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Ampton Reads: Prisoners of the Sun

Let this essay began where the last left off, as promised. Tintin and Haddock need to rescue Calculus, and Hergé needs to wrap up this story with a grand adventure. He’d sent them off to Peru at the end of The Seven Crystal Balls, so now he needed something for them to do there.

Prisoners of the Sun was the first Tintin story fully published in the brand-new Tintin magazine along with a segment explaining the history and culture of the Inca people. It initially started strong, bringing considerable public excitement, but as the adventure wore on it experienced difficulties. The first was Hergé’s split with his assistant, EP Jacobs, over Jacobs’ desire to be credited as a co-creator in the series. The second was his mental health and overwork issues. He vanished in mid-1947 due to stress, spending some time at a Trappist monastery, and then followed this up with a holiday with his wife. Another disappearance followed in early 1948, when he may have been having an affair. Raymond LeBlanc, the guy who had vouched for Hergé in order to clear him to work again, got tired of this quickly. He had stuck his neck out for Hergé, and Hergé was behaving erratically, up to and including making plans to move to Argentina once he had finished Prisoners of the Sun.

LeBlanc brought Hergé by threatening to continue the story without him, which Hergé, with his perfectionist streak, couldn’t stand. In order to finish the story in this state Hergé collaborated with several of his peers to get the backgrounds done, and even paid writer Bernard Heuvelmans to help write the ending. In terms of influences, it’s widely believed that this book was inspired by Gaston Leroux’s 1915 novel Bride of the Sun, featuring the Inca and a solar eclipse. The general concept of European explorers discovering a lost city and hoodwinking the superstitious locals is a generic one, and it’s hard to find any one source for this aspect. The solar eclipse aspect was informed by Heuvelmans, a scientist, although Hergé later hated this plot point as he doubted that the Incas would actually be unaware of the nature of solar eclipses given how they were known for their excellent astronomy.

The idea of a lost South American city of gold was pretty persistent.

The story was published from September 1946, shortly after Hergé was cleared to work again, and continued until April 1948. He spent the whole time working out of the book Peru and Bolivia, written in 1880 by Charles Weiner, which contained a goldmine of accurate engravings showing the landscape, local culture, and building styles of the very locations he wanted to depict. In this way, the book might be the most accurate he’d managed to get to a culture he’d never seen before since The Blue Lotus, and certainly represented a huge leap forward from his last attempt to portray South American culture in The Broken Ear. Other sources, such as the material housed in the Cinquantenaire Museum, were used to back this up, and Hergé even had an authentic poncho made for his assistants to model.

In the end, Hergé never moved to Argentina, and I wish I could find more gossip on that front but I genuinely have no idea why he wanted to go and why he never did. Argentina was the home of a lot of former Nazis and collaborators, and whether this informed his decision or not is unknown, although it doesn’t look great in hindsight. His newfound affair that he may have started in 1948 could also have been a factor in his sticking around.

Prisoners of the Sun is nostalgic for me because my grandma only owned The Seven Crystal Balls and I was stuck rereading it over and over, wondering how they had rescued Calculus in the end, until I could finally rent it from a library while on holiday and learn its secrets. For this reason, it’s not a book I’m particularly familiar with, and I’m looking forward to reading it again.

The version of this book I’ll be reading today is the 1962 English translation by Methuen. There were a few minor edits made to the story for publication in book form, most of which involved removing slapstick scenes and other sequences that were not of narrative importance, like Haddock chewing coca or discovering gold. Fortunately, through this essay, you can learn that Haddock did in fact use cocaine in this book. Lucky you!


We start strong, with a summary of the previous book’s events and a very particular map. This map was what lead to Prisoners of the Sun being banned from publication in Peru, for the simple crime of depicting a contested piece of land as belonging to Ecuador and not Peru. This was apparently enough to see this book banned.

I find this interesting, as some other countries who have been featured in Tintin books have been really excited about it. The most notable and weird example of this is how Tintin in the Congo is actually pretty popular in the Congo despite it being a horrible depiction of their nation. The rationale is that seeing yourself shown poorly in a famous series like Tintin is better than not being shown at all. Similarly, The Blue Lotus is pretty popular in Japan, and it isn’t generous towards the Japanese. Tibet also owes Tintin a surprising debt since the country was not well-known in the west before Hergé set the book there, which is something I’ll address when I get to that book. But nope, Prisoners of the Sun hasn’t enjoyed the same popularity in Peru, all over a map Hergé drew on the first page.

