Land of Black Gold is the Tintin book with the most chaotic publishing history, hands-down. The first version began publication right after King Ottokar’s Sceptre, during the period in which Tintin was flying solo and was throwing himself right into world politics, and the second version wasn’t started until Hergé had gone through the war and spent a few years barred from working. The tone, direction, and characters of the story had changed significantly during the decade between versions, making the rewrite of this story difficult.
Version one of Land of Black Gold was written between 1939 and 1940, while Belgium was fighting with the Allies. During this period of publication, Hergé was stationed in Antwerp with the army and then discharged due to his bouts of psychosomatic illness. Set in Europe on the eve of war, Tintin is investigating tampering of the fuel supply, which could bring down the Allies, and the story ended on a cliffhanger in 1940 when Belgium was invaded and the newspapers were shut down. This ending occurs on page 27 of the current version, and depicts Tintin about to die, buried up to his neck in sand.
Hergé was never particularly enthusiastic about finishing Land of Black Gold. He hadn’t been particularly proud of the story to begin with and it likely reminded him of the pain of the early war. However, he was still struggling with illness and disenfranchisement, and in order to keep producing material consistently he needed to reduce his workload. Rewriting an old work represented less of a challenge than starting a new project from scratch. However, as I stated above, the last decade had changed the status quo of the series more than any other time period of Tintin, and making the old parts of the story contiguous with the old was no mean feat.
Herge eventually decided to address these problems by largely not addressing them, which was an interesting creative decision. He maintained the same setting and time period of the original story, meaning that it was set in a time where Europe was on the brink of war, rather than in the aftermath of it, and he had Haddock get called up to serve in the Navy so that Hergé would not have to integrate him into the story. The Thompsons get to keep their significant screentime here, a last hurrah before their final significant story appearance in the moon duo.
First, the setting. Land of Black Gold originally took place. in the British Mandate for Palestine, a state that existed from 1923 under British control until 1948, when the state of Israel was declared. Ergo, the original story was set in a country that no longer existed by the time the second version of the story finished serialisation. The British Mandate for Palestine was formed after the British captured the region of Palestine during World War I. The British originally moved into the area to ostensibly support the Arab uprising against the Ottoman Empire, but instead of handing it over to the Arabs after the war, it was included in the divvying of ex-Ottoman regions by the Europeans, a decision which did not make the Arabs who had fought for its freedom very happy. The British were also honouring an agreement they had signed in 1917, the Balfour Declaration, in which they stated their intention to assist the Jewish people in creating their own home state in Palestine.
The cited reason for European countries taking control of these regions was to support a transition of power from the now-defunct empire to independent rule, but in practice Britain held onto Palestine even through multiple uprisings from its people and a whole civil war in 1947 that eventually led to the formation of the state of Israel and kicked off a whole pile of further trouble that shan’t be discussed here. Probably the most important point from all of this is that in 1939, when Hergé first starting writing this story, the country was relatively stable, and by 1948, when he took it up again, the country was besieged by conflict.
The German villain of this story, Dr Müller could stay, since German villains were still fair game, and the original plot didn’t need much updating either. I doubt Hergé had to reach very far to come up with the idea of enemies sabotaging the fuel supply in order to hamstring the good guys. The use of oil was superseding coal during this time period and causing great leaps forward in technology. During World War I, the Allies ‘floated to victory on a sea of oil’, and British motivations in tampering with other countries in this time period were usually motivated at least partly by a need to make up for their own lack of oil resources. During World War II, an entire campaign was carried out by the Allies to sabotage German oil supply lines. No doubt Hergé was very aware that those who controlled the oil supply, controlled the power.
Hergé filled his real setting with mostly fictional characters, contributing some of the best-known side characters of the series, and I say this because I’ve always had a soft spot for Abdullah and his father. They were based on real people, at least in appearance; Emir Ben Kalish Ezab was based on the king of Saudi Arabia at the time, and Abdullah was based on Faisal II, the king of Iraq from 1939-1958, who was crowned at age four.
