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Tintin: Flight 714 (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.

Flight 714 is an interesting Tintin book, if only because it’s the most conventional Tintin story we’ve had in quite some time, while also being one of the oddest books in the franchise. There have been comparisons made between Hergé’s penultimate completed entry in The Adventures of Tintin and the television show Lost, which should give you some inkling of just how strange things get during this particular trip. And, given Tintin’s been to the surface of the moon, things get quite strange.

Don't sweat the landing...

There’s quite a lot of fuss about Flight 714 when you discuss it among Tintin fans. The most obviously controversial facet is the ending, which involves flying saucers and alien abductions. For some readers, it seems like this is clearly a bridge too far, and it seems to strain the imagination just a little bit too much. Indeed, Hergé himself seems to concede the point just a little bit. “You’re going too far,” Haddock states when the subject of alien life comes up, “we aren’t as gullible as that!”

However, I really don’t see it as especially strange subject matter for the stories. Hergé had always had a bit of a fascination with pulp pseudo-science, as any reader can attest. Even if one writes off The Shooting Star as a dream or a hallucination, there’s plenty of very strange stuff that Hergé has included in his books, drawing on the rich urban legends of the twentieth century. While he provided a rational explanation, the Curse of Tutankhamun served as the inspiration of both Cigars of the Pharaoh and Seven Crystal Balls. The Yeti featured in Tintin in Tibet. Even the presence of ball-lightning in Seven Crystal Balls and the suggestion of a secret Inca tribe in South America in Prisoners of the Sun speak of these sorts of pop culture myths that develop over time.

Things are heating up...

Flight 714 was written in the seventies, and it’s only fitting that Hergé should look to the cultural landscape of the time for inspiration. The “ancient astronaut” theory, which would form the basis of Stargate, was very popular at this point of time, and it was arguably so influential that a lot of us are tangentially aware of it even today. Why is it so strange that Hergé should include some pseudo-science that has its roots in the second half of the twentieth century, rather than just the earlier years? I think it fits quite well, in the context of the story, demonstrating that Hergé isn’t going to leave his characters stranded in a fictional universe fifty years out of date.

There is the argument that the aliens effectively come out of nowhere and serve as a rather convenient deus ex machina. It’s hard to argue against that point too strongly. The telepath even engineers the conclusion to the story with some rather convenient plot devices, spotting a floating raft and observing, “Zat is suggestink how adventure can be finishink for Tintin and comrades.” The language is so obvious, though, that it’s hard to believe Hergé didn’t know what he was doing, allowing the character to speak as if we were the author, stumbling across a convenient way to tie up all loose ends. I think that to criticise it as a convenient solution is to miss the entire point. It’s undoubtedly a convenient solution.

Everyone was kung-fu fighting...

Reading Flight 714 now, after all these years, it’s quite striking. It’s hard to believe my younger self missed all the evidence that Hergé built up over the course of the story, but I think I get it now. It’s easy to embrace Flight 714 at face value, given that it has been a while since we’ve had a relatively straightforward and conventional little story, but I suspect Hergé meant it to be something just the tiniest bit odd. After all, following the playful experimentation of Tintin in Tibet and The Castofiore Emerald, you don’t just go back to standard storytelling.

Flight 714 reads as an affectionate parody of a conventional Tintin story. Of course, Hergé is rather gentle, and he has a deep respect and love for his creations, so it is easy to miss – not to mention that the writer has a sharp enough sense of humour most of the time, it can be quite easy to miss when he’s playing with the audience. Still, so many details fit perfectly that it’s hard for me not to suspect that Hergé was being just the tiniest bit cheeky in putting together this story, with a smile on his face as he gently pokes at his familiar plot devices and story elements.

Tintin stays ahead of the game...

Mr. Wagg remarks of Haddock, “The old humbag, he doesn’t half come up with some comic turns!” He’s not wrong. Hergé has had a bit of fun in the past with the sheer volume of contrived coincidence that it takes to get an adventure to work – with The Castofiore Emerald even featuring a variety of fascinating and provoking elements that refused to coalesce into one central mystery. Flight 714 is just the opposite, it’s a fairly banal journey that proceeds to get more interesting and complicated through a series of random happenstances.

