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Tintin: Cigars of the Pharaoh (Review)

In the lead-up to the release of The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, I’m going to be taking a look at Hergé’s celebrated comic book character, from his humble beginnings through to the incomplete post-modern finale. I hope you enjoy the ride.

This is more like it. I think Cigars of the Pharaoh is the first quintessential Tintin story. It really feels like Hergé has figured out the kind of stories he wants to tell, with a weird blend of various pulp genres from crime to mystery to horror, all mixed with a healthy dose of comedy. It’s also the first adventure in the series (and I’m including Tintin in the Congo) that feels truly exotic as our hero travels the world to unearth the central mystery.

Tintin's first glimpse of a Red Sea Shark...

The first page of the adventure, charting Tintin’s voyage with Snowy, features a map like Indiana Jones, with a little dotted line tracing our hero’s progress. I think it’s quite a fitting point of comparison, as this is the sort of adventure that the whip-wielding archeologist was clearly intended to evoke. Indeed, Spielberg was reportedly drawn to adapt The Adventures of Tintin based on the observation that the books are essentially Indiana Jones, just aimed at a younger audience. Truth be told, I’m not entirely convinced that one skews older or younger, but there’s no denying that the sort of pulp feeling Lucas and Spielberg were trying to draw on in that film series can definitely be felt here.

As a child, it was really this adventure that first captured my imagination. I grew up in Ghana, in Africa, so I had traveled quite a bit as a young boy, and I think Tintin appealed to me because of the globe-trotting nature of the lead character’s adventures. One story would find him in China, while the next would visit South America, and another go to Scotland. And, no matter where the boyish reporter wandered, Tintin would find adventure. I can’t stress enough how much that exotic international flavour contributed to the deep affection I feel for the series.

Tintin needs to get Pharaoh way!

More than that, this is really the first time that Hergé tangles a bit with superstition and pulp history. “Scores of Egyptologists have tried to find the tomb,” we are warned. “Every single one of them has vanished!” It recalls that old urban legend about the curse of King Tutankhamen, which reportedly killed all the archeologist that opened the tomb. True or not, the tale certain caught in the public imagination, to the point where even a seven-year-old in the nineties was familiar with the superstition. To my younger self, and – to be frank – to my older self, it’s still a fascinating point to jump into a compelling central mystery.

And it is a mystery. The first three entries in The Adventures of Tintin were fairly episodic in nature, having our hero visit a particular place and suffer various misfortunes. The fourth in the series benefits from a much stronger structure, built around the centre mystery of the curse (and the mysterious cigars), with little mini-adventures taking place within that framework. As a result, it never feels as disjointed as the stories that came before it, and it’s kinda fun to follow the clues as you go along – one can easily deduce the criminal mastermind, even though he isn’t explicitly named here.

Prepare to meet your tomb!

However, as fun as the central mystery is, it’s really the trappings that make it. Again, they draw from the ripe pool of urban myths and legends that circulated around the middle of the twentieth century, with mysterious drugs being used to render people insane, magical self-suspending ropes, and even a rather gothic abduction from a house in the middle of an atmospheric storm (the room is empty, the window is open). There’s a healthy observance to the conventions of the genre, with one party even being assassinated before he can name his employer, as seems to be mandatory in tales like this.

There are also moments for Hergé’s rather wonderful sense of humour, somewhat less aggressive than in Tintin in America, which is perhaps why the story feels more like a good old-fashioned adventure. It’s surreal, following his antics in Tintin in the Congo, to see the boy reporter presented as a friend to all the animals, even elephants, but it’s certainly a better classification. There’s a nice little moment of meta-fiction as a Sheik is honoured to hear that he’s in the presence of Tintin. “For years I have read of your exploits,” he declares, as a servant carries in – not a newspaper clipping – but one of these comic books. One of the characters in the comic knows Tintin from the comic. It’s brilliantly clever, and it would be a while before Stan Lee and Jack Kirby would play with that sort of writing in Fantastic Four, or the Flash would adopt his name based on a comic book character who later existed in continuity with him.

Go with your gut...

It’s a nice little story, a clever mystery that’s well put together. You can see the key elements of style and plot falling into place (indeed, this was the first adventure to feature both Thomson and Thompson), and the fit is already smooth and comfortable. The series has comfortably found its feet.

4 Responses

  1. I both remember this one and (I think) still own it. Not only that but its one of the few of the animated series that I’ve still got on VHS. There’s a heavy dose of nostalgia involved in TINTIN for me (as I think there is for you too) and the new film is going to have to tap in to that if it’s going to completely win me over. Now, I’m off to the loft, I’ve got some books to dig out!

    • Well worth a re-read. This has been one of the better (or most enjoyable, for me) blogging thingies that I’ve done – an excuse to dig into what you correctly identify as nostalgia. It’s amazing how much more you get digging into them years afterwards.

      I’m thinking about digging into the tv series to celebrate the US release in December.

  2. This was the first Tintin book I read and it is still my favourite.

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