From our continental correspondent – Raymond Leblanc’s nine lives
Today we have a very special feature for you in the form of an interview with one of the most influential figures in European comics, Raymond Leblanc, a man who has worked with some of the greatest comics creators in post-war Europe. Here he talks about the creation of Tintin magazine, working with Hergé, the legacy of the wartime occupation, the build up to eventual huge success, the entry into animation and then the sad final curtain for the magazine and Alan Baran and Fanny Remi-Vlaminck withdrawing the rights to Tintin following Hergé’s death. It’s a slice of very important comics history, not only in terms of the European scene, but given the global popularity of Tintin and other creations, a rare insight into a very important piece of world comics history and culture. This interview was originally published in Belgium’s Stripgids volume 2, issue 2 and was conducted by Toon Horsten; the English language translation here is by Wim Lockefeer. Reprinted with kind permission.
(cover to the edition of Stripgids which first published Toon Horsten’s interview with Raymond Leblanc)
Sixty years ago Raymond Leblanc founded the Magazine Tintin, he produced six Belgian animated features and, when the final history of the Belgian comic is ever written, he will have one of the leading parts. In his glory days Leblanc seemed to lead nine different lives at once. We present you an exclusive and especially frank interview with a living legend of 92 years.
The man sitting in front of me folds his hands and holds them under his chin, the elbows full of self-confidence on his desk. “Tell me”, he says, “How may I be of service?” We are sitting in a cosy, warm and luxurious office on the eighth floor of the Lombard Publishers building near the Gare du Midi in Brussels. The man in front of me is 92 years old, but shows no signs of getting old. “You will have to speak up, though. I have a little problem hearing”. Other than that, Raymond Leblanc is as lucid as the next guy. He remembers things that happened sixty years ago as if they were yesterday. He answers to the point and without hesitation. Even at 92, Leblanc will not be silenced in what he says will be his last interview.
He sold his publishing house, Le Lombard, to the French group Média Participations, which also manages other publishers, such as Kana, Dargaud and Dupuis. Kana and Dargaud are also located in the Lombard Building. Nevertheless, Leblanc has kept his office, right next to Yves Sente, the current Lombard chief.
Raymond Leblanc: During the Second World War I was active in the Resistance, as an officer in the “Ardense Jagers” division. I managed never to get caught, mostly thanks to the fact that I spoke German. Immediately after the Liberation I started a company that published romance novels and movie magazines. It was a very profitable endeavour, I can assure you, because there was a terrible paper shortage. Once you were able to obtain some paper (and this was easier for resistance men) you were set. The public was explicitly eager.
(Raymond Leblanc with Hergé)
“Why not publish an illustrated magazine for young people?”, one of my partners asked at a certain point. We thought this was an interesting idea, and started looking for a name. We ended up eventually with Tintin, after Hergé’s comic book hero. Literally everyone knew that character at that moment. The question however was, where was Hergé? Nobody knew where he was. During the war he had worked for Le Soir, a paper that was controlled by the Germans, and so he had been branded a collaborator. My associate André Sinave went to look for him, and was able to find him.
Now we only had to find enough money to start up the magazine. Our plan was a bold one, especially since Hergé was being prosecuted at that point. His first reaction was “This is impossible”. Nevertheless, we presented him a five year contract. “And we as resistance men will do everything within our powers to return your civil rights to you.” You have to remember that Hergé wasn’t even allowed to ride a bicycle at that time. Hergé hesitated for a long time and consulted with his good friend Edgar Pierre Jacobs. In the end he agreed. I think because he had liked us from the moment we met. I had thought before that Hergé was quite an old man, since I had read the adventures of Tintin since 1929. He turned out to be only a few years older than myself.
Stripgids: From the start in 1946 you not only published Tintin on a weekly basis, but also Kuifje, the Dutch version.
