Ampton Reads: The Crab with the Golden Claws

On the heels of King Ottokar’s Sceptre, Hergé started his next story, Land of the Black Gold. As I explained in the previous piece, it was not to be finished. Hergé was stationed in Antwerp as the story went on, sending installments back to his magazine, until he fell ill with sinusitis. The day he was declared unfit for service, Germany invaded Belgium. Coincidence? Probably. On the 8th of May, Le Vingtième Siècle was shut down, and Hergé was out of a job.

During this period of time, Belgians had been fleeing Belgium for France and other ‘safe’ countries despite the urging of King Leopold III. Hergé himself stood his ground until Belgium was invaded, at which time he, too, left for France. Far from being a defender of the weak like Tintin was, Hergé holed up in the French countryside, safe and sound.

King Leopold III stayed in Belgium throughout the entire invasion, sticking with his people even as the Nazis overtook his country. His reasoning was that he would be a deserter if he was to flee his nation, but his compliance led him to meet with Hitler and act as a puppet king during the German occupation. For this reason, he was dethroned and stripped of his honour by the French. I feel in his case that it was ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ – had he left Belgium he would likely have lost a huge amount of respect from his people anyway.

It’s generally considered to be good form to break up big sections of text with images, so I put this here so you could imagine Snowy stealing a blunt.

After two months of hiding out in France, Hergé couldn’t tolerate the feeling of being a coward any longer, and returned to Belgium. He found that Le Vingtième Siècle had ended for good, and he was offered a job working for the biggest Francophone newspaper in Belgium, Le Soir, courtesy of an executive at the paper who had commissioned Hergé back in the day for some artwork and was willing to vouch for him. Of course, the newspaper was controlled by the Germans, but so was everything else in Belgium. Belgium was occupied, and Hergé starting quietly working away at his new job under the thumb of the Nazis.

Of course, people in Belgium loved Tintin, and after several years of continuous publication they started to miss the comic. Le Soir had a much broader readership than the old newspaper and Hergé had the chance to have his work spread much further. He couldn’t continue Land of the Black Gold since it had anti-German tones to it and they were breathing down his neck. He had to start a new adventure, and it is finally after all of my paragraphs of explanation that we get to the publication of The Crab with the Golden Claws.

Notable Tintinologist RMJ Lofficier (actually a husband and wife team in a trenchcoat) point out the enormous similarities between The Crab with the Golden Claws and Cigars of the Pharaoh. In terms of concept and vague plot, it does share some elements – it’s a story about opium smuggling in unusual vessels (cigars versus cans of crab meat) that starts out in the desert and ends up underground. I suspect that Hergé did not seek an intentional remake and that opium-smuggling and deserts were just a good angle to take to avoid accidentally pressing any hot political buttons. Indeed, there is very little political intrigue present in The Crab with the Golden Claws, and in that sense it feels a bit more like The Black Island, which is also an apolitical adventure story.

While Hergé did not actively resist the Nazi occupation of Belgium, he declined opportunity after opportunity to succeed in their ranks. He refused to become a Gestapo informant or the official artist for the Belgian Fascist movement. Like Leopold III, he was determined to stay in his home country, and he spent his time with his head down, not resisting the occupation but not aiding it either. After the war Hergé was painted as a colluder with the Nazis and I feel as though that might exaggerate how compliant he was with them. That said, he did use his place at Le Soir to expand Tintin’s popularity, and enjoyed relative safety so long as he stayed away from politics. Those who accused him of capitalising from the German occupation aren’t wrong.

This time period is often described by Tintinologists as when Hergé stopped thinking of Tintin as a self-insert. Originally, Tintin had been an expression of his love for the boy scouts, and was the world-travelling, evil-fighting cool guy that Hergé wanted to be. Now, Hergé’s self-image had taken a beating. It’s for this reason that people believe he introduced Captain Haddock in The Crab with the Golden Claws. He needed a new voice in the story, one that matched his more world-weary and cynical self. Snowy was dropped as Tintin’s conversational partner entirely and Tintin started to develop meaningful interpersonal relationships in the story. His bond with Captain Haddock and the adventures they shared together set the tone for this new era of Tintin publication.

The first installment of The Crab with the Golden Claws was published on the 17th of October, 1940, and the story ran for almost exactly one year, finishing on the 18th of October the next year. The format was different from earlier stories; rather than being published two pages at a time, once a week (the equivalent of one full page in the modern books), the story was published line by line, daily. Hergé went from having small cliffhangers at the end of each page to having tiny cliffhangers at the end of each line. When I find a good example I’ll point it out.

