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Ampton Reads: The Calculus Affair

For me, The Calculus Affair along with Tintin and the Picaros occupy the somewhat weird positions of being Tintin books I didn’t read until I was pretty much an adult. My grandmother owned most of the books, and the ones she didn’t own were available to loan from the library near the bach we stayed at in summer, so my yearly thrill was getting to read the secret other Tintin and Asterix books that I couldn’t normally get my hands on. This book and Tintin and the Picaros were the two which weren’t at either place, so I’m reading this story without my usual sweet tinge of childhood nostalgia.

Hergé was not quite done with science fiction after the moon duo, and it wasn’t finished with him either. If the previous story dealt with the soaring joy of future technology, then The Calculus Affair focused more on the ethics and societal consequences of developing technology that could kill millions. The sonic weapon in The Calculus Affair is an unsubtle metaphor for the nuclear bomb and the Cold War. Countries are desperately trying to get their hands on a super weapon that can destroy cities, and Europe is quietly and violently feuding because of it. With this political situation came a new generation of political thriller stories, and that was the genre that Hergé was attempting to emulate. If it helps set the scene, the first James Bond novel was published in 1953.

The concept for this story probably came to Hergé quite easily. As I said, the story is a mirror of world events at the time. The 1950s were a time period marked by nuclear testing from many countries and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not long in the past. What’s more, a weapon similar to the one in this story had been under development by the Nazis during the war, although it hadn’t gone anywhere. The final spark of inspiration came from a magazine article that Hergé had read that suggested that an epidemic of cracked windscreens near Portsmouth in England had been caused by secret weapons testing. In order to develop this concept, he hit up Armand Delsemme, a Belgian physicist and astronomer, and the two of them worked together on how he would represent this superweapon in fiction.

Always wanting the moon, haha.

Despite the depths that the previous story goes to in exploring future technology, this story has more of a focus on the moral and ethical responsibilities of the scientist in creating technology. In the previous books, the tech developments are a force of nature and humanity must go to the moon; in this book, whether or not we should have invented the tech at all is called into question. The previous book was a masterpiece of research, but here Hergé shows his thoughts on the ethics of it all. Despite this, however, Hergé avoids politics in this book with the force of a man once burned, and he avoids much commentary on the totalitarian regimes he depicts in this book.

As far as setting goes, Hergé was lucky enough to already have two European countries with a longstanding grudge against each other and access to modern technology. He also had a scientist who would absolutely design a superweapon out of curiosity, and one who could be kidnapped and passed around by the bad guys while remaining largely unbothered. This time around, he needed to show how Borduria had changed during the war, and drew from Eastern Bloc countries from the time. The secret police, led by new character Colonel Sponz, were modelled on the Soviet KGB. Syldavia and Borduria are both portrayed negatively, as desperate to obtain a weapon of mass destruction, which is an interesting turnaround from the previous story, which showed Syldavia working peacefully on nuclear research with the cooperation and assistance of other countries. It also represented yet another shift from King Ottokar’s Sceptre, which showed Syldavia as a peaceful and pleasant pastoral nation. I assume it was simply a matter of changing the setting to match the story, without too much concern for continuity, although it could also be seen as a commentary on the kind of political and social upheaval that had been happening in Europe over the last decade or two.

This story was the first one fully produced by Studios Hergé. The presence of a team allowed Hergé to maintain creative control of his story while still indulging his desire for pedantic accuracy. He would do multiple sketches of each panel and then pick the one he liked best, draw the characters, and have his assistants work with him on the backgrounds and colouring. With the end of the moon duo, Hergé had finished doing two-parters, and every adventure from here onwards would be a standalone.

Although if he saw this, Hergé might have just shut the whole operation down.

This story was published from December 1954 to February 1956. Hergé had taken a year’s break before starting on this adventure, during which he had released the collected versions of the moon duo, cleaned up for publication. For the first time since Red Rackham’s Treasure, it was serialised in one continuous go without Hergé vanishing or taking breaks or being arrested. It was published by Casterman into a single volume in 1956, and was translated into English in 1960 by Methuen, which is the version I’m reading today. This was one of the quickest turnarounds from publication in French to publication in English.

One thing I can consistently say about Hergé’s writing is that the man knew how to open a story. His ability to set up the tone of a story and draw in the reader is excellent. In most cases, he does this by having the story start slightly after the plotline has begun, so that the earliest parts of the story feature the main characters trying to catch what’s going on and maybe solve a mystery or two. It’s a great way to start a story with some momentum.

In this story, we’re introduced to Haddock and Tintin’s daily life around Marlinspike as they head out for a walk. Haddock muses on how he’d like to retire from a lifetime of crazy shit, which is tempting fate, so directly afterwards some crazy shit keeps happening. A storm gets up, and during the storm glass and china objects shatter at random. This opening sequence also introduces the Marlinspike phone number mixup and the constant incoming calls aiming to catch Cutts the Butcher, which gets used to comedic effect in both this book and later ones.

Also, some dude is spying on them from the bushes, but what’s the chance that he has anything to do with the plot?

The setup of the mystery is probably my favourite part of this story. During a storm, where the light is gloomy and the cast are on edge, glass and china start shattering, which is