Ampton Reads: Destination Moon

For the third and final two-part story Hergé would write for the Tintin series, he was thinking big. He was going to take Tintin somewhere where no one had ever been, which is the ultimate adventure story. He was launching his boy reporter into space.

This was no small feat. Yuri Gargarin would not complete his orbit of Earth until 1961 and Neil Armstrong would not walk onto the moon until 1969, and while people had been theorising on when and how we would get to the moon for a long time, it was a whole other thing for a children’s comic author to try and write a technically accurate story about sending his main character on a lunar voyage.

Lucky for Hergé, he had enough recurring characters and fictional settings that coming up with this moon storyline wasn’t an enormous leap. Calculus had established himself in the preceding books as a versatile man of science, and Hergé had a few generic European countries in a rivalry with each other already, so he had no need to get political by mentioning the real-life space race or the Cold War. Since he was going to follow his previous formula for his two-parters, with the first book setting it all up and the second book containing the payoff, Syldavia and Borduria represented a great background for the first half of the story.

When will someone call me wonder-boy?

The very first version of this story was not written by Hergé. It was actually put together by Jacques van Melkebeke, Hergé’s friend, and Bernard Heuvelmans, the scientist friend of Hergé’s who helped him out with the solar eclipse in Prisoners of the Sun, and while it still featured a moon trip, the chief conflict of the story was that Professor Phostle (from The Shooting Star) had sold the secrets of the moon trip in exchange for a big diamond he could use to impress a famous actress from the time, Rita Hayworth. A couple of comedic scenes from this script were kept, but aside from that, the new story was redone from scratch.

Where did they get the idea for this story? I don’t know why Hergé originally decided to take Tintin to the moon, but the idea of space travel was popular and fascinating at the time, so it’s not exactly outlandish or original. He was planning to start work on this story in 1948, but dropped it in favour of Land of Black Gold in order to give himself a break. Hergé’s friends had already shown their love of Jules Verne, so we can probably name Around the Moon, his 1870 book about, well, going to the moon, as a probable influence. Said friends, including EP Jacobs and Heuvelmans, were deeply invested in science fiction at the time. Jacobs was working on his own science fiction story at the time, The Secret of the Swordfish, and Heuvalmans had written the non-fiction book Man Among the Stars in 1944. What I’m trying to say is that when Hergé started on this project, his friends would have been all over it, and their influence must be mentioned when trying to discuss this story.

The development of this story was marked by an increasing level of professionalism in Hergé’s creative process. The most important change made during this time was the founding of Studios Hergé in 1950, the company led by Hergé who would work together on writing, drawing, and producing all the Tintin adventures from this one onwards. This allowed Hergé to meet his deadlines while maintaining his own ridiculously high standards for publication. It’s a good thing he started this process with this book in particular, since I would argue that this two-parter possibly represents the zenith of his manic perfectionism. I’m going to talk about the scientific research Hergé poured into this story in the introduction to Explorers on the Moon, and only really focus on the writing and publication side of the two-parter in this introduction, in order to keep things tidy.

Soft…

This story began serialisation in the Tintin magazine from March 1950 to September 1950, a very short period of time in which to produce such a grand story. His newly founded studios were no doubt essential to creating this research-intensive story so quickly. However, the assistance of his friends was not enough to alleviate his stress, and by the end of this story he desperately needed a break. He was struggling with depression and illness once again, and took a holiday as soon as the story finished serialisation. Weeks in Switzerland did not do much to help, and in total he took eighteen months to recover well enough to begin Explorers on the Moon in April 1952. The break between the stories came so abruptly that people started a rumour that Hergé had died.

A lot happened with Hergé during his break. He went and hung out with the disgraced ex-king of Belgium, Leopold III, to commiserate on how the aftermath of the war had treated them both. He went and sat in a Native American teepee on the grounds of a monastery for a few weeks, trying to recapture whatever he had felt in his younger years as a boy scout and aspiring comic artist. He was a serious comic artist now, with his own studio and a huge audience, and he was still miserable. His marriage to his first wife was collapsing during this time period. They had originally met when they were both working at Le Petit Vingtieme and she had supported him energetically through his whole career, but the stress Hergé was constantly feeling was taking its toll, as well as the numerous affairs Hergé engaged in. During the break he hired a new assistant, Bob de Moor, who would stay with Hergé for a long time.

