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Tintin: The Crab With the Golden Claws (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 Crab With the Golden Claws is the first of three Tintin stories that were used as the basis of Steven Spielberg’s upcoming The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (the other two being, obviously, The Secret of the Unicorn and its sequel, Red Rackham’s Treasure). The Crab With the Golden Claws was originally written during the Nazi occupation of Belgium, when Hergé feared that his then on-going storyline The Land of Black Gold would have proved too politically charged for the country’s new governing force. So the adventure was essentially written as filler, a bit of light entertainment to take the minds of his headers as far away from the political reality as possible. And it certainly succeeds as one of the lighter and brisker adventures in the series, with one major addition to the franchise’s mythos in the form of Captain Archibald Haddock.

This could be the start of a beautiful friendship...

This is about as far away as it is possible to get from the dense political intrigue and careful world-building of King Ottokar’s Sceptre. In fact, The Crab With the Golden Claws is so light that there are several splash pages scattered throughout the book in order to bump up the page count significantly. While none of these are essential, some of them (especially the one of Tintin, Haddock and Snowy wandering in the desert) are wonderful to look at and give the story a sense of scale. Of course, the number of splash pages also helps the story flow a lot quicker, and makes reading feel a lot brisker. It’s a rather pointed counterpart to the pages of text (and, in fairness, one splash page – though Hergé wanted two) inserted into King Ottokar’s Sceptre.

This isn’t a criticism, to be honest. In fact, I quite like the rather fast-paced adventure that sees Tintin and his newest companion cracking an opium-smuggling operation after the reported inserts himself into a murder investigation. I quite like the idea that this story will influence Spielberg’s upcoming big-screen adaptation of Hergé’s work, if only because the book has a wonderfully pulpy vibe, that calls to mind things like Raiders of the Lost Ark with its market chase, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusadewith its speedboat chase. There’s a sense that the story isn’t really anything especially original or fantastic about the story itself (cracking opium-smuggling gangs is practically Tintin’s hobby), but the writer and artist is having great fun in the execution.

It's just plane fun...

In particular, Hergé plays on a lot of the assumptions and clichés that he might typically use in telling a Tintin story. For example, the innocuous-yet-important event that plays out on the opening page, where Tinin inevitably does something that starts him on this particular adventure (finding a briefcase in King Ottokar’s Sceptre, stumbling across a plane in The Black Island), actually seems like a completely pointless sequence… until a few more pages into the story. His detective-like examination of the evidence plays out a wonderful slapstick gag that would seem like filler if it wasn’t so charming. Even his attempts to engage in a car chase with the bad guys are hilariously lampooned by Hergé. I’ve always liked that wry sort of humour, the sense that the author is somehow smiling out through their work at their audience.

Of course, it seems like any discussion of The Crab With the Golden Claws is just treading water until you get to its most significant feature, the rather monumental introduction of Captain Archibald Haddock to the ever-increasing supporting cast of Hergé’s Tintin. The sea captain has been something of a favourite among Hergé’s vast and impressive supporting players, and his popularity has grown so much that he’s really seen as Tintin’s faithful heterosexual life partner – the two are rarely separated from this point out, at least in the public’s imagination. In fact, Haddock was even inserted to the end of The Land of Black Gold when Hergé returned to the story after the War – his arrival isn’t explained in story, but the only reason he didn’t appear at the start was because he didn’t exist when it began. Haddock is a wonderful character, larger than life, and though I am perhaps a tiny bit fonder of Snowy, I’ll concede a deep and honest affection for the blue-shirted sailor.

Haddock's all at sea...

That said, you could make a legitimate argument that the Captain Haddock featured here has relatively little in common with the character he would become later on. The character has always suffered with drinking problems, but there’s a marked contrast in how he’s portrayed here as against the rest of the series. Although we see hints of the fierce temper that we’d come to expect from him, Haddock spends most of the book in withdrawal from his alcohol addiction. Hergé does play the matter for a few laughs, but there’s actually something very pitiable about the man we are introduced to early in the book, a stuttering and weak-willed fool crying away in his cabin, so locked away from the world he doesn’t even know about the opium in his hold.

It’s a nice touch in, in a book about opium smuggling, to touch on the horror of addiction. While not Trainspotting by any means (this is a children’s book, after all), it is very sad to see the character brought so low, counting on his first mate to placate him with booze and turning a blind eye to what’s really going on as long as his needs are met. “At any rate,” he begins, sobbing, “you – you – you are my friend, Mr. Allan. You’re the only one who… one who… who…” He’s crying to a man feeding his addiction to keep him occupied – there’s a great deal of pathos in that, I think.

They've been deserted...

I really like the idea that Tintin makes Haddock a better man. I think it’s touching that an honest and decent friendship with a well-meaning and earnest young kid could have such an impact on a cynical and over-the-hill sailor. Haddock would continue to struggle with his drinking problem – though it was never portrayed quite as seriously as it was in his introduction – but he’d become more assertive and more honest and more reliable. I’d like to think it was all through his friendship with Tintin.

You can see hints of it unfolding here. Having two criminals at gunpoint, Haddock is in no mood to follow Tintin’s suggestion to secure them. “Tie them up? Why? … Let’s just pitch them in the sea! They didn’t worry about shooting us up, the gangsters!” Tintin, on the other hand, is a more decent sort of fellow, insisting, “I know, but we aren’t gangsters! … Come on, Captain, tie them up and let’s get going.” There’s a nother moment, shortly thereafter, where we can see Haddock being genuinely amazed at Tintin’s selflessness. As the wreckage of the plane burns, Tintin exclaims, “Good heavens! … The two prisoners? … They’re still in the plane…”Then he rushes into the burning wreckage to save them. I like to think that some of the heroism rubbed off on Haddock and was responsible for his transition to a more heroic (if still a little cynical) figure in the stories to come.

By this stage, the series was in ship-shape...

The Crab With the Golden Claws isn’t the strongest entry in the franchise, and it’s really only memorable for the introduction of Captain Haddock, but it’s to Hergé’s credit that it’s still incredibly entertaining and moves briskly along, flying by and leaving a smile on the reader’s face. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that.

2 Responses

  1. Your description of Haddock and Tintin’s lasting friendship got me teared up. I want to revisit the books so much.
    Thanks for posting these great reviews.
    Cheers from Iran.

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