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A lot of people are eagerly awaiting what Steven Spielberg will make of one of the most beloved of European comic book characters 'Tintin' in the forthcoming film of 'The Adventures of Tintin'. I thought I'd use this resurgence in interest in the comic as the excuse to have a look back at some of my old Tintin comic books that I loved so much as a young teen.
The original adventures of Tintin were a series of comic books written and illustrated by the Belgian artist Georges Rémi better known by his pen name Hergé. The comic books are hugely popular having been translated into 80 languages and having sold over 350 million copies to date. Hergé first started producing them in 1929 and continued writing them until 1976 a few years before his death in 1983.
The book I'll be looking at in this review is 'The Blue Lotus' a Tintin adventure originally published in 1936 in black and white and subsequently republished in colour.
In many ways 'The Blue Lotus' is the first of Tintin's 'golden period', it is the first to feature a more sophisticated plot and move away from the bland stereotypes of earlier books. It is still regarded by fans as one of the best in the whole series.
The story is in fact a sequel to the previous book in the series called 'Cigars of the Pharaoh'. Ideally it should be read in the right order but it can still be enjoyed as a stand-alone story.
As usual we follow the exploits of Tintin a young reporter who always finds himself immersed in foiling the plots and evil schemes of international criminal masterminds. Tintin is probably along with Poirot and Jean Claude Van Damme one of the most famous fictional or non fictional Belgians. Although his actual age is not specifically mentioned in the stories Herge has stated in interviews that he sees him as being 17 years old.
In this book as with all the others Tintin is loyally assisted by his faithful dog snowy. Missing however are other regulars such as the cantankerous Captain Haddock and the eccentric Professor Calculus. We do though have the pleasure of meeting up with the bungling Scotland Yard detectives the Thomson Twins.
'The Blue Lotus' is a truly international adventure on an ambitious scale. It starts off with events at the end of Cigars of the Pharaoh' with Tintin on holiday in India staying with his friend the Maharaja of Gaipajama. A mysterious Chinaman comes to visit Tintin with an urgent message but before he can deliver it he is struck with a dart dipped in the madness inducing Rajaijah poison. The only part of the message that he delivered is that a man named Mitsuhirato needs Tintin to be in Shanghai. Intrigued by the incident, Tintin goes off to Shangai and thus the adventure begins which will take him into opium dens, see him arrested for espionage and sentenced to death and get involved with the Chinese resistance movement to the invasion and occupation of Manchuria by the Japanese army.
As usual Tintin deals with everything that is thrown at him with a mixture of bravery, cunning and quite a bit of luck, not to mention the help (and sometimes hindrance) of the ever present Snowy.
The story is complex enough to keep an adult reader interested and at the same time it flows with ease and is so action packed that younger readers will be enthralled. One word of warning for parents of very young children, there is violence in Tintin and some aspects of the story such as those involving the opium dens some might be unsuitable in the view of some. The figure of Tintin in his trademark blue jumper and plus fours is an iconic one and the illustrations of this book in particular are to very high standards with lots of detail for a comic book and great colours.
Hergé has over the years been a controversial figure. Some have accused him of being racist and perpetuating very ignorant stereotypes of many foreign cultures. He was also accused of being a Nazi collaborator during the Nazi occupation of Belgium where Herge lived and worked. These latter claims are almost all unfounded and there is no evidence from his work of this period to substantiate any of the claims.
The writing of 'The Blue Lotus' marked a change in Herge's work, up until this his cultural knowledge was mainly based on what his mentor and editor of the newspaper 'Le Vingtième Siècle' (The Twentieth Century) the abbot Norbert Wallez had told him about. This was mainly a mixture of popular prejudice of the time and stereotypical views about Socialism, the Soviet Union, colonial Africa and the United States which was reflected in the Tintin stories published in the 'Le Petit Vingtième', a supplement to the newspaper. Before he penned this story Hergé announced that it would be set in China, this led to a letter being written by Father Gosset the chaplain to the Chinese students at the University of Leuven urging him to be sensitive about Chinese culture lest he offend the students. Hergé took this advice on boards and later in the year Gosset introduced him to a young art student Chang Ch'ung-jen. The two became close friends, and Zhang introduced Hergé to Chinese culture, and the techniques of Chinese art which can be seen in the drawing featured in the book. Hergé went as far as adding a character Chang Chong-Chen a young orphan boy in the story using him to dispel some commonly held views involving negative cultural stereotypes. This friendship was to last a lifetime and Chang to feature again in another later story set in Tibet.
To his credit and in part due to Chang's influence Hergé does begin in 'The Blue Lotus' to show a much more enlightened attitude to race and other cultures. The sympathetic characters in this book are invariably the oppressed people of colonial powers, the Indian and the Chinese who are resisting Japanese imperialism. The British characters included are also painted in an unflattering light by aligning themselves with the baddies in the story.
Among the action and the many comic moments in the story mostly at the expense of the bungling British detectives the Thomson Twins there is some more serious political comment in this story. Some of the events that take place in the story are based on actual events if rather simplified for the comic. The blowing up of the Japanese owned railway line which Tintin witnesses is based on the real life Murken incident in 1931 when a Japanese act of sabotage is blamed on Chinese terrorist and used by Japan as an excuse to invade Manchuria and set up the puppet state of Manchukuo which they then controlled. It is details like this in the story that elevate Tintin from simply being a children's comic book to something a little more sophisticated.
