Ampton Reads: The Shooting Star

TW: In this piece I will be discussing Herge’s antisemitism in detail, so feel free to give this a miss if that’s a dealbreaker for you.

So, with the conclusion of The Crab with the Golden Claws, Hergé had managed to write an apolitical book under German watch and come out unscathed. He was safe enough, sheltered by his lack of a stand against German rule, and he decided to try and slip a political note or two back into his work.

You’ll recall me talking in the past about Hergé’s anti-Americanism. He shared his beliefs with his old boss, the Abbot Wallez, about how American capitalism was going to be the biggest threat of the world. Hergé believed that once World War II blew over, Europe should unite against the common threat of the American superpower. This wasn’t a radical belief, nor was it an unfounded one; it’s the way he went about writing this book that made it so notorious.

I’ve been laughing at Tintin trying to avoid saying “My dog pissed on this live explosive” all morning.

At the conclusion of the war, The Shooting Star, those who had worked under German rule were interrogated thoroughly about their allegiances and political beliefs in order to weed out colluders. When it came to Hergé, The Shooting Star was the book used to prove that he had acquiesced to German political viewpoints. This is because, accident or not, The Shooting Star is a really antisemitic book. Unsurprising for many given that it was published between 1941 and 1942 in a Nazi-occupied country, but the existence of this book would lead Hergé in and out of prison, and barred from working in Belgium for years after the war.

It should also be noted that during the publication of this book, the Americans joined the war on the allied side; Hergé was not aware that he would be writing an explicitly anti-allied book when he began it. In fact, the book shows the British favourably in their few appearances, and it doesn’t seem like Hergé’s intention was targeting the allied forces at all.

Chester helps them out quite a bit and this scene is supposed to be charming. There’s no real anti-English slant to this book, if you’ll allow me to state something so boldly.

Hergé’s target in this book was American big business. A united team of European scientists is attempting to race an American-controlled expedition to reach a huge meteor that has landed in the far northern ocean. The Americans rely on underhanded tricks, spurred on by their financier, a man who was named Blumenstein in the original book. In Hergé’s version for publication, this was changed to Bohlwinkel, a failed attempt at his useful playful named – bollewinkel is Marollien for sweet shop. Hergé’s retroactive claim was that he picked the name Blumenstein because he thought of it as a very businessman type name. Blumenstein and Bohlwinkel are both Jewish names, and the appearance of this character appears to embody multiple stereotypes of Jewish appearance and behaviour.

In hindsight, Bohlwinkel’s design bears some resemblance to Rastapopoulos’s design, in their degree of balding, large noses, and vision problems. I’m not the first person to point this out, and it makes you wonder what the connection in Hergé’s mind was. They are both corrupt, wealthy Americans, although Rastapopoulos is definitely not Jewish. Perhaps Hergé associated those physical traits with that background and didn’t consider the antisemitic implications of portraying rich bastards as having Jewish-coded traits.

In 1954, after a decade of people persecuting Hergé over his publishing of this book, he rewrote it to change the American team to a team from the fictional nation of São Rico, a tax haven from South America. This was yet another misstep, because as smarter people than me have discussed, having a Jewish-coded character controlling the expedition of a different country just evokes the various conspiracy theories about Jewish people having control over various countries using their financial wealth. Overall, in creating this story, Hergé made one bad decision after another, and when confronted with outrage over said decisions, he dug his heels in and claimed innocence and purity of intentions.

It’s a pity, really, given how hard Hergé worked to turn Tintin around from its early roots, that he reverted to such a cruel and bigoted depiction of a group of people who were going through some of the worst persecution a group of people has ever faced. I have no way of knowing if Hergé’s intentions were actually good or not, but in many ways it doesn’t matter. Hergé kept his head down and survived the war like his king asked him to, but he is absolutely no hero and the accusations of being complicit with Nazi rule are not unfair. 32,000 Belgian Jews were killed in the years following the publication of this book. That’s half the population of my hometown, and I think people who accept Hergé’s claim of naivete as a reason for inaction are being insensitive to the lives lost to the rhetoric he was (intentionally or not) applying.

Just breakin’ up the text to laugh at Tintin saying ‘fag’.

