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Tintin: Explorers on the 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.

The one thing I really admire about Explorers on the Moon is the fact that – for an adventure that takes the iconic boy reporter off te surface of the planet and launches him into outer space – it’s a remarkably low key affair. In fact, most of the book is devoted to nice character moments for the ensemble, and to explore some of the wonderful research Hergé did to put his story together. There’s no great mystery on the moon, none of the aliens that would later appear in Flight 714. Instead, Hergé seems to accept that launching his cast out of the planet’s atmosphere was enough of a radical deviation from the norm as it was. So what we get is a strange situation where Explorers on the Moon feels like one of the more grounded adventures in the series.

"Can you hear me, Major Tom?"

That’s not a criticism. I remarked on reading Destination Moon that it feels like there’s a lot more optimism in these stories than there really has been since before King Ottokar’s Sceptre. The spectre of war has vanished, replaced with a newfound optimism. The human race, emerging from the horrors of a global conflict, have the potential to accomplish anything they can set their minds to. There are obstacles in the way – Haddock’s alcoholism, and a saboteur – but the story really feels like a celebration of mankind’s potential. Even the spy in the midst of the mission gets to die as a hero, redeeming himself with a noble sacrifice.

So, this isn’t really a fantasy story. After all, the moon landings weren’t too far away from the publication of this volume, not that anybody really realised quite how close they were. And, in fairness, Hergé did a fair decent job of predicting how it would all work. There are more than a few glaring errors – the shape of the rocket, the reaction to an inadequate oxygen supply and the fact that Earth never has any cloud cover – but the rest of his observations are carefully reasoned and considered. As I remarked above, this isn’t one of the more outlandish entries in the series.

"Planet Earth is blue, and there's nothing I can do..."

The only real surprise that Tintin and his colleagues discover waiting for them on the surface of the moon is the presence of frozen ice – and even that isn’t quite as unbelievable today as it might have been two decades ago. Besides, if I were a kid reading the book, and you told me the team discovered something unexpected on the surface of the moon, ice would not be my first guess. It’s a mark of how grounded and realistic Hergé wanted the story to remain, even as he literally flew his familiar characters well outside their comfort zones.

Despite doing his best to keep things as realistic as possible, there are still a few thrills to be had – even if the adventure isn’t really the most gripping instalment in the series. There’s a wonderfully choreographed escape attempt (and subsequent rescue) of a very drunk Captain Haddock featuring the asteroid Adonis. And there’s a traitor revealed as well, at the climax of the mission, for an extra dose of excitement.

"... floating in a most peculiar way..."

Despite the inherent optimism of the story’s central premise, I can almost sense the Cold War entering Hergé’s little world. Of course, The Calculus Affair would deal with these sorts of themes in a much more direct (and, I’d argue, much stronger) manner, but there’s something strangely pathetic about the story of coerced spy here, forced to betray his friends and his dream by more cynical and evil men – much as atomic science would find itself caught in this tug of war between the major global powers. The ending is sad and pathetic, but it does allow the traitor scientist to leave this world as a hero, which is perhaps a vaguely optimistic note, as much as a story like his could hit one.

The surface of the moon affords Hergé the chance to demonstrate his quite remarkable skill as an artist. This story looks absolutely lovely, and I think the artwork may be among the finest in the series. The artist is clearly relishing the opportunity to draw something a bit unique and a bit different than usual, and it really does look lovely.

"The circuit's dead! There's something wrong!"

Explorers on the Moon might not be the most exciting of Tintin’s adventures, nor is it the most fanciful. However, it is one of the most optimistic and hopeful. It suggests the human capacity for greatness, and points out that space travel doesn’t need aliens or monsters to be interesting – pure exploration is a concept exciting enough. This is Tintin as the purest form of explorer, and it’s really hard to disagree with that.

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