Ampton Reads: The Seven Crystal Balls

The Seven Crystal Balls and its sequel, Prisoners of the Sun, are remembered less vividly that the duo that preceded them or the moon duo, but there’s a lot to love about them, and they feature some of my favourite art from the series. They’re also some of the most sinister. I know a lot of people with a lingering childhood fear of Rascar Capac from this book. Fortunately, I’m a freak for horror stuff, so that only spurs me into reading this book faster.

The publication of The Seven Crystal Balls would span five years, starting in 1943 while the war was still going strong and finally ending in 1948, after Hergé had been barred and then unbarred from working, after he had been in and out of prison, after he had redrawn all the old adventures in colour because it was the only work he could get, and after his mother had been committed to a psychiatric institution and subsequently died. I’m not going to discuss too much here the charges laid against him for collusion and antisemitism because I think I was pretty thorough in The Shooting Star, so today we’ll be looking at everything else.

The Seven Crystal Balls’s structure is not unlike the two-part story that preceded it, with the first part a mystery set in a relatively domestic setting and the second part a bold adventure to places unknown to resolve the plotlines from the first part. Hergé’s chosen setting this time was Peru, and the Incas, although the actual plotline was almost certainly derived from accounts of Howard Carter’s opening of the tomb of Tutankhamen and the curse that was unleashed. I’m not entirely sure why Hergé picked Peru specifically; I do know he was inspired by an Incan mummy in the Brussels Cinquantenaire Museum that would become the basis for Rascar Capac’s design.

This cheery individual.

The story is unusually grim and would probably be remembered by fans as the darkest Tintin story. It’s likely that this can be linked to Hergé’s state of mind at the time, and the conditions he was working under as the war carried on. The story started publication in the December of 1943; he took a hiatus from May to June the next year due to ill health, both physical and mental. Hergé was prone to developing illness under stress and the fear that he would be held responsible for his actions when Belgium was liberated was crushing for him. In later years his periods of hiatus would become more frequent and he would vanish without telling anyone for weeks or months at a time.

Brussels was liberated by the Allies in September 1944, and Le Soir, the newspaper Hergé had been publishing in, was immediately shut down. Everyone who worked there was arrested, including Hergé, having been named as a collaborator by the Belgian Resistance fighters. Any journalist who had worked for the German occupation was blacklisted from taking any formal employment, and Tintin was gone. La Patrie, a newspaper affiliated with the Belgian Resistance, released a strip called The Adventures of Tintin in the Land of the Nazis. Hergé was not formally charged with anything following his arrest, since the judge didn’t think it was worth prosecuting a children’s cartoonist, although said judge correctly pointed out that Hergé’s publication of Tintin in Le Soir had normalised the German-run newspaper and encouraged people to buy it.

How dare the liberation of Belgium from the Nazi regime get in the way of writing comics?

In the end, Hergé and his assistant, Edgar P. Jacobs, were tasked with sitting down and colouring and redrawing all the old Tintin adventures. His publishers, Casterman, essentially kept Hergé afloat in this time. It wasn’t until October 1945 that his circumstances would change. He was fished out by Raymond LeBlanc, a resistance fighter from the war with a good reputation among the Belgian public. LeBlanc wanted to put together a magazine for children, so he appealed to the Belgian government with his recommendation that Hergé be reconsidered. It was decided that Hergé would not stand trial for collusion, and he was issued a certificate of good citizenship in 1946, necessary for him to work in post-war Belgium.

The other people who had worked at Le Soir with him were not so lucky. Most received heavy prison sentences for collusion and a few were even sentenced to death. Hergé was bitter about the way he had been treated by the Belgian people and about how harshly other collaborators had been treated, although in this respect I have little sympathy for him. Yes, he had done what he thought was right and obeyed the direct order of his king, but he had also spent a few years normalising the Nazi regime and publishing work like The Shooting Star, which was heavily criticised for blatant antisemitism.

The new children’s magazine was called Tintin under the (probably correct) belief this was the right way to draw in a big readership from the start. Like his old magazine, Le Petit Vingtième, this was to be weekly, although it would be in colour. Hergé was thus in charge of putting out two fully illustrated and coloured pages of Tintin a week, no easy feat. Jacques van Melkebeke, Hergé’s friend, was the editor of the magazine, and E.P Jacobs was back as his assistant. After years of turmoil, Hergé finally published the last few pages of The Seven Crystal Balls and embarked on the next part, Prisoners of the Sun.

The cover of the first issue.

The finished story doesn’t betray too much of its troubled origins, unlike Land of the Black Gold, which clearly shows the scars of its publication. I’ll get to Land of the Black Gold soon, since Hergé’s next project after finishing this two-parter was to go back and finish the story that had been interrupted by the outset of the war.