The version I’ll be reading today is the colourised, redrawn English version. The gap between the story being finished and being redrawn and coloured was small – the colour version came out in 1943. Notably, my version is the American one. The Crab with the Golden Claws was the first Tintin book to come out in the USA, and with this 1960s publication came a bunch of changes, most notably removing the black characters from the story. They also removed the worst of Haddock’s drinking. Love how they made racist and puritanical changes to a book published under Nazi Germany. Just exceptional.

AMPTON READS:

As is a common trope for Hergé, this story starts with Tintin minding his own damn business. Snowy finds an empty can crab meat with a ripped label, and Tintin is launched into an international adventure. As a reminder, the initial point of intrigue is fake coins and the name ‘Karaboudjan’ printed on a ripped piece of crab can label. Tintin immediately knows off the top of his head that Karaboudjan is an Armenian name, because why not?

Like I said before, it’s at the point that Hergé really had to develop the interpersonal relationships between his characters. Part of what makes the humour in Tintin good is that it works off a baseline of known character relationships. Knowing Tintin’s history with the twins is what makes this joke funny, at least in my opinion. Introducing Captain Haddock and bringing back characters from previous stories like Bianca Castafiore and Oliveira De Figueira gave him the freedom to create complex plots that could still fall back on these relationships. In fact, as I’ll discuss when I get up to it, The Castafiore Emerald is entirely built off this idea.

There’s a bit of discourse over why a Japanese detective was included in this story. He appears in passing in the beginning, drawn in the exaggerated and borderline caricatured style that Hergé used in The Blue Lotus, but in this book he is one of the good guys, although this is not made clear until the end. He’s out of place in a story that mostly sticks to North Africa, and some people think he was included as a good guy in order to counterbalance Hergé’s criticisms of Japan in The Blue Lotus. Japan was allied with Germany at this point, and Germany was reading Hergé’s books now.

Tintin dashes to the docks to look for the boat in question. Here is one of the places where Hergé’s fondness for thorough research shines through: unable to travel anywhere much, he could at least throw himself into drawing boats as accurately as possible. Tintin narrowly avoids being crushed by a falling crate dropped by the villain Alan. This is Alan’s first real appearance in the series, and he makes a few more in other books, always doing something evil on or around boats. He kidnaps Tintin and when Tintin asks why he basically says ‘You know what you did,’ which is very funny to me.

We get to see Captain Haddock for the first time. Fans of Tintin will cringe to hear that this first appearance of the good Captain took place opposite an advertisement for an explicitly anti-Semitic film. Note the total lack of backgrounds in these panels; the  comic was coloured but largely not redrawn for this publication, and so Hergé’s early vice of leaving backgrounds empty is showing through.

Having had friends struggle with substance abuse, it’s hard for me to look at Haddock with anything except sadness and concern. I don’t really know enough about the norms of the time and place to know whether this was intended as humour (the captain of the ship is a useless drunk) or a moment showing how villainous and in control Alan is.

Tintin springs into Haddock’s cabin out of fucking nowhere and pulls a gun on him. It’s a great way to start a friendship and I recommend you all try it with at least one stranger. Tintin pushes Haddock into agreeing to give up drinking and so finds himself an ally.

As I said previously, Hergé saw in Haddock a new opportunity to bring his own self into the narrative. Although I don’t believe Hergé was much of a drinker, he did share Haddock’s desire to be left alone and in peace by this time. You have to wonder how much of Haddock’s comedy routine of being bothered by Castafiore and Jolyon Wagg and everyone else was just Hergé’s way of venting his annoyance at the people around him. Assuming the theory that Haddock’s appearance signaled the end of Hergé using Tintin as a self-insert is true, it also lends more depth to the scene above. Tintin bursts in on Hergé’s self-insert to find him a broken shell of man, and forces him to get his shit together.

A couple of the American edits. Random Sailor Man was made white or Asian (I can’t tell) instead of black, and Haddock is no longer shown actually drinking rum. It just teleports into his stomach.

Page 21 of my version is taken up by a full-page image of a plane. There’s actually a good reason for the four different full-page illustrations in this book: when it was revised to the standard layout of the modern books, it ended up being 58 pages, 4 pages too short to fit the 62 pages it was being published at. Hergé had to add the full-page illustrations to fill the space. It’s the only book that came up too short.

