“Tintin est mort” ran a Liberation headline on March 4 1983. Georges Remi, better known by his pen-name Hergé, had passed away the day before in Brussels after a long illness. His homeland of Belgium was plunged into national mourning – and not just for its real-life native son. As the headline suggested, Hergé’s death marked the end of Tintin’s adventures, too. Where other illustrators have been happy for their characters to outlive them, drawn by other hands, Hergé had been unambiguous on the matter: no one else would be allowed to draw the cartoon. The 22-book series, which started in 1929 and introduced generations of youngsters to lands as far afield as Tibet and Egypt – all through the eyes of upstanding young reporter Tintin and his dog Snowy – had come to a close.
That’s not to say that its readers faded away. A generation after Hergé’s death, about two million Tintin books are sold every year, comfortably beating all but a few contemporary rivals. That figure will probably jump when the first of a planned trilogy of Tintin films to be directed by Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson comes out next year.
But long-time admirers of Hergé, many of whom knew him personally, are not happy. Many, in fact, are fretting over the way his legacy is being managed. The rumblings have become a long-running saga in Belgium, a country where bande dessinée comic strips remain a popular art form; the movie project will bring it to a global audience.
What are the concerns? There is a feeling that Tintin isn’t dead, but kidnapped – a charge voiced since 2001 by Hergé’s nephew. Critics think that a hero dedicated to children has become the lynchpin of a profit-minded machine that is stifling the enthusiasm of Tintin admirers. And the instigator of the cruel plot, as the fretters see it, is a slender, smooth-operating, 57-year-old Brit.
After Hergé’s death, the job of taking Tintin from a living series to a settled opus was left to several long-time artistic and business associates of the master. Many had been hired by him personally, often more for their drawing ability than any management nous. The results were sometimes haphazard.
The management underlings weren’t the only problem. At the head of the team sat Fanny Vlamynck, Hergé’s widow. Twenty-eight years the cartoonist’s junior, she had married him in 1977 after a two-decade affair throughout which he remained married to his first wife. Now Vlamynck found herself the sole beneficiary of his estate, including the rights to his life’s work. While she knew many of his collaborators from her time as a colouring assistant in his studio, she was shy, inexperienced in business matters and uncomfortable with her new responsibilities.
A few years after her husband’s death, Vlamynck had met a young Englishman called Nick Rodwell who sold Tintin merchandise from a shop in Covent Garden, London. Rodwell – who didn’t grow up on the Tintin albums but noted their wild popularity while on a trip to Paris in the early 1980s – had obtained the rights to sell themed merchandising in the UK; the “Tintin Shop”, launched with his then-girlfriend, Jane Taylor, opened in 1984. His dynamism soon caught the attention of Hergé’s former associates in Brussels, who were struggling to keep up with requests to license the Tintin brand.
By 1988, Rodwell and Vlamynck were in a romantic relationship; two years later, she nominated him to head Moulinsart – the company that manages the Tintin enterprise (named after the palatial home of Tintin character Captain Haddock). Her move raised eyebrows: Rodwell was young – 17 years younger than Vlamynck – and his French poor. Born and raised in London, the son of an entrepreneur, he had left school aged 18 and embarked upon a string of marketing schemes, including a mail-order jewellery import business. He stood in sharp contrast to the artistically minded Belgians who had guarded Tintin’s legacy since Hergé’s death.
It was Rodwell who felt that Moulinsart needed a change of direction. By the 1980s, Tintin’s face could be seen on myriad products, from pencil cases to mustard pots, from a dedicated children’s magazine to miniature cars. To Rodwell, this seemed incommensurate with the quality of the brand he was now heading.
Hergé himself had given little thought to the business of merchandising. “He was involved only in his creation, in his works,” Vlamynck told a French television interviewer last year. He had all but forgone any oversight of Tintin merchandising as part of a deal to restore his reputation in 1945. Hergé had produced comic strips for Le Soir newspaper throughout the war, even after it came under the control of the occupying Germans. His perceived collaboration barred him from newspaper work at the end of the war. Raymond Leblanc, a prominent Belgian resistance figure, offered him a solution: Leblanc lent Hergé some of his anti-Nazi credentials by going into partnership with him; in exchange, Hergé licensed his hero’s image for use as a marketing tool. Forever conscious of the favour, he never broke off the deal; the Tintin-branded mustard pots and more were the result.
