Thursday, 10 August 2017

Tintin and the Picaros - The Adventures of Tintin 23 by Hergé

As the final complete album in the Adventures, Tintin and the Picaros inevitably has a lot riding on it, more so when one considers that this was the only completed story produced by Hergé in the last fifteen years of this life. There are some signs that the series is aware that things are winding down and thus it tries to tidy up some matters. But at the same time this story also sees some changes to the regular characters, as though the intention was to take them into the last quarter of the twentieth century in a far more modernised pattern.

One of the most commented on aspects of this story is the fact that Tintin's wardrobe has been modified. Gone are his traditional plus fours and instead he's now wearing full-length brown jeans. This change had originated with the Belvision cartoons but is now carried forward into the series itself. It's an odd move for what ultimately turned out to be just one book but it's one of the strongest signs that the character was to go forward and not just fade away. Tintin is also shown practicing yoga and briefly wearing a motorcycle helmet with a peace symbol on it, which if anything dates him even more than before. He's also rather side-lined in the story, with much of the action driven by those around him and merely reacts apart from persuading Alcazar how to pull off his revolution. He even disappears for ten pages, initially declining to go to San Theodoros with Captain Haddock and Professor Calculus because he suspects a trap, but then suddenly turns up there a few days later with no plans and just gets caught with the rest. The cover is telling in that Tintin is third in line as they flee, perhaps revealing that Hergé was getting a little tired of his creation.

Also changed somewhat is Captain Haddock. Though he remains temperamental and cannot stand Bianca Castafiore, here he loses his enjoyment of alcohol and not by choice. A mystery runs through the early part of the story as to why he now finds first whisky and then other alcoholic drinks foul and disgusting when everyone else who tastes them cannot find any change from before. It transpires that Calculus has invented a special pill that makes all subsequent alcohol consumption taste horrible. The pills themselves are a step towards the fantastic that has normally been avoided with Calculus's inventions, but also show a rather disturbing side to the professor. There is little discussion as to the ethics of administering the pills to people without their knowledge or consent, nor is there any indication that they will wear off or can be cancelled out. Instead Calculus has taken it into his own hands to stamp out alcoholism, with the others all too easily accepting his actions because of the need to sober up the Picaros. By the end of the adventure Snowy has also eaten food laced with the pills and the indication is that both he and Haddock will no longer be enjoying the whisky, ending many years of character moments and gags with it. Attitudes to drinking have changed over the years and this has caused problems for adaptations of the Adventures but such drastic character changes are all too forced to feel right.

The story follows the trend in the later Adventures for revisiting characters and settings although on this occasion the main returnees feel more natural as it's been a loose end over multiple albums. Most of the returns come from The Broken Ear, with this story revisiting the politics of Latin America as General Alcazar once more seeks to overthrow General Tapioca after years and multiple appearances in exile. On this occasion Alcazar is said to be the International Banana Company whilst Tapioca, who is actually seen for the first time, is being supported by Borduria and thus the Communist Bloc. But whereas in the early years the Adventures had taken sides in political satire, here it is more nuanced. There's no attempt to portray the corporate backed general as inherently better than the Communist backed one. Instead Tintin's main motivation for helping to restore Alcazar is to save Bianca Castafiore, her entourage and Thompson and Thomson from the sentences or a kangaroo court and regime change seems his only hope. In a rather pointed note, an early panel shows a plane flying over a part of the capital, now named Tapiocapolis, as two police soldiers pass a terrible slum with a poster proclaiming Tapioca. The very last panel is similar as the plane leaves what is now Alcazaropolis and two of the Picaros walk past a slum proclaiming Alcazar. The names and uniforms have changed but for the masses the revolution has brought no difference to their lives. It is a very cynical comment about the seemingly endless cycle of military coups and a far cry from the polemics of the early Adventures. The story shows a surprising degree of foresight at the start when Tapioca and Haddock engage in an exchange of short messages sent electronically, with a head of state taking time out to pick a public fight with a minor celebrity in a distant country.

Tapioca is underdeveloped but from what we see he's broadly similar to his rival, Alcazar. The latter is operating out of the jungle, aided by a group of mercenaries called Picaros and also by the Arumbaya tribe including the explorer Ridgewell, previously seen in The Broken Ear. The latter's inclusion feels somewhat superfluous as they contribute little to the outcome. Alcazar is the same old blusterer as before but now has a domineering wife, Peggy, making for some henpecked comedy. The Picaros have been weakened by Tapioca's forces dropping alcohol in the jungle to get them addicted, but once weaned off it they prove effective in pulling off the coup despite having to sneak in disguised in the costumes of the Jolly Follies, a group of performers led by, of all people, Jolyon Wagg.

Wagg's appearance feels like a resort to familiar faces for the sake of it. However, the presence of Colonel Sponsz, previously the Bordurian Chief of Police seen in The Calculus Affair, feels rather more natural as it's understandable that a supportive ally would send officers to help and prop up the regime. Sponsz has manipulated events in order to lure Tintin, Haddock and Calculus to San Theodoros in order to dispose of them in a staged incident, thus making their presence feel natural and providing some interesting early scenes as they discover they're under arrest in an elaborate villa jail. Less convincing is the return of Pablo, previously seen in The Broken Ear where he was an assassin who ultimately saves Tintin's life but now he turns out to betray him for no clear reason. It's a sign of too many characters being brought back from a single tale.

Being the final complete Tintin album it's natural to look for a sign of closure. But there's little here. Although Alcazar is restored to power, the implication is that the cycle of revolution and counter-revolution through endless coups will just go on and on. Although Tintin and Haddock get to save their friends in this final adventure, there isn't really much sign of closure for them or final comment. Instead this story feels more like it was seeking to clear the decks of the series, removing elements from Haddock's alcoholism through to Alcazar's movements in exile, and this move the series forward into the new decades. That this didn't happen leaves this as a relatively straightforward adventure but one which downplays the role of the central character. It's not the best final adventure to have had, but then many series stop at a rather arbitrary point.

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