Raymond: That was very important to me. I grew up in the heart of the Ardennes in Wallonia, but my parents always made sure that I was taught Dutch. So publishing a Dutch edition never was an issue. It turned out to be a wise decision. We started with 60,000 copies – 40,000 in French and 20,000 in Dutch. Everyone thought I was mad. “How are you going to find 20,000 Flemings who want to read Kuifje?” But even the Dutch edition sold out immediately.
(cover to the first issue of the Tintin Journal, 26th September, 1946, (c) Lombard)
Stripgids: Was Tintin as popular in Flanders as in Wallonia at that time?
Raymond: Of course! Don’t forget that during the War Tintin not only ran in Le Soir, but also in Het Laatste Nieuws (which was another one of the papers “stolen” by the Germans – ed.). The Flemish public was very familiar with Tintin.
Stripgids: Your relationship with Hergé did change over the years, though.
Raymond: My relationship with Hergé was always very cordial and friendly, but it was not always very easy. The reason was very simple: Hergé was absent much too often. Sometimes the magazine had to go without Tintin for months at a time, all the while carrying his name. In the end the readers started complaining. It was a very difficult time, which resulted in very heated correspondence.
Stripgids: Was Hergé’s absence, in the magazine, as in the offices, also due to his personal problems? His biographies often mention the depressions he had during that period.
Raymond: It is a bit of a delicate matter, of which I hesitate to speak. But I want to say something about it, because Benoît Peeters especially mentions this in his biography. To the world outside, and to the magazine’s staff, we blamed his absence on the depressions he had as a result of the War and the Repression. Now everybody knows that Hergé took the opportunity to have quite a few amorous affairs. But I can’t tell any more about it, because I wasn’t there, obviously… (Laughs)
At one time, it must have been 1948 or 1949, Hergé even made plans to leave the country for Argentina. During the period of the cleansing, when quite a few Nazi’s went there, Hergé seriously considered emigrating. For a number of reasons he still longed for the presence of some of his Rexist friends who lived over there (the extreme right-wing group who collaborated with the occupying Nazis. Rex’s leader Léon Degrelle worked for Le Vingtième Siecle at the time when Hergé was editing its youth supplement. He fled to Franco’s fascist Spain after the war and was never extradited to face trial in Belgium). I only found out about this, years later. He planned to move to South-America, work on his comics there and send the pages back to Belgium. For the magazine that would have been the end. I don’t know what I would have done if I had known at the time. We had had heated discussions already when Tintin disappeared for six months from the magazine. I even considered changing its name. If he had left for Argentina, we would have had to find another name.
Stripgids: In what way did you try to cope with Hergé’s absence from the magazine?
Raymond: Replacing Tintin was impossible. We tried to make the best of it as good as it got, and we used a whole array of tricks. We ran older material by Hergé, such as Jo, Zette Et Jocko, Quick Et Flupke and Leo et Lea Chez Les Lapino’s, We told the public they had to be a little more patient, that Hergé needed to rest, but that he would return with an incredibly good story. Of course, it wasn’t a real solution to the problem: you can’t possibly explain to the public why a magazine that’s called Tintin didn’t run work by Hergé for months at a time.
(a Casterman edition of Hergé’s Zette Et Jocko)
Stripgids: Hergé was nevertheless the magazine’s artistic director. From your biography that was published recently, you get the impression that he saw the magazine first and foremost as a continuation for Le Petite Vingtième, the supplement to the Brussels newspaper that ran his comics before the War.
Raymond: That is correct. But that was no longer possible, of course; the world had changed. For my staff and me this was obvious, but Hergé didn’t see it that way. Hergé had put together the first issue of the magazine, and he had done a fine job, all on his own. At least, so I thought. It turned out he had asked Jacques Van Melkebeke to help him, without telling me though. His friend Van Melkebeke had collaborated very seriously during the War and he was on the secret service’s black list. At one point I was tipped off that the Secret Service was going to raid the magazine’s offices in search of Van Melkebeke. I didn’t even know that man then! So I called Hergé, and he confirmed me that Van Melkebeke was a member of his team.