The Casterman publication of this book took place in 1948, with some of the backgrounds tidied up by Jacobs. It didn’t make it into English until 1963, upon which some of the place names were changed to make them more British, and references to books published after 1948 slipped in to fit this book into the canon of Tintin books so far. It’s that 1963 version of the book I’ll be reading today, since I still haven’t spontaneously developed the ability to read French. It would be cool if I had.

AMPTON READS:

Like so many Tintin stories, this one starts with our young protagonist minding his own damn business. He’s just a guy heading to his friend’s house on a train when some random starts talking to him about curses, which, honestly, is the most relatable part of this story.

I do the exact same thing when random people start ranting to me on public transport, except it’s usually not my stop and I’ve thrown myself into the wrong part of town.

It’s a fairly minor scene, but I think the above panel does show the shift in Hergé’s thinking towards colonialism over time. Tintin in the Congo basically portrays it as Tintin’s god-given right to go over to the Congo and start taking their things and ordering them around. By now Hergé has developed a bitter taste towards that kind of thinking.

At this point in the story Tintin hasn’t moved into Marlinspike yet. He sees Haddock, who is hilariously trying to live life as an upper-class lord and failing, and as Harry Thompson points out, this shows how Haddock has transitioned from a drunk who is laughed at, to a comedic sidekick who keeps the audience laughing with him. Even his relationship with alcohol is portrayed in a lighter sense, which is good, because I found the miserable drunken Captain from The Crab with the Golden Claws rather depressing.

Calculus, who is the same as always, wandering around the grounds of the hall with his pendulum and saying weird shit. Business as usual. He’s specifically looking for a local Saxon burial ground, and I like how Hergé is working in the themes of curses and burial rites from the start of the story.

Haddock has also developed an obsession with a magician’s stage show and takes Tintin to see it, kicking off the events of the story. At the show, a hypnotist’s assistant predicts that a terrible curse will come over the spouse of an audience member, and she is proven right. The next person to turn up is General Alcazar. It’s an interesting choice to bring him back, I think, but he was memorable in his story and if Tintin was going back to South America then this was Hergé’s chance to reuse his South American characters. He’s a knife-thrower now, far from his previous glory.

Because this scene is referring to a whole bunch of past Tintin characters, it’s here that the translations being out of order starts to affect things. Tintin refers to adventures in the Red Sea, somewhere he hasn’t been yet, and references are made to Haddock knowing General Alcazar when in reality the two didn’t meet after this book until The Red Sea Sharks. Sure, Tintin might have told Haddock about the events of The Broken Ear, but it’s still a continuity fuck-up with regards to Castafiore.

You can pretty clearly see here how a first meeting between Alcazar and Haddock has been changed through dialogue to act like they have met before. The meeting is short, as Tintin and Haddock want to get back out to watch the act, but Haddock goes the wrong way and has a large cow mask fall on him, leading him to stumble through the magic act and make a fool of himself on stage. That guy who was talking about the deep psychosexual energy of the Tintin series wrote a neat little piece on how this scene reflects the key theme of the fusion of human and animal, and I like to make fun of that guy, so I’m just going to point out here that Hergé probably wanted to throw some funky comedy into this otherwise quite serious scene and was probably not thinking about human-animal unions.

The next morning, the Thompsons catch up with Tintin and tell him that members of the Sanders-Hardiman expedition, the one that brought the mummy, are all falling ill with mysterious crystal shards found near their unconscious bodies. It’s page 17 by the time this happens, and I actually appreciate how much time Hergé spends getting to the point here; we’ve been introduced to all the key characters, given a feel for the themes and ideas of the story, and had the atmosphere built before the plot itself really starts. Hergé was clearly getting a knack for delivering the best bang for his buck, plot-wise. I think this is especially important in this era of Tintin, where the theme and direction of the story could be totally different depending on the book (pirate treasure versus opium smuggling versus Inca mummies versus travelling to the moon) and so taking the time to lay out what kind of story this will be first is a good move.

Don’t mind me, just admiring another one of Hergé’s Rooms of Stuff. It’s actually due to the help of Jacobs that Hergé was capable of pulling all the lovely backgrounds in this story off while on schedule. I would argue this is the first book that stops phoning it in with a lot of the backgrounds, and that’s due to Hergé having an extra pair of hands to draw with him. As his creative process involved more people in the future, the art would become increasingly intricate.