Spawning some very famous illustrations and some scenes from the recent animated movie, Haddock and Tintin end up stranded in the Sahara desert, running out of hydration and hopelessly walking in one direction in hope of finding anyone to save them. Haddock starts hallucinating from thirst and alcohol withdrawal. So far he’s mostly been a hindrance to Tintin, getting him in danger and ruining their chances of surviving.

It’s a good thing I’m some random guy and not a professional critic or I might have written something like this (ripped from Wikipedia):

Now let us never speak of this again.

Needless to say Tintin and Haddock survive and do not die and no one does anything even vaguely sexual. They get helped out by a local outpost.

I’m throwing this image in here because it’s one of my absolute favourite Tintin illustrations. The colours make it feel like a never-ending desert, and the posing of the camels is great. Tintin ends up in a gunfight with the raiding party.

I was talking about Tintin and guns to a friend of mine the other day and they expressed complete amazement that Tintin was an adult and Allowed To Use Guns. They had previously thought Tintin was a series about childish mischief or something. No, he has guns a lot.

It’s during this exchange that Haddock, upon losing his bottle of spirits, starts swearing for the first time. In the English version he throws out a bunch of words like troglodyte, iconoclast, and ectoplasm, thus expanding my childhood vocabulary. I imagine the translators had fun across different languages trying to come up with appropriate counterparts for his unique swearing style.

The scene shifts a little and they make it to the port of Bagghar. Hergé is once again using puns and wordplay as place names – Bagghar is from the French bagarre, meaning fight. The town of Kefheir is from the French que faire? meaning what to do? and Omar ben Salaad’s name means ‘lobster salad’. Indeed, Haddock is named after a fish because Hergé’s wife at the time referred to the haddock fish as being sad and English, much like Haddock himself.

Tintin locates the way to the underground lair of the bad guys, dressed as a beggar. I’m pretty sure what he’s referring to here is Plato’s attempt to define humans (somewhat jokingly) as a featherless biped. Diogenes turned up to Plato’s Academy with a plucked chicken and said “Behold, a man!” In response, Plato added ‘with broad, flat nails’ to the end of his definition. It’s a curious reference to throw in, and maybe alludes to Tintin having some kind of higher education.

Unsurprisingly but uncomfortably, Haddock’s insults are frequently racial. Earlier in the book he called Alan an aborigine and a Polynesian, and I’m going to give the translators the benefit of the doubt and say that it was due to the atmosphere. However, the above panels aren’t an example of that: the man Haddock is chasing was originally black until the Americans had it changed. They didn’t bother to change the dialogue, so Haddock still calls him a Negro. It’s still terrible, but there’s at least a reason for it. The only curse Hergé ever got in trouble for was his use of the word ‘clysopump’, which is apparently a graphic medical term to do with the bowel.

Page 60 of my version is a really good example of the phenomenon I discussed above of having a cliffhanger at the end of every line. I’ve compiled each of the final panels from each line of that page:

All of them are action shots with drama to them, to bring enthusiasm for the next day’s installment. Alan is arrested, Tintin finally meets the Japanese investigator, and the day is saved, with Captain Haddock now added to the main cast.

The Crab with the Golden Claws  is a memorable book for Haddock’s introduction, and I adore the desert scenes, but otherwise I don’t think it’s particularly good. As better critics than me have discussed, it doesn’t really cover any new ground for the series, being so similar to Cigars of the Pharaoh. It’s good to see Hergé’s narrative style and use of characters coming together, and you can feel what will be greatness later, but nothing really happens in The Crab with the Golden Claws. Tintin feels a little aimless, jumping in and out of trouble without too much reflection on the central mystery of the story. I don’t really blame Hergé for this, as he was under duress, but this story isn’t one of my favourites.

I will credit Alan as a villain, as he is so smug and annoying that I want to kill him, an effective feature in a villain. Otherwise, most of the new characters in this story are forgettable.

This story was popular, despite who Hergé was writing it for, and having found himself a safe little niche Hergé decided to push politics in his next story, The Shooting Star, which I’ll ruminate more on next time. This story is also about boats, and now that I think about it, so are the two after it. Maybe adding Haddock to the cast made Hergé feel like he had to add even more boats than were in other stories. Maybe it meant his research could be limited to the boatyards he had access to. Certainly his next story was his first proper foray into the supernatural and extraterrestrial.

Catch you next time,

– Aмртоп

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