The Black Island is one of the most popular books in the Tintin series, set in Scotland, marking Tintin’s first trip north since he’d been to Soviet Russia. Hergé had initially been planning to continue his political stories and throw Tintin up against Nazi Germany, but a series of perplexing dreams about being trapped in snow and endless whiteness encouraged him to send Tintin up towards the Arctic circle. He eventually settled for Scotland, and the only aspect of his anti-Nazi plans that remained in the story was the inclusion of a German villain, Dr Müller. He would write his anti-Germany saga next in King Ottokar’s Sceptre.
For his topical plot Hergé would select money forgery. He wound in the spectacular islands and castles that the United Kingdom is known for, and then included an amalgam of King Kong and Nessie in the form of a gorilla monster protecting the site of the criminal enterprise. Dr Müller was based on a controversial man named Georg Bell who had forged money in Scotland and supported Nazi Germany. So, to my surprise, The Black Island is actually a complete amalgam of Hergé’s contemporaneous pop culture and political life! Pretty much every major element is stolen from something. He does a good job weaving it together into a fresh-feeling story; I’ve always enjoyed The Black Island as a unique entry into Tintin canon.
So, the history behind The Black Island is relatively simple, especially when compared to the pages and pages I wrote to explain The Blue Lotus. It’s actually the art behind this story that provides the most fodder for historical discussion. It was first published between 1937 and 1938, right as the pre-WW2 tension was building to an unbearable level in Europe. This first publication was of course in black and white, and it went by the name ‘The Mystery of the Grey Plane’ (translated from French). It only acquired its current name when it was published into a single book by Belgian publisher Castermann.
Hergé redrew the entirety of The Black Island and coloured it in the more modern style, releasing this new version in 1943. Methuen was intending to translate and publish this version in during the 1960s, but found a large number of visual inaccuracies in the story. Some were chronological, as thirty years had passed since the story was conceived, and the book was inconsistent with more recent Methuen publications of Tintin. Others were simply due to Hergé’s lack of familiarity with the United Kingdom. In research back in the 1930s Hergé had travelled to London and southern England, which didn’t capture much of the likeness of rural Scotland, and he had too much on his plate by the 1960s to go then. He sent his drawing assistant, Bob de Moor, over to England to ensure the accuracy of the new redraw.
The level of detail de Moor captured is absurd. No doubt Hergé had impressed upon him the need for pedanticism. Uniforms, vehicles, geographical locations, and entire streets were captured accurately and placed into the story by Hergé’s team of helpers. Of the pre-war stories, The Black Island has ended up one of the tidiest in terms of art and visual accuracy due to its late redraw time. Unfortunately, with all the modernised elements, it now sticks out like a sore thumb among the books that came directly before and after. It happens. English readers of Tintin have always gotten the short end of the stick due to the bizarre translating schedule.
So, after all of that: today I’m reading the 1966 English version of the story, complete with fresh new art. I almost want to try to get my hands on earlier versions to compare them, but my French is rudimentary at best. I’ll do what I can to find older material.
The story opens with Tintin minding his own business. He’s taking his dog for a walk. He sees a plane land unexpectedly, so he heads over there to see what’s happening and to offer help. Tintin’s such a cool guy-
The plot of The Black Island is essentially about how Tintin dies on the first page and is replaced by a lookalike. The Thompsons have to hunt down a forger who is so good at forging bank notes that they can forge humans, too, creating the fake Tintin that we follow throughout the book. Since this Tintin maintains all the memories of the original, he’s essentially indistinguishable, and so after much philosophical discussion the Thompsons allow the fake Tintin to take over the old Tintin’s life, giving us the protagonist for the rest of the series. It was always a surprisingly dark plot, but then, Hergé likes to throw us some curveballs.
I can’t remember what I’m referencing here, but it would be a good plot for a story, so I hope I’m referencing something.
Anyway, Tintin lives. He wakes up in hospital the next day and the Thompsons visit him, asking him how he ended up lying in a paddock with a bullet wound. The main thing Tintin can remember is that the plane had no registration marks, which is highly suspect; because airspace is a secure and controlled thing, people flying without registration and landing in strange paddocks are usually up to something.