What’s more, even though Van Melkebeke worked as editor in chief from home, he was present at the office from time to time. I hurried to the offices and yelled if there was one Van Melkebeke present. When he presented himself, I asked him to leave immediately. Not one hour later the Secret Service arrived. If they had found Van Melkebeke there, it would have been very bad news indeed for the magazine. Van Melkebeke later spent two years in prison. When he was released, I met him and I eventually learned to appreciate him as a very cultured person. He worked for us later on, as an editor on the weekly Chez Nous.
But back to Tintin and Kuifje. In the beginning the magazine was indeed very much like Le Petit Vingtième. The public’s reaction prompted us to change the magazine’s orientation a bit. A bit more modern, more playful… Also, the magazine quickly grew from 12 to 16 pages. The first issues, which only consisted of 12 pages, were completely filled with work by The Four Musketeers, as we called them, the artists who had been on board since the beginning: Hergé of course, E.P. Jacobs, Paul Cuvelier and Jacques Laudy. With four extra pages, we needed more talent, and so I brought the French artist Le Rallic on board. The magazine continued to grow from then on. First twenty pages, then twenty four… Jacques Martin joined with Alix, Willy Vandersteen with Suske en Wiske… Naturally, the role that Hergé played got smaller and smaller.
(cover to the Tintin Journal cover issue 136 1951 by Le Rallic, taken from the official site)
Stripgids: The fact that somebody like Vandersteen joined Kuifje and Tintin was largely thanks to Karel Van Milleghem, Kuifje’s first editor-in-chief.
Raymond: Van Milleghem was a wonderful man. At first we wanted to make a magazine in French and afterwards simply translate it. That soon proved to be insufficient. Kuifje needed its own editor-in-chief, to tweak the magazine for a Flemish market. I already had a young Fleming working for the magazine’s promotion. He told me, when the Flemish edition was discussed, to try out Van Milleghem. And the next day he was there, barely twenty years old. He stemmed from a flammingant (someone who strives to bring together the French and Dutch-speakings people in Belgium), moderately pro-German family and had known some problems due to that. But he also was incredibly intelligent and immensely creative.
He was one of the most important contributors to the gigantic success that Tintin and Kuifje knew. He was a vat full of good ideas. For example, he came up with the slogan “For young people, from 7 to 77 years old”. It was a great slogan. I made a great mistake then – I should have patented the slogan, because everybody uses it nowadays, as if it is part of the public domain. After a while, Van Milleghem grew to be my second-in-command. I took him abroad quite often when we had to negotiate about foreign editions for the magazine.
At one time we were in Stuttgart to discuss a German edition. In the centre of the town we saw a building with a revolving Mercedes star on top of it. On the way home Van Milleghem said, “Why don’t we have a revolving Tintin on top of our building?” He immediately tracked down the German engineers who had built that Mercedes star and they constructed the Tintin that has become a Brussels landmark…
Stripgids: Were you first and foremost thinking of the Flemish market when you took on Vandersteen?
Raymond: Naturally. But Suske en Wiske were also quite well known in Wallonia at that time. When I met Vandersteen, I suggested him to publish in the magazine. I immediately added, “But I expect problems with Hergé. The style you use to draw your character is not elegant enough, and looks quite common”. And so it happened. When I discussed Vandersteen’s involvement with the magazine with Hergé, he didn’t like it: “I know Vandersteen. Surely that’s nothing for our magazine! Vandersteen’s style doesn’t at all agree with ours!” I explained this to Vandersteen, who was so eager to work for Tintin that he suggested he adapt a completely different art style. Imagine that! As far as I know, Vandersteen is the only cartoonist in the history of the comic book who managed to do that. He gave his characters a much more realistic look for Tintin and he even dropped one of the main characters. Sidonia, Wiske’s aunt, does not appear in the stories he made for Tintin.
