Thursday, 15 June 2017

Explorers on the Moon - The Adventures of Tintin 17 by Hergé

"This is it! I've walked a few steps! For the first time in the history of mankind there is an EXPLORER ON THE MOON!"

When Neil Armstrong landed on the Moon he received many messages from all over the world. One that baffled him the most, so the story goes, was an illustration of him standing by the lunar module being greeted by three men and a dog in orange spacesuits, with a red and white rocket in the background. He soon learned that another had already visited the Moon in fiction.

Tintin reached it some fifteen years earlier but it's amazing how measured and accurate a portrayal this is. There are no monsters or lost civilisations, nor is the Moon an untouched hidden paradise. Instead it's a barren dead rock in space. That's not to say it's all safe, with danger from meteorites, crevasses, caves, limited oxygen supplies, crew stupidity and more. But in avoiding the sensational in favour of the scientific reality, Hergé has succeeded in producing a tale that hasn't aged badly and holds up well today.

This album concludes the story begun in Destination Moon and sticks rigidly to the format of a scientific expedition with problems from both bunglers and spies. With much of the story having been set up in the first album, Explorers on the Moon is able to get straight into the action. There's a sense of optimism in showing mankind beginning the steps outwards into the universe, but at the same time a sense of fear that space will become the new frontier of international conflict with an unnamed rival power trying to seize the rocket and make use of space for their own ends. It thus neatly encapsulates the mixed mindset of the world at the time as it stepped beyond the Second World War in a spirit of hope for the future only to find itself enmeshed in the Cold War, with uneasy tensions dominating and old rivalries being realigned to the new order. In this go our heroes.

The cast is especially tight with only two non-regular characters aboard the rocket and just a handful of scenes set on Earth, mostly involving the director Baxter at the mission control. We thus get a strong exploration of the regulars as they chart this new frontier, ranging from the excitement of Calculus as he takes risks in boldly going where no one has gone before without caring about the possibility of death to the tetchiness of Captain Haddock as he seeks to make the journey more bearable to the silliness of Thompson and Thomson as they accidentally stow away on the voyage and proceed to cause continued problems. The Thom(p)sons are still suffering the effects of ingesting Formula 14 back in Land of Gold, a surprisingly long lasting problem given that it's been at least many months since then but it makes for the main fantastical element of the tale, and their only substantial contribution to the tale is to be utterly useless guards. Amidst all this Tintin takes a lead in holding them all together whilst Snowy makes occasional comments on the situation and suffers in a demonstration of the villain's nastiness.

One of the best realised characters in the whole series is Wolff. A well-meaning scientist with a weakness for gambling, he has done his best to escape from his troubles only to find they keep following him. Unlike many villains in the series he is shown to have a real conscience and is horrified when he learns the true nature of his puppet masters' plans. Despite his nervousness and own vulnerability, he ultimately makes a stand against Jorgen, saving the others' lives. Then when it seems there is insufficient oxygen for the crew to reach Earth alive, Wolff throws himself out of the rocket in the hope that this will allow the others to live. That they only just make it suggests that Wolff was ultimately right. It's one of the most shocking deaths in the whole series and it's easy to see why the suicide note tries to downplay it slightly by offering the possibility that, "Perhaps by some miracle I shall escape too", although any such salvation is likely to be of a spiritual nature rather than a physical one. This was an addition made by Hergé against his better judgement because of Catholic attitudes to suicide, but doesn't detract from the impact, especially for Haddock as he realises how much he has misjudged Wolff. A more clear cut foe is Jorgen, previously known as Colonel Boris from King Ottokar's Sceptre, who has stowed away on board the rocket as part of the conspiracy to capture the rocket for a rival country. He is one of the hardest edge villains yet seen with no humorous side to him, making him an especially dangerous foe.

The voyage to the Moon and the subsequent exploration are both depicted well in a strong, serious style with humour derived from the misadventures of the characters, especially Haddock as he takes to the smuggled drink, and problems from both the presence of extra passengers and the plotting by Jorgen. The Moon itself is incredibly well drawn with a high amount of detail put into the crater filled landscape, evoking a real sense of isolation. Time and again Hergé shows a strong amount of scientific detail and it never detracts from excitement, such as Haddock's impromptu walk outside the rocket when he gets caught in the gravitational pull of the mysterious asteroid Adonis. The return to Earth offers further desperate moments as the rocket veers off course and the oxygen is running out, whilst Jorgen and Wolff are being guarded by the Thom(p)sons. It all makes for a strong, tense adventure.

This is probably the second best known landing on the Moon and the best known of all The Adventures of Tintin. It's a story that roots itself in what was then known scientific fact and thus hasn't been dated by going in for wild speculation or fantasies about aliens. Instead it is a strong piece of hard science fiction driven by characters and the wonders of space that holds up well all these years later and after the real-life Moon expeditions. This is easily the best of the Adventures so far.

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