One of my primary sources, Harry Thompson, is quite the apologist for Hergé and depicts him as naïve and not understanding what impact his actions would have. Other critics say that Bohlwinkel is an unkind depiction of Americans, not Jewish people, or that he is a poor depiction of rich people, not Jewish people. I don’t think it matters. Regardless of Hergé’s intentions, he employed some horribly antisemitic tropes in designing this character and story, and whether or not his intentions were bad (and I don’t personally think Hergé was notably more antisemitic than anyone else who stayed with their head down in Belgium) this book still ends up being horribly antisemitic. It’s more subtle than Tintin in the Congo or Land of the Soviets in terms of being a politically loaded right-wing depiction, but that’s what it is, and denouncing the content of this book is just as important as denouncing those other books.

If it helps give you an idea of why people were so outraged, there was a scene removed from the original newspaper publication that depicts two stereotypical Jewish people cackling about not having to repay their debts since the world is about to end. It was removed for Casterman’s book version, but the existence of this scene should hopefully be enough to convince you that people who reacted to this story strongly were not doing so on any kind of witchhunt.

You’ll have to trust me on the content if you don’t speak French, but this ain’t right.

Hergé had two major factors to consider when figuring out the setting and plot of this story. Firstly, he needed to include Haddock as his newest member of his cast, and secondly, he needed a setting which wouldn’t require lots of research, since his ability to do so was limited by the occupation. Thus, a story set on a boat. The two major ships in this story have real life equivalents, as does the plane used by Tintin and his crew. However, Hergé regretted his inability to make his research more extensive, as the Aurora, Tintin’s ship, was visibly unseaworthy and wouldn’t have made it out of port, much less into the far north. Plotwise, the story is probably based off Jules Verne’s The Chase of the Golden Meteor. Hergé was not any particular Verne fan, but his assistant was, and that’s probably where the influence came from. I haven’t read the story myself so I’d struggle to verify claims about similarity.

I don’t know much about boats, but the low sides of that ship don’t look like they could hold up to an ocean storm. Hergé also knew shit all about meteors or astronomy, because pretty much nothing he shows the meteor doing would happen. The meteor would sink into the ocean, the heat wave wouldn’t have happened, and none of the stuff with exploding mushrooms and new elements makes much sense.

The version I’m reading today is the version created after Hergé’s revisions in 1954. It’s been tidied up a bit, the bad guys are no longer American, the worst antisemitism has been taken out, and Blumenstein is Bohlwinkel. The Shooting Star was published in colour, the first book to be done so in its entirety, and it was also the first book written with the intention of fitting into the 62-page layout that is present in modern books, which meant that there were few changes to the art for the first book version. Hergé planned in 1959 to do additional modifications to this book that would change Bohlwinkel’s appearance to be less stereotypically Jewish, but these changes were never carried out. It was translated into English and published by Methuen in 1961.

AMPTON READS

I adore the opening of this story. It starts at night but due to the meteor the lighting is strange and Tintin and Snowy are more illuminated than they should be. It lets the reader know immediately that something is wrong, obviously backed up by Tintin obsessing over a new, large star. He tries to contact the observatory, but they hang up on him, and he decides to go there himself. It’s so hot outside that the tar on the roads is melting. He gets into the observatory and immediately meets a crazy old man, talking about judgment day.

I think this is the closest Hergé ever really gets to replicating the feel of his time working in occupied Belgium. There’s this pervasive feeling of nightmare and the world ending, and it’s not an enemy Tintin can fight. Tintin has horrific and confusing dreams as Brussels seems to fall apart around him. Tintinologist Tom McCarthy links the ranting of the doomsdayer to other depictions of madness in the series, like the madness juice in The Blue Lotus, and I think this is the most powerful expression of that theme in the series.

People have talked about how there is this huge world-destroying source of power falling from the sky, with mushroom-shaped results, in order to say that Hergé was making a statement about the nuclear bombs that would be used in 1945. Hergé was pretty good at staying on top of modern technology, but he’s not a fortuneteller. It was only when Americans entered the war, partway through the publication of this book, that the atomic bomb began development in all seriousness, and Hergé had no way of knowing that it was occurring or that nuclear bombs would cause a mushroom cloud.

However, he was absolutely making a metaphor, just not the one people assume he is. Rather, the meteor is the World War raging around them, threatening to destroy them all. Just like the meteor, Hergé believed that it would pass by harmlessly, opening Europe to competition and threat from Americans. He explicitly said this, so it’s not me pulling interpretations out of my ass.