The drawings in this later colour version of story are crisp and colourful and some of the larger panel are full of interesting detail, you can definitely linger on these to get the best out of them. Hergé was especially talented in expressing comic moments in his art and these scenes are among the best in the story.
In short this book is a delight and should be enjoyed by young and old.
The Adventures of Tintin- 'The Blue Lotus' by Hergé can be bought in paperback (64pages ISBN-10: 1405206160-Translators Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper and Michael Turner) from Amazon.co.uk for £5.99 at the time this review was written.
© Mauri 2011
The Blue Lotus is the fifth book in the classic series of Tintin adventures by Belgian writer and illustrator Hergé and was first published in the magazine Le Petit Vingtieme between 1934 and 1935. The story follows on directly from the events of Cigars of the Pharaoh and takes place in China in 1931 with Japanese troops having established a presence in the mainland and parts of Shanghai. The Blue Lotus begins with Tintin (and Snowy the dog of course) still guests of the Maharaja of Gaipajama in India. A visitor arrives and informs Tintin that he must meet with a man named Mitsuhirato in Shanghai but just as he begins to explain this request he is suddenly hit by a dart laced with Rajaijah juice - a chemical that causes instant madness. Tintin heads for Shanghai where he is soon caught up in much danger and political intrigue as he takes on an opium-smuggling ring and finally finds out who the chief villain of this two book story arc really is...
This is a very important book in the Tintin series for a number of reasons. Hergé sought to make his stories more realistic at this time and give the reader more atmosphere and background authenticity. This resulted in more research - in this case about China. He met with a Chinese student named Chang from the Académie de Bruxelles who taught him some Chinese drawing techniques and spoke to him about what life was really like in China. Chang and Hergé become friends as a result and the author included a character called Chang in The Blue Lotus as a tribute - Chang becoming a Chinese orphan that Tintin saves from drowning and becomes friends with. The character later returned to inspire the classic Tintin in Tibet. Hergé was very eager to improve the art and not present China in too simplistic manner after his research and consultations. He even includes a scene where Tintin tells Chang about some of the strange myths and preconceptions about China that exist in Europe. 'They must be crazy people in your country!' laughs Chang.
The Blue Lotus is laced with political elements that caused quite a rumpus at the time and even had the Japanese Ambassador lodging a complaint with the Belgian government. The Japanese are very much the villains here and the story shows them blowing up the railway between Shanghai and Nanking and blaming it all on the Chinese rebel groups. Understandably, the Chinese were delighted with their treatment in this book and Hergé was even invited to the country by Madame Chang K'ai-shek. The Blue Lotus is interesting because Hergé sets the story in a real place and acknowledges the real life situation and the political ramifications that swirl around it. When the war began he would move more into pure escapism with the stories and often use fictitious countries that he had created to centre his books around. This is also generally regarded to be the book where Hergé decided Tintin was not going to be aimed only at children and there are some surprisingly dark moments in The Blue Lotus with opium dens where people are sprawled out with pipes beside them, a character under the influence of Rajaijah juice who keeps trying to chop people's heads off and even a bloodied Tintin when he is shot in the shoulder.
The story here is rather complex and twisty and there are some excellent moments in what is always an exciting and interesting yarn for the resourceful reporter and his faithful dog - although how he manages to get Snowy through customs all over the world I'll never know! Tintin hooks up with Wang Chen-Yee in The Blue Lotus, Chen-Yee being the leader of a brotherhood called The Sons of the Dragon who fight opium smugglers and dealers. The main baddie is Mitsuhirato, a Japanese agent, but the real villain of the piece is unveiled in the last third of the story, which is excellent. There is some real tension and suspense as we move to the climax and this is not bad going for something that is over 70 years old and a staple of the children's section in libraries. There is some great stuff in The Blue Lotus. Tintin spying on the sabotage of the railway line by the Japanese during a freezing night and sneezing at an unfortunate moment, the funny bit where the Consul for Poldavia is mistaken for Tintin by Mitsuhirato in an opium den, and another great comic vignette where Tintin disguises himself as a general in the Chinese army to try and blag his way through to the International Settlement.
The infamous bungling detectives Thompson and Thomson also feature later on in The Blue Lotus and have a classic moment where they attempt to blend into their new Chinese surroundings with elaborate yellow costumes, fans, and pigtails, blissfully unaware that the whole street is laughing and pointing at them. This panel is larger than usual, taking up about half a page and is wonderfully detailed and enjoyable. 'Just as well we came in disguise. Imagine the sensation we'd have caused coming to a place like this in European clothes...' As ever, the pair have their own funny coda in the story. Another bit I really liked in The Blue Lotus is a series of panels where Tintin visits the cinema and sees a scene from the film he interrupted the shooting of in Cigars of the Pharaoh. 'Look snowy! Do you remember in Arabia? Mr Rastapopoulos shooting his film...' We also see clips of newsreels in black and white in an attractive and clever page that nicely highlights the detail and thought that always went into the Tintin series.
The Blue Lotus is a fascinating early entry in the Tintin series with an absorbing plot that you have to pay attention to and many rewarding moments and jokes. In many ways this set the template for what Hergé wanted the series to be like and, although the art would become a little crisper and the stories less political, this still stands up as a good entry in its own right and is a lot of fun at times with some nicely rendered backdrops as Tintin's adventure in China plays out.