Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Review - The Black Island by Hergé

Short review: Tintin stumbles onto a ring of counterfeiters based in the exotic locale of Scotland. He does no reporting.

Even more smugglers
Lead Tintin to an island
With a great big ape

Full review: Having sent Tintin all over the world in previous adventures, Hergé keeps him close to home in The Black Island, as the adventure starts while our hero is on what appears to be a country walk, and the action never requires transport more extensive than a cross-Channel ferry from the mainland to Britain. Although this story involving another smuggling ring is a fairly serviceable Tintin adventure, it does seem to be a bit of a stagnation for the series as a whole - the adventure is more or less dropped in Tintin's lap through no effort of his, and the pursuit of the villains seems to follow what has more or less become the Tintin signature: while not reporting on anything, Tintin finds his life menaced by criminals. He then foils their attempts to kill him, uncovers evidence of their crimes, and exposes them to the police. On the other hand, this story does serve to more fully develop Thompson and Thomson as regular cast members, as they feature more prominently in this book than they have in any previous ones.

One thing that seems clear is that Hergé had a hard time coming up with ways for Tintin to come across a mystery, because so many of the early books start off with Tintin basically minding his own business when some crook tries to kill him, frame him, or otherwise get him "out of the way". But the odd thing about these story elements is that it is pretty clear that if they had just left Tintin alone, he would have never been "in the way" to begin with. Hergé, it seems, was under the impression that criminals think the best way to avoid being found out is to act as suspiciously as possible and draw attention to themselves by killing bystanders for no real apparent reason. In any event, the story kicks off when Tintin happens upon an unmarked  plane that had to make a forced landing due to engine trouble, whereupon the pilot and his passenger immediately try to kill him. Because the way to avoid drawing attention to yourself and your unmarked plane is to leave a trail of bodies.

This draws in Thompson and Thomson, who begin the story involved in the hunt for the criminals that tried to kill Tintin, and stay on the case for pretty much the whole book. Their "assistance" isn't much help, and at times they are a hindrance - especially when Tintin is accused of petty theft and they decide they must arrest him. Just as criminals in Hergé's world try to act inconspicuous by killing everyone in their path, policemen in Hergé's fiction try to apprehend murderers by stopping to deal with every misdemeanor they run across along the way. (Actually, in Hergé's fiction, policemen seem to be either ridiculously scrupulous about arresting or ticketing people for even the slightest offense even when it seems silly for them to do so, or they are hopelessly corrupt. There is no middle ground.) Throughout the book their path intertwines with Tintin's at numerous points, and despite their continued occupancy in the "comedic relief" role they do start to become more fully realized characters than merely a pair of nitwits spouting inanities and falling on their faces. Though they keep their fundamental slapstick nature, Thompson and Thomson start to become somewhat more sympathetic characters in this volume, as the fact that they fundamentally mean well and try their best (despite being completely ineffective at actually doing much of anything useful) comes through.

The story itself is fairly straightforward. After the coincidental beginning, Tintin proactively investigates, uncovering clues and hunting down the identity of the mysterious gangsters who tried to kill him. Rather than waiting around for attempts to be made on his life, Tintin investigates wreckage, finds torn up notes, finds cables and flares, sets up ruses to trap criminals, and so on. This doesn't mean that the bad guys sit on their thumbs, but it does mean that when they do try to kill Tintin, there's a reason for it. Well, except for their first completely gratuitous attempt to kill Tintin at the outset of the book. Tintin's investigation leads him into a number of scrapes and car chases, and eventually to the exotic land of Scotland, where everyone wears kilts, speaks with a ridiculously thick accent, and Snowy gets drunk on whiskey.

