There is a new biography out on Herge, the creator of Tintin, Belgium’s most famous cultural creation. Herge’s legacy has come under attack in recent years because of the anti-semetic and racist elements of his early work. And while those criticisms are legitimate and a part of his story that cannot be easily dismissed, they aren’t the entire story.
In an otherwise skeptical and often snotty essay in the New York Times Book Review, Bruce Handy nails Herge’s lasting gift:
I think Hergé’s greatest achievements are formal: his precise yet witty line, like mechanical drawing with the giggles; and especially his gifts for timing, pacing and action, clearly movie-inspired. His best work from the 1950s and early ’60s (when he took on collaborators of an artistic kind) has a wit and sophistication that equals or surpasses anything I’m aware of in the comics of venerated American contemporaries like Harvey Kurtzman (the original Mad) and Will Eisner (“The Spirit”). In some cases, Tintin’s scrapes have more cinematic imagination than most of the era’s actual movies, with bits of funny business that hark back to the great silent comedies and chase scenes that in their “editing” foreshadow Steven Spielberg’s atomized yet fluid style.
Charles McGrath, also writing in the Times, notes, “Hergé here is frequently reminiscent of the Charles Schulz depicted in David Michaelis’s recent biography: an artist far happier and more interesting in his work than he ever was in life.”
Which brings to mind the old dilemma when it comes to artists, writers and athletes–is it better to concentrate on the work or the creator? This question is also raised by the novelist Rick Moody, in his review of a new Led Zeppelin biography:
What you may not get enough of is the astonishment of the music. Because, no matter how horrible they were as people — and, frankly, they do seem as if they were rather unlikable people who wasted immense talent in a spendthrift fashion — the music is still remarkable, even when borrowed.
…Robert Plant muses aloud at one point, despairing of the true story ever getting out: “We thought it was time that people heard something about us other than that we were eating women and throwing the bones out the window.” Indeed! Wall is conflicted enough about the facts that he allows this mythologizing title to be appended to his work: “When Giants Walked the Earth.” But these were no giants, these were just young people, like you, who for a time happened to have more power and influence than was good for them. In the midst of it all, they made extraordinary music.