The makeup of the European team probably posed a problem for Hergé, trying to decide which countries he should include. The final team is made up of people from countries who were pro-German, occupied, or neutral. This was a point of criticism leveled against Hergé, but for once I’ll defend him; aside from Soviet Russia and England there were no free, allied-aligned countries in Europe at that time, and the English are portrayed quite favourably in this book. Indeed, Haddock is on the exploration team.

This is the last book before Hergé introduces his ultimate ditzy professor, Calculus, and the six pictured above are a nice smorgasbord of wacky professor types. Phostle in particular has a few elements of Calculus, with his sense of drama and single-minded obsession with the unknown.

As we can see here, the American team is now a São Rican team. However, the name of their ship, the Peary, remains unchanged as a nod to their previous American identity. Robert Peary was an American explorer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, who covered a lot of the Arctic Circle. The perfect name for this ship heading north, then.

This image, from much later in the story, shows the complete change from the distinctive American flag to the more generic one for Hergé’s fictional country. You can also see the tidying up of the colouring, as the newer image looks crisper and richer.

This scene shows nicely the benefits of introducing Haddock as a member of the main cast. Tintin is unfailingly brave and his only flaw is probably his eagerness,  but now he needs to motivate Haddock to win the race. Look at his shit-eating grin in the middle and right panels now that he’s managed to push Haddock into action. This is some satisfying character interplay that was missing somewhat from earlier adventures.

Unsurprisingly I’ve been taking the opportunity in this book to discuss Hergé and antisemitism, but I feel I should also discuss the plot. I would argue in this book that Tintin has finally thrown off the title of reporter and has settled into being an adventurer. After all, reporter is a dangerous career to have during wartime, but being an adventurer captures the spirit and energy of a globetrotter without any of the political controversy. It does say that Tintin is on this journey as a journalist, but he’s the one parachuting out of a plane and planting flags.

The Shooting Star was one of my favourite books as a small child with no understanding of history or politics, and I still understand what I liked about it. The plot, of two teams racing for scientific glory while the bad team plays dirty, is pretty compelling, and it’s impressive how Hergé managed to bring it down to the wire like he did. Then, Tintin is forced to stay on the meteorite to ensure the bad guys don’t get hold of it. He’s all alone, except for Snowy, while forced to contend with the bizarre forces of exploding mushrooms and nature gone wrong. The whole time Tintin is on the island, he is haunted by the words of the doomsdayer (although he doesn’t let it get him down) and I appreciate the callback to the earlier, more disturbing parts of the story. I really like it, it’s not a typical Tintin story and it’s memorable. It’s just a pity it ended up being memorable for other reasons.

Hergé also ends up pushing his ability to draw his characters in various poses and with various expressions. I really like the above few panels for the excellent anatomy and posing of Tintin. Also a dog bites him on the ass. If I recall correctly, one of the reasons Hergé liked drawing Haddock so much was how expressive Haddock’s face could be, almost to the point of caricature.

In the end, the meteorite tips over and is lost to the ocean. Tintin escapes with his life, Snowy, the flag, and a single large rock rescued from the meteorite, and they head back to Europe. The Jewish guy gets arrested for money crimes. We all laugh together because Haddock is an alcoholic. THE END.

And that’s The Shooting Star. I’ll be generous to Herge and say that his intended commentary, about how Americans and their unregulated capitalism are a danger to the world and how European values were healthier and suited the world better, was a pretty decent point to make. It was also one he’d made before, in his satire of the USA in Tintin in America. It was just the absolute wrong time to make such a message. He would have been better to stick to his apolitical work, because the many interpretations that The Shooting Star opens itself to ended up haunting him for years.

I guess timing is everything. Had he written this story ten years earlier or ten years later no one would have cared, most likely, although the Jewish caricatures are a bit on the nose, if you’ll pardon the pun. It came across as pro-German, and Hergé’s claimed lack of awareness when it came to Jewish names and stereotypes is very easily interpreted as compliance with their regime.

Time for me to post another one of Jean-Marie Apostolidès’ bizarre interpretations of the book:

This is pretty wack. This guy always delivers.

After all of this, my thoughts on the books are: neat story, horrifying delivery. I’ll be discussing in later pieces what consequences Hergé faced after the war because of this book. For his next book, Hergé abandoned politics all together, and steered straight into adventuring with The Secret of the Unicorn, arguably one of Hergé’s best and most famous book. From a deep low to a mighty high.

Catch you next time,

– Aмртоп

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