The World of Tintin 'Study Day' 15 May 2004

Maritime Museum, Greenwich.

Paul Gravett (blue shirt with black bag) and Benoit Peeters (cream jacket with black bag) can be seen walking together towards the museum.

Photograph © Garen Ewing.

The World of Tintin 'study day' was held at the Greenwich Maritime Museum, London, where there is also an ocean-themed Tintin exhibition to coincide with Tintin's 75th birthday, The Adventures of Tintin at Sea. It was a beautiful sunny day, and Greenwich is really one of the nicest places to be on a day like this, though it certainly did attract a lot of people who thought the same thing.

After picking up my tickets I met up with Chris (Harrock n Roll), a fellow tintinologist, and was surprised to discover that not only did we both work as designers, but we also both played the bass guitar in bands... but he's much taller than me! I was also surprised to see that the small lecture theatre where the day's talks would take place was not packed out, in fact there were perhaps only about 30 or so people there, and one of the organisers stated that about 20 people hadn't turned up. At least this gave it all quite a nice intimate feel.

The first talk was by Michael Farr, author of 'Tintin The Complete Companion', and he went through some slides mainly straight from his excellent book detailing Hergé's research sources, but he had many interesting notes to add. For instance, if you have Michael's book and look on page 154, you will see a photograph (no.4) of a German U-Boat commander. A French ex-naval officer approached him after he had given a similar slide-show talk in France and told him that although the submarine was indeed a German U-Boat, the uniform of the periscope operator was in fact French. Intrigued, Michael Farr looked into the matter further and discovered it was actually a photo of a French Vichy commander, that part of France that had sided with the Nazis during the war. This aptly illustrates the level of detail and hard work that he will go to in his reasearch, and Mr. Farr really is a knowledgeable Tintinophile with facts and anecdotes at his fingertips. He was also an excellent and intreresting speaker.

Next up was Paul Gravett, someone I have long admired as a champion of quality comics in the UK, and who, if I remember correctly, would like to set up a permanent comic strip museum for the country, similar to Brussels' amazing and inspiring Musée de Bande Dessinée. I hope he succeeds! His talk was on the evolution of the ligne clair style of bande dessiné, from who and what influenced Hergé, to who and what were influenced by Hergé - he really is at the head of a whole respected school of European comic art. If you have read Paul's articles 'Hergé and the Clear Line' from Comic Art magazine (thank you Paul Harrison for sending me those), then this was basically his talk. Paul charted the origins of Hergé's style from early influences such as Rabier (who designed the 'laughing cow' logo), Pinchon (Bécassine), Saint-Ogan (Zig et Puce) and Erté, through to the inheritors of his legacy such as the various Hergé Studio artists (Vandersteen, Jacobs, Martin, de Moor, Leloup), Swarte, Floc'h, Chaland, Stanislas and even Trondheim. Very fascinating - almost too much to take in in one go, but Paul kindly offered to take people's emails and send them the text of his talk (the article). During the talk, Paul handed out various albums for us to flick through, some of which I already had, and some I wish I had.

Chris, Elyssa and I had our sandwiches in the park behind the museum and then had a quick look round the exhibition. It was nicely put together, smaller than I had imagined, but very good, and I'd certainly consider another visit with a bit more time to devote to it. The first display case held a very interesting Hergé self-portrait from 1930, which I'd never seen before, and one of his dip pens, almost like an altar. The highlight of the exhibition were the various pieces of original artwork, which quite frankly I could sit in front of and stare at all day. Hergé's line is beautiful, almost perfection, and the composition within each and every panel is just wonderful. If you have never seen an original piece of Hergé Tintin artwork then do everything to make sure you can, it's quite an experience and really is a world apart from seeing the same images printed in a book. Even the very early 'Soviets' artwork is wonderful to see, and mostly amazingly preserved - all very inspiring pieces. I noticed they were all at a fairly low level on the wall, showing that the exhibition is very children-friendly. At the end of the exhibition you come out into the obligatory shop. I didn't want to be too tempted by all the lovely stuff on offer, so just went straight for the 'The Adventures of Tintin at Sea' book, which I highly recommend getting hold of.

The afternoon's talks began with the much-venerated Michael Turner and Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper, the English translators of the Tintin books, who enjoyed a close working relationship with Hergé and are a very important part of the Tintin scene for any British reader, as their own love of the books made sure we ended up with a version of Hergé's ouvre that was as meticulous as the artist himself was. They too had some fascinating anecdotes and stories to tell, and some excellent insights into the work itself, as well as of the publishing world in which Tintin made his entrance to this country. Indeed, some of the most absorbing slides they had to show were of the promotional pieces Hergé drew especially for Tintin's introduction into the UK. Michael Turner looks very much as though he could quite easily become one of Hergé's mad professor characters, but they are both lovely and approachable people.

