Comic Book Classics — 14
For once I bring you a Comic Book Classic that is relatively easy to get hold of. You may even own a copy already. Hergé’s creation is not only ubiquitous in the French-speaking world, but a permanent fixture in the Children’s section of British bookstores too. The Belgian boy-reporter has been off on his adventures since the 1930s, becoming the blueprint for Franco-Belgian adventure comics. Goscinny and Uderzo’s Asterix, for example, followed the Tintin formula in many ways; a hero (Tintin/Asterix) is accompanied by a bumptious sidekick (Haddock/Obelix) and a small white dog (Snowy/Dogmatix). Goscinny tells the story that Dogmatix was added to the Asterix roster on the insistence of the publishers for this very reason; the desire to follow Herge’s blueprint.
Another first is the transfer of the Tintin strip from newspapers and periodicals to the album (a hard-cover book using high quality paper and colour printing), containing a whole adventure. Previously Tintin stories had been serialised and printed on low-quality newsprint (like the Catholic boys’ paper, Le Petit Vingtieme). Conversely, the Album changed Tintin in radical ways. First, it raised the bar in terms of what was possible in terms of narrative and art. Herge became obsessive in researching his locations and drawing his locations and backgrounds with as much reality and detail as was possible. Landscapes and scenery were informed by a vast collection of postcards, photographs and descriptions gathered of the places Tintin would visit.
The Castafiore Emerald is unusual as it is one of a very select number of Tintin albums that does not involve travel to foreign lands. It is set entirely on location at or near Captain Haddock’s estate, Marlinspike. It is an unusual story in that the ‘adventure’ is nothing more than a series of red herrings and wild-goose chases. It is one of the charms of the narrative that Hergé manages to concoct a thriller based on misunderstandings. It is perhaps this aspect (the fact that he manipulates our expectations of plot and adventure with such wit) that most appeals to me.
The plot of the story, a story where nothing happens, goes like this; Tintin, Snowy and Haddock find themselves in a nearby gypsy camp. The locals are giving the gypsies a hard time, so Haddock invites them to stay at his estate. Back home, the operatic Diva Bianca Castafiore drops in on her old friend Haddock (much to his chagrin) to film a TV special in his estate. That night, La Castafiore’s emerald goes missing. Without it, the diva can’t go on and the TV show will have to be cancelled. The jewel thief must be found.
Suspicion immediately falls on the newly-arrived gypsies and Tintin and Haddock set off to investigate. The sensitive portrayal of the gypsies (and the nature of prejudice against travelers in general) is a sub-plot that Hergé manages with aplomb. Another sub-plot involves a broken stair that Haddock keeps tripping on and falling down and a repair-man who never quite finishes the job (something that was happening to Hergé in real life as he was writing the story).
Suspicion moves from the gypsies to other minor characters and supposed villains. Haddock and Tintin assiduously pursue these new leads. Professor Calculus and other familiar characters make an appearance before the big reveal. Castafiore’s maid had err… put the emerald in another place and finds it again later. Phew! Panic over, the show goes on. The album ends. A bravura performance by a comic book genius at the top of his game; as good as a Castafiore performance (if that is even possible). Bravo!