The Comic Adventures of 'Tintin and I'

Director Anders Ostergaard talks about Tintin and I, a cult comic that delves into the mind of artist Hergé, Tintin's Belgian creator. Ostergaard's new film about the comic premieres Tuesday on PBS at 10 p.m.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

And now, Tintin. For millions of children, the intrepid boy reporter Tintin was a childhood hero, detailed in painstaking color by his Belgian creator, Herge.

A new documentary by Danish director Anders Ostergaard highlights some of the ambiguities of Tintin's creator. In fact, Herge's life had little in common with Tintin's adventures, as Michael Farr, Tintin scholar, notes in the film.

(Soundbite of movie “Tintin and I”)

Mr. MICHAEL FARR (Author; Tintin Scholar): Tintin traveled all over the world. I mean, there are few continents Tintin didn't go to. So Tintin traveled everywhere: Herge traveled nowhere. He was an armchair traveler, and he knew about these countries because of the research. He did all the research, so you know, he read like mad.

He kept everything which might possibly be of interest, from newspapers, from magazines and catalogues, from railway timetables; the most amazing variety of materials. He would cut out, he would stick on a bit of cardboard, and he would file them.

NEARY: The film is called, Tintin and I, and it airs on PBS's documentary program POV this evening.

Director Anders Ostergaard is joining us now from Jordan to talk about the film. Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. ANDERS OSTERGAARD (Director, Tintin and I): Oh, thank you.

NEARY: What made you want to make a film about Herge? Were you a fan of Tintin as a child?

NEARY: I would almost say, of course I was a fan, because that goes for millions of European kids. It was part and parcel of my generation. You know, French comics, Asterix, Lucky Luke, and not least, Tintin.

NEARY: Yeah.

Mr. OSTERGAARD: So I was a huge fan, yeah.

NEARY: The film makes extensive use of a 1971 interview with Herge. How did that fall into your hands? Tell us a little bit about that interview.

Mr. OSTERGAARD: How it turned up?

NEARY: Yes. And just a little bit about, yeah, about...

Mr. OSTERGAARD: Well, actually, the funny thing is I already had the concept for the film and was just dying to make it before I knew about the tapes. I was just fascinated by Herge's life story, as I had read about it. And when I was talking to the Herge Foundation, they said, hey, you know, we have these tapes in a safe. They'd been lying there for, you know, almost 30 years, just waiting to be discovered. And they were actually part - they were the material for a book that was published, but the fact was that it was censored heavily, so it was a whole new story that was on those tapes.

NEARY: Yeah. Tell us a little bit about how that interview came about. And it lasted for like a week or something. They spent a lot of time together.

Mr. OSTERGAARD: Yeah. A week. Yeah. The strange thing is that it was quite spontaneous. We have this French student coming to Brussels to try and sort of doorstep all of the great creators of comics, and he turns up at Herge's office and sits down and somehow the conversation goes on for four days. And I think what happened was that here, Herge met a person representing a whole new generation. You know, this was '68, a generation with long hair and hippy clothes and what have you, and he was fascinated with that generation. I think he felt that this was the right kind of person to tell his life story.

NEARY: We are talking about the documentary that airs tonight on many PBS stations about the creator of the comic Tintin. If you would like to join the discussion, if - you may call 800-989-8255.

I want to talk about how Tintin came about. I was interested to learn that this comic character, so popular, was created while Herge was working for a very right-wing Catholic newspaper.

Mr. OSTERGAARD: That's true. That's true. He was very - the Tintin character was very much the invention of his editor, an Abbot, a clergyman, called the Nobel Ville(ph). And he wanted a catholic hero to inspire the kids to follow Catholic values, even right-wing Catholic values. Because the first commission that Herge got - he used to be in the ad department, he was promoted to the kids section - the first commission he got was to draw Tintin in the Soviet Union, which was a sheer piece of anti-communist agitation, you could say.

NEARY: But, it - let's talk a little bit about Herge's relationship with politics, because when the Nazi's occupied Belgium, Herge continued - or worked for a Nazi-controlled newspaper.

Mr. OSTERGAARD: Yeah.

NEARY: And it seems as though he didn't quite understand that this was a problem from the film. I mean, he - the film seems to say that he was really a political naïve, in some way, but...

Mr. OSTERGAARD: Yeah, well, I don't think he was. I think he was naïve at the time, but I think, first of all, we must say that he was a bit of an escapist. If he could avoid taking responsibility in these questions, he would at that time. And that was sort of what persecuted him, through his - most of his adult life, that he was not really able to step into character, you could say. That came much later in his '50s, when suddenly he sort of had to face reality and wake up.

NEARY: Yeah, because what was interesting about the way he dealt with this was that, even, you know, after the war ended, like other former employees of the Nazi-controlled press, he was arrested. He was put in jail for one night and then blacklisted. Of course, as you said, this devastated him. But he still seemed to not really understand; he seemed to feel like he had been persecuted...