Bernard Tordeur, one of the three employees at Fondation Hergé was next up to the lecturn. He apologised for his English, which was actually rather good, but I was particularly amused by the expression of mild shock on the chairman of the day's face, Robert Blyth, when, after a brief introduction, he said his 'talk' would consist of answering questions from the floor. There was a bit of a pause before a few people thought of something to ask and it all got going - though things weren't looking too bright when his answer to the first question was a single word, 'no', then an awkward silence. Information, generally, was slow in coming and though what Bernard did have to say was of great interest, I felt it wasn't given up too freely. Someone asked about the possible Spielberg film, and though obviously under orders not to give anything away on this subject, he did, after squirming a bit and saying he'd expected this question, confirm it was a definite project. I asked how much of Hergé's original artwork still existed in the archives, and he made a guess that possibly 80-85% remains. The rest, I suggested, might be hanging on the walls of ex-studio employees, at which he laughed in a way I thought he might agree. He also said that one of the more fascinating collections in the archive was the huge amount of correspondence relating to Hergé and his work. Oh for a published collection of those letters (many written by Hergé and revealing much about his ideas)! In Bernard's defence he was speaking in a second language, but there is, I think, a general feeling that the whole Moulinsart estate is a bit of a closed shop, perhaps a remnant of the business politics that followed Hergé's death in 1983, and that making money from Hergé's legacy is the priority. If this is not the case, then it must be recognised that public relations are an important aspect towards diminishing this feeling that does exist, justifiably or not. I do think many serious Tintin fans feel as though the Hergé archives are being 'protected' from the public. I suppose the question is, does the public have a right to those archives? The horizon is looking brighter though, as Bernard mentioned the planned Hergé museum that will exist outside Brussels in the next few years. It's very interesting how this mirrors, almost exactly, the Charlie Chaplin estate. The Chaplin family have, for years, been fairly closed about letting people into the 'inner circle' and archives, but in the past year things have started to open out and there have been more and more books and DVDs with excellent material being at last made available. I hope this will happen more with Hergé. One job Fondation Hergé is currently working through is digitising many of the items to make them more accessible, though Tordeur, in a telling answer to a question about how one could view the archives, answered 'if you are very lucky'.

The day's lecturers next assembled at the front for a question and answer panel. It's a shame this couldn't have been longer, but was still very absorbing. I'd have liked to have heard more from Paul Gravett who has some very interesting and worthwhile views on comics, and Michael Farr again showed his fingertip knowledge of the world of Tintin and all things Hergé, giving particular insight into the misguided accusations that George Remis was a collaborator during the German occupation of Belgium. There was hardly a peek out of Monsieur Tordeur, despite some encouragement from Michael Farr. I hope I'm not being unfair to Bernard who did add nicely to the day, and was perhaps a bit overwhelmed by it all. One thing Michael Turner said I could definitely relate to, that Hergé's last sketchy panel from Tintin et Alph-Art, where he is being marched off to his possible doom, is one of the most moving images in the world of art. This is so true, and I have often found myself staring at these ghostly pencil lines and contemplating their implications for quite a few minutes. It has the same resonance you feel when reading the last entry of a published diary, often written only a day or two before its author passes away.

The last item on the day's agenda was the UK premiere showing of the documentary 'Tintin et Moi', which I was very much looking forward to, but while that was being set up there was a bit of a disorganised jumble to get autographs from the participants of the day's unique gathering. Due to this slight disorganisation I only managed to get the signatures of Michael Turner and Michael Farr, but not being much of an autograph hunter I didn't really mind. It would have been nice if this had been an organised part of the day though, perhaps with a queue past the panel's table after the question and answer session, which was hinted at earlier in the morning.

'Tintin et Moi' was very interesting, but ultimately slightly disappointing. It centred around the taped interviews with Hergé from the conversations Numa Sadoul conducted in the early seventies, but they were pictured with footage of Hergé that had a very annoying 'line-drawing' style filter applied to the image, possibly to hide the fact that words and pictures did not go together. It was a bit unnecessarily artsy, and had an overall melancholy atmosphere to it for some reason, partly due to the music and reflective images of autumnal trees and dark interiors. One bit I found very moving was the footage of Hergé at the airport to meet Tchang, Hergé himself looking in very poor health and quite overcome, Tchang looking slightly bewildered, and the whole thing surrounded by a media circus that can't have helped. Overall it was good, but I wished for more, particularly more insight into the creative process. There was some excellent interview footage on a TV programme a few years ago called Outer Limits (a sort of children's version of the South Bank Show), presented by Harry Thompson and partly taking place at Fondation Hergé. An hour-long version of this was, I think, more what I was hoping for! In fact Chris told me he had seen a version of Tintin et Moi off Swiss television that was an hour and twenty minutes, almost half an hour longer than the cut we saw. Having said all that, I am glad Tintin et Moi exists at all, and look forward to it being made more widely available in the UK at some time.

The documentary ended and left everyone, I think, feeling rather reflective. By this time the Greenwich museum had closed and so we were ushered out of side entrance into the late-afternoon sun, where our fellow travellers into the World of Tintin filtered away. I very much enjoyed the day, and felt I had been to a unique and special event. It was very nice to meet Chris and to bask in the presence of fellow tintinophiles.

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