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Tintin: Land of Black Gold (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.

Land of Black Gold is certainly an interesting Tintin story. It was begun during the Second World War, but suspended while Hergé’s paper, Le Soir, was investigated under suspicion of collaboration. Following the war, the author returned to complete the work, updating the adventure to remove some of the more obvious political elements, and to retroactively insert some of the more modern characters into the tale (Captain Haddock has a small role, and Cuthbert Calculus appears only via letter). However, despite all this interesting shuffling around, and the fact the story was begun in one political climate and finished in another, it’s surprising how relevent Hergé’s exploration of Middle Eastern politics remains.

Thompson and Thomson get their just deserts, eh?

Much like The Shooting Star, one can almost sense the dread hanging over the author as he composed the story. While one can connect the hopelessness and the sense of powerlessness that Tintin felt there with what many must have felt during the Second World War, here Hergé establishes a more direct connection. Throughout the story, countless references are made to an ambiguous major conflict brewing on the international scene, and it’s implied that the events of the story represent just one small skirmish as the opposing side maneuver their pieces into play.

The mystère du jour is given quite a bit of extra weight through the mounting sense of unease. “Everyone’s talking of war,” Tintin is warned as he begins his investigation, and the boy reporter even describes Müller’s fortress as “a real Maginot Line!” Indeed, serving as a radio operator on a frigate, passing important messages back and forth, Tintin suggests to himself, “War… it’s horrible… I can’t get it out of my mind…” I don’t think Hergé could, either. It definitely hangs over the first part of the story, even if it eases up towards the end, which was notably written once the conflict had passed. We’re informed via radio, “Following today’ meeting of foreign ministers a spokesman indicated there had been a definite easing of tension…”

Tintin has a flare for this sort of thing...

In case you needed any more confirmation of which global conflict was weighing heavily on Hergé’s mind, this story see the return of Doctor Müller, last seen skulking around England counterfeiting notes in The Black Island. While we never found out exactly what his game was there (though it did connect to those pre-war rumours of German agents attempting to attack the British economy), here Hergé is considerably less ambiguous. Despite what it may initially look like, Müller isn’t a private contractor working for a major oil company, but “a secret agent for a major foreign power.” Hergé never states which major power, but the fact he bids farewell to Tintin as “auf wiedersehen!” might be a big hint (if the name isn’t).

In keeping with his appearance in The Black Island, and perhaps befitting the portrayal of a spy in a series like this, it’s charming that Müller appears to have his own supervillain lair, like something out of James Bond. While his island scheme in The Black Island had undertones of Dr. No, here he’s decidedly more You Only Live Twice with his elaborate underground base (it even has a little railway line). I know that the story somewhat predates Ian Fleming’s tale, but the similarities are quite pleasant – Tintin even has to disguise himself as a local to infiltrate the fortress.

Thompson gets carried away...

One can tell that the story is a bit different from the others released at this point in the series. For example, there’s a much stronger emphasis on Tintin as a solo adventurer, which is understandable – Hergé began the story before Captain Haddock or Professor Calculus had been created. Though he re-wrote it later, there’s still an awkward moment near the start where Haddock is called away on duty, only to rejoin Tintin at the climax of the story. The author is aware at how silly this must look, and teases us with an explanation of how Haddock managed to reappear at that exact moment, never getting a chance to complete what must be a very interesting story.

Perhaps suiting the rather strange chronology of the tale, it’s fitting that one of the series most anchored in the Second World War might also remain one of the most politically relevant adventures in the series. Although Müller may operate for a very particular foreign power, oil is still an extremely hot political issue, even today. In fact, the extent to which foreign powers (governments and business) might manipulate the internal politics of certain countries in order to keep the oil flowing (to the extent of “regime change”) remains a much-debated issue. Maybe it’s a sign of just how little has changed since Hergé originally wrote the story, but it remains a potent and timely read even today. That’s quite an accomplishment.

Hergé's been on fire of late...

Land of Black Gold might not be the strongest entry in the series, and it does read quite strangely even to somebody unaware of all the behind-the-scenes turmoil, but it’s still a clever little adventure, and one which brings back a political element to the series that has been somewhat missed since King Ottokar’s Sceptre. The story tends to get overshadowed by the three two-part sagas surrounding it (The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham’s Treasure, The Seven Crystal Balls and Prisoners of the Sun and Destination: Moon and Explorers on the Moon), and perhaps rightly so, but it’s still an entertaining little adventure in its own right – and one which raises a few thought-provoking questions for the reader to contemplate.

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