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How to Tintin

Reading Pierre Assoiline’s Herge: The Man Who Created Tintin and came across this amazing section.

There was one thing on which they never agreed. Herge wanted gags everywhere, in every comic strip. Martin believed that they took up too much room and wanted them to be used in moderation. He would explain, in vain, that his stories did not rely on the comic element but on suspense. Even their concept ofthe gag was different. Herge’s notion was less and less mechanical, more and more free form; Martin remained in the slapstick spirit of Max Sennett. Herge indulged in situations that were more and more absurd; Martin preferred the car chase.
Once the lineup at the Studios was complete, the division of responsi- bilities occurred fairly naturally. To Bob De Moor fell the work of the background and decor, to Jacques Martin the plot and characters. But as soon as he received his first assignment, Martin realized that were he ever to become known it would not be thanks to Herge. His job was to finish The Valley of Cobras, the final adventure ofJo, Zette, and Jocko, of which only the first twenty-five plates had been completed. They both worked on the story, but Martin did all the drawings. However, the publisher would not let him cosign the book with Herge. Herge also opposed it; he had, after all, paid Martin to do it.
Martin and De Moor quickly were given the space necessary to devote to their own projects. But when they worked on projects for the Studios, it was as hired hands. Though he treated them as colleagues and friends rather than as employees, Herge always distanced himself from them. The Studios was named for Herge, not Tintin. When someone had the good fortune to become a member, he or she understood the terms.
It was about telling a story-nothing more, nothing less. If you wanted to make pictures, give up comic strips and show your work in a gallery. Herge had been saying this for twenty-five years. He had an ideal conception of the comic strip and held to it. He could not conceive of his profession in any other terms. His experience only reinforced his conviction.
A story began with an idea. He did not look for it because that was the best way of not finding it. It came naturally, out of the moment, the news, chance meetings, the circumstances of life. Herge was a sponge; he absorbed everything he observed. Intense periods o f receptivity sometimes alternated with long dry spells. Why? He did not want to know. He was afraid of discovering the inner mechanism that made them function. Or stagnate. He was schooled in the adventure novel, the detective story, and silent movies; he could not start without a thread. When he had it firmly in hand right from the start, then he could advance fearlessly into the maze of
empty plates.
When he was pressed on the subject of the inspiration of his work,
Herge always maintained that nothing was premeditated. The artist was not an intellectual; he was intuitive. Everything was born of instinct. In his mind the line came directly from his unconscious, where it proliferated without losing the pace of an adventure. Among his imitators everything became too premeditated. Talented illustrators were able to imitate Herge’s hand and plagiarize his stories, but none other than he could ever reconsti- tute his touch.
Herge believed that the comic strip artist was a kind of novelist with pictures, and consequently sui generis. The goal of this humble artisan in a subgenre was to entertain young people by offering and cultivating a type of morality. He would feel guilty if his work degenerated into violence or
vulgarity, which he loathed. Yet for all that, he refused to see himself as a moralizer or an educator.
From his illustrators he expected a steady hand, confidence when confronting the blank page. Shadows and chiaroscuro were to be banished as worthless conventions. Herge’s aversion to shading and toning down the colors stemmed from the days when such techniques were prohibited by the poor-quality paper. It coincided with his tendency to focus on only the essentials, with just one goal: maximum comprehension. Herge played the card of absolute clarity to the point of transparency. Clarity
was the one great quality he granted the American comic strips of the 1930s.
He let himself daydream as he was drawing, but only within strict limits. His imagination was free but always under surveillance. Traditional in his storytelling techniques, Herge was modern in his rejection of nostalgia.
The legibility of the composition and the soundness of the graphics were indispensable qualities of a naturally creative person, the results of a highly trained eye. Learning to draw was first about learning to see.

