With the documentary “Tintin and I,” filmmaker Anders Ostergaard makes use of interview tapes over three decades old to craft an intimate first-person portrait of Herge, possibly Europe’s greatest cartoonist, and his relationship with the reason for his greatness, the cartoon adventure character Tintin. “The Adventures of Tintin” is without argument one of the greatest comic books ever produced, with as much worldwide readership as Superman has ever had, yet the work is only marginally known in the United States.
Perhaps the key to the books’ lukewarm reception among the mainstream in America can be chalked up to the presentation of the United States within its pages. While Superman serves as an ambassador of American might to the international community, a promise that we will be there to save you from disaster, Tintin is very much a citizen of the rest of the world and the United States figures into the Tintin universe in no greater way than any other country — in fact, in the adventure “Tintin in America,” it is as exotic and weird as Tibet. It is not home.
Nor was it home to Tintin’s creator, Herge, the nom de plume of Belgian illustrator Georges Remi. Instead, Herge was an armchair traveler, meticulous in his research rather than his actual travels, and for whom Tintin was not just an alter ego, but a fantasy of self. Herge, quite the opposite of Tintin, saw his trade as a comic book writer and illustrator not much different from that of a taxi cab driver or a plumber, apparently, and plied it in whatever outlet was delighted to have him. With this as a business plan, Herge did not need to travel to far-flung countries to have a little adventure, nor did he want to. When Nazis invaded Belgium, shut down the conservative Catholic paper he worked for and then commandeered the paper who took over the publishing of the Tintin strips, Herge just wanted to be left alone to produce his work.
This was quite the opposite of Tintin himself, who not only criss-crossed the world and took action against wrongdoers, but saw the very thick lines between right and wrong, even as he fought crime and evil and whatever in the company of some very flawed, gray characters, most notably the often intoxicated, sometimes intolerant and consistently foul-mouthed Captain Haddock. As a journalist, Tintin portrayed the reporter as someone who not only blindly stood by and jotted down the news on a note pad, but actively threw himself into the news, sometimes became the news, never happy to merely transcribe the actions of criminals. In this way, Tintin was the ultimate muckraker and not much like his creator at all.
All of this is expressed beautifully through Ostergaard’s portrayal of the back story that lead this film to be made. In 1971, young journalist Numa Sadoul was working on a series of interviews with cartoonists and found himself in Brussels. Almost on a whim, he made an impromptu visit to Herge’s studio (imagine just showing up at Charles Schultz’s house out of nowhere and you get the idea) and found the artist ready, willing, and able to talk to him on tape — for the next four days. It turned out that Herge was in quite a candid mood and this prolonged interview is used as the narrative for the life and career of the artist and his creation to unfold.
Ostergaard makes the long deceased Herge even more of a presence in the film by animating live footage from various television appearances and editing them to sections of the dialogue from the tapes — equally, the filmmaker takes panels from Herge’s work and turns them into three-dimensional tableaus to be explored. Taking the idea further, some of the action of the film takes place on a gigantic floor-covering created from all the pages of Tintin books, with fans tromping and gliding all over it to point out the scenes that most affected them during their life.
For those who were lucky enough to discover Tintin as children – and that’s easy enough, any library you walk into usually has a complete collection available — “Tintin and I” is a wonderful explanation of the process that went into creating such magic and a testament to the man who engineered the books’ survival as an institution since 1929. Unlike so many other comic book heroes who are constantly being recycled, reconfigured, updated, modernized, bastardized, over-marketed, Tintin remains solid in his own time frame, a work of classic fiction that is treated as exactly that — classic fiction — and not a property to be exploited. The messages of from so long ago are still clear and vibrant, the storytelling and characterizations still compelling, and the work still very personal — and there are still children, as well as adults, who get it. As this film attests, that is the ultimate tribute to the singular talent of Georges Remi.