With his plan made for the conclusion of Land of Black Gold, Hergé restarted the story from scratch, redrawing all the material that had been published before the war. The art style had changed and he was now colouring all his work as he went, so it needed updating, and starting from the beginning fixed continuity issues and allowed readers to catch up on a story that had been abandoned eight years prior. This publication ran from September 1948 until February 1950 in the Tintin magazine. Rather than producing two full pages a week as he had with Prisoners of the Sun, he kept the heat off a little by publishing one page of Land of Black Gold a week accompanied by one page a week of one of his side comics, Jo, Zette, & Jocko. As was typical during this time period, he vanished in 1949 for twelve weeks, taking a holiday in Switzerland. This, unsurprisingly, pissed off his production staff back home, and exacerbated tensions between him and his boss, Raymond LeBlanc, which would lead Hergé to form Studios Hergé to help him with production and hold him accountable for the next book in the series, Destination Moon. More on that next time.
For the English translation, which was published in 1972, Herge was asked by his British publishers to modernise the book. This followed the publication of The Black Island, which had also undergone significant modernisation. Herge agreed, changing the setting to a fictional country named Khemed, and creating fictional places and characters using the same trick he had in the past, by using Marollien words to make them sound familiar yet foreign to French speakers. Examples of this include Wadesdah, Marollien for ‘What is that?’ and Bab el Her, Marollien for ‘Chatterbox’ or ‘Babbler’. There’s even a town called Hasch Ababibabi (Hush-a-bye baby). He removed most of the political elements, took out the Hebrew writing on shopfronts, and corrected the fake Arabic script he had used to the real deal. Pages 1-6 and 19-27 in this last version are all that remains of the story Hergé started 1939.
Today I’m going to be reading this 1972 version, since it’s the only one in English. I feel this is almost a pity since I would love to see the version set in the real world and displaying the political tensions of the 1939 setting. If anyone knows the whereabouts of a pre-1972 version, even in French, hit me up, I’d love to skim through it.
My knowledge of how the rewrite of Land of Black Gold was announced means that I don’t know whether the general audience knew it was a rewrite of a story dropped some years earlier. Although this would be obvious to adults who had survived the war, the original child audience of the first publication would have grown up significantly and a new batch of children would be reading Tintin this time around. Considering how Tintin likes to situate itself in the real world, I hope those kids didn’t think war was breaking out all over again!
Another great night scene by Hergé, and what we can only assume was the end of the weekly update, given the contrived cliffhanger. Land of Black Gold still retains the marks of Hergé’s pre-war writing style in many ways; it’s not as sleek or efficient as his later works, especially in having gags and side plots that distract from the story or otherwise alter the tone of the book. That said, it’s also the only Tintin book to ever really mention or discuss World War II, and that’s worthy of mention.
In this story, the war is on the verge of breaking out, and Tintin is constantly seeking out updates on the political situation. The oil situation needs to be resolved quickly because defects in the oil supply could cripple Belgium’s ability to defend itself. Tintin is visibly anxious about the political situation and Haddock has been called up to serve, presumably in the British Navy. Since every other book Hergé wrote during the war was under German watch and avoided politics like the plague, this might be the only insight in the series into Hergé’s actual feelings towards the war.
Tintin and the Thompsons are stopped before they even reach the Khemed capital of Khemikhal (haha). An enemy spy was lurking on the ship, and set them up by planting incriminating materials in their living spaces, including what seems to be an entire brick of heroin in the Thompsons’ cabin. The details for an arms shipment bound for Bab El Ehr, an insurgent, are planted in Tintin’s workspace. And then the guy gave himself a nasty head injury and peaced out of the whole situation, an enviable action in that political climate.
This is, of course, very different from the first two versions of the story. In the 1948 version, the ship is pulling into the port at Haifa when they are picked up by guards from the British regime and brought ashore. The ‘good guys’ of this story were the regime of the British Mandate for Palestine,, which included Ben Kalish Ezab and the British overseers of the country. The bad guys in the story were the Irgun and the Lehi, who opposed the British working with the local Arabic population to restrict Jewish immigration, as well as Bab El Ehr, and, of course, Dr Müller. Despite the events of World War II, the Irgun and Lehi remained a fair target, considering these two groups were violent extremists and had been responsible for both the Deir Yassin massacre and the bombing of the King David Hotel in the previous few years.
