Not just cartooning around

by Victoria James

Having devoured all 23 volumes of illustrator Herge’s “The Adventures of Tintin” during my childhood, I’ve never since felt inclined to pick them up again. Nonetheless — though the scrapes of the Belgian boy reporter and his canine sidekick Snowy began life as a cartoon strip in the children’s weekly Le Petit Vingtieme — the series has always had legions of adult admirers, too.

Such young-at-heart fans will doubtless flock (with their children in tow) to “The Adventures of Tintin,” now at the Bunkamura Museum of Art. And they may well be satisfied, for with its plethora of models and tableaux, this colorful exhibition draws visitors into the visual world of Tintin and his companions.

Unfortunately, those seeking insight into Herge himself will be disappointed, as here the created, not the creator, most definitely takes center stage. However, in the case of Herge — real name Georges Remi (the pen name derives from the French pronunciation of his initials, R.G.) — this may serve to cast a convenient shade over certain areas of his life.

Dissenters from the cult of Tintin often talk of a “dark side” to Herge, and it’s one that custodians of his cartoon-strip heritage don’t care to promote. Despite growing up during the 1914-18 German occupation of Belgium during World War I, when German soldiers invaded once more on May 10, 1940, the artist smoothly switched publication of the upcoming Tintin story, “The Crab With the Golden Claws,” from Le Petit Vingtieme to the occupation-authorized newspaper Le Soir. This said, it’s worth noting that when the Belgian Fascist Movement asked Remi to become their official illustrator, he declined.

Though there’s not a hint of this on the walls of the Bunkamura, there is ample evidence of crude racial stereotyping. Defenders argue this is no worse than what was prevalent in Herge’s day (and Belgium was, like many other European countries, a colonial power), but it’s still disturbing to stand in front of frames from “Tintin in the Congo” (1930) showing the boy hero borne aloft by an adoring throng of thick-lipped, pop-eyed Africans resembling golliwogs.

The Japanese also got short shrift from Herge’s pen, and it was brave of the exhibition’s organizers to include panels from “The Blue Lotus,” written in 1934, the year after Japan’s Guandong Army completed the conquest of Manchuria. These portray buck-toothed Japanese politicians and brutal Guandong soldiers in just as caricatured a way as any Pacific War propaganda. For his pains, this “children’s cartoonist” was rewarded with an invitation to visit China from the wife of Chiang Kai-shek.

There is scant material from which to draw further conclusions, however, due to the dearth of illustrations amid all the colorful models inspired by the Tintin stories. Visitors are allowed the merest glimpse of Herge’s process and prowess as an artist. The few examples on show, though, are enough at least to demonstrate Herge’s mastery of “clear line” cartoon drawing, a style that contrasts greatly with the dense drawing popular in modern manga. It’s arresting to see how, even with such sparing strokes, spacewalk scenes from “Destination Moon” (1950) and a sequence depicting a storm at sea in “The Secret of the Unicorn” superbly capture the dynamics of movement.

Herge discovered modern art around 1960 and was an enthusiast for the rest of his life. The plot of “Tintin and Alph-Art,” left unfinished on his death in 1983, revolves around a cult that funds itself by art forgery.

The best of Herge’s work, too, is art — clear, accomplished and, for generations of children of all ages, entrancing.

Disappointing, then, that the largest room in this exhibition is the merchandise shop at the end. Sad, also, that we see so clearly how Herge’s art conformed with the racial stereotyping of his day, and are shown so little evidence of his indisputable artistic talents.