Ampton Reads: Red Rackham’s Treasure

Red Rackham’s Treasure might be the most popular Tintin book. It consistently has high sales, even today, and I would argue it’s the story with the greatest presence in the minds of the general public. I feel that I covered the backstory of this book well in the previous installment, and little changed in Hergé’s situation while he was writing it, so today I’m going to spend some time theorising about why this book in particular is considered so good and so memorable. Consider it a rejoinder of sorts to my essay on The Broken Ear, which was an autopsy on why that book isn’t popular.

One of the main points of The Broken Ear that I felt hindered its success was the historical setting, which these days is obtuse and obscure, and its physical setting, which would not have been familiar to the reader at the time of release. For Red Rackham’s Treasure, Hergé’s hand was forced by his delicate political position to avoid a historical setting at all. Any reference to world politics, even a reference not directed at German rule, was probably going to be a mess, as he had learned with The Shooting Star. Instead, Red Rackham’s Treasure picks aesthetics, themes, and concepts from a wide variety of adventure stories. It really has it all: submarines, treasure, travelling the globe, jungle islands, and a strong quest plot to keep everything moving. It holds on to a vaguely Christian, colonial, and European setting that doesn’t require much explanation since it is familiar on some level to the reader. Essentially, Red Rackham’s Treasure creates a cocktail of tropes that tastes fresh, and Hergé can use characters now familiar to the reader, so the whole thing is a bright new adventure comprised of individual elements that the reader understands quite intimately.

Just like this room full of Calculus’s gewgaws.

Another feature of The Broken Ear criticised by myself and others was the lack of research that went into it. It’s understandable why Hergé might have struggled with research on the specific setting he had picked, but it ends up seriously limiting the scope of the story. In contrast, Hergé had the time and resources during the Nazi occupation to sit down and make every single thing perfect in Red Rackham’s Treasure. Even Calculus’s submarine, which looks pretty goofy, is based on an American submarine that Hergé had seen in a newspaper. With better factual basis for his story, Hergé could be more confident and craft a more powerful story.

The art in The Broken Ear is not great. In fact, it’s pretty bad. In contrast, by this era of the Tintin series, Hergé’s art was fantastic. I’ll be providing better examples on my readthrough, but Red Rackham’s Treasure shows Hergé at his best. I’m somewhat obsessed with the beauty of the wreck of the Unicorn. Red Rackham’s Treasure also marks the first appearance of Tintin’s most distinctive outfit, with his blue sweater and white shirt. He wears a variety of other shirts and usually a trenchcoat in the previous stories, but the look in Red Rackham’s Treasure would become the best-known, along with those ever-present plus fours. Plus fours were fashionable in Tintin’s time, but would basically become the domain of golfers in the second half of the 20th century. I tried to find a pair when I cosplayed Tintin a few years back and eventually had to settle for tucking brown dress pants into soccer socks.

Hergé claimed that this was one of his favourite panels from all of Tintin, because of how much story it could tell all on its own. I agree, it’s a lovely piece.

Last up, we have the introduction of Calculus, or Tryphon Tournesol, depending on what you grew up with. I’ve mentioned plenty of times in the past how much Hergé loved the archetype of the eccentric professor with the silly performance, and Calculus is the next incarnation of this. He’s also the one who stuck, and I think this may have been due to an inspired trait of Calculus: his partial deafness. It allows him to be batty and weird while still maintaining his dignity, so he could be utilised as a catalyst of a serious plot and still maintain his powers of comic relief. Hergé uses this well in the moon duo and The Calculus Affair, in which Calculus is simultaneously the smartest and dumbest person on the cast. His appearance is based on Auguste Piccard, a Swiss-born scientist who had reached the stratosphere in a hot air balloon in 1931, although Piccard is very tall and Calculus is just a little dude. Piccard lived in Brussels for a time, teaching, and Hergé had seen him out and about, so he was quite familiar with the scientist’s appearance. With Calculus, Haddock, and Tintin all together for the first time, this story ends up being easily read and understood for people with a shallow knowledge of the series.

Where his previous scientist characters might here have been forced into a confrontation with Haddock or Tintin, Calculus becomes immune due to his deafness and ditziness. With these batty scientists characters, there normally comes a point where the other, more serious characters get tired of them or start ignoring them, but you can’t do that to Calculus; he’s a force of nature.

That’s my comparison to The Broken Ear over, but I have a few more points to add. Part of the strength of Red Rackham’s Treasure is that it is part two of a story. The Secret of the Unicorn is a bloody good book, as I rambled about at length in my last piece, and that really helps Red Rackham’s Treasure out the start gate. The story can focus on resolutions of plot points and characters rather than having to build an entire arc, which is easier to do in 124 pages than in 62. Haddock is well-utilised here, since his previous two stories have essentially just been him floundering with alcoholism. He has an arc about reclaiming his family name and growing as a person, and it works great. We can also enjoy the interplay of characters who, at this point, are well-established.

And that’s why I feel that this story has endured so well. It was originally published from February 1943 to September 1943, a ludicrously short time for such a pretty book. The version published by Casterman as a book and was barely edited from the newspaper version, since by this time Le Soir was printing these stories in colour. Today I’m going to be reading the 1959 Methuen translation, and as I said last time, this story and The Secret of the Unicorn were the first to make it into English.