Herge’s Guide to Comic Book Composition

  1. Find a story line sturdy enough to hold for the whole course of the adventure. A simple chase connecting gags is not enough.
  2. Find a story that is believable enough to seem true. Jot it down on paper, in twenty lines, maximum.
  3. Divide up the story, panel by panel, plate by plate. Each page has to conclude with an element ofsuspense.
  4. Penciling-in stage: sketch the figures with a cursory background drawn with 9-cm (3.54-in) squares on Steinbach paper measuring 51 by 36cm (20 by 14 in) in size, within a useful format of40 by 29.5cm (15.75 by 11.6 in), which is to say twice as large as a book page. Divide the sheet into four strips of9.5 by 29.5cm (3.74 by 11.6 in) each, separated by a blank space 6.5cm (2.55 in) wide. (The blank areas were used as scrap paper, combining all the early
    versions. All sorts of notations were scribbled there: portraits, objects, landscapes, lists of names, addresses, and telephone numbers.)

When the characters are sketched, everyone takes turns posing, including Herge himself Everything is still open to debate. The plate is often criss- crossed with broad strokes of the eraser and things crossed out. It will only start looking “normal” when the action is set.

  1. Final drawings are copied square by square to offer a better selection and reframed and placed on another white page, which will become the definitive plate. Touch-ups and final details are added. Copy is moved around. Herge ceaselessly sought simplifi- cation. His objective: hide the scaffolding.
  2. Coloring stage: focus on the costumes and the background decor, relying on a solid base ofdocumentation. Exactitude is required, as the settings (desert, sea, moon, jungle) aren’t static.
  3. The inking stage is done on Schoeller-Parole paper, with a Gillott’s Inqueduct G-2 pen (made in England) ofstainless steel, which can be cleaned in water and has a small ink reservoir. (Herge stocked up on these pens before the war. Thirty years later he still had a few. He used to sharpen them with a steel file to conserve them as long as possible.)
  4. Photographed by the photo engraver, the black-and-white plate is transferred to transparent film accompanied by several proofs on blue-gray paper.
  5. More coloring: the colors applied in flats do not take into account shadows or shading. Watercolor is used for delicate tints, Ecoline for bright colors, and, if necessary, gouache for opaque colors. (Herge established standard guidelines. For example, there were
    to be two superimposed layers for Tintin’s sweater to bring out the color’s full intensity.)
  6. Set out the dialogues on the typewriter to gauge the exact number ofletters for each vignette, to calculate, with the help ofa grid, their position in the dialogue balloons. Draw in the letters. Lettering is delicate because it poses numerous problems. (At these times they also had to consider the English translators, who had to change the French Milou into “Snowy,” the only accept-
    able name in five letters that would not exceed the line when Tintin spoke to his dog.)
  7. Last, add the graphics ofsound effects, which consist essentially of “Crack!” “Bang!” “Bzzzz.”

All the elements (the frame, the page, the picture, etc.) are subordinate to the story. It’s all about facilitating the narration, and, as always, clarity and legibility are the two fundamentals. The reader should be able to iden- tify the characters and understand the action when opening the book to any page. There are no frames remaining purely for atmosphere once the
book is finished. No frame is extraneous. Ideally each one serves a double function: it picks up on the preceding frame and anticipates the frame that follows. To accomplish this Herge sometimes had to make substantial cuts. When done successfully, the result is as intricate as lace. His colleagues understood this only when it came time to recast one of his earlier works. It was sometimes easier to start from zero rather than risk ruining the miniaturist character o f his work.
His gags were the only narrative element that maintained their autonomy. They could be displaced without damaging the story, but there was one absolute condition: they had to obey an internal logic that corre- sponded to a rhythm in three parts: the set-up, the crescendo, and the fall. In his personal notes Herge always marked them briefly in a telegraphic style, summing up the gag in a few words. Without realizing it, he had created a madcap inventory:

  • Mistake due to darkness: saddles a cow instead of a horse, turns on the switch ofthe television instead ofthe lights, beats up his partner instead of the enemy.
  • Policemen: they come to board the boat. The gangplank is sawed through. Plouf
  • Distracted scientist or policeman: Put a fishbowl on his head instead of his bowler hat.
  • Detective takes Snowy’s paw prints.