Under Rodwell, this began to change. Moulinsart terminated all but a few of its long-running licensing contracts. It was not that the group wanted to curb Tintin’s appearances totally but Rodwell hoped to control the brand more effectively and apply more consistent standards by developing products in-house. What emerged over time was a centralised merchandising policy that pushed the brand relentlessly upmarket. The number of retailers authorised to sell the goods was reduced, creating a scarcity that had not existed before. It reflected the new ambitions: Rodwell began speaking of Tintin as the “Rolls-Royce” of comics, unworthy of being associated with cheap trinkets and give-aways.
What also emerged, as Tintin moved towards luxury marque status, was resentment from long-time fans. The products bearing Tintin’s likeness today are beautifully made but prohibitively expensive. A child’s rugby jersey at the flagship Tintin store in Brussels sells for €70. Resin figurines of Thomson and Thompson, the hapless detectives, retail at €250 each. On the website, watches start at €50. The books themselves, whose prices are not determined by Moulinsart but by the publisher, are displayed nearly as an afterthought. It is a retail world that is heavily geared towards older fans who remember growing up with the series. Compared with the stores run by the heirs of Walt Disney, a contemporary of Hergé’s whom he admired, the outlets stock little of interest for younger admirers.
The merchandising strategy also meant Moulinsart was enforcing its image rights more strictly than in the past. This broke a long-standing convention in the bande dessinée world, very conscious of its popular roots, that illustrators tread carefully when imposing their rights over their creations. Hergé had knowingly overlooked the use of Tintin’s likeness in fan publications and bande dessinée circles. Vlamynck originally continued that tradition; Rodwell did not. When the fans started receiving bills for tens of thousands of francs in licensing fees, many were outraged.
Of course, Tintin is not the only well-loved character from popular culture whose owners enforce their rights to the letter. Friends of Rodwell point to big-money copyright cases in visual series ranging from Spiderman to Winnie-the-Pooh. Disney regularly reasserts its claims over its stable of characters, in ways that some fans think is excessive. Hergé may indeed have granted latitude to friendly types in the comics fraternity, but that was while the series was still alive, and before copyright infringement blossomed on the internet. He was known to have called in lawyers on some occasions, notably where his characters had been pastiched in a pornographic way. As for the high prices in the stores, Moulinsart did react with some cheaper products. And why should Tintin follow the same marketing strategy as Mickey Mouse?
Still, as attitudes shifted, grassroots celebrations of Tintin were stymied, and inevitably the series began to fade from the public sphere. An exhibition marking 175 years of Belgium in 2005 decided to leave out any reference to one of its most famous exports after the organisers were unable to agree terms with Moulinsart. Rodwell’s – and Vlamynck’s – intransigence extended to endless negotiations with the city of Brussels over potential locations for a museum dedicated to Hergé.
The source of Rodwell’s authority is his control – through Vlamynck – of Tintin’s image. It is possible, of course, if a bit dismal, to talk about Tintin without showing his quizzical face. Any publication wanting to use images of the bequiffed reporter or his acolytes faces a vetting by Moulinsart. Rodwell has reportedly established a blacklist of journalists and commentators. In at least one case he sought to control who contributed to a project as a condition of allowing interviews with Moulinsart staff and insisted on prior copy approval as a condition of permitting Tintin graphics to be used. (Moulinsart denies there is a blacklist but admits it does not wish to be involved with long-time critics of its practices, which include many former associates of Hergé; it also points out that it gave more than 3,000 permissions to reproduce Tintin imagery last year, 1,000 of which were free of charge.)
Long-standing fans are both baffled and enraged by the straitjacket imposed on anyone wanting to critique Tintin. Pierre Sterckx, author of several books on Tintin and a close friend of Hergé’s for more than 20 years, said in 1997: “Nick [Rodwell] is confusing a healthy protection of his commercial rights with an abuse of powers as regards the cultural existence of the works.” Benoît Peeters, a writer who claims that he is on Rodwell’s “blacklist”, warned of the fate of Hergé’s work if it could no longer be the subject of critical appreciation, or be discussed or interpreted. “Shouldn’t protecting a work also be about prolonging the values of its creator?” he asked.
The company responds: “Moulinsart never barred publication of an article or a book about Tintin or Hergé; when we disagree with the author’s views and allegations, we don’t give permission to reproduce visuals.”
And Rodwell himself says: “It’s like The Beatles: everybody thinks Tintin is in the public domain. But that is of course not the case.”
