Last night PBS ran a documentary on Herge, the legendary creator of the Tintin comics. He was a classic Belgian character–proper, tasteful, disciplined, droll and very Catholic. As a kid, the Tintin comics had an enormous impact on me. Though they were translated into English, Tintin never caught on in the States like he did elsewhere around the world. Herge is national treasure in Belgium; he’s very much their Walt Disney.
My mother is from Belgium, and we visited her family periodically when I was growing up. I vividly recall visiting my grandparents home–an old, stone farm house that was roughly thirty minutes outside of Brussels, and even closer to Waterloo–and reading all of the comics I could find. And there were plenty to have.
My grandparents home had amazingly steep staircases. I would stay in the attic room when I visited. It wasn’t a small room, but it was cozy, as the walls were slanted in a triangular shape. A drafting table was next to the staircase. A twin bed lay in the middle of the room, above it a moon window. A small sink was tucked into the corner, a large, old radio nearby, where I’d pick up a BBC station and listen to soap operas and crickett matches–anything to hear English! Lined on the floor next to the bed was a series of comic books (or dessins animés as they are called in French): fifty, sixty of them. They belonged to my mother and her siblings, leftover from their childhoods in the Belgian Congo. (The room was closed off from the other side of the attic space by a wall with a door–on the other side were crates and crates from my family’s days in Africa.) Jackpot.
I was into American comics, superheroes–Spidey, Batman, the Justice League of America. Lots of impossibly muscular men in tights. Tintin is not a superhero. He relies on his wits not any special powers. There is a vulnerability about him that makes him easy to approach, makes him universal.
French comics came in hardcover. They were books (though originally printed in magazines or newspapers), not the cheap, paperbacks we had back home. They were something to be taken seriously. They were respectable. I could never imagine my grandparents in New York reading comics (the only strip I ever knew my father to love was Walt Kelly’s hyper-articulate “Pogo” strip). But for my aunts and uncles in Belgium, comic books, especially Herge’s Tintin, was perfectly acceptable reading for everyone.
But then, my French family had a different sensibility than my New York family. In Belgium, they laughed at slapstick humor; my grandfather would laugh easily at the Muppet Show or Looney Tunes. My grandfather in New York wasn’t exactly humorless, but would certainly not be moved by anything as trivial as cartoons. French comics brought me closer to my relatives abroad.
When I was seven or eight, I recall sitting with my uncle Herve in my grandparents’ living room. He was in his early twenties and the picture of European cool–gaunt, stylish, always smoking a cigarette. (Herve would soon turn me on to David Bowie and the Talking Heads and Brian Eno.) He spoke a little broken English and I spoke just a little bit of French. I certainly couldn’t read any French.
We looked at Tintin au Tibet (1958), an emotionally harrowing adventure that found Tintin searching for a long-lost friend in the snowy mountains of Tibet (It was Herge’s favorite book and probably his most personal one too). It involved anxiety, adventure, comedy, isolation and despair and hope. These are base emotions. Without understanding a bit of the dialogue, I followed the story beautifully.
Herge’s work is very cinematic but defined by a strong sense of formalism and control. His pictures tell a story and they are meticulously rendered (as well as researched). There is nothing flashy about his art. He is not the virtuoso that Franquin was–and truth be told, I loved Franquin’s “Gaston LaGaffe” far more than Tintin–but it is Herge’s reserve, his discipline that makes him so brilliant.
Herve and I went through the entire book together, panel by panel, using our broken French and fractured English to talk about the story. We didn’t have the luxury of a shared language, or even shared experience. But we could easily relate to Tintin. My family in New York was all about the oral tradition. I learned about their history through countless stories, told over and again. I learned more about my mom’s family through photographs, 8mm movies, comic books, gestures, nuances, and food. In short, the language barrier helped me develop my other senses, smells and tastes especially.
When a French relative visited New York, I loved the smell of their open suitcase–even mundane smells, like deoderants, laundry soap, and perfumes would bring me back to Belgium. It was almost overwhelming. Of course, no trip was ever complete without a bunch of Cote D’or chocolate and a new batch of comics.
Watching the documentary last night, I started to miss Belgium deeply. I haven’t been there in twelve years since my grandfather died. But it is very much of a part of me. When I have visited in the past, my French relatives say I’m “vraiment a New Yorker.” A real New Yorker. But there would be times as a kid–and even now–when I didn’t feel completely American either. My Belgian heritage is a side of my life that I’m not always in touch with in a conscious way–but it has informed who I am just as much as anything that has ever happened to me here in New York. From my love of cooking to my visual sense, my love of movies–all of that comes from the Frenchies. And for that, I feel blessed.