The collected volume of this story was published in 1953, with the most notable changes made being alterations to the colouring in some parts of the story. Scenes were deleted in order to improve the flow of the story, and it was translated into English by Methuen in 1959, meaning that it hit English-speaking audiences a decade before the actual moon landing in 1969. It’s this 1959 version of the story that I will be reading today.

AMPTON READS

The story opens with Haddock and Tintin getting to Marlinspike and finding out that Calculus is missing. Considering the fact that the last time he went missing he got taken to another continent so he could be sacrificed in an enormous pyre, they are understandably worried.

One thing I find interesting is that Haddock implies on the flight to Syldavia that neither he nor Tintin has ever been there. It’s true that Haddock hasn’t, but Tintin absolutely has. He spent a lot of time there and got to know the culture pretty well in King Ottokar’s Sceptre. I assumed that this was an artifact of translation, where Destination Moon came before King Ottokar’s Sceptre, but this isn’t true; DM was translated into English in 1959 and KOS 1958. And so I ask the audience my inevitable question: is this in the original French?

In the years since King Ottokar’s Sceptre, the humble nation of Syldavia has gone from a rural, pastoral country to a potential winner of the Space Race. We see Tintin and Haddock taken through multiple military checkpoints on their way to the Sprodj Atomic Research Centre, and helicopters fly overhead. The transition is due to the discovery of uranium within the country four years earlier, causing rapid industrialisation and possibly the installation of a democratic government, since we never hear anything about the king.

Haddock is well-utilised in this story, in my opinion. Harry Thompson points out that he makes a great foil for all the official and scientific bluster that is happening, since he at best pretends to understand the science and has little patience for all the military security around the Research Centre. I quite agree, and I think that were Haddock not here to keep things light and breezy, the story would grow too heavy under the weight of all the research Hergé is trying to inject into this book.

The jump forward in technology from previous books is noticeable in the early parts of this story. This book is the first one wholly written after World War II, and the jump forward in technology from Land of Black Gold is extremely noticeable. The cars are more modern, helicopters fly over, doors are automatic.

The other great change is that Calculus has started using an ear-trumpet. Not a hearing aid, mind you, since those are for deaf people and he’s just a little hard of hearing. I’ve discussed before how Calculus’s deafness is one of the traits that was key to him becoming a long-running character, since it makes him impervious to reality. I honestly regard the introduction of the ear-trumpet as a stroke of genius; we get to see a whole new side to Calculus, a much angrier one than before, which is expanding on a known character rather than introducing a new one for this story. Angry Calculus versus obstinate Haddock is quite the battle, since neither has much time for the other, and it’s this newly introduced conflict that pushes this story forward.

This is a beautiful image of the landscape. I love the pastel tones of the mountains, all layered on each other, with the buildings nestled between. Reminds me of my home (New Zealand), and our absolutely bitchin’ space program. Yes, we do have one.

The good news is that with the panels above, I’ve finally found the origin of this meme:

So Tintin and Haddock are roped into going to the moon. The things we do to support our friends.

In a moment of quick-witted comedy, Haddock and Calculus accidentally swap their pipe and ear trumpet around. Haddock attempts to light the ear trumpet later, starting a fire. I like this piece of comedy simply because Hergé put the effort into foreshadowing it and showing it in the background while other things were happening, showing the depth of his planning. The next morning, Tintin and Haddock are taken for a tour of the facility, and we get to see a beautiful shot of the area where the uranium is being processed:

It’s this panel, I think, which truly cements the shift into science fiction for this two-parter. The previous stories featured adventures, deserts, jungles, and foreign cultures; this one is firmly set in Europe in the present day, showcasing the glory of modern science. The adventure here is not of foreign lands but of the future. Wolff continues to explain the details of nuclear physics, and Haddock pretends to understand, acting as the reader avatar.

Calculus has built a smaller rocket that is designed to orbit the moon and take photographs of the far side as a test for the mechanics of the main rocket. This is not unlike the scale model of the rocket Hergé built (see my Explorers on the Moon piece for more detail). The problem is, it’s clear that someone is trying to sabotage the moon mission, and the night after their grand tour they have an unidentified plane fly over and drop parachutists into the Research Centre.