Hugues Dayez, a film critic at Belgium’s national broadcaster, argues Hergé would not have been comfortable with the current climate. “What Rodwell is doing now is the exact opposite of how Hergé managed his works,” he told me. Dayez remembers spending time with Hergé as a child, and was touched by the man’s easy charm. Having joined Rodwell’s “blacklist” 10 years ago, after penning Tintin and the Inheritors, the first unflattering book on Moulinsart, he says his biggest concern is that Rodwell’s commercial strategy is pushing Tintin away from the intended fan base – curious children – towards nostalgic baby-boomers with fatter wallets. “Moulinsart are trying to interpret Hergé’s work not as a wonder of storytelling, but rather as a piece of contemporary art. Which is madness: Hergé never had the pretension to call himself a ‘contemporary artist’, though he was an avid connoisseur. It’s taking the works out of context. That for me is the worst part.”
The €20m Hergé Museum, which opened last year in the provincial Belgian town of Louvain-la-Neuve, financed by Vlamynck, is a good example of Dayez’s concerns. It stands as a monument to the image of Hergé as a contemporary artist-cum-moral philosopher, whose works are appreciated by children almost coincidentally. One exhibit approvingly cites Andy Warhol and Alberto Giacometti both paying tribute to the illustrator as a peer. And there is precious little on display aimed at the amusement of children – even those who have read the books. “This is a museum dedicated to Hergé’s work, it is not a Tintin-land,” explains Marcel Wilmet, a Moulinsart executive.
Rodwell has boasted that being “the most unpopular man in Belgium” is a price worth paying to defend the integrity of Tintin’s works. And indeed, last year, with the museum finally set to open – 30 years after it was conceived – and the Spielberg/Jackson trilogy project well under way, even critics admitted some things were working at Moulinsart.
The film, too, had taken three decades to make – Spielberg had sought the rights to Tintin even before Hergé’s death, imagining the young actor who played Elliott in ET as the boy reporter, and Jack Nicholson as the foul-mouthed Captain Haddock. Rodwell has shuttled back and forth between Belgium and Hollywood to thrash out a deal, and shares an executive producer credit.
But abrasive methods are still in evidence. Rodwell launched an attack against Casterman, Tintin’s historic publisher, in an interview with a Belgian weekly last April, referring to an unworkable relationship, inevitable divorce and the involvement of lawyers (Casterman denies a rift and says it was the first it had heard of any serious problems). The museum’s opening was mishandled: journalists reacted furiously when their cameras were denied access at the last minute, and some critics complained that the location was difficult to get to.
Meanwhile, Rodwell, keen to communicate directly with fans, started “Nick’s blog” on the official Tintin website. What was meant as a window into Moulinsart degenerated into a string of vitriolic attacks against “blacklisted” individuals, including bizarre personal attacks on the families of two journalists, arguing that their having autistic children had fuelled the men’s “hatred towards me”.
Another post attacked a French journalist for criticising the museum in the Journal des Arts: “Maybe, you had a sexual problem when you were a young girl, perhaps, this would explain your strange vision of others?”
The blog was taken down – “in a spirit of appeasement”, the company said, though with no apology made.
When I asked Nick Rodwell for an interview for this piece, he took several weeks to decide, then agreed. He said talking to the media inevitably kicked up negative press that made it difficult for Moulinsart to do its job, particularly in the wake of the blog.
Still, he invited me to Moulinsart’s offices, which are housed in Hergé’s old studio on Avenue Louise, Brussels’ ritziest thoroughfare, for an initial chat. Dressed casually in slacks and a button-down shirt, he carries himself like an entrepreneur showing off his business. His French is now nearly perfect, to the point where his English sounds slightly accented.
He showed me around the offices, where the illustrators and other assistants of Hergé’s day have been replaced by the merchandising specialists of the Rodwell era. The rooms are stuffed with the sort of memorabilia found in the Tintin shops, and Rodwell – after committing me to secrecy – showed off a new line of products he thinks will prove to be a big hit. He drew my attention to a forthcoming auction in Paris where original Tintin storyboards authenticated by Moulinsart are expected to fetch tens of thousands of euros. He said that, following the blogging incident, he was preparing a book describing his experiences, to be released at the same time as the movie.
A few days later, after I told Moulinsart that I would also be talking to Rodwell’s detractors, Rodwell reneged on a promised follow-up interview, citing a “recent bad experience with the English-language press”.
Meanwhile, commercial imperatives could force Moulinsart’s hand. Its business model looks increasingly shaky: sales generated by the high-end merchandising strategy collapsed during the recession, down 50 per cent from 2005, to €12m, according to filed accounts. Losses of €1.6m in the last fiscal year wiped out nearly all the profits made since 2005. Vlamynck on at least two occasions in recent years has used the money she receives from the sale of the books – an estimated €2m a year – to pay down Moulinsart debt. Although Rodwell and Vlamynck’s joint fortune is estimated by the latest Sunday Times Rich List at around €70m, further losses at Moulinsart could prompt a move away from the “in-house” merchandising model towards the adoption of a more conventional – and less controlled – strategy.
