Friday, December 30, 2011

Review - Tintin in America by Hergé

Short review: Tintin comes to the United States to face down the Chicago mob and the Blackfeet.

Nabbing Al Capone
Riding through the Wild West
Normal Tintin day

Full review: Tintin in America wasn't the first Tintin book written, but it is the first book that has anything resembling a Tintin story. Granted, the story is fairly bare bones and doesn't make much sense, but unlike Tintin in the Land of the Soviets and Tintin in the Congo, which are little more than a series of gags, there is a story. There is a reason that on the back cover of each of The Adventures of Tintin the first two are left off and this is the first book that gets listed. On the other hand, the story that is contained in the book is disjointed and nonsensical, making this one of the weakest of the Tintin books.

The book opens with Tintin coming to visit the U.S., and the gangsters who run Chicago get together to make a plan to keep him from ruining their business. Apparently Tintin foiled the diamond smuggling operation of one of their number in Tintin in the Congo and they don't want him to do the same thing once he arrives in the Windy City. This is the start of one of the odd things about the Tintin series: Tintin's job is ostensibly "journalist", but for the most part he more or less acts like his job is "amateur detective and righter of wrongs". In fact, fairly early in the book the mobster Bobby Smiles offers to hire Tintin to help him take on Al Capone. Tintin responds that he "came to Chicago to clean the place up, not to become a gangster's stooge." But this isn't anything like what an actual a journalist's job would be. I could see Tintin saying he is coming to Chicago to investigate and report on organized crime, and having the mob resent his poking his nose in, but saying he's there to "clean the place up" is just silly.

Of course, Tintin doesn't do any actual investigating either, but that's mostly because the mob is run by idiots. Rather than waiting to see if Tintin's investigatory skills lead him anywhere, they try to kidnap him the minute he sets foot in the country. Of course, they botch the attempt (and all their subsequent attempts to bump our hero off), but in doing so, they spur Tintin's investigations. Essentially, without the mobsters in the story constantly trying to get rid of him, Tintin wouldn't have anything to do. He doesn't seem to have a clue as to how to even begin to foil the mob on his own, merely reacting to their constant bumbling attempts to kill him by turning the tables, tying them up, and turning them over to the police. In short, if the gangsters just left Tintin alone, he'd never have been able to catch them.

But the mobsters do come after Tintin, and as a result, he has a series of adventures that more or less consist of mobsters trying to kill him, and then Tintin capturing them. There is a brief bit where Tintin captures Al Capone, but the police officer he tries to alert to this doesn't believe him. This little sequence is a bit odd, as it seems that Hergé thinks the only reason no one had caught Capone is that they simply didn't know where to find him. Those who expect to see Tintin pull off daring escapes and use his wits to foil the villains will be disappointed, as he is usually saved by the incompetence of his opposition: they use the wrong gas when they try to gas him to death, they tie him to wooden weights when they try to sink him in Lake Michigan, when a lynch mob tries to hang him the rope breaks again and again, and so on.

Eventually Tintin tangles with fictitious mobster Bobby smiles, of the "Gangster's Syndicate of Chicago". When Bobby Smiles takes off for "Redskin City" (apparently just a short drive from urban Chicago) Tintin moves from Al Capone territory to the Old West where he obtains a cowboy outfit and acts like he is in a John Wayne movie. One has to wonder where in 1930s Illinois or Indiana a collection of cowpokes and native Americans could be found, but Tintin finds them, and sets off on a series of fairly hackneyed western adventures involving bank robberies, train heists, lassoing horses, and because there's no Captain Haddock, an uncontrollably drunk town sheriff. Once again the format boils down to a string of disjointed sequences in which Tintin gets into trouble and then finds his way out as he pursues Bobby Smiles.

Hergé does take the opportunity to include a little bit of social commentary in this section, as Tintin accidentally discovers oil on an Indian reservation. After being offered tens of thousands of dollars for his well, Tintin reveals that the land belongs to the Blackfeet Indians, whereupon the tribe is forced off their land by soldiers and a city is built in their place within a day. However, this just barely makes up for the embarrassingly racist depiction of the Blackfeet tribe contained in the preceding several pages. The current edition of the book was rewritten to tone down the racist elements that were in the original, excising some less than savory depictions of African-Americans and altering some other elements of the story. Even this alteration is somewhat controversial, as there is some indication that these changes were made at the behest of publishers who were leery of having minority characters included in the book at all.

Even so, this is a Tintin adventure, and as a result, it is a fun book to read. That said, this is a bare bones Tintin story. None of the familiar  cast of regulars have been introduced yet - the adventure consists of Tintin and Snowy gallivanting about with no sign of Captain Haddock, Professor Calculus, Thompson and Thomson, or even Bianca Castafiore. Despite this, the story is silly fun, even if it is little more than a linear series of gag set ups and ensuing pratfalls. Although this volume isn't up to the standard of later Tintin adventures, it is still a worthy opening for the series.

Subsequent book in the series: Cigars of the Pharaoh

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