We can already see the fruits of Hergé’s labours into portraying the local culture, with these accurate depictions of Peruvian ponchos. We also get to see the genesis of Haddock’s vendetta against llamas, a running joke through this book that’s one of the funniest, in my opinion. Haddock’s short temper versus a tetchy animal that can’t be reasoned with and will spit on whoever pisses them off. Top tier comedy, right there.

Fuck, I love when Hergé draws night time silhouettes.

To summarise, they were going to intercept the boat with Calculus on it, but the boat was quarantined outside of port, and this call was made by an indigenous Peruvian doctor. Tintin is immediately suspicious of this, since all Quechua people know each other. I understand what the story is going for here, but it would be genuinely hilarious if Tintin caught yellow fever as a direct consequence of this assumption.

Tintin sneaks aboard in his usual fashion and finds Calculus there, who put on a bracelet belonging to Rascar Capac and is now cursed to sleep until he gets murdered by Alcazar’s assistant from the last book, Chiquito. I haven’t taken Spanish since high school, but as far as I can tell, all the Spanish parts of the dialogue are pretty correct. Was that present in the original French version or was the Spanish added in the English version? Someone more multilingual than me is welcome to speak up here.

I know I’ve made fun of the lack of backgrounds in Hergé’s earlier works and particularly The Broken Ear a lot, but that was so I could admire his later work and the skill he gained. Look at the delicately drawn backgrounds in each of these panels; they’re complicated and simple at the sample time, never detracting from the action while adding so much narrative to each panel. It’s delightful.

I also appreciate how Haddock says “‘phone box” with an apostrophe at the start, to indicate it’s been shortened. I’ve never used a phone box before. How times change.

It’s here, I assume, that Hergé getting his friends to model the poncho he had made came in handy. I mostly included these panels to admire the drawings of cactuses and the beautiful mountain vista.

The two of them catch a ride on the railway that boasts being the highest above sea level of any railway in the world, and Chiquito and co. attempt to kill them off. This is the source material for the animation that runs on loop in my head as I sleep each night, the beginning of the Tintin cartoon opening:

This music fucking slaps and you can’t convince me otherwise.

This book is also notable for the inclusion of Zorrino. He is frequently compared to Chang, since he’s a sympathetic local child that Tintin stands up for and ends up befriending. He’s part of a cast of child characters that also includes Abdullah and could possibly include Coco from Tintin in the Congo if you accept that Coco has no real personality. Unlike many other comics of the time, including comics that Hergé himself was writing, the Tintin series has usually steered clear of including child characters, and I think that gives the series some of its unique flavour. It’s an adult-dominated adventure, with guns and wounds and aerial dogfights, and without the need to avoid harming the protagonist Hergé can keep it simple and serious.

Tintin rescues Zorrino, and a local Quechua guy sees this and points him in the right direction to find Calculus. Zorrino is made their guide, which is a big job for a small kid. Zorrino comments that if he’s seen helping them, his fellow Quechua will murder him. This made me curious about what the political situation was like in Peru in 1948, particularly regarding the Quechua people.

The Quechua are the indigenous people of Peru, who are unified by speaking Quechua, the language, and include the Inca as well as a wide range of other ethnic groups. The Inca empire controlled most of Peru and the surrounding areas until the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century. Peru achieved independence from Spain in the 19th century. However, by this time the indigenous people and their land rights had been ripped away, and today the Quechua are still trying to get back control and ownership over their land.

At the time of writing in 1946, Peru was enjoying a peaceful post-war government and the beginnings of economic and social development. In 1948, shortly after the ending of the story, the government was overthrown by a military coup and a right-wing president, Manuel Odria, took control of the country, ushering in a period characterised by high corruption and poor civil rights. Peru was thus in a politically transitional period. The census taken in 1940 indicates that the population of the country was around seven million people, 46% of which identified themselves as Amerindian, although despite having roughly equal numbers with the European and Mestizo population of the country, they had limited influence on local and national politics and were regarded as second-class citizens, as Prisoners of the Sun showsl

Like many indigenous peoples in the Americas, Tintin assumes the Inca people are something straight out of the history books, when in reality their descendants are fighting hard today to hold onto their culture and their history. Many of them died from colonial influence, especially smallpox, but that’s no reason to pretend that the Quechua people aren’t alive right now and today. This is a particular subject of frustration for me as a citizen of New Zealand, as the Māori and their land and rights are still under attack here. Just thought I’d throw that in there.