The Thompsons receive a phone call detailing how an unregistered plane matching Tintin’s description has crashed in England and immediately rush off to investigate. Despite getting shot the previous day Tintin sneaks out of the hospital to do the same. I wish I was twelve so I could bounce back from injuries so quickly.
The top image is the from the 1938 version and the bottom image is from the 1966 version. Note that the train has been modernised from a steam engine to an electric one, courtesy of de Moor’s research trip. The bottom image is also more static than the top one, in line with Hergé’s later style. When Tintin wakes up, he sees someone fleeing the train and attempts to follow them, as this is highly suspicious. However, the Thompsons have just found a passenger knocked unconscious and put the train on lockdown to figure out who assaulted him.
I was just joking around before, but this lends some weight to my ‘multiple Tintins’ hypothesis. Evidence that points towards this Tintin being the perpetrator has been planted on him and he is arrested by the Thompsons, albeit unhappily on their part. They are getting accustomed to the idea that Tintin ends up in legal trouble on false grounds a lot. Fortunately, Tintin can give them the slip, and he jumps off the train to find himself in rural France. He loses the Thompsons there and makes it onto the channel ferry bound for Dover. As soon as he arrives he gets kidnapped by bad guys, who attempt to launch him off the white cliffs of Dover.
This will be one of the backgrounds drawn from life by de Moor on his visit to England, and I love it. That said, I don’t know why they’re bothering to kill this Tintin when the other Tintin is still at large. Maybe because this one knows too much. Fortunately, Snowy has snuck along with the kidnappers and looses a goat to attack them, freeing Tintin. Tintin starts walking towards civilisation and we see Dr Müller for the first time, being notified that Tintin has survived.
Tintin immediately bumps into the plane wreckage that he came to England to inspect. It’s definitely the same plane that he saw shortly before he was shot, and the pilots are long gone. Snowy picks up the scent of the pilots and Tintin follows him to a pile of discarded clothes in the forest.
As he keeps walking towards Eastdown, Tintin finds the house of Dr Müller, and thinks that the coincidence of that name appearing on the note is noteworthy. Instead of doing things politely he hops the wall into the gardens of the Müller house and is immediately chased by a guard dog. He gets away …
… and immediately gets caught in the human version of a bear trap. I feel like this would hurt a lot more than a simple ‘YEOW!’ can cover, but the Tintin books don’t show blood, so Hergé makes it look like this is a pretty unremarkable experience.
Dr Müller turns up with a gun and takes Tintin inside with his hands bound. He says he is sick of Tintin messing around in his affairs and wants to banish him to a mental institution where they will make Tintin insane if he isn’t already. We’re only fifteen pages into the story and I don’t feel like Tintin has done much meddling yet, so either his reputation precedes him or the other Tintin has been up to something. He uses the fireplace to burn through his bonds and attacks Dr Müller.
After losing the fight, Dr Müller tosses a burning log at Tintin, which sets the house ablaze. Tintin barricades himself in a room, not knowing about the fire, and bullets fired through the door destroy a chemical cabinet and pour liquid chloroform into the room, while Tintin inhales. He falls unconscious as the flames reach the door he’s hiding behind. Once again, this isn’t really how chloroform works; once it’s knocked you out, you need a consistent supply of it to remain unconscious, and you can easily choke on your own tongue if you aren’t looked after properly. Tintin is more likely to have regained consciousness once he was closer to the ground, or died.
The fire brigade are called immediately, but they have lost the key to the fire station, and in a comic sequence, a magpie steals it and the fire crew must chase it down to save Tintin.
European magpies are one of the most intelligent species of birds, and are renowned for their playful attitude and learning abilities. I only mention this because where I come from, we have Australian magpies, which are from the butcherbird family and are hyper-aggressive killing machines that torment children and adults alike. And the reason I say all this is because I would rather let Tintin die than climb up a tree and raid a magpie nest.
Finally they make their way to Tintin’s rescue. Dr Müller attempts to cut the fire hose, gets blasted with water, and runs away, letting the house burn. Tintin is rescued and brought to hospital. He stays there for about five minutes before he leaps out of bed and heads back to the scene of the fire to investigate. He finds three beacons on the grounds of the house and realises that they are a signal to pilots flying over.