AMPTON READS:

The story starts with a neat little recap of the previous one. Tintin and Haddock’s upcoming expedition has made it into the papers, and people are desperately trying to latch onto it by claiming they are in some way affiliated with Red Rackham. They are all shooed away, leaving just one interested party:

So here Calculus is introduced. Already we see the interplay of Haddock’s short temper and Calculus’s obliviousness. Calculus manages to lure Tintin and Haddock into visiting his lab simply by refusing to accept no for an answer. There, Calculus effortlessly lays waste to Haddock and the Thompsons with his inventions. The crew is lucky they never get on his bad side. Calculus agrees, against their will, to make them a two-person version of his shark submarine, and Tintin and Haddock wander out, confused as to exactly what is happening.

I have a particular soft spot for Hergé’s illustrations of rooms filled with paraphernalia. There’s also the one earlier showing Calculus’s lab, and it too inspired a lot of childish excitement in me, playing I Spy with all the strange objects Hergé must have seen in books in museums. Also, anyone who has been to a back alley antiques store can verify that they really are staffed by weird old men who try and read your mind. I like to think it’s part of the experience.

As the crew gets ready to set off, they have other issues to deal with. Calculus can’t be dissuaded, not even by Haddock literally spelling out his lack of interest in the submarine. Max Bird, the bad guy from the last book, has escaped, and Haddock’s doctor has put a strict ban on him drinking. Snowy is being accused of stealing food, and the cook is livid. I like this kind of setup, where Hergé is handing us a whole pile of intrigue without specifically stating what is going to be important later, so he can build an atmosphere of suspicion and concern. It’s good writing.

The first third of this book is the characters getting for, and then embarking on, their adventure to the wreck of the Unicorn. Not much happens in it that couldn’t be summed up more quickly, but Hergé is getting good at his pacing and character interplay; this first third of the book does a great job of setting up the feeling of adventure, mystery, and perhaps impending danger, while also giving us some good comedy and letting Hergé show his work after all the research he did. In other earlier books, he’s spent a similarly long time getting to the ‘point’ of the story, but here nothing feels like time wasted.

At the risk of continuing to ramble, the three panels above are a decent example of what I mean. Just from these three panels, we see Haddock’s irritation and Tintin’s sense of humour, as well as setting up the plotline of supplies going missing and Haddock’s own shaky health. It’s a mark of Hergé’s skill at this stage that he can fit so much into so little, and it’s something he got increasingly better at in the future.

This statue is actually based on a real one, although this statue is from a Caribbean island and the real one is a Bamileke statue from Cameroon in Central Africa. Hergé saw the statue in a museum.

Exploring the island, the group finds parrots that still speak like Admiral Haddock did, and other bits and pieces that confirm that they are in the right place. The next job is to get underwater and find the wreck. After being insulted throughout the book, Calculus’s invention is finally put to use when it becomes clear the presence of sharks will make it harder to use regular diving suits and that they have a lot of ocean to cover.

This picture might be my single favourite Tintin panel, or at least the one I’m most nostalgic for. I can remember, as a child, poring over it, admiring the texture of the sunken ship and the sea life. There’s a shipwreck, much less grand than this,  on the rocks of a beach near where I grew up, and every time I went past I would imagine I was Tintin finding the Unicorn.

Tintin pores through the ship and finds treasures, and Haddock has a go, finding rum. Tintin’s second expedition yields a small chest, but it is lost when he uses it to defend himself against a shark and the shark swallows it. This was apparently based off an account from photographer Otis Barton of a shark swallowing his camera. Tintin ties a rope to the shark’s tail and has it dragged aboard their ship, after which this happens:

And look, I appreciate that all the animal killing took place off-screen, but that was a big shark. Did they really just disembowel a huge animal on board the ship between the first and the second panels? That’s hilarious, in a grim kind of way. They spend a lot of time dredging parts of the Unicorn up to take home, but are eventually forced to concede that the treasure isn’t there. However, from the documents they found in the chest, they realise that Marlinspike Hall, from the last book, used to belong to the Haddock family and Calculus buys it for them using the money he got from selling the patent to his submarine. I don’t actually think he ever transferred ownership over to Haddock or Tintin, which probably explains why Calculus lived there and raised chaos there for the entire rest of the series.

They eventually the treasure, right back where they started. If you didn’t think the above scene filled child-Ampton with a powerful desire to prod maps and globes, and to elaborately hold up any jewelry I found in my grandmother’s house, you would be wrong. One of these days, I’m going to poke and prod the right map, and something good will come of it. I’m holding my breath.

And yet another beautiful illustration to finish the story. If I had to pick, I’d say I liked The Secret of the Unicorn better, but Red Rackham’s Treasure does a great job of finishing off the story, and it’s probably the most beautiful of the Tintin stories so far. Perhaps I’m just nostalgic for my childhood, but Red Rackham’s Treasure was one of those stories that resonated deep into my soul and filled me with a desire for treasure and adventure. It earned its wings.

I can’t quite be bothered chopping and changing it to fit in here, but believe me when I say that other Tintinologist have some crazy shit to say about the story, including saying that Haddock getting shoved by the submarine is being euphemistic for anal sex, and  that Calculus’s submarine allows him to transcend reality. As far as deeper meaning goes, I actually think that this story is almost meticulous in its avoidance of such a thing. Hergé liked deeper meanings, but they had been leading him into trouble, and Red Rackham’s Treasure is a response to that and a conscious effort to write a children’s story about adventure, something he hadn’t really done since right back in Soviet Russian and the Belgian Congo. With the ending of this story, Hergé had neatly made the changes to the status quo that he needed to make this story, and his safety under Nazi rule, last.

After the success of this story, however, it was not to be. I’ll discuss it next time, but although he began The Seven Crystal Balls as soon as possible in 1943, that story wasn’t completed until 1948, after years of being in and out of jail, and years of trying to clear his name of collusion.

Catch you next time,

-Aмртоп

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