Another of Hergé’s neat dream sequences. It’s one of the few occasions his writing slips into bizarreness or fantasy, and it makes a fantastic shift from the normal tone of the books. When Tintin wakes up, Zorrino is long gone and Haddock has been tied up. All their supplies including their weapons are gone, and they have to find the party that kidnapped Zorrino and free him.

They get attacked by a couple of Andean condors after rescuing Zorrino. As a biologist, I would like to criticise this; firstly, Andean condors are scavengers, like most condors, and they would have no real interest in bothering a group of humans that wandered past. Secondly, one of the condors picks Snowy up and carries him away, but condors aren’t well-adapted for attacking with their talons or lifting things, as they usually eat their food where they find it and don’t cache or store food for later. Hergé does, however, get the scale right, as Andean condors are fucking massive and terrifying, which was probably the part he cared about more than the condor’s gripping capacity.

Incidentally, the Andean condor is extremely important to the Quechua people, and plays an important role in their culture and folktales. The condor is also key to a celebration called the Yawar Fiesta, in which a condor is caught and tied to a bull. As the bull rages, the condor attacks it in self-defence until the bull dies from its wounds, and the condor is freed if it survives. The condor symbolises the indigenous people of the Andes and the bull symbolises the Spanish. If the condor lives and the bull dies, then that’s good luck, but if the condor dies, you’re in the shit. It’s certainly a novel take on bullfighting.

The good captain then, I shit you not, commits manslaughter by snowball. He starts an avalanche by being too noisy, much like in Tintin in Tibet (which these scenes also resemble aesthetically) and starts rolling down the mountain towards the Quechua who kidnapped Zorrino, who get caught too. I like to hope that they survived plunging off that huge cliff.

They enter an area of jungle and get savaged by the local wildlife for a while, including tapirs, bears, anteaters, pythons, alligators, and howler monkeys. I assume the python is an anaconda, the anteater is a giant anteater (although it looks a bit funky!), and the tapir is a Brazilian tapir. I assume that what they call ‘alligators’ are caimans, since alligators only live in North American and China, and these ones are really big, so they’re probably black caimans. The bear is presumably a spectacled bear, since those are the only kind living in the Andes, but if this is true then Hergé doesn’t quite get its appearance right; spectacled bears are a dark colour, with short faces and, usually, distinctive white facial markings that give it its common name, as shown below:

The bear Hergé drew looks more like a North American bear than the spectacled bear on the right. Or perhaps I’m being pedantic.

Tintin also slaughters the anaconda and one of the caimans. At least it’s in self-defence and he’s not just killing for the hell of it like in Tintin in the Congo.

They continue on to discover a back door into the Temple of the Sun, hidden behind a waterfall, and pick their way through it by the light of phosphorescent rocks. I’m a biologist, not a geologist, so I can’t tell you anything much about them, but this route takes them through an old tomb and right up to the wall of the temple.

Chiquito is here, as well as the guy who helped Tintin by getting Zorrino to guide him, so Zorrino gets off with life’s imprisonment in the temple instead of what’s going to happen to Haddock, Tintin, and Calculus, which is death by pyre. But, they’re allowed one luxury, which is getting to pick the day and hour of their execution, within the next month. Exceptionally generous. I’m uncertain whether this practice was one that actually exists within the Inca people or whether Hergé created it for the purpose of this story.

And then, finally, after so much waiting and biding my time, I get the opportunity to use this clip:

This still kills me every time.

Tintin does calisthenics for the next eighteen days while Haddock has a mental breakdown over his apparent future execution and the Thompsons wander the world searching for them. When the day comes, Tintin, Haddock, and Calculus are bound to stakes in ceremonial robes, and right before they burn, Tintin pretends to converse with the sun god while an eclipse occurs.

This is, of course, the scene that bothered Hergé years after the fact, since the Inca knew their astronomy very well and wouldn’t have been particularly surprised when this occurred. I would love for a better artist than I to draw a version of this scene where the Inca don’t react to the eclipse, and then they make fun of Tintin for thinking he can take advantage of their naivete.

And look, I get what Hergé was going for here, he was trying to say that cultural sharing is a good thing, but I can’t help but feel like if someone came and dug up my dead relatives and took their collection of antique shaving mugs to a museum on the other side of the world then my annoyance at the people claiming they’re sharing my culture would be justified.