And Snowy's inebriation is just one of the elements that this book establishes that become recurring themes in the series. While Snowy doesn't get drunk in every book that follows, before too long the character of Captain Haddock comes along who pretty much does. Because, as everyone knows, drunk people are funny! Or at least Hergé thought so. I recall that even as an elementary school student reading the books that I found Captain Haddock and Snowy's regular bouts with the bottle to be more sad than hilarious. Another element that becomes well-established in this book is Snowy's love affair with bones, and his amazing knack for turning up bones to chew on wherever he goes, often leading to some fairly comical sequences. Snowy's love affair with bones also seems to coincide with a reduction in dialogue for him, as the role he played in previous volumes of serving as the primary sounding board for Tintin is taken by Thompson and Thomson in this book and the next, and Captain Haddock thereafter.

Another element that gets introduced in this book is a somewhat over-the-top amount of apparent stoicism on the part of the characters in the series. it seems that Hergé was very optimistic about the ability of characters to withstand being burned - Tintin manages to escape from one sticky situation by holding a flaming piece of wood against the ropes tying his hand together to burn through his restraints. Later, some villains are tied up with electrical wire. Live electrical wire which they shock themselves with while escaping, causing them to yell, but apparently not causing them to actually be injured in any noticeable manner. This extraordinary level of invulnerability to heat and electricity crops up frequently in the series. Another element that seems to crop up in the series is the private mental institution: We've seen one already in Cigars of the Pharaoh (read review), and we see one again now, albeit somewhat more nefariously run than the previous one was. Interestingly, one thing we don't see is Tintin in front of a firing squad, which makes this the only book out of the last five in which he is not set up to be executed for a crime he didn't commit.

Eventually Tintin's pursuit of the crime ring leads him to a remote Scottish village near a foreboding island that the locals are all terrified of. Tintin, of course, is either brave enough or foolhardy enough to want to go to the forbidden "Black Island", but in a rerun of the plot of The Broken Ear (read review) none of the locals will take him there until he agrees to buy a boat from one of them. Soon enough, Tintin is on his way to the mysterious Black Island where he finds the smugglers who have an unusual method for scaring the nearby villagers. The method, involving unleashing a large and unusually aggressive gorilla to chase down and presumably kill trespassers seems like it would be almost as dangerous for the gangsters as it is for intruders, but it seems pretty well-established that in the Tintin universe gangsters are on the whole fairly dim, so maybe it shouldn't be surprising. After some twists and turns, Thompson and Thomson arrive with some competent backup (who apparently aren't afraid of the island like everyone else), and the story comes to a fairly predictable ending.

Just like the plot point in which everyone is too afraid to take Tintin to the mysterious island until he buys a boat from one of them and goes himself seems to be a rehash of a similar plot point from The Broken Ear, most of the rest of the story seems like a rehash of previous Tintin stories, just without Hergé's developing political awareness and world building skills being applied to the story. Tintin already tangled with gangsters in all of the previous books. He's already specifically dealt with smugglers. He's already been framed for crimes numerous times in an effort to get him out of the way. We've already seen mental hospitals show up as plot elements. And so on and so forth. To a certain extent, it feels like we've seen everything that shows up in this book before, sort of like Hergé put all of his previous plot elements into a big bag, shook it up, and then assembled The Black Island out of the ones that fell out first. On the other hand, the story almost feels like this was Hergé's attempt to go back and do a gangster story "right" from the start, just to show how far his story telling abilities had advanced since the jumbled mess of Tintin in America (read review).

No matter what Hergé's motivations may have been, the result is a serviceable but not particularly noteworthy Tintin story. The mystery is reasonably interesting. Tintin's investigations are fun to follow, with plenty of twists and adventure plus some humor (mostly provided by Thompson and Thomson with an assist from Snowy). The lack of any kind of politics or social commentary seems kind of like a step backwards for the series, but the story is engaging enough without it to remain enjoyable. Overall, while The Black Island is unlikely to top anyone's list of "the best Tintin stories", it is far from the worst, and is a fun and action-filled installment of the series.

Previous book in the series: The Broken Ear
Subsequent book in the series: King Ottokar's Sceptre

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