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Tintin: The Broken Ear (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.

The Broken Ear is a strange little Tintin story. On one hand, it begins as a sort of a mystery adventure, with an artifact stolen from a museum and then replaced the following night, a little note apologising for a childish prank. As seems to be the case in these kinds of stories, the authorities decide “no harm, no foul” and go on about their daily business, but our boy Tintin is not convinced. However, over the course of his investigation, the story develops into something a bit more substantial, allowing Hergé the opportunity to indulge some of his wonderfully broad political satire. It wouldn’t be among my favourite entries in the franchise, if only because I was too young to appreciate a lot of the commentary when I first read it.

Hergé doesn't go overboard...

It’s probably best to ignore some of the more obvious plot holes in the initial set-up. Why steal the artifact and replace it later? Why not steal it and replace it at the same time? How come, in a museum populated with historians, a young reporter is the only one who notices the (to be frank, glaringly obvious) error? These elements are all necessary for Hergé to establish his mysterious atmosphere, and it does have the makings of a great pulp thriller, so it’s easy to ignore these problems. That said, I think it’s one of the very few moments of the series that stretched my suspension of disbelief (and, given the series includes Explorers on the Moon, that’s saying something).

“According to the police, the case is closed,” Tintin informs Snowy, “but that isn’t my view…” And so the reporter’s journey begins. He is still a reporter here, but he seems to do relatively little reporting, just kinda getting caught up in whatever catches his interest. Footloose and fancy-free is our Tintin! It’s a nice set-up that takes our lead to South America, recalling the wonderful mystery of Cigars of the Pharaoh, perhaps my favourite of these early adventures.

This sh!t is bananas...

It’s curious to see Tintin as much more of a badass here. Catching a goon breaking into his house, Tintin has a gun drawn, and sits down in a comfy armchair. All he’s missing is a brandy. When the crook accuses the reporter of stealing his bird, Tintin calls his bluff. “Really? Go right ahead. There’s a phone; ring the police…” It’s quite possibly the most hardcore I’ve seen Tintin, and it’s a strange little moment.

That said, it becomes quite clear early on that Hergé’s wonderful skewed sense of humour is going to take a front-seat here. While the artist could never be accused of taking himself (or his writing) too seriously, The Broken Ear is perhaps the first instalment that could legitimately be described as a “comedy adventure” rather than “an adventure with hints of comedy.” Perhaps in response to the rather serious subject matter of The Blue Lotus, anchored in the opium trade and the conflict between Japan and China, Hergé seems to be going considerably lighter.

Alcazar surrounded himself with chess men...

Not that the political edge is missing. In many ways, it’s perhaps more blatant than in The Blue Lotus. The author makes some rather wonderful observations about the revolutionary fever gripping South America during the thirties, and the story includes what might be one of my favourite jokes of the series, with Tintin tied up and facing a firing squad. The country is overthrown and he is released, but, before he can be untied, the country is back under government country. It’s brilliantly absurd, and demonstrates Hergé’s skill with these sorts of surreal situations.

So there’s the wonderfully random subplot about the blow-in Tintin somehow ascending to the rank of advisor to General Alcazar. It’s like something out of a thirties comedy of errors, and there’s more than a hint of slapstick about the dueling assassination attempts that inevitably backfire, often without Tintin’s direct knowledge. There’s a sense that Hergé had a lot of fun writing the story, with plot points like a parrot that identifies a murderer and an explorer with the “pet hobby” of ventriloquism. Hell, I love the fact that the natives speak in a barely-discernable Cockney dialect.

What the hell?

In fact, the whole oil subplot around Gran Chapo would be a farce if wasn’t based around the true story of the Gran Chaco War, where the oil companies spurred two nations to war over oil that didn’t, in the end, exist. There’s a hilarious sequence featuring a representative of “Korrupt Arms”making the same deal to both sides on a round trip to the region. Again, it’d be ridiculous if it wasn’t true. Hell, it is true and it’s ridiculous.

That said, there is an awkward moment where Tintin disguises himself in blackface. It’s the punchline to rather hilarious joke about two paranoid suspects, escalating the “bad guys mistake innocent party for Tintin” joke from the last book. Still, it can’t help but feel a little uncomfortable, if only because of the way Hergé draws his black characters. In fairness, I know it was a different time, but it’s still very disconcerting to read.

Tintin gets out of an explosive situation...

And The Broken Earfeels a lot more episodic in nature than the two stories that came directly before it. It feels almost like a more structured Tintin in America, with the idol and it broken ear always there in the background, but individual encounters and adventures driving the story forward. It’s not a complaint, but it does feel quite strange after two tightly-plotted adventures to return to a half-way measure between that and the earlier, more haphazard approach.

The Broken Ear is a fun little entry, and one that allows Hergé to have quite a bit of fun jumping into the quagmire of regional politics. It’s a bit of a lighter instalment, but it’s funny and well-observed. It’s definitely one of the entries in the series that gets better with age.

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