(cover to the Tintin Journal number 149, 1951, art by Willy Vandersteen)
Stripgids: Did Hergé and Vandersteen get on better later on?
Raymond: As a person, Vandersteen was very highly regarded by Hergé. He called Vandersteen “the comic strip’s Breughel”. And at the same time he felt that there was no room in the magazine for Vandersteen because his style wouldn’t fit. After he had adapted his style, Vandersteen did fit in quite well with the rest of the group. Hergé never talked unfavourably about Vandersteen from then on; on the contrary. Vandersteen was a very special person, who could draw as fast as he could think. And I can assure you: having a ball with Vandersteen in Antwerp… That meant something – those were memorable nights. (Laughs)
Stripgids: If I’m correct, it was Van Milleghem who brought in Bob de Moor as well?
Raymond: Indeed. As soon as he became editor-in-chief, Van Milleghem engaged everybody he knew in Flemish comics in order to make his Kuifje at least as interesting as Tintin. Even more interesting, it turned out. One of those people was the Jesuit Vicar-General Janssens. He brought Van Milleghem in contact with Bob De Moor, who couldn’t have been more than 18 or 19 years old. De Moor was a very pleasant fellow, who spoke fluent French. We immediately asked him to draw a first story, which Hergé accepted on the spot. Hergé immediately understood that Bob was very good at adapting – he could draw in any style you wanted. He was part of the magazine’s team from very early on, and he stayed until the end.
Stripgids: Was De Moor already working for the Studios Hergé at that time?
Raymond: At that point in time, the Studios didn’t exist yet, but they were in the pipeline. Hergé and his staff all spoke French, and he felt the need of some Flemish input. After he saw more of De Moor’s work, he called Bob aside and suggested he come and work for him. Bob accepted, and stayed with the Studios until his death.
Stripgids: For quite a long time, you published a second magazine for the Flemish youth, called “Ons Volkske”.
Raymond: That’s right. Ons Volkske was a little brother to Kuifje. It was meant for children of less well-off parents. It was cheaper, it had fewer pages… Tintin and Kuifje kept growing, and had a total of 32 pages at that point. It cost something like 8 francs, and a considerable part of the public simply couldn’t afford it. Thanks to Ons Volkske, we also could cater to that part of the market.
Stripgids: Did everything that ran in Ons Volkske, also appeared in Kuifje?
Raymond: No. Most of the time, but not always. Tibet had a series that only ran in Ons Volkske because Hergé didn’t want it in Tintin and Kuifje.
Stripgids: After the start of the magazine, it still took some time before the first books, or albums, were published.
Raymond: Indeed, that only happened after seven or eight years. The only reason was that we didn’t really think about it. Casterman published the Tintin albums, and everybody was happy. That is, until artists like Jacobs or Cuvelier started to ask why only Hergé’s albums were being published. Then one day Jacobs suggested publishing a Blake and Mortimer album. It seemed interesting to me, and I put it to my financial director. He immediately started a small scale market research round with a few book stores, who told us “the sooner, the better”. And so we published “The Secret of the Swordfish” by Jacobs as the first Lombard album. This had turned out to be the most popular series in the magazine, even more popular than Tintin. For the book design we referred to the Casterman albums, cardboard covers and all. The success was overwhelming. Within three weeks the first edition sold out.
Stripgids: Did Hergé play any part in the realisation of those first Lombard albums?
Raymond: No, he was even afraid that they might prove unwanted competition for his own books. It didn’t really please him, but naturally he could hardly object to them. As long as the books contained stories from Tintin, he just had to accept it. Things got different when the Astérix books started appearing in France, and quickly became million sellers. He was very displeased about that – he worried and was very unhappy. Astérix really caused Hergé to have quite a few sleepless nights.
Stripgids: Even though the people who created Astérix, Albert Uderzo and René Goscinny, originally worked for Tintin and Le Lombard.