Tintin gets a battery to light the signal that night, just to see what happens. A plane flies over and drops three mysterious sacks, one of which lands on Dr Müller just as he’s about to shoot Tintin. Ivan, Dr Müller’s crony, runs away, and Tintin pursues. Unfortunately, he stands on a rake, knocking himself out cold and accidentally firing at Ivan.
Were I Hergé, and it’s lucky for you that I’m not, it would have been a two-man version of this scene:
Tintin ties Ivan and Dr Müller up using the wires from the beacons and inspects the sacks, which are full of banknotes. Tintin immediately reaches the conclusion that they are forgers. Like I said above, controversy over the value of money was a topical plotline for Hergé to include, and not just because of the Great Depression. The Germans attempted to forge massive sums of British money at the start of World War II to crash the British economy, Edward Müller slowly spent his homemade counterfeit dollars in New York in the 30s and 40s to keep himself going, and after World War I, the Weimar Republic’s currency was devalued so much that two hundred billion marks (their currency) could only get you a loaf of bread. So money was on people’s minds. Indeed, a scam that still exists today in America is pretending to uncover vast sums of Federal Reserve bonds from the 1930s, which the scammer then attempts to cash in or use as collateral. It seems the 1930s was a good time to be making fake money.
Ivan and Müller escape, and Tintin pursues them through beautifully drawn images of the English countryside. They get onto a train, so Tintin climbs a bridge and jumps onto the roof, getting into the train and chasing them through the dining carriage. Eventually they give him the slip and detach his carriage from the rest of the train, leaving him to walk behind with little hope of catching up. Eventually he stumbles upon a goods train that is just getting moving.
Snowy takes sips from a leaky whiskey tanker, revealing his crippling alcohol abuse issues for the first time. I might be mistaken, but I’m fairly certain that this was added in redrawn versions, after Snowy’s love of alcohol had been established in later books. Also, Tintin’s one to talk, he got so drunk in the last book that he became a colonel in the San Theodoros army.
Tintin makes it to a nearby town and is pulled into a tavern by the Thompsons, who have finally caught up with him. In the same tavern are the two people Tintin is looking for. They get away, but the Thompsons allow him to pursue them so long as they can come with. After all, if Tintin’s right, they get the credit for catching Tintin and for catching the forgers. Snowy has sobered up and can be used to follow their scent, and the group ends up at a nearby airfield, where the forgers are escaping by plane. Tintin runs off and steals a plane to hunt them down. The Thompsons attempt to legally requisition one to do the same.
Tintin quietly goes off and crashes his plane in Scotland while the Thompsons undergo an extended comic scene of trying and failing to land the plane. They stumble into an air acrobatics competition and are awarded first prize for their daring antics.
Unharmed, Tintin and his pilot head for the nearby village, where they hear that the fog that made them crash also made the forgers crash in the ocean near a town called Kiltoch. Tintin leaves his pilot behind and heads for Kiltoch dressed in Scottish finery. He asks a local barkeep about the crash and a weird old man (who, in my experience, naturally spawn in bars like this) tells him there is a monstrous beast inhabiting the ruins of Craig Dhui castle on the Black Island, near the crash. He tells Tintin some tales about people who have died because of the beast. The next day, Tintin’s attempts to get someone to take him to the island are met with failure because the locals view the island as a death sentence. He sets off alone.
What can I say here except further compliments to de Moor for his stunning illustration work? There’s a reason that Tintin’s approach to the island is one of the most well-known images from the books. Tintin goes to explore the castle, heading up to the highest tower, where he hears a strange roaring noise.
Tintin has found the beast of the island, and indeed a gorilla is a pretty terrifying one, even if it’s only normal-sized instead of the size of King Kong. Gorillas weigh as much as two humans but they’re much more capable of outright killing you in one on one combat than most people. Tintin attempts to escape by running downstairs but someone has locked the doors he came in by. Clearly there is a human inhabiting this island who wants him dead. The gorilla throws a rock at Tintin, breaking a hole in the door so he can escape. It also attempts to grab Snowy, but is frightened off by his bark, which is almost certainly much worse than his bite.