The comparison above does a good job in highlighting the differences. Note the script above the shop window and the ethnicity and dress of the guards, both of which were changed when the setting was fictionalised. The plot remained much the same across all three versions, with the changes in players and time periods constituting most of the differences. I do feel that with the removal of the Irgun and Lehi, both real and serious threats to Tintin’s activities in the British Mandate for Palestine, Hergé had to fall back on a somewhat dull characterisation with Bab El Ehr. He comes across to me as little more than a pile of stereotypes about what bad Arabic men are probably like.
The desert jeep scenes with the Thompsons are probably my absolute favourite mishap they get into. The top middle panel had me actually laughing out loud, which isn’t something I do often when I’m sitting alone staring at a computer screen.
The art in this book isn’t quite as much of a tourism brochure for the area like the previous book, but I still really like the way Hergé goes about the lighting and shadows in this story. There are a lot of sequences taking place at night or in places like the desert where the sun is rising or falling, and I think Hergé’s greatest strength in this book is capturing those differing light levels.
It’s on page 27, after Tintin has discovered the presence of Dr Müller, that the first version stopped publication for the war. Tintin was about to die in a sandstorm, and it was there he was left until Hergé started work on The Crab With The Golden Claws. In the modern version, he’s saved from a bullet in the head by the Thompsons driving by.
It’s shortly after this point in the story that we are introduced to Ben Kalish Ezab. I’ve explained his origins above, but the Tintinologist Harry Thompson drew another link between Ben Kalish Ezab and Abdullah, and another character of Hergé’s, the Mahajarah of Gopal from the Jo, Zette & Jocko adventure The Valley of the Snakes shown below. The Maharajah was a childish man, obsessed with toys and being a pain in the ass, and it seems Abdullah represents a similar character type with the addition of an adoring father to excuse his many sins.
The story continues from here with the kidnapping of Abdullah and Tintin’s investigations into Dr Müller, as he meets his old friend Oliviera de Figueira once again. The struggle in this second half is as much dealing with the poorly-behaved Abdullah as it is with defeating Dr Müller and the oil companies. Haddock turns up out of nowhere and without explanation in a way that the story even dryly jokes about:
And I’ll forgive Hergé for this, only because Haddock’s short temper versus Abdullah’s ridiculousness is a showdown for the ages. The story gets a little dark in the scenes where Müller first points his gun right in Abdullah’s face, and then once he’s beaten, turns the gun on himself – only to reveal at the last moment that Abdullah has replaced his gun with one that shoots ink. The Thompsons pick up a tube of aspirin they find on the ground and take some, which is my first reaction to finding random medication around the place as well. It’s through the Thompsons poisoning themselves and developing amazing technicolour beards that we finally found out that Müller was responsible for spiking the oil supply way back at the start with this mysterious material.
So, in the end, the oil supply is rendered safe once again, and in the process Tintin has prevented the outbreak of the war that has been looming over the whole story. Müller is arrested, and Abdullah is back being a pain in the ass at home. If only Tintin could have prevented World War II. His inability to do so is probably his greatest flaw.
Overall, I do feel this story noticeably suffers from its messy history. The multiple antagonists, and the fact that one (the Jewish terrorist groups) was removed from the story at a later date mean that the plot of the story and the central conflict feels undirected and confusing. There are a few golden scenes, namely the rescue of Abdullah and the Thompsons driving in the desert, but these are framed by confusing plot threads that don’t really go anywhere. I respect the effort it took for Hergé to produce three different versions of this story, and I suspect that I would probably like the second version more for its real-world setting and political bite, but as is, this one doesn’t speak to me.
One of the most modern parts of the story has to be the focus on character comedy. As I’ve mentioned, Hergé was forced to shift into this character-driven style when politics became off-limit to him, and this transition occurred between the first and second versions of this book. The new characters and the pre-existing cast are used really well in their brief moments to shine during a lackluster plotline. This will never happen, since his current publishers wouldn’t allow it, but I would love to see a version of this book that takes the best elements from each of the versions and maintains a political edge.
To sign off for today, I’ve included a snippet I found on the official Tintin website that made me laugh:
Thank goodness the presence of this one lady, who appears only in this panel, absolves the Tintin series of any accusations made regarding misogyny.