Thursday, 9 March 2017

Cigars of the Pharaoh - The Adventures of Tintin 4 by Hergé

Cigars of the Pharaoh is the first of the Adventures to not have "Tintin" in the title, presumably due to the appearance of the series title "The Adventures of Tintin" on the cover making it redundant to repeat the star's name, though as we'll see later, this reasoning was not always adhered to. This is also the first album to feature the characters Thompson and Thomson and also Rastapopoulos, though each had had a cameo added to the redrawings of earlier adventures.

That redrawing was strangely the last of the earlier Adventures to be redone and this can make the current version of this tale a little confusing to follow. There's a reference to a previous meeting with Rastapopoulos, which may mean his unnamed appearance at a banquet in Tintin in America but it could equally refer to a more substantial meeting. Similarly, Tintin's fame has preceded him with Patrash Pasha having read his exploits "for years" and showing the cover of Destination Moon, despite that being a dozen books away. (In earlier editions, the cover was first that of Tintin in America, which would make more sense, but then changed to Tintin in the Congo, which could inadvertently remove the meta-reference for those markets where that album is absent from the collection.) And Snowy mentions Marlinspike, a setting that doesn't appear until The Secret of the Unicorn. Was Hergé trying to re-set this adventure to a later point in the chronology? If so it's awkward, as we'll see with the subsequent but redrawn earlier The Blue Lotus. However, it's notable that the current British (at least) editions of the albums don't carry any numbers and the cover gallery on the rear could be suggestive rather than absolute. (The lack of numbers also helps obscure the first two adventures with their patchy publication history.) And come to think of it the books were translated out of sequence and neither of the cartoons adhered to the album publication order (though the DVD release of the 1990s cartoon has gone back to that order.) So it can be legitimate to read the Adventures out of order or even to dip in and enjoy just a few, but it's not without the occasional bit of confusion along the way.

What of the story itself? This marks a transition away from the one-thing-after-another approach of the earliest tales and offers a somewhat more substantial plot as Tintin finds himself in pursuit of opium smugglers as he goes from Egypt across Arabia to India. There's less of the overt political commentary this time, perhaps because the setting was not one that Hergé and/or Le Vingtième Siècle had axes to grind. Indeed, the criminal cartel behind the smuggling is revealed to be a surprisingly racially mixed group of Indian, Japanese, British and Arabian conspirators. However, there's still a heavy resort to a pop culture vision of the world and easy stereotypes, such as an Arab tribe going to war over a single incident in the desert or the Indian fakir being every cliché rolled into one. There's also slightly surreal moments include Tintin quickly using his knife to whittle a wooden trumpet through which he's able to communicate with elephants. This is still a series in development and it shows in places, most obviously with Thompson and Thomson proving far more effective here than in later tales and actually managing some effective disguises rather than their subsequent habit of turning up in stereotypical national folk dress and sticking out like a sore thumb. Also of note is Sophocles Sarcophagus, the first in a long line of absent minded academics that will eventually lead to Professor Calculus.

At its heart, this is a pulp inspired adventure tale taking in a succession of exotic settings including some that would have been familiar to contemporary audiences such as in the Egyptian tomb at a time of heightened interest in Egyptology. The tale is fast-paced with plenty of humour and action that means on a first reading it's easy to skip holes in the plot and action, such as how Tintin can fly a single propeller plane all the way from Arabia to India or how Snowy escapes the grounds of the mental hospital when he isn't shown being carried by Tintin in the critical jump over the walls. There's also an attempt at a genuine sense of mystery over who the conspirators are, with a few red herrings tossed in instead of making every character a part of the cartel. However, the identity of one of the seven members of the Brotherhood is not shown despite Tintin overpowering them outside the meeting and the identity of the boss is not revealed despite his falling to his death in the climax.

Though there are many improvements over the earliest stories, though there's still a sense that the location isn't researched in depth but as this is predominantly set in specific fictional places, albeit within real countries and regions, it doesn't stand out too much. Nevertheless, this is a big step forward for the Adventures and the first really good one.

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