This is the point at which the Thompsons are introduced. I’ve heard it said by multiple critics that the moon duo represents the last hurrah for the Thompson twins, and they’re not wrong. The two are absent completely in Flight 714 and Tintin in Tibet, and their appearances are minor all stories following this one. I feel that the reason for this is that they were an artifact of a slightly older form of comedy and characterisation within the series; their predominant traits were being twins and being constantly confused, and they didn’t quite work into the later, more sophisticated forms of character comedy that Hergé was using by this time period. What’s more, since Haddock and Calculus appear so frequently, and since both of them make excellent bumblers, they weren’t strictly needed anymore in order to do slapstick. They get one last big appearance in this duo as a fantastic counterpoint to the deadly seriousness of a trip to the moon, and then slide into the background from here on out.

Another lovely shot of the mountains and the Research Centre. Tintin is hiking up because he believes he has discovered a key weakness in the security systems: an unguarded ventilation duct.

The scene with the bear cubs demanding Tintin’s honey sandwiches was actually made into a children’s book, shown below. You can find a copy here (Ebay link)

This clone of Tintin is summarily executed, but little do the bad guys know that he has many, many more. 

The bad guys succeed with their wicked plans, and the Research Centre launches the unmanned photography rocket only to find on its descent that the bad guys have taken control of it by intercepting the radio signal used to control it. While they don’t get their photos of the moon, they did watch the rocket perform perfectly, and the green light is given for the full scale rocket. Page 35 is given over to a scale blueprint of the rocket, and the story proceeds with showing all the stages of development required for the manned rocket, including testing of the suits they will be using to walk on the moon.

This is one occasion where Hergé got the science wrong on purpose. As you’re probably aware from photographs, real spacesuit helmets are not perfectly clear bubbles. This was a necessary sacrifice in order to ensure the heads of each character could be seen clearly, and to allow for emoting while they were wearing the suits. Otherwise, the suit is fairly accurate to suits we still use today, aside from the simplifications made in order to fit the comic style:

This is an image of Buzz Aldrin in his suit on the moon, or on the set of Stanley Kubrick’s faked moon landing, whatever floats your stoat.

And then the great showdown begins. Calculus rampages through the Research Centre, showing Haddock everything he has created, taking him through the rocket and giving him the world’s angriest tour, right up until he falls down a hatch and gives himself amnesia. I like this, too; as I’ve said, this story was constantly in danger of being weighed down too much by technical detail. Hergé both wanted and needed to include a tour of the rocket at some point, but without a framing device it may have ended up dry. Using Calculus’s anger, this tour turns into humour, as the formerly batty and harmless scientist turns into a veritable force of nature capable of lifting a grown man and hanging him from a coat hook. And then, at the end, he becomes even more batty and harmless than ever.

Just shoot your friend in the face. That helps with most problems.

Eventually Calculus recovers his memories because Haddock says he is acting the goat and Calculus becomes enraged all over again. Once he calms down he thanks Haddock for helping restore his memories. I doubt that I need to include a disclaimer about how amnesia and concussion doesn’t work like this, and how it is simply a commonly used plot device. If hitting your head made you lose your memories like this then my years as a horse rider would have wiped my mind blanker than a slate.

Things are tense as they prepare for liftoff. The countdown and takeoff make up the last five pages of the book, taking things slow, pondering their mortality and the risks involved. I like this as an ending to the story. All the plot threads have been started to make the second half a complex and engaging story. I’m going to keep reading and do the second half of the duo today because I genuinely want to keep going, and that’s pretty amazing considering how many times I have read this book.

Destination Moon is a great book. I would highly recommend you read it, or reread it, in order to genuinely appreciate the art and the technical details of this story. I do feel that most of the story is lost on kids – I know it was lost on me – and so in that respect, Destination Moon isn’t good. As a book for older children or adults, I love it. The story shows a degree of sophistication and forethought in its construction, characters, and use of humour that is a step above most previous books. The change of focus from adventure to science fiction is also done smoothly thanks to the work Hergé did in previous books to establish characters and settings.

On to part two.

-Aмртоп

2 thoughts on “Ampton Reads: Destination Moon

Add yours

  1. Hi! I loved your readthroughs but this page appears broken – I can’t see any images past the ‘Tintin and the Bears’ book cover

    Like

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