Most of the remaining members of the expedition don’t stand a chance and are quickly mowed down by the assailant. Although I didn’t notice this until Wikipedia pointed it out, one of the members of the expedition is actually a scientist from The Shooting Star, Professor Cantonneau. They go to visit Professor Tarragon, one of the members of the expedition still conscious and an old friend of Calculus’s, and get their first look at the mummy of Rascar Capac. I would argue it’s one of the creepiest things Hergé has ever drawn, and I remember distinctly how horrifying I found it in the 90s animated show.

Tarragon’s house itself was not lacking in a sinister air in real life. Hergé and his assistant, Jacobs, modeled the house off a real one, and only after sketching it while hanging out in the woods did they realise it was currently being used by the SS. They’re lucky they weren’t caught, as talking their way out of that one wouldn’t be easy.

Shameless plug for my own art, even if I did draw this quite a while back.

And then comes a dark and stormy night at Professor Tarragon’s, when the house is shaken by wind and ball lightning rushes down the chimney and makes the mummy vanish. Imagine my surprise when I learned as an adult that ball lightning is a real thing. To make matters worse and more sinister, it is revealed that Tarragon found a prophecy while he was down in Peru that basically said a bunch of white colonisers would come and steal Rascar Capac’s body and then would be struck down in return. They’re really lucky that this actually happened or this prophecy would have looked so silly.

This is the goddamn two lines of this story that haunt my nightmares. The colours, the way Rascar Capac is drawn, the inherent horror of having an ancient mummy sneak into your room to put you in a coma. Big surprise I slept with my windows locked even in the middle of summer as a kid. Fuck Rascar Capac.

Everyone in the house had the same dream about getting attacked by Rascar Capac, and it turns out that in the night Tarragon has been put into a coma too. The crew is reduced to running around in their pyjamas in darkness, trying to find whoever has been doing this and failing, while Tarragon periodically wakes up and screams in pain. It’s something.

Calculus wanders around the estate and eventually finds one of Rascar Capac’s bracelets, putting it on. Tintin and Haddock check the estate afterwards and find a bloody handprint up a tree. They climb to search for clues, but it’s no use. Calculus has been violently abducted and Tintin and Haddock run out of bullets before they can stop the abductors from racing away in a car.

There’s some neat detective work, and Tintin and co do their best to find Calculus, but all they can work out is that some South Americans took him, which doesn’t really narrow things down.

This part, on page 50, is where the story was abruptly stopped in 1944. It was quite a cliffhanger to leave the story on for four years, with a genuinely creepy plot set up and Calculus kidnapped, and much has been said about how Haddock, miserable and waiting every day for news, was much like Hergé for those four years. However, the story continues on seamlessly, and like I said, you’d never know without me telling you that there was such a huge gap in time between the middle and end of this book.

The thing that breaks the case is the car Calculus was spirited away in being dredged out of the water in the town of Westermouth, originally Saint-Nazaire in the French version. Not much can be found from the car, but after all these pages Alcazar is brought back again. His indigenous assistant has vanished, and his act doesn’t work anymore, so he’s headed back to his home country. Said assistant is a descendant of the Incas and matches the description of one of Calculus’s abductors, so Tintin is back on the case. Snowy finds Calculus’s hat in the vicinity, and Tintin goes to ask some locals about it.

I always through it was weird as a kid how those two kids look more like Hergé protagonists than Hergé background characters, and I’m not sure I’ve actually solved this mystery. They do bear more than a passing resemblance to Quick and Flupke, the protagonists of a comic series Hergé wrote from 1930 to 1940, before the war shut down Le Petit Vingtiéme, and that’s the best theory I’ve got for the identity of these kids. I may be pulling this out of my ass and overanalysing something that doesn’t need to be analysed, but to err is human, and I’ll take any chance I can get to pass as a human being.

The kids tell Tintin where they got the hat, which was from the general vicinity of the Pachacamac, a Peruvian ship delivering bird shit to Europe. The ship has since departing for Peru once again, and Tintin and Haddock immediately jump on a plane to beat it there. It would be deeply embarrassing if the hat had just blown there by accident and they flew all the way to Peru for nothing, but lucky for them, they have picked the right boat. And thus the story ends.

Where The Secret of the Unicorn is a story that can exist independently of Red Rackham’s Treasure and vice versa, this story leads directly into Prisoners of the Sun and doesn’t really work without it. I don’t mind this, but it’s hard for me to make any bold and definite statements about the quality of this story when I’ve only read half of it. I think it’s great, for the record. I love the setup and tone and I think it’s deeply sinister in a way that other Tintin books so far haven’t managed. Just like these books, though, my essay isn’t going to be complete without the second half.

So I’ll catch you next time.

Thanks for reading,

– Aмртоп

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