Illustration: Tintin and Snowy, © HERGÉ / Moulinsart 2011 -- All Rights Reserved
ON MARCH 3RD, 1983, the French daily Libération ran under an unusual cover: Against a black background, as though seen through a telescope, a circular drawing portrayed a cowlicked boy lying face down in the snow while a white fox terrier keened brokenly beside him. Tintin est Mort! tolled the headline. It was in fact Hergé, the Belgian-born creator of the tufty-haired hero, who had departed the day prior, but the headline of that issue — in which Libération replaced every illustration, including those for political news, TV listings, weather reports, and even ads, with drawings from Hergé's canon — indicated the extent to which the man had become enmeshed with his famous creation. For the French-speaking world, it may as well have been Tintin who'd died, rather than the man who, despite valuing lightness, clarity, and humor above all, was never nearly so clear and precise in his politics as he was in his art. Hergé's style, to bowdlerize Roland Barthes, might be called biographical: He and Tintin are linked by this very tension between truth and simplicity.
The Tintin stories — published in 1929 in the right-leaning Catholic newspaper Le Petit Vingtieme, then later in Hergé's own Journal Tintin and the series of Casterman albums through which we know them now — are celebrated for what the Dutch artist Joost Swarte, writing in 1977, dubbed Hergé's ligne claire, or "clear line," style. In his use of uniform, strong lines, flat, saturated color, and clearly delineated shapes and volumes, Hergé negotiates between the techniques of his era's naturalistic adult adventure comics like Chester Gould's Dick Tracy and those of gag-based newspaper strips like Bud Fisher's Mutt and Jeff. While his characters are cartoonishly simple, his backgrounds — from the gorgeous Byzantine murals in King Muskar's palace to the white voids of Tibet — are lush and rigorously detailed. The scenery in a Tintin comic is never static; it moves and turns and anchors the characters in space and, thanks to Hergé's use of different angles and zooms, in time and mood as well. Large elaborate "silent" panels — set even in the heart of action — enrich the story and give it room to breathe. The comics theorist Scott McCloud, in his graphic nonfiction treatise Understanding Comics, suggests that this complexity, in combination with the characters' simplified faces, produces multiple levels of realism that "allow readers to mask themselves in a character and safely enter a sensually stimulating world." Hergé's use of setting and his exacting depiction of movement — in which Tintin and his friends seem to rush from one panel to the next and yet remain grounded, their feet resting on a panel's lower frame — presses composition into the service of legibility.
The "clear line" style also enables Hergé to handle serious subjects with an exquisite lightness: a technique appealing to some, exasperatingly old-fashioned to others. Unsurprisingly, Tintin has come to epitomize not only children's adventure comics as a genre but also a kind of halcyon European colonial past. The earliest Tintin stories — Tintin in the Land of the Soviets and Tintin in the Congo — are catalogs of anti-Bols...