Mr. OSTERGAARD: Well, the thing was that he was told all the time that he was doing the right thing, from exactly - from back in 1929, he was sort of - he couldn't imagine that since he was living up to all the Catholic values that he could be on the wrong side somehow. And it came as a huge surprise. And it amazes me too, but that's how it was. He felt it was a gross injustice. And of course he was right in the sense that he was never, I mean, he was acquitted of all accusations in legal terms, although he was still blacklisted by the press unions. So he took a long time coming to terms with this.

NEARY: Do you see all this reflected in his - in the story of Tintin, in his -in those stories and in the books?

Mr. OSTERGAARD: Yeah, I do sense that he is not quite aware. It's his subconscious that's really at work here. Its not - when he deals with strange things, surreal things, when he deals even with political issues, it's like he's not really aware of what he is. He used to call - he would call himself a sponge later on. Realizing he was a kind of guy who'd soak up material and let it flow through him, so to speak. So he was almost not aware that he was putting all this content into this piece of children's entertainment, which was supposed to be quite innocent, and turned out to be everything Herge.

NEARY: Anders Ostergaard is director of Tintin and I, which premiers tonight on PBS. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

If you'd like to join our discussion, give us a call at 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. And let's go now to Michael. He is in North Carolina. Hi, Michael.

MICHAEL (Caller): Hi. Thanks for the opportunity to speak on this issue. And thank you Anders for the work that you've done in this regard.

I discovered Tintin in the '70s and was fascinated by the excellence of Herge's art, as well as his humor. Thompson and Thompson, for instance. And this is an interesting section to follow on what was given just a little bit before about grups and adult juveniles. I sometimes feel like I'm in that category as I have enjoyed reading Tintin to my children, who have grown up loving it as well. So I look forward to seeing this tonight on PBS, and thank you again for the work you've done in this regard.

NEARY: Thanks for the call, Michael.

Mr. OSTERGAARD: Thank you very much.

NEARY: Very interesting, Anders, to hear that call because, you know, these comics were created back in the 1930s. Now, here's a guy who read them as a child and now he's reading them to his children.

Mr. OSTERGAARD: Yeah.

NEARY: What do you think accounts for the longevity of - the popularity of Tintin?

Mr. OSTERGAARD: Well, the stories are strong. I mean, the artistic level is high. He has a wonderful blend of the real and the surreal and of adventure and suspense and humor all mixed into one. When you make things at that level, they won't die out.

But there's another funny thing about it. You do get a sort of timeless feel sometimes with Tintin, and the paradox is that he's quite accurate about, you know, cars and trains and all those things, which are very related to a specific time. But somehow, and I know it's a strange paradox, but somehow by being so accurate, he also always becomes timeless. Funny thing.

NEARY: Interesting. Let's go to Giovanni(ph), and Giovanni is in Phoenix, Arizona. Hi, Giovanni.

GIOVANNI (Caller): Hello. Yeah, I'm a big Tintin fan. I've been reading it since I was in second grade, I think.

Mr. OSTERGAARD: Bravo.

GIOVANNI: And speaking to the timelessness point you just made, I noticed in books like, Land of the Black Gold, or, Tintin and The Picaros, the themes he talked about are really prevalent today, as far as like leftist guerrillas in (unintelligible).

Mr. OSTERGAARD: Oh, yeah.

GIOVANNI: And, I don't know, a struggle for oil and sabotage in Land in the Black Gold. And, yeah, I just wanted to share that, and I'll take my comment off the air. Thank you.

NEARY: Okay. Thanks very much. You know, I'm not a big reader of Tintin, so you're going to have to respond to that for me, Anders, because I'm not that familiar with the storylines, actually.

Mr. OSTERGAARD: No, of course. I recognize what the listener is saying, that somehow he'd get these ideas, somehow you get the strange feeling of premonition: that he would foresee or be able to see through the times. I mean, he foresaw the moon landing. Already in 1950, he was making his own fantasy about traveling to the moon, and was really quite accurate about a lot of details. But, time and again, you had this sense that he would have a strange kind of intuition for what was going to happen, not just what happened.

NEARY: I had the sense from the film, maybe I'm wrong, but I had this - he got tired of the character after a certain point (unintelligible).

Mr. OSTERGAARD: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. This, you know, this is connected to seeing himself breaking down as a moralist - realizing that he's not morally perfect, as he certainly did after the war. Of course, he had a crisis in his relationship with his perfect Boy Scout hero he was drawing every day. He knew that something was not quite how it should be. So what you see in the series, obviously, and he sees that himself, is he identifies more and more with Captain Haddock, which is - Haddock, which is Tintin's close friend. And who is a very human and vulnerable and temperamental guy.

NEARY: Well, thank you so much for joining us. I really appreciate it. It was fun talking with you.

Mr. OSTERGAARD: Okay. My pleasure.

NEARY: Anders Ostergaard is the director of the documentary, Tintin and I, which airs tonight on PBS, and he joined us by phone while traveling in Jordan.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

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