Raymond: That’s correct. They worked for us, and I would have very much liked to have kept them. Unfortunately the editor-in-chief of Tintin was also Hergé’s secretary, and he had a deep dislike of Goscinny and Uderzo, and of their work. I had a talk with René and Albert, here, where we are sitting now, and I almost begged them to make stories for us. They did so with Houmpa Pa, an Indian comic. They were also preparing Astérix at that point, and we were even talking about running that series in Tintin. But then they started their own magazine, Pilote, which from the very beginning proved to be serious competition for Tintin in France.
(cover to Pilote #1,1959; photocover credited to Uderzo and Leloir, borrowed from the BD Oubliees site)
Stripgids: You kept contact with Goscinny and Uderzo?
Raymond: Naturally! Don’t forget that the Franco-Belgian comic scene was a very small one, and everybody literally knew everybody. I’ll tell you something else: in the seventies, Goscinny and Uderzo had problems with their French publisher, Georges Dargaud, and they came to visit me here in Brussels. They suggested to me to have Le Lombard publish the Astérix books from then on. Let me assure you, this meant something: at that point Astérix was the blockbuster in comics worldwide. The history of our publishing house would have looked very different if I had accepted that offer. I would have made a large amount of money. But my conscience… Georges Dargaud was my business partner for the French edition of Tintin, and I didn’t want to squander our old friendship and excellent collaboration. So I didn’t do it.
Stripgids: How did you experience the relationship between Tintin and Spirou? For the public, those two were like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. You had to choose sides; you couldn’t read both of them, let alone like them both.
Raymond: My relationship with Charles Dupuis, the publisher for Spirou, has always been very correct and cordial. We met now and then and we had a gentlemen’s agreement that we would never lure cartoonists away from each other. It was a deal we have always respected. Publicly we tried to raise the impression that we were constantly at loggerheads, that we were tough competitors. Still, I sometimes visited Charles Dupuis in his home, and we went for dinner together and my daughters and his sons were very good friends.
I’ve only once found myself in a difficult situation. I got a telephone call from André Franquin, who meant the same for Spirou that Hergé meant for Tintin. He had had a quarrel with Charles Dupuis about financial conditions, and he asked me bluntly, “If I wanted to work for you, would you hire me?” “I cannot do that”, I answered, “I have an agreement with Mister Dupuis. I won’t hire any of his artists, even with you being the best by far.” At which Franquin answered, “I have Mister Dupuis’s fiat; he just gave me my termination letter.” Immediately afterwards I called Charles Dupuis. “That is correct”, he confirmed. “Franquin no longer works for me and I’d rather have him work for you than for anyone else.” And that’s how I presented Franquin a five year contract. That was the only case of a cartoonist leaving Spirou for Tintin.
Stripgids: He didn’t stay, though.
Raymond: No, Franquin only worked for us for four years. After those four years, his relationship with Mister Dupuis had changed for the better. All differences were put aside and he came to ask me very politely if he could return there, even though he was still under contract.
Stripgids: In the mean time Franquin had started a new strip for Tintin, Modeste et Ponpon.
Raymond: Franquin himself suggested we take over those characters from him, in order for us to be able to continue to use them. Dino Attanasio took over that series, and he was very successful at it as well. The whole matter was settled in a most agreeable way.
Stripgids: An important factor in the magazine’s success, were the Timbres Tintin – stamps you could collect and exchange for a whole range of gifts.
Raymond: I would even go as far as to say that these value stamps provided the magazine with its definitive breakthrough with the broader public. It’s the best commercial decision I’ve ever taken. We launched the magazine in Belgium without the value stamps, but in France, where we entered the market two years later, we had a very difficult start. At one point, we sold we sold 80,000 copies in Belgium and 70,000 in France. My mother had always clipped out and saved Artis stamps (value stamps that could be exchanged for colour illustrations on history, nature and geography – very popular in Belgium in the 50′s-70′s – ed.), and I took that example to launch the Timbres Tintin, totally on the same principle.
