Thursday, 30 March 2017

The Black Island - The Adventures of Tintin 7 by Hergé

The first thing that stands out about this album is the cover format. The use of a band at the top for the series title with Tintin and Snowy's heads in the top left-hand corner is a style not otherwise seen until quite late in the run, reflecting the complicated publication history of this adventure. Like most of the early Adventures it was originally published in black and white and then redrawn in colour during the 1940s. But the version now generally available, and reviewed here, is a further alteration from the 1960s, made at the behest of the-then British publishers, Methuen, but which appears to have displaced the earlier version in all languages.

The multiple redrawings of this adventure have the odd effect that it's been slightly modernised and so it feels as though it's set in the United Kingdom of the 1960s with contemporary cars, trains and uniforms. But make no mistake, this not the Swinging Sixties. A lot of 1960s fiction is almost oblivious to the great cultural changes that were happening at the time and this is especially so with this rural tale of quiet southern English villages and Scottish coasts and islands. As is so often the case with such rural settings it could almost be any time over several decades with only the fashions and car designs to give it away. The story is also notable for being devoid of overt political commentary. Even the villains are ambiguous, being a seeming mix of German, Russian, British and other nationalities and engaged in counterfeiting, a crime that has recurred throughout the ages.

The lack of a political message may reflect a strong sense of admiration for Britain on Hergé's part which is unsurprising given both the history of British-Belgian relations at the time and the author's own childhood when most of Belgium was occupied during the First World War, with the United Kingdom actually entering the war to liberate Belgium. And of course, next to Tintin one of the best-known fictional Belgians is the creation of a British author. The result is a tale that's got a great fondness for its setting and doesn't set out to denigrate it in any way, with most of the obstruction to Tintin's pursuit coming either from criminal plots or from Thompson and Thomson, who easily fall for the deceptions and continue to get in the way.

The story itself is relatively straightforward, with Tintin stumbling onto a situation and opting to find out what's going on, pursuing the gang involved all the way to their base. For the most part this is a straightforward adventure story with no real mystery beyond what is the beast on the Black Island itself that scares so many. The revelation that's a trained gorilla is the story's oddest moment, leading to some amusing scenes as Tintin tries to escape and Snowy steps up to the mark to deal with the gorilla, only to then encounter a spider. Snowy and the Thom(p)sons provide much of the exaggerated humour in the album, with the latter pair getting caught in a mess when they unwittingly force a mechanic to fly a plane and end up winning an aerobatics championship. Snowy also really takes to the alcohol in this one, starting with a memorable scene on a freight train when a tanker of Loch Lomond whiskey starts leaking and from then on he rushes for the drink at every possible opportunity.

The villains in the story aren't terribly exciting or interesting, being a relatively generic collection of foreigners with a mixture of cunning and incompetence amongst them, leading to some rapid shifts in the balance of fights. What is more interesting is the depiction of the United Kingdom. As noted above, this is a somewhat timeless depiction of the land, with manor houses, isolated clifftops, country pubs and caravans depicted in Sussex, forming part of a traditional rural depiction. In Scotland, the location is no more specific than near the coast but again the depiction conforms to a rural and coastal tradition of kindly strangers, fearful fisherman, slightly mad old men in pubs, bleak islands and ruined castles. But the story avoids clichés of national dress. Due to the structure of the plot the Thom(p)sons only arrive in Scotland in time to arrest the criminals and don't adopt ridiculous disguises. Tintin is the only character to don a kilt (and it's actually a fairly practical garment for a hike through the countryside) although a few others also wear tam o' shanters.

The various locations in the story are linked by more modern technology (for the time) with diesel drawn trains, aeroplanes, radio and television all appearing and playing their part in advancing the plot. Notably the 1960s revision actually went slightly backwards on television - the 1940s version had shown colour television before it had been used anywhere but the mid-1960s version came out a couple of years before the UK and indeed much of Europe got colour TV (although some programmes were now being made in colour - the original Tintin cartoon for one) and the set is now showing black and white. The various police and fire authorities are depicted with a high degree of accuracy, although the comedy of a village fire commander regularly getting the fire station key mixed up with that of a cupboard at home, or losing the key is not a terribly flattering portrayal. The fire brigade sequence is the one time Hergé seems to be sending up British institutions but otherwise the depiction is approving.

Compared to some of the depictions of other countries in other of the early Adventures, the UK comes out of The Black Island pretty well. There's no obvious point that Hergé is trying to make, though a very subtle one may be in showing respect for the country. What that says about the author's worldview, whether as a child who lived in occupied Belgium during the First World War, a young cartoonist in a period when Belgium once again was starting to feel fearful of its continental neighbours or as an older man in a decade when British attempts to join the European Economic Community were repeatedly thwarted, is unclear. But instead this is a good solid adventure that handles the characters and settings well, making for a strong thrilling adventure.

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