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Tintin: Destination Moon (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.

Destination Moon is an interesting entry in the Tintin canon, in that it really feels like Hergé’s relaxing just a bit. Since around about The Broken Ear (or even Tintin in America), most of Hergé’s stories have been relatively plot-driven, with a central mystery and a story built around solving that mystery. Destination Moon, on the other hand, is an adventure that feels far more episodic in nature, with Hergé taking a central plot (the race to land a man on a moon) and then building a variety of small adventures around it, from attempts to hijack a test rocket through to Professor Calculus’ amnesia and beyond. The story is somewhat leisurely plotted, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The author is clearly enjoying having a little bit more narrative freedom than he’s used to, and also having a great deal of fun taking a fantastical core concept and demonstrating how much research he’s put in.

It's out of this world...

It’s telling that Hergé uses two famous destructive implements as the basis of his manned moon mission. Calculus boasts about using nuclear power to propel the rocket into orbit, and it’s nice to see Hergé emphasising that the power can be used for good – the Professor goes out of his way to explain that this isn’t an atomic bomb or anything like that, it’s an attempt to use atomic science for the betterment of mankind. The design of Hergé’s rocket, perhaps the largest mistake the author made about manned spaceflight, is even modelled on the German V3 rockets, the weapons devised by the Germans towards the end of the Second World War. Again, it’s a piece of technology repurposed so that it’s used for peace rather than warfare.

The earlier Tintin adventures bristle with a conscious political subtext. The stories frequently feature the boyish reporter inserting himself into some foreign situation and meddling in a very political issue, often one substituting for a real-life political event. Tintin in the Congo obviously explored Belgian colonialism, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets was an obvious indictment of the Soviet Union, and even tales like King Ottokar’s Sceptre, The Blue Lotus and The Black Island had rather strong political undercurrents to them. Perhaps motivated by the accusation of collaboration thrown at him, or humbled by his controversial political beliefs before the war, one can sense Hergé easing off the political throttle, so to speak.

Plans of action...

The Calculus Affair would take a look at the Cold War, but a lot of the later stories would feel more fanciful (Flight 714), more confined in scope (The Castafiore Emerald) or even more personal (Tintin in Tibet). You can tell that Hergé had cut down on the poltical commentary by Tintin in Tibet if only because the book was published in China with only the slightest name change (“Tintin in Chinese Tibet”). Even when Hergé returned to South America in Tintin and the Picaros, it seemed almost apolitical – there was no difference between the government and the rebels, other than the colour of their uniforms and a name on a sign.

Around this time, Hergé would return to revise some his earlier works, and what he chanced is telling. The author made a clear effort to depoliticise them, to the point where Tintin no longer taught a school class about “their country” Belgium in Tintin in the Congo, but educated them in algebra instead. Here, there’s no way for Tintin’s mission of scientific exploration to entangle Hergé in a political controversy, a sign the author was departing the realm of politics to address other matters, on a journey not too different to the one Tintin and his friends take in the rocket.

Haddock is foaming at the mouth...

Although the author really avoided tackling it directly, the Second World War hung somewhat heavily over his writing during the conflict. There was a palpable sense of dread and unease in tales like The Shooting Star and Land of Black Gold. With the conflict finally over, it seems the cloud has been lifted. While the stories were never cynical, and Tintin’s hope always triumphed, there’s a wonderful sense of optimism to Hergé’s story, and the tale – which might have been dismissed at the time as an homage to Jules Verne – suggests that not even the sky is the limit of human potential in this bold new age. The Calculus Affair would be more in line with the emerging Cold War, but Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon bristle with a wonderful energy and infectious enthusiasm.

In fairness, there are hints of the shifting political climate. The notion of a “space race” between two rival power blocks demonstrates that the author wasn’t quite abandoning any hint of relevence. It’s also fascinating to see that the monarchy of Syldavia, as seen in King Ottokar’s Sceptre isn’t really mentioned at all. While that doesn’t prove things one way or the other, it’s entirely possible that the monarchy collapsed during the Second World War, or that Hergé felt a bit uncomfortable dealing with a state that wasn’t a democracy – particularly when the accusations about Nazi collaboration were beginning to circle the author and artist, who had confessed a leading towards “New Order” politics. Still, King Muskar XII is conspicuous by his absences, and it’s entirely unlikely that Hergé forgot about the character, given how perfect his memory has been with other minor characters in the saga.

Tintin's about to be spaced out...

Perhaps that’s why it doesn’t really matter that Hergé’s attention seems to wander quite a bit, with the moon mission itself offering the thinnest connective tissue possible. Instead, it’s an excuse to see the characters enjoying one another’s company, and for jokes about local bear populations and a justification for putting Haddock in a silly horse costume. There’s a recurring plot to sabotage the mission, but even that doesn’t ever really come together here, simply providing a hint of darkness and tension to an otherwise energetic adventure.

With the space afforded, and the lack of a really compelling plot, Hergé also begins to demonstrate the series’ increasingly heavy continuity. Of course, characters have begun recurring, even villains, and footnotes referencing previous stories have become increasingly common. However, there seems to be more references (and stronger references) at that, to past adventures, such as Thomson and Thompson suffering a rather random relapse of their Formula 14 problems from Land of Black Gold, or the appearance of a truly minor villain from King Ottokar’s Sceptre in a one-panel cameo.

And the horse he rode in on...

Hell, the story seems to begin with Haddock and Tintin arriving home to find Calculus gone (with Haddock noting the mansion has been repainted). It’s entirely possible the two are returning from Land of Black Gold, which didn’t feature Calculus, except in a letter that informed them he’d burnt most of the house. I don’t mind these small references, as I don’t think they’ll alienate readers jumping on with this story, but it’s a sign of how tightly Hergé is plotting these adventures. It’s funny how that sense of internal continuity developed over the course of the series, creeping in slowly and surely.

Of course, most of the action is saved for the second part of this story, Explorers on the Moon, which I have a great deal of fondness for. Like The Secret of the Unicorn, it almost feels like the first part is really just set-up for the second adventure, but there’s a lovely sense of randomness and whimsy to Hergé’s vignettes that make Destination Moon a light and enjoyable read.

3 Responses

  1. I know this a old review but I’ve just been reading Destination Moon again for the first time in years and recalled your excellent review. There is one blink and you’ll miss it clue that the Syldavian monarchy is still around – the passports the security men use have a crowned coat of arms visible on the covers. Its not conclusive but that is definitely the sort of thing you are more likely to see on a passport from a monarchy (such as Herge’s own Belgium.)

    I think Muskar didn’t appear partly because it would be difficult to set a plausible constitutional monarchy Balkan country in a story written in the 1950s and also because Herge was friends with Leopold III of Belgium (who Muskar resembles) and thought he had been unfairly forced to abdicate. It might have been personally painful to bring him back.

    • Thanks Ross. Good spot on the monarchy/passport/Belgium thing.

    • Leopold III might actually have been Hergé’s second cousin. It is only speculation, of course. We do know though that Hergés father and uncle (who were twins) were born as illegitimate without a known father. And we also know that Hergé’s grandmother worked as a lady’s maid for a countess, who had the philandering king Leopold II as a visitor around the right point.

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