Tuesday, January 05, 2021

The Adventures of Tintin, Vol. 4 by Herge

I always have to begin these Tintin posts with a disclaimer: this is my first time reading these books, and I am a middle-aged man. I read the first three Tintin omnibuses during my last Book-A-Day run, in 2018 -- one and two and three -- but never saw any of the series in my childhood.

So this is not a re-read; I'm coming to seventy-year-old adventure stories for tween boys fresh and with the eyes of someone who grew up on a different continent and several decades later. There may be good things and bad things about that perspective, but it's the only perspective I have, and I'm stuck with it.

The Adventures of Tintin, Vol. 4 is an omnibus of the twelfth through fourteenth books of the series [1] -- Red Rackham's Treasure, The Seven Crystal Balls and Prisoners of the Sun. And it thus shows the main problem with this 3-in-1 format; Treasure is the second half of the story begun in the last book of Vol. 3, The Secret of the Unicorn. But Balls and Prisoners are also linked stories, so separating them would also have been problematic. (I briefly looked at the list, trying to construct a plan for 2-in-1s or 4-in-1s, but there's no way to be consistent and include all of the canonical books in order -- either some omnibuses would be longer and some shorter, or books would be out of order.) That's a minor issue, though -- Balls has more of a cliffhanger ending than Unicorn did, and even that isn't all that much of a cliffhanger.

Herge is still building his core cast, more than a dozen years into the series and with Treasure the twelfth book. Professor Calculus -- your standard absent-minded genius, here represented as basically deaf and unaware of it -- shows up in that book to provide a high-tech submarine for exploration, and never leaves, since he never understands what anyone tells him. (And that is funny, get it? Most of the humor in Tintin is on that schoolboy level -- slapstick among clearly comedy-relief characters, fake swearing, and painfully extended misunderstandings. Herge is good at this stuff, and it is mostly actually funny in small doses, but it's all quite juvenile.)

As usual, Tintin, our boy hero, is described as a reporter but he never does any reporting or has an identifiable source of support (financial, parental; romantic -- take your pick; they're all missing). He seems to be eternally about twelve years old, living by himself in an apartment in a city that Herge never actually says is Brussels, until he has to dash out on some adventure or other around the world. He is clearly the hero-boy that a few generations of European boys (and probably some girls) wished they could be, which is the source of his success -- it's all vague enough that all of those kids could project themselves into being Tintin.

Treasure is a story of hunting for a shipwreck, and the treasure that may be contained there; it doesn't have anything like a villain, despite some early hints.

Balls sees an Incan curse (well, maybe) befall the seven members of the just-returned Sanders-Hardiman expedition, one by one, as Tintin and his best friend, the blustery and mostly useless alcoholic Captain Haddock, run around and fail to stop any of it. That one has some mild implied racism, though it does also seem to accept that if you dig up the dead kings of some other civilization and drag them away to your home on another continent, the descendants of that civilization are entitled to be quite unhappy with you, and you may suffer nasty consequences.

Tintin and Haddock continue chasing the source of that "curse" back to South America in Prisoners, which is slightly more racist (and reliant on one of the oldest gags in the book for a last-minute escape from human sacrifice [2]) and features a very long slog through dangerous scenery and then captivity at the hands of the aforementioned descendants.

These books in particular are not very plotty: it's the same kind of thing over and over until Herge exhausts the premise or his page count. (Treasure: moving the ship around, diving here and there, going back to that one island yet again. Balls: this guy is in a coma! Quick, let's save the next guy! Oops, too late. Repeat. Prisoners: you say there's a forest and then a mountain chain and then another forest and then another mountain chain? And we get to fall off the mountains and be ambushed repeatedly? Oh, joy.) Each page is fun and full of incident, but it's difficult for Herge to hide that he has a lot of the same kinds of incidents one after another.

Again: these were for boys. And, specifically, for boys born in French-speaking Europe in the 1930s to begin with, and then for boys born in the '40s, '50s, and '60s in a slightly wider geographical remit. That they're still fun adventure stories for an American middle-aged man in 2020 is a nice bonus; a lot of work from that era (these stories were serialized in the mid-to-late 1940s and published as books immediately afterward) have aged much worse.

[1] See Wikipedia for the full list, including the brain-numbing details of the first two (politically and racially offensive) books that are slightly repressed and not part of the omnibus series, and the final unfinished book which is also not included in an omnibus. Thus, the number of books in the series is anywhere from twenty-one to twenty-four, depending on how you want to argue.

[2] You're thinking you know which one. You are probably right. It is that obvious.

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