor Calculus’ inventions and an ethnographic room with 3D images of the fetish statue and Egyptian mummy Herge had discovered in Brussels’s Museum of Art and History and which he used in his books.

The museum’s curator, Laurent de Froberville, used to run the chateau of Cheverney in the Loire that Herge copied in reduced version for Captain Haddock’s Moulinsart chateau (Marlinspike to English readers). And the daughter of the Chinese boy Chang — a student Herge befriended and turned into a character — also works in the museum. It’s still quite a family affair, even if we know that Steven Spielberg’s so-far very hush-hush film of "The Secret of the Unicorn" will bring the tireless boy reporter into the globalised 21st century.

The Herge Museum opens June 2.

Belgium's other new museum:

This is not a museum: celebrating Rene Magritte

More on cartoonists and artists:

Cartoonist lampoons South Africa's politicians

Prague goes Pop