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Tintin: King Ottokar’s Sceptre (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.

It’s amazing what you can miss in enjoying your favourite stories as a child. For me, at the tender age of seven or eight, King Ottokar’s Sceptre was a thrilling tale of palace intrigue with a rather wonderful locked-room mystery at it heart. Returning to it now, it feels like quite a bit more. This is the first time, reading a Tintin book, that it feels part of a particular place or time. Even the possibly-Nazi agent from The Black Island was cast ambiguously enough that the story could have been set at any time in the relatively recent past, but King Ottokar’s Sceptre is something quite a bit different, capturing the sense of fear in Europe on the eve of warfare.

A locked room mystery...

Discussing Tintin and the Second World War is a very thorny subject. There’s the repeated rumours that Hergé was something of a “collaborator” for working with the newspaper Le Soir during the German occupation, although the arguments implicating the artist himself aren’t exactly convincing. I’m not sure whether discussions about perceived anti-Semitism in Flight 714 and other stories flow from that urban myth of Hergé’s collaboration, or if they simply feed into, but it’s a very thorny subject and it’s one that is difficult to pin down.

Indeed, Hergé did his best to ensure that the conflict dividing the world did as little to disrupt his comic books as possible. With the German invasion, he ceased publication of the potentially troublesome The Land of Black Gold and moved straight on to The Crab With the Golden Claws. He tried to make Tintin consciously much less of a reporter (fearing it might attract too much attention from the regime) and instead pushed the character as something of a generic reporter. Despite unavoidable hiccups like those, Hergé tried desperately to prove that it was business as usual, with his characters staying out of trouble and continuing to dwell on far-away adventures removed from the harsh reality of modern warfare.

A border skermish...

So King Ottokar’s Sceptre stands out among Hergé’s work because it directs the sense of growing unease in Europe relatively straight-on, in as much as any of Hergé’s stories tackled complex political issues head-on. He makes up a country implied to be the Balkans, and makes up a rich and diverse cultural heritage (which he seems to have had a great deal of fun doing), but he uses it to explore the type of strategy used by Germany and Italy to expand their borders. The scenery might look beautiful, but there’s a strong undercurrent of dread and fear.

The whole story is one big gambit to allow a strong militaristic state to annex a smaller one. In a letter to his “shock troops”, the would-be dictator Mussler (a combination of Hitler and Mussolini) promises to take back “our native land.” That’s the sort of rhetoric that the Nazis used, speaking as if they were entitled to their expansion, as if they held some higher claim to it. The tactics used are more than a little like the famous Nazi blitzreig. There’s a strong army force ready to cross the border and seize the country as quickly as possible, with spies and terrorists inside the country designed to stir up as much instability as possible – “agitators in the pay of a foreign power.”

Let's hope they don't slip up...

There’s something to be said about the fact that Mussler, the mastermind behind this plot, doesn’t ever actually appear. The more literary commentators amongst us might suggest it’s an allusion to The Valley of Fear, a Sherlock Holmes mystery where Moriarty was a major villain, but didn’t appear, but I think it’s also something simpler. It’s a comment of the power of myth in the fascist state. It doesn’t matter that Mussler is just a man and can be easily arrested and imprisoned, it’s the capacity to make something far bigger and stronger than him that is truly frightening – a ghost or phantom of Mussler who can reach into every facet of life and corrupt even the most honourable of me. That’s the threat, more than some guy with authority issues. It’s the cult he creates that is the threat, more than the man himself.

And that’s something about this story. While a lot of Hergé’s Adventures of Tintin feature rather improbable last-minute betrayals by characters who really should have been vetted better, it seems like King Ottokar’s Sceptre features more traitors than honest-to-goodness royalists. It seems like – odds are – everyone’s in on this. The conspiracy is everywhere, and you can trust no one – not even the King’s right-hand man. Given that this was written before Hergé had lived in a fascist police state, it can’t help be feel a little prescient, with an atmosphere hanging heavy over the brightly-coloured panels.

Bailing out...

There are other moments that date the story, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. “It was only a young anarchist who managed to get into the palace, sire,” the King’s advisor lies, cleverly referencing the terrorists that most European monarchies would have feared in the early days of the twentieth century. Spoken by a traitor, the line underscores how much has changed between the threats to royalty at the turn-of-the-century and the threats facing them in the nineteen-thirties. As I noted, the series does seem anchored in a particular place and time, perhaps more than the vast majority of Tintin stories, but I think it works, because Hergé evokes that feeling so very well.

It’s interesting to note how the writer is feeling well-and-truly comfortable with his lead character, eight adventures in. He knows the types of tropes he’s employing like the back of his hand, and it’s to his credit that he seems to point them out to the audience. After all, the mystery begins with perhaps the most awkward set-up in the series, as Tintin just happens to stumble across a missing briefcase on a bench where he wanted to sit down. “Let’s sit down on this bench for a moment,” is the first line of the book, and seems like our lead tempting fate. Later on, there’s a sense of the ridiculousness of the character’s death-defying escape, as an incredulous spymaster discusses it over the phone. “What? … Tintin? … But that’s impossible: the pilot just told me… What? … Into some straw!” There’s no denying that Hergé was aware of some of his more awkward little escape clauses.

No bones to pick with Hergé...

Hergé has great fun crafting an identity for his fake Balkans nation, to the point where he even publishes an extract from a tourist guide to the region. Despite some minor timeline inconsistencies (mainly around Turkish activity in the region), it demonstrates that the author is certainly doing his homework, and all his work is – as usual – rendered in loving detail. It’s to Hergé’s credit that the state comes alive as much as it does. You can also sense Hergé expanding the hero’s world here. Of course, he has already introduced countless recurring guest stars, from Rastapopoulos to General Alcazar to Thompson and Thomson. Here he adds Bianca Castafiore. Of course, the most famous addition is yet to appear. That’s for the next story.

King Ottokar’s Sceptre is one of the few Tintin books that genuinely feels like a product of its time. That’s not a bad thing, as it was a very rich time for Hergé to draw from, and one of the few times the author directly tackled the Second World War. It’s a story that is perhaps all the more powerful for its historical context.

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