(some Chèques Tintin, borrowed from the Pierre Tintin site which has some terrific pictures of Tintin merchandise and collectables from across the years)
I had some trouble getting approval from Hergé, who wasn’t that keen on publicity. “What will people think if Tintin suddenly appears on jars of jam or margarine?” he wondered. But in the end he gave in. And brace yourself: thanks to the value stamps we went from 70,000 copies each week to 300,000 copies in France. We couldn’t use the word Timbres in France, so we called them Chèques Tintin, and they made sure that every kid in no time knew Le Journal Tintin. While we surely profited in no small extent, the great winner was Casterman. Without them having to do anything, the sales of Hergé albums sky-rocketed…
Stripgids: You took care of marketing when even the term still had to be invented.
Raymond: Well, you could summarise it like that, (laughs)
Stripgids: A special page in your career should be reserved for Belvision, the first large-scale animation studio in Belgium, and even in Europe.
Raymond: The special thing about Karel Van Milleghem was that he constantly kept developing new ideas. And good ideas are a key factor in a company like ours. At one time he asked me, “Why don’t we start making animation films?” I tossed and turned about this for a night or so, and finally said “Indeed, why not?” Walt Disney had started with cartoons, and had later gone on to make comics so why wouldn’t we be able to walk the path in the opposite direction?
For people who, like us, did not have any experience in this field at all, it was quite a feat to kick-start an animation studio. There weren’t any studios in Europe at that time. In the end we succeeded in making animated films that were good enough to convince American co-producers to work with us, and I’m still very proud about that. We started with a very rudimentary cartoon based on Vandersteen’s Suske En Wiske for the Flemish television, but we were fast learners. In the end we made two feature films about Tintin, two with Lucky Luke, two with Astérix, the Smurfs features… We made ten feature films in le petit Bruxelles when no-one else was doing it in the whole of Europe.
Sadly though, the costs rose rapidly and competition got fiercer. We could hardly keep the company afloat, and so we transformed Belvision into a production company for short films, especially for the advertising business. We’re still quite active as co-producers, for example for a television series based on Derib’s Yakari. We moved from the big screen to the small screen, one could say.
(Raymond Leblanc smiles for the camera)
Stripgids: Over the years, Tintin and Kuifje had some good times, and some bad times. In 1988 it suddenly was all over. How did you experience the end of the magazine?
Raymond: It was terrible. In the last years before his death Hergé had come to be very trustful of the young André Baran, who, after he died, gained control over the Fondation Hergé. I must admit that the magazine had been going downhill slightly, as were all other magazines for that matter. I would have liked it differently, but things were as they were. The golden age of youth-oriented magazines was over, amongst others because of television, travel, etc. Alan Baran and Fanny Remi-Vlaminck, Hergé’s widow, were convinced that we were to blame for the deteriorating circulation figures. We were supposed to have run too many violent stories or too many stories with women… They didn’t like that in Kuifje and Tintin. Women, imagine that!
Even when we were still selling 100,000 copies every week! When our contract with the Hergé estate about the use of the name Tintin ended, that… that… Monsigneur Baran decided to end our collaboration. “I’ll show you how a magazine is made”, he said. I warned him, I warned him… (Sighs). I was very unhappy and furious at the same time. In the mere six months that Tintin Reporter existed, Baran managed to leave a hole of 120 million Belgian Francs (about 2 million pounds – ed.). Faut le faire, isn’t it?
Once again FPI would like to thank Stripgids and Toon Horsten for kindly allowing us to reproduce this interview and thanks to our continental correspondent Wim Lockefeer for translating it. You can also visit the Fondation Raymond Leblanc’s official website which organises exhibition of work Raymond has been involved with over the decades and also encourages new comics talent.