Tintin runs to escape via his boat, but the boat is now missing, and he is chased down to the sea front by the the gorilla and the man who is in control of it. We learn the gorilla’s name is Ranko. Tintin hides from Ranko in a sea cave and is left there to drown. When he tries to leave, he is shot at. So instead he pushes deeper into the cave, finding that it conveniently links to the room that the forgers have been using to print their money, complete with a printing press. They’re even in the room at that moment! Tintin doesn’t have a gun, but tries his old trick of telling them to put their hands up and drop their weapons anyway, and they fall for it. Snowy brings him the gun and Tintin is in control of the situation.
Incidentally, the dialogue in this scene had to be changed for Methuen’s 1966 release of the story. This is because Tintin originally said ‘One more step and you’re dead!’ and this was much too violent despite the fact he’s holding a gun. I don’t know what to make of the dialogue in the second panel and can only say that it’s hilarious Golden Age Hollywood style quicktalk. The noise from this confrontation brings Dr Müller and Ivan into the room, and Tintin knocks them out with an ink roller.
Tintin takes care of Ranko’s keeper and then the above happens, getting an ugly laugh out of me. This gives Ranko the opportunity to King Kong our intrepid journalist until Snowy scares him away with another bark. Tintin keeps creeping around and hears a conversation taking place behind a doorway, so he bursts into the room ready for a fight.
This is another scene that was modernised. In the original serialisation, Tintin burst in and exclaimed, “Oh! A television set!”, as if he were surprised that such a thing would be present. This makes sense, as while the television in England at the time, it would not have been much more than a wacky new technology in Belgium. Furthermore, World War II delayed the development and use of this technology, and Belgium didn’t have the television until 1955. Curiously, while it was corrected to a black and white television in the 1966 Methuen redraw, the 1943 colour version had the television in colour, too, despite that technology being a long way away. Hergé always was interested in futurism, and the number of airplanes included in this book is evidence of that.
Tintin finds lots of evidence of the forging operation, and a radio he can use to call the mainland for help in making these arrests. However, the forgers have woken up and freed themselves and are coming after him. Tintin runs up the tower to save himself as the forgers chase him and the police approach the island. In the process of Tintin saving himself, poor Ranko breaks his arm. The forgers are all arrested and Tintin is the hero once again.
And I’ve finished the book. My first disappointment is that I didn’t find more evidence for Double Tintin Theory so I could make a running joke out of it. I might still do that because Tintin taught me to persevere in the face of adversity.
So, what to make of The Black Island? I like the setting and I think both the story and Bob de Moor do an excellent job of making the most of the United Kingdom. Certainly the backgrounds are some of the most impressive in the series and make The Broken Ear’s lack of backgrounds look like crap. I think the plot is good in that it is straightforward without too many false leads or useless sideplots. Since the setting and plot are unique, The Black Island maintains a uniqueness amongst Tintin books; there’s no book that looks or feels like it.
Yet, despite it all, The Black Island is not one of my personal favourites. I love a good mystery plot and this story doesn’t really have one; Tintin just wanders from place to place as his instincts take him, and continually stumbles upon what he needs to find. It’s a good plot for showing off the scenery, but not so much for keeping me engaged until the last page. The story might work better if the villain was stronger, but despite Dr Müller being a recurring character, he has no personality traits to speak of in this story aside from being greedy and evil. Wanting money isn’t a bad motivation, but at least the antagonists of The Broken Ear had a bizarre and idiosyncratic way of going about it, and a bit more backstory as to why they were doing this.
The other point I’m going to nitpick is the lack of politics, and the resultant lack of story direction. Hergé did a good job writing non-political stories during the war to save his ass, but he has yet to hit his stride here. It probably doesn’t help that his concept for this story was ‘go north’ and his concept for The Blue Lotus was [INSERT SEVERAL PARAGRAPHS OF CHINESE HISTORY]. This story ends up as a blended mix of current pop culture and political events that doesn’t really have an ‘angle’ to it except that forging money and shooting people is not a good thing.
The Black Island is a good book, but since I know Hergé can do better, I’m not quite satisfied. The book’s strength lies in that it doesn’t exert too much on the plot, instead exploring the countryside and making slapstick jokes, and that’s just not the story for me. There is a lot to like about it, but I’m feeling ready to line up King Ottokar’s Sceptre and open up Wikipedia and get started on some hard political stuff.
Catch you next time,