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Tintin: The Seven Crystal Balls (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.

Apparently, if Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn is a success, Peter Jackson will be directing a sequel that will be based on the two-part story directly following The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham’s Treasure. I’m already anticipating that, seen as The Seven Crystal Balls and Prisoners of the Sun are probably among my favourite Tintin stories, and I can actually see the rather wonderful conflict between mysticism and rationality playing out really well on the big-screen. It’s pure unadulterated pulp fiction, and it’s pulp fiction done exceptionally well.

Mummy!

The Seven Crystal Balls hits a lot of the same notes as one of the stronger earlier Tintin stories, Cigars of Pharaoh. For both stories, Hergé drew on that popular early twentieth century urban myth about “the curse of the mummy” that supposedly stalked the explorers who opened the tombs of the ancient Egyptians. The curse itself has been hotly debated, but there’s no doubt that including it in the story gives Hergé’s adventure a rather classy pulpy feel. There’s no denying the influence, as the story follows the fate of an expedition to the Incan burial grounds, while an anonymous passer-by warns Tintin, “Remember, young man, what happened with Tut-Ankh-Amun!”

The story does hit on a lot of the stronger notes of Cigars of the Pharaoh, especially when it comes to atmosphere. Again, we spend a night with an atmospheric storm brewing outside when the curse strikes somebody quite close to Tintin. However, Hergé seems to avoid giving us an exceptionally rational explanation, at least this early in the game. In fact, the story dwells on the rather macabre possibility of a vengeful Incan mummy, with the demon even haunting Tintin’s dream. There’s the very strong possibility that there is an occult force at work, something definitely supernatural rather than a rational act staged to look paranormal. I think that might be one of the reasons I like the story slightly more than Cigars of the Pharaoh.

Haddock's new social facade collapses...

There’s a genuine sense of the irrational and rational worlds conflicting in the story, much like I imagine they did in the early years of the twentieth century. Haddock’s commitment to discovering the method by which “Bruno the master magician!” can turn water into brandy recalls the work of Houdini, who was committed to proving most magicians and spiritual mediums were frauds and dismissing the petty superstition of his age. Similarly, Hergé mixes the mood-setting grim prophecies and the haunting night terrors with pseudo-science like “ball lightning”, as if to blur the distinction between what is and isn’t possible – between science and fantasy.

It’s a nice touch, and one that suits the material and the characters remarkably well. The central mystery – the coma that the explorers lapse into – is a compelling one, and the mystic angle adds a bit more depth to affairs. Indeed, the kidnapping of poor Cuthbert Calculus lends the whole story a rather poignant depth, with Haddock solemnly swearing to his close friend, “Here’s to you, Cuthbert old chap. We’ll find you, I promise – dead or alive.” The series does have wonderful comedic moments, but it’s easy to forget how well Hergé can handle drama.

Thunderbolts and lightning, very very frighteningly...

Outside of the central mystery and story, there’s some wonderful character work to be found here, as though Hergé has finished establishing his cast and can really start using them now. There are some delightful moments as Haddock attempts to live a lifestyle befitting his new social status, which is practically a comedy of manners in the making. This new Haddock says things like, “‘Pon my word, it’s Tintin! Delighted to see you, my dear chap!” It’s fun to watch the character run through a rather significant amount of monocles through the course of the story – he simply must stop being so surprised. At the same time, it’s strangely comforting how quickly the Captain disregards his newfound social status and climbs into more comfortable clothes when his friend’s life is in danger.

It’s interesting to consider the series’ preoccupation with class, arguably one of the aspects of Hergé’s saga where it feels most distinct from the evolution of American comic books. Here, Haddock inherits his way into money, rather than “earning” it. Throughout the series, the decisions made by Tintin to turn down large sums of money (whether as bribes or rewards) are slightly undermined by the fact that the character and his friends never seem to want for money – they’ll live comfortably no matter what. Indeed, even Tintin’s somewhat lackluster attitude towards his job as a reporter suggests that he isn’t dependent on his income to live. It could be argued that this reflects a very European attitude to class and wealth, based around the idea that money and status are arguably not so much earned as bestowed.

It's a madhouse!

In contrast to the earlier portrayal of Siegel & Shuster’s Superman as something of a class hero, a champion of the working man, Tintin feels positively conservative. You could argue that Superman has since evolved into a conservative figure preserving the status quo, and Batman always was (in fact, Bab Kane explicitly designed his creation to come from “old money” with the name Bruce Wayne chosen to sound “European”), but the differences were very pronounced in the earlier stories. It perhaps speaks to the cultural divide between the two continents that Tintin is very much the champion of the establishment, in whatever form it might take. He fights to preserve the undemocratic monarchy in King Ottokar’s Sceptre (admittedly against what seems to be an undemocratic fascist coup) and he defends the Inca culture in Prisoners of the Sun based purely on its ties to a glorious past, rather than any intrinsic worth (he seems fairly cool about the code of secrecy enforced through murder and the human sacrifices that don’t involve himself and Haddock). In fact, it’s interesting to compare Tintin with Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s Peter Parker, another young reporter struggling to make ends meet – while Tintin is just sort of above all that.

There are other nice touches here as well. General Alcazar is reduced to working in a music hall following a coup in his country, and greets Tintin like an old friend. Given Tintin had yet to meet Haddock last time he crossed paths with Alcazar, it’s funny to hear the reporter remark, “You remember my friend, Captain Haddock.” I’d actually love to read the first meeting of Haddock and Alcazar. Anyway, it’s great to see Hergé developing his supporting cast, and Alcazar’s ever-changing circumstances would become one the series’ stronger recurring jokes. Again, Tintin’s fascination with Alcazar and the fact he seems to treat him as a true friend is fascinating, given the fact that Alcazar is hardly an ideal political figure. Hergé would, in fairness, explore this fascinating relationship in Tintin and the Picaros, which reads like a tacit acknowledgement of Tintin’s old-world naivety.

It's a balancing act...

I do wonder, though, what our dear friend Tintin is doing with himself these days. I think it’s safe to assume he’s not really a reporter anymore, as he reads about the mysterious coma victims just like everybody else (and isn’t sent to cover it), but he hasn’t moved in with Captain Haddock on the estate. It’s nice that – rather than stumbling across them in the course of his own enquiries – Thomson and Thompson seem to stop by to consult with Tintin on the mystery. It’s kinda cool that they seem to think this sort of case is right up Tintin’s street, asking, “Good… well… what’s your view of this business?” I’m beginning to suspect that Tintin’s business cards read less as “reporter” and more as “international man of mystery.”

The Seven Crystal Balls, like The Secret of the Unicorn, leads directly into the following story, and is really the opening instalment of a two-part adventure. Personally, I think it might be my favourite of Hergé’s two-part stories, and we’re only half-way through!

2 Responses

  1. It’s funny that the Seven Crystal Balls was one I never really preferred as a kid. It’s hard to say why.

    • I’m amazed at how much people tend to disagree over their favourite Tintin adventures. It seems that every story is somebody’s favourite, which is kinda housewarming. Personally, I lean towards the pulpier adventures, which I think reflects my own personal tastes elsewhere.

      What is your favourite Tintin story, if you had to pick one? Or two?

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