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Tintin: The Shooting Star (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 very strange to return to material you read as a child. Occasionally – as when reading King Ottokar’s Sceptre – you find a lot more than you remember. However, reading The Shooting Star, I was quite surprised to find the more surrealist elements I so strongly recalled – foreshadowed by the giant mushroom on the cover and the not-so giant spider on the telescope – were pretty much confined to the last ten pages of the adventure. Reading it again, I was incredibly impressed with the atmospheric opening scenes and the wonderful race to the fallen meteorite, both elements downplayed in my memory to giant apples and exploding mushrooms. It’s things like this that make me glad I decided to revisit the series for the occasion.

Tintin scopes out the observatory...

The Shooting Star was written while war raged across Europe. It’s not quite as obvious as it might have been in King Ottokar’s Sceptre, but you can feel the tension bubbling away in the background. In fact, the opening section of the book, as Tintin discovers a meteorite heading straight for Earth, with the capacity to wipe out all human life, is bristling with a raw and heavy atmosphere. It’s among the most powerful stuff Hergé has ever drawn, because it’s not linked by plot so much as mood. As the heat rises, and as Tintin wanders a relatively deserted town on a clear night, there’s a sense that things are not quite right.

“A judgement!” an escaped lunatic declares, “Woe!” Some of the sequence is played for laughs, like the giant spider or the mad prophet, but there’s a sinister undertone to it all – people standing silently out on the street, watching, while rats move over the pavement. It’s unsettling, in a manner that’s tough to pin down, and I suspect that Tintin’s relative powerlessness has something to do with it. The Adventures of Tintin see our hero saving foreign regimes, foiling drug smugglers and thrashing international criminals, but here he’s presented with one huge threat that he is absolutely helpless against. There’s nothing Tintin can do to change the outcome of this particular evening, and there’s a depressing fatalism to the way he concedes, “I’ve had enough of this.” Indeed, he falls asleep knowing that the world could be gone when he wakes up. At the sound of an earthquake, he panics in a manner uncharacteristic of our lead, “Help! This is it! The end of the world!!”

Magic mushrooms?

I imagine that a lot of people must have felt the same way, listening to reports of a war playing out with the fate of the world hanging in the balance, the sense that they could be killed in their sleep by a bombing raid, or that their entire country could be overtaken by an aggressive military power (Hergé was writing in a Nazi-occupied Belgium, after all). The sense of dread in the story isn’t anchored in a particular moment, or a particular political event, and I think that’s to the credit of Hergé. The tension and the sense of impending doom could just as easily apply to any number of modern political events that current readers might have lived through, and that’s a sign of the story’s staying power.

After this effective opening scene, the story transitions into something a bit looser and a bit less atmospheric, as Tintin and a crew of explorers race to claim the fallen rock before a rival expedition. It’s worth noting that the rival crew was American in the original draft of the story, while the book was later reworked so that they originated from fictional country. Perhaps I was correct to deduce from Tintin in America that Hergé wasn’t especially fond of the United States.

Oh, rats!

Either way, it’s not really a big deal, as the real villain of the story is the suspiciously Jewish banker Bohlwinkel – who looks quite like the stereotypical Jew found in Nazi propaganda. It’s funny that Hergé attempted to mitigate this by changing the name of the character from Blumenstein to Bohlwinkel (an allusion to a word for “sweet shop”), but ended up picking another Jewish-sounding name. It’s quite conspicuous and a little awkward reading the story, and it’s a shame that Hergé used the character in the first place, but also that – recognising the mistake by changing the name – didn’t try to revise the mistake in a better or more forceful manner.

The race to the rock is fun, and it’s very much the sort of old-school race-against-time adventure that one has come to expect from The Adventures of Tintin, with the ice caps providing a rather pleasant backdrop. In particular, it’s nice to see Captain Haddock return, so soon after his first appearance. Here Haddock is far more of the man that we know and remember, first appearing as something of a shell in The Crab With the Golden Claws. He’s more assertive, with genuine passion for his job, instead of locking himself away from the world, drinking. On witnessing an act of sabotage, the Captain declares, “One thing, if I ever lay hands on that pyromaniac, he’ll see a good display of fireworks!” There’s a sense that he’s enjoying the race, and that his companionship with Tintin has made a better man of him already. He’s smiling during a night storm, gleefully asking Tintin, “Nice little breeze, isn’t it?”

Making a splash...

The final third is the one that most people remember, if only because it lends the book its iconic cover, and it’s perhaps the strangest moment in the franchise this side of Flight 714. If I didn’t know better, I’d almost feel think that this book had been written in the sixties. It has the sort of trippy vibe to it that indicates you could score it to The Doors, and its “mysterious rocks make everything grow” plot is they type of stuff that Stan Lee and other Americans would have great fun playing with during the Silver Age. After all, even knowing that this was written during the Second World War, it’s hard not to look at the brightly-coloured exploding mushrooms as some sort of “magic mushroom” drug analogy. Maybe they were, I don’t know.

But, truth be told, it’s fun. I don’t mind a bit of absurdity. After all, though the series tends to favour rational explanations for stuff, there’s some damn weird stuff in these stories that can’t quite be ignored. There’s always been an element of fantasy to Tintin, and The Shooting Star just lays it all out there. Plus, this sort of brightly-coloured escapist fare serves as a sharp contrast to the oppressive atmosphere Hergé stirred up during those opening pages. At the very worst, you can just pretend it was all but a dream.

I spy(der) trouble...

The Shooting Star is a solid adventure. There’s a rich and atmospheric opening which demonstrates Hergé’s skill with atmosphere and mood, and – while the remainder of the book doesn’t quite live up to that – it’s a nice race-against-time plot.

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