Such a move may be inevitable when the first Tintin film comes out towards the end of 2011. Merchandising derived from blockbusters is a considerable source of income in Hollywood, even more so now that DVD sales are falling prey to digital piracy. How the use of Tintin’s image will be divvied between Moulinsart and the film’s backers remains “a bit of a grey area”, according to Mark Rodwell, Nick’s older brother, who was hired by Moulinsart to liaise on the project.
In theory, he explains, the sale of products bearing images taken from the classic albums will remain Moulinsart’s realm, and the film’s producers will be free to use images from the movie for their own licensing purposes. But given that the film will be shot in “performance capture”, designed to mimic the album’s drawings, the old Tintin and the new Tintin, to be played by Billy Elliot’s Jamie Bell, may be hard to tell apart. The producers are unlikely to forgo a far more extensive merchandising programme than Moulinsart has done so far, taking in Happy Meals and – who knows? – mustard pots.
“Hollywood will clearly be holding most of the cards,” says one former Moulinsart executive who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They’re more experienced than either of the Rodwell brothers when it comes to merchandising.” The former executive also raises a perhaps uncomfortable prospect: “If the movie franchise is a success and they look at making more films, maybe with a plot not wholly based on the current albums, it will only be a matter of time before Spielberg’s people push for the right to add to the existing album series. Could Rodwell resist?”
Barring any unknown clauses in the contract, any decision to continue the adventures of Tintin would ultimately lie with Fanny Vlamynck. Her resistance to breaking Hergé’s final wish has been lauded even by Moulinsart’s loudest critics.
Georges Remi Jr., Hergé’s nephew, certainly doesn’t blame her for what has, in his view, gone wrong at Moulinsart. Rather, he says, the fault lies with the master himself. “Hergé underestimated the future of his own work and what might be made of it. He had said many times that once he died, Tintin’s life would also de facto end.”
“Ultimately,” says Remi, “it is Hergé himself who put into place the elements of this sordid, sad Tintin adventure.”
Stanley Pignal is a Brussels correspondent for the FT. His last piece for the magazine was a profile of Eva Joly, who is investigating possible white-collar crime related to Iceland’s financial collapse. Read it at www.ft.com/evajoly
A fan’s story
What happened when writer Bob Garcia fell foul of the heirs of Hergé
Sitting in the kitchen of his home in a quiet suburb of Paris, Bob Garcia, a French detective novelist with a long-standing passion for Tintin, is counting the cost of having defied Moulinsart, the company that controls Hergé’s work. He flicks through the reams of correspondence he has received from its lawyers. The latest missive is a court order, issued at Moulinsart and Fanny Vlamynck’s behest, to prompt a forced sale of his house. He regularly fights off bailiffs while trying to work out a solution.
“That’s what you get for being a Tintin fan these days,” he says, leafing through the pile of legal documents: “€50,000 to pay just for writing about Hergé.”
Garcia’s troubles began after he wrote a series of books looking at Hergé’s possible inspirations for Tintin. Garcia speaks excitedly about the links between the boy reporter and Sherlock Holmes, a subject tackled in depth in one of the volumes. Another looks at the striking similarities between the Tintin stories and the writings of Jules Verne.
Garcia’s work is mainly read by like-minded fans or in schools. He partly finances the printruns himself, at a guaranteed loss: “There’s no business model for publishing 200, 300 books. You know you won’t even cover costs.” But his small scale and earnestness failed to fend off Moulinsart, who sued on the grounds that the books reproduced images without permission.
Garcia’s defence is meek: he says he had been advised he did not need permission to use a few drawings for the purpose of a written critique; he also reasoned that the minuscule print runs would make him too small to bother about.
His gamble didn’t work. And he’s not alone. His study is filled with books written by other fans who have been or are currently fighting Moulinsart. “There is clearly a pre-Rodwell and post-Rodwell era of Tintin,” he sighs. “There used to be a certain flexibility for those who wanted to use some images when discussing [the works]. Not any more.”
Moulinsart has pushed for ever-higher penalties against Garcia. An initial €15,000 fine was bumped to €40,000 on appeal, with costs adding another €10,000 or so. Discouraged, Garcia offered to pay €1,000 a month for four years to settle the matter, to no avail. Moulinsart says of the case: “We don’t want to comment on a court decision. The lawyers are discussing [it] to find a solution acceptable by all.”
Despite the cost and the disruption to his life, Garcia is planning another three books on Tintin, in line with his original plan. “The key thing,” he says, “is to always draw a distinction between Hergé and Tintin on one side, and Rodwell and Moulinsart on the other.”