We finally get a bit of closure on the events of the previous book, since Tintin is now on equal level with the Inca leader. It turns out that the crystal balls were filled with a mysterious coca extract, and I’m aware there are more active compounds in coca than just cocaine, but the idea that all of this happened because someone physically travelled all the way to Europe to hotbox these guy’s houses with cocaine gas is funny, so that’s how I’ll describe it. Once the explorers were knocked out, a magical spell was cast over them so that they could be tortured through their wax effigies; I’m also not sure if Hergé made this up or if it has some precedent in Incan history.

Zorrino decides to stay with his fellow Quechua in the temple, and Tintin and Haddock have to pinkie promise to not tell anyone else about the temple’s existence and that it’s full of immeasurable riches. Calculus still has no real idea what is going on, and they make their way back to society.

And that’s the end of Prisoners of the Sun. It’s quite the adventure, covering an extensive time period and a lot of ground. I’m a big fan of the diverse landscapes they explore and the wealth of exotic animals they show, as well as a lot of commitment to the cultural setting. I feel it’s one of the Tintin books most rich in the adventure of being in a totally new place, especially because as time goes on, Hergé focuses on this aspect of his writing less; after this book, I would say that only Explorers on the Moon and Tintin in Tibet share the same enthusiasm for exploration.

The story has more continuity with the previous part than Red Rackham’s Treasure did with The Secret of the Unicorn, but I found the lack of explanation of the mystery in the previous part a little frustrating. The Secret of the Unicorn worked to wrap up all of its hanging plotlines before the next part, which in many ways was an advantage over Prisoners of the Sun. Here, we begin the story with many mysteries, but the greater portion of these are not addressed until the last five pages or so of the whole book, meaning that I was constantly waiting for an explanation that didn’t come. The disappearance of Rascar Capac is never addressed in this book, and I assume he was brought back to the Temple of the Sun, but I don’t know. Did Alcazar know that Chiquito was just in Europe to cocaine-bomb the explorers? What was the deal there? Harry Thompson says that he feels the danger of the unknown adversary moves well between The Seven Crystal Balls and Prisoners of the Sun, but I disagree; we know the bad guys are Quechua doing something freaky from the start, and the actual nature of the threat doesn’t end up being relevant to the resolution of this story.

I also don’t particularly feel like this story introduces any strong or memorable characters. Zorrino is cute, for sure, but he lacks the substance and realness that Chang had, and just serves as a way of getting Tintin to the temple and proving he’s one of the good whites. Calculus, at his ditziest, also doesn’t add too much to this story, and I feel like Haddock ends up doing a lot of carrying here due to being the guy getting in trouble and trying desperately to get out of it.

So, in summary, I thought the work Hergé put into the setting for this story is fantastic and creates one of the more beautiful of Tintin’s adventures, but that the rest of the story doesn’t quite live up to the setting and the previous part of the story. This review’s getting awful long, so I’ll wrap it up with my traditional jab at whatever Jean-Marie Apostolidès thought about this book:

Commenting on Tintin’s dream sequence in which he dreams of Calculus, Haddock, and the Thompsons, Apostolidès believed that it reflected a “latent homosexual desire”, comparing it with the dream sequence in The Crab with the Golden Claws.

Wikipedia, 5/07/19, 1:00am.

Make of this what you will.


One thought on “Ampton Reads: Prisoners of the Sun

Add yours

  1. That’s really interesting about not publishing the book in Peru…surely they could have replaced the map with some text to say that Tintin and Haddock have arrived in Callao? Strange…
    I haven’t heard of Bride of the Sun.I’d always assumed Herge was influenced by King Solomon’s Mines which also uses the eclipse device.
    I especially loved this book as a child, it seemed like the ultimate Tintin adventure in every way. I still love it now despite its flaws. Agree that the mystery is solved in a more satisfactory way in the Unicorn/Rackham duo, but Prisoners of the Sun has the better artwork and packs so much action into its 62 pages.
    I loved that animated version of the viaduct jump, with Snowy’s terrified face plummeting towards the camera…wierdly, the same scene seems a bit understated in the book. I think Herge should have included a double-height panel to show the full height of the aqueduct.
    There’s a strange continuity error in the Magnet editions that I own…one of the explorers is called “Mark Falconer” in the Seven Crystal Balls, but the same guy is addressed as “Carling” at the end of Prisoners of th Sun…anyone else notice that?


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