A Search for the Inspirational Sources of Hergé: Examples of Contemporary Inspiration in Hergé's Work

10 March 1997

Sometimes the comics reader's reaction is indignation, when he finds out, that pieces of art in a comic has been drawn from a photo, or that an idea has been taken from someone else. "Then the whole thing is a fake", he cries.

The same reaction is provoked, if the artist shows how the same drawing of f.i. a ship has been used in different sizes in 3 or 4 pictures. It helps only little, when you reassure, that the inking is different from picture to picture. The reader asks ashamed, why the artist did not draw the vessel from three or four different angles.

Sherlock Holmes had the same experience with the detectives of Scotland Yard, when he told how he had reached to his logical conclusions: "Is that all? For a moment I thought you had done something clever!" one can hear inspector Lestrade cry.

Maybe comics writers, consultant detectives and other magicians are best served by keeping their mouth shut about their methods, in order not to disturb the illusion.

Like all other artworks the good comic is to be judged as a whole. First of all, a comic is a tale, and the single elements of the story and art are just subordinary pieces in the overall plan. No single element should never be judged as a selfstanding piece of art. The demands to the individual frame in a comic are therefore not the same as the demands to an individual painting.

In contrast to the painting, the pictures of a comic book has one goal: to get the story from one picture to another. If the frame enclosed itself, and like the painting tried to tell a complicated story in one single picture, it would therefore leave its predecessor and its successor behind, with the link broken. The closest, a frame in a comic book gets to the painting, is the opening panel of a scene or the overview pictures, and here you often see a great care for detail in the drawing.

The finished comic should therefore be judged by the way, the single elements are perfectly fit together into an independant piece of art. And not, as if the single elements were unique artworks by themselves. Like the musicians in a symphony orchestra cannot all play solos, the single elements of a comic must work together to form a whole. That is why, the ship Pachamac in The Sun Temple is shown only from two angles in a total of 12 pictures in the story. It is not the ship, that is of importance, but the actions and the conversation of the characters. But as these actions take their offspring from the presence of the ship, it must be shown in the background, represented by a symbolic silhouette, for the reader to remember it. And the instant, Tintin gets aboard the ship, the details of the vessel is brought to the foreground. And naturally the artist uses references from books to draw the deck and the windlass, and get on with the story.

Especially in the case of Hergé it is evident, that a lot of background details are drawn from photos in books or from models (The moon rocket and Carreidas' jet plane). But it is the story, that is of importance, and the artistic goal for the backgrounds are just to fit them naturally into the rest of the drawings. In the end, it is Hergé's own idea, that the remainings of a dead dromedary is to lie in the desert in Le Crabe aux Pinces d'Or, even if he has drawn it from a photo by J. Pascal Sebah from 1870. The dromedary skeleton is noting in itself, and the only reason that it affects Tintin, Haddock and the reader is because of the events prior to its discovery.

As a whole, the search for the sources of Hergé offers an amazing opportunity to glance Hergé over the shoulder, as he put together the adventures of Tintin: From where did the inspiration come? The biographies published in my country give a few hints, but leave far too many questions unanswered about the genesis of the individual adventures. One would wish, somebody had asked Hergé, when he lived.

In a 50 year anniversary book published by the danish publishing company, Runepress, in 1979, a passage read, that Hergé had used some colorpaintings of ancient Inca life from Géographie Magazine. That the magazine was National Geographic's February 1938 issue, became evident some years ago, when I purchased a bound collection of the volumes 1938-63. In that issue, a certain H. M. Herget had made a dozen colorful watercolors, which without any doubt made their way into the pages of The Sun Temple 6 years later.

Obviously, Hergé regularly read National Geographic during the late 1930s, just like Carl Barks and Hal Foster did. In the September 1938 issue there is a feature on deep sea diving, that makes you recall Red Rackham's Treasure: A helmetwearing diver scares away sharks, a wriggling dolphin is hoisted aboard a ship with a rope attached to its tail, people are sitting in a rowing boat, glancing through a looking glass at the divers below.

In December 1938 National Geographic reports from the Arab-Jewish conflict in British-occupied Palestine: Attempts in the cities, ambushing arabs in the hills and exploded pipelines. In September 1939 Land of Black Gold started in Le Petit Vingtieme.

Abdallah, the son of the Emir in Land of Black Gold, is inspired by a real person: The boy king of Iraq, then 6-year-old King Feisal II. A press photo of the king, issued by International News, is printed in National Geographic's August 1941 issue, and the resemblance to the painted portrait on page 39 of Land of Black Gold is evident. The story was interrupted by the war, and not finished before 1949. Probably Abdullah was not a part of Hergé's original script for the story, but an idea that emerged after the war.

But Hergé also looked for inspiration from other sources: In the end of the 1920s he discovered, that american comics used balloons. He read Bringing Up, Father, Krazy Kat, and The Katzenjammer Kids, comics that used a plain graphic style like his own.

Also the silent movie era must have been a source of inspiration. In fact Hergé's first comic is titled Hergé's Moving Pictures. Film stars like Charles Chaplin, Harry Langdon, Buster Keaton, Tom Mix, Rodolph Valentino and Douglas Fairbanks have left remarkable traces in the early adventures of Tintin, packed as they are with car chases and imaginative ways of getting out of dangerous situations.

Authors like Daniel Defoe, Rider Haggard, A.A. Milne, Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allen Poe, Alexandre Dumas and perhaps most of all Jules Verne have influenced Hergé. On the film front, there are a couple of peculiar coincidents. In Gold Rush from the mid-1920s Chaplin and his gold-digger companion are starving to death. Hallucinating, the friend watches Chaplin transform into a fat chicken, and chases Chaplin around the cabin. The scene stayed in the back of Hergé's mind until 1941, when Hergé had Captain Haddock watch Tintin transform into a refreshing bottle of champagne, after having walked through the desert of Spanish Sahara in The Crab with Golden Claws. Out of his mind with thirst, Haddock tries to uncork Tintin. Thus, Hergé has borrowed an idea, but he has payed back in full: The gag is turned and adapted to the personality of Captain Haddock, which is under construction as a character at that moment.

The Marx Brothers must have been one of Hergé's favorites, too. Three times I have seen sequences of Marx Brothers films, which I remembered reading in Tintin books. I tried to photograph the scenes, but the result was poor. Instead, I will now describe the scenes in words.

The first example is from Horse Feathers (August 1932). The Marx Brothers ravage an American university, and during the final football match Harpo throws banana peels under the feet of his followers. They fall, but one of them thows a banana under Harpo, and touchdown is prevented. In Cigares of the Pharaoh there is a matching sequence, in which Tintin are arrested by the indian police on a railroad station.

The next example is from Duck Soup (November 1933). Fridonia is at war with Sylvania(!), and Harpo is sent for help, but is instead locked up in a detonating ammunitions depot, with grenades flying around his head very much like Land of Black Gold.

Finally, in A Night at the Opera, the Marx Brothers are stowaways, trying to escape from their cabin through the porthole and alongside the exterior side of the steamer. Harpo climbs a rope into a cabin above with three sleeping, bearded men. The scene resembles Tintins escape from the Karaboudjan's lower deck through the porthole and the exterior side of the ship, into Captain Haddock's cabin.

The influence of Jules Verne can be traced several places. In Jo, Zette and Jocko's adventure Le "Manitoba ne répond and L'éruption du Karamako there is a strong resemblance to Jules Verne's A Journey under the Sea. More direct is the previously mentioned sequence from The Sun Temple, in which Tintin wants to investigate, if Professor Calculus is aboard Pachamac. He and Haddock sail halfway to the ship in their rowing boat, and Tintin swims to the anchor chain and climbs it. Aboard the ship he is discovered by Chiquito, and jumps into the sea with bullets flying around his head. In Jules Verne's book The Mysterious Island the shipwrecked Ayrton and the very much Haddock-like sailor Pencroff rows to the pirate ship in the bay, and Ayrton swims to the anchor chain and climbs it. Aboard the ship he is discovered by the captain, and jumps into the sea with bullets flying around his head.

Aboard the pirate ship, Ayrton got an indomitable inclination to blow up the vessel with everything aboard. Surely there was no shorfrage of powder, as "Speedy" was a pirate ship. One single spark would be enough. Ayrton sneaked his way to the middledeck, where a bunch of people were lying unconscious from drinking rather than sleeping. Then he prowled astern to reach the cabin, where the powder room would be." But he is interrupted by the captain, just like Frantz, Knight of Haddoque in The Secret of the Unicorn.

In the end of The Mysterious Island, Pencroff, Cyrus Smith, Nab, Harbert and Co. are all at sea: The vulcano has deatroyed most of their island, and in the end there is just a little left, and it is sinking into the sea. In the last minute a ship emerges from the horizon to rescue them, and immediately afterwards the island is swallowed up by the sea. This is an obvious parallel to The Shooting Star. By the way, Hergé was 3 years old, when Halley's comet reached the Earth in 1910.

Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines (1885) ends with the heroes being rescued by an eclipse of the Sun, just like Tintin in The Sun Temple, but before that, they have also been trapped in a grotto filled with diamonds, which one of them fills in his pockets. As does Captain Haddock with the gold nuggets, they find on one of the pages, that did not make it to the final 62-page edition of The Sun Temple.

Finally, A.A. Milne's story of Winnie the Pooh wandering around a mulberry bush, finding his own tracks and believing they belong to a veasel, who is following him, resemble the sequence from Land of Black Gold ten years later, in which the two detectives Thomson and Thompson drives around the desert in their jeep, and find their own tracks.