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Tintin: The Black Island (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 Black Island is a fun piece of pulp fiction, which wonderfully feels like Hergé was drawing on whatever pop culture reference was closest to hand at the time. In a way, this strange blend of influences mixes to produce a cocktail that fits surprisingly well against this instalment’s British background. It also features some of Hergé’s strongest artwork, in my own very humble opinion. It might lack the sort historical and political context that defined The Broken Ear and The Blue Lotus, but it’s still a more-than-worthy entry in the series.

Well, don't they have egg on their faces...

You could really make the argument that The Black Island is essentially Snowy’s story. It’s the episode in the series most clearly focused on Tintin’s most constant companion, at once giving the little dog a lot of character and also giving him the chance to demonstrate how much of an asset he is. in fact, if you asked me to name my favourite recurring Tintin character, I’d probably name Snowy. Sure, Captain Haddock (introduced soon enough) is a great choice and a wonderfully energetic character, but I guess my affection for Snowy stems from always growing up with a dog around. I’m a sucker for the whole “man’s best friend” bit, to the point where I may have even got a slight case of the sniffles at I Am Legend. If you tell anyone, I’ll deny it.

Anyway, Snowy has always been arguably more efficient than his master, and possibly more quick witted. This story doesn’t represent the first time that he’s intervened to save Tintin’s life, but he does so with astonishing frequency here, saving our lead from a burning building or a faked suicide attempt. Indeed, the collection offers perhaps the definitive Snowy moment, as the little white dog manages to scare the heck out of a giant gorilla. It’s no wonder that Snowy ends up with a taste for the whiskey, and it’s slightly unfortunate that Tintin feels the need to physically discipline him here – after all he’s done. After all, Tintin was only moments ago singing the praises of “good old Snowy!”

Gotta love Snowy's dogged determination!

It’s interesting to note how Tintin himself is evolving. Although still, technically, a reporter, he’s evolved into the kind of person that spies and saboteurs are afraid of. Granted, in Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, the Russians were afraid of him, but I think only by virtue of the fact he was a reporter coming to tell the world about what was “really” going on. Here, the criminals don’t fear the reporter as much as they fear the man. On discovering two agents almost killed Tintin, one proclaims, “Pity they didn’t finish him off while they were about it.” I think Tintin might be the most mild-mannered international badass I have ever seen.

Speaking of international, I rather like Hergé’s portrayal of the United Kingdom here. Given the way I responded to Tintin in America, one might think that I’d be even less interested in an adventure set in our closest geographical neighbour, but I actually think Hergé manages the locale a lot better here than he did in his hero’s trip to North America, a country seemingly populated with cowboys, gangsters and Native Americans. His United Kingdom is relatively understated, as much as the artist loves drawing his fields and his British police officers. Indeed, the keep on the eponymous isle are brilliantly evoked, from somebody who familiar with the ruins of the British Isles. There are some nice touches like the road signs or the quaintness of the local fire department, but none of it screams of a knowledge of British culture drawn from the movies.

Gotta shoot...

Which is, perhaps, somewhat fitting. In fact, the adventure almost reminds me of a Doctor Who adventure, with a supposedly haunted island, and a mysterious evil force at play, with lots of running down corridors. There’s something self-aware about all the pop culture references in display, with the monster story clearly intended to bring the Loch Ness Monster to mind, and Rango the Gorilla designed to emulate King Kong (there’s even a twist on the arrival at the port, with the reporters waiting). Ian Fleming wouldn’t write Dr. No for a another few years, but the Tintin adventure manages to conjure up images of that first Bond adventure, with a sinister enemy agent scaring the natives with stories of a monster on an island that turns out to be much more banal than it seems. I don’t know if it’s possible for a story to seem “more British” now than when it was originally published, but Hergé manages to create a Bond-style atmosphere, despite writing before Bond.

I think that sort of wry self-awareness is what helps the story seem perfectly at home in Great Britain, as it draws on all these other influences in a cheeky and goofy sort of way – all while putting its own spin on things. I do like the fact the story is centred around a central mystery. It has been a while since that was truly the case, as The Broken Ear did use a clever little mystery to get the plot moving, but got rather caught up in political satire. Here we have mysterious planes, foreigners on British soil and a supposedly haunted island. It’s all very atmospheric, and Hergé – as usual – deserves credit for the effort.

Monkey business..

The fact that the central mystery seems to draw from urban myths about German agents on British soil during the lead-up to (and, in fact, during) the war adds a bit of flavour. In fact, I like that Müller’s back story remains something of a mystery, as well as why he’s scheming as he does. Is he just a criminal? Is he a secret agent working for a foreign power? Why does he have a Russian sidekick named Ivan? It does link the story wonderfully to those sorts of pre-war stories, but avoids anchoring it in a particular time too much.

One of the things that I really love about these books is the sort of timelessness that Hergé gives them. Everything is very stylish, and it’s clear that they take place at some point in th mid-twentieth century, but they aren’t really tied down. As a kid, I could read them without wondering about historical context. As an adult, the context is there for me to uncover and play with. It’s an aspect of the series that I genuinely appreciate, and I don’t think Hergé gets enough recognition for it.

Rakes, my arch nemesis...

It’s not as overtly political as the last few adventures, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes it’s just fun to enjoy a little bit of adventure and intrigue (and comedy) on its own terms. The Black Island is a great little adventure and a worthy addition to the canon.

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