Tintin and the gang only end up on the flight with Carreidas because Calculus happens to make him laugh, something it just so happens he hasn’t done in years. There happens to be a plot against Carreidas, and it turns out that it’s organised by Rastapopoulus, despite the fact that he really should be dead. That’s just bad luck really. And then, through sheer luck, it turns out they’ve all gone to a random island that is an alien abduction hotspot. They’re a collection of elements that strain the suspension of disbelief to tie together, but I think that’s the intention: Hergé is pointing out how convenient the stand Tintin set-up is by tying a whole bunch of them together.

Monkey business...

While Hergé has always had a sense of humour, it seems that he’s really refusing to take anything too seriously here. Rastapopoulus was seemingly resurrected from the dead to serve as the butt of countless jokes and wander through a variety of embarrassing circumstances, getting defeated and humiliated each time. This was the big villain of Tintin’s earlier adventures, but he’s treated as a fool here, even engaging in a very silly competition to prove he’s more sinister than Carreidas. He demands, like a cartoon villain, “Do you or do you admit that I’m wickeder than you?”

Indeed, one might argue that Flight 714 is providing Hergé with a change to air his dirty laundry, once and for all, to lay the accusations made against him to rest. Ever since the end of the Second World War, Hergé faced accusations of Nazi sympathies, something the artist vehemently denied. His stories afterwards featured decidedly Nazi villains, as if to underscore the point. Sponsz and his secret police from The Calculus Affair were Nazi’s in all but names, with their uniforms even borrowed from the Reich. Here, Hergé goes one step further, creating the character of Doctor Krollspell, who seems like a sort of a Josef Mengele type character. It seems highly unlikely that Krollspell developed and tested his “truth serum”especially ethically.

To the batcave!

Indeed, Hergé also seems keen to distance himself from allegations of anti-Semetism. The Shooting Star was a primary point of criticism, but many argued that the character of Rastapopoulus was a crude Jewish stereotype. The villain was, after all, introduced as a movie mogul. Here Hergé makes a point to surround the character with ambiguously Nazi sidekicks as a way of diffusing the allegations. There’s a sense that Hergé is trying to put the war behind him, and it’s telling that Tintin and his colleagues fly over a bunch of shipwrecked battlecruisers to arrive and held in an abandoned Japanese bunkers. It’s an attempt by the author to close the book on that chapter of his life, perhaps fittingly denoted by whisking Rastapopoulus off to another planet at the end of the story (his notes suggesting a plan to revive the villain for Tintin and the Alph-Art not withstanding). Enough of that, though.

Tintin and friends don’t seem to be under real threat, while Snowy is more efficient than usual – it actually seems the two are in communication when Snowy distracts a guard for Tintin to escape. There are other moments, like Allan’s embarrassment and inefficiencies as well, while it never truly seems like the villains are than much of threat. Hergé is very clearly playing around a bit with the conventions of these types of stories, and seems to enjoy playing with expectations. I suspect it’s intentional, as he’s gone to great effort to give us the basic set-up of an old-fashioned Tintin story (kidnapping, extortion plot, exotic scenery) and then turned everything on its head.

A flying finish...

I like it. I really do. Perhaps it’s because it’s an entertaining and well-told story in its own right, or perhaps because I’m a sucker for Hergé’s slightly skewed sense of humour. I think the reason I appear to like it more than most is because I look at it from a different angle – it’s playing around a bit with the aspects of a Tintin story that we take for granted, which is something Hergé’s really been doing for a while now. I’m glad to see the old trappings back, but I don’t want a retread of the classic stories. Flight 714 is a Tintin story on drugs, which I suppose makes it the perfect entry in the series for the late sixties.

There are some nice artistic touches as well. This is the first time I’ve noticed it, but Hergé is beginning to stray just a little bit outside his rigid panels. It’s mostly dialogue, but it’s also hats and props and even people. It’s always fascinating to see an established artist playing with their style, and it’s another of the many little factors that contribute to my theory on the book. Between this and the non-mystery of The Castofiore Emerald, it seems that Hergé was playing with post-modernism long before Tintin and the Alph-Art.

Parting shots...

I am a big fan of Flight 714, because I like the surreal nature of it. It’s more like classic Tintin than a lot of the recent stories, but it’s also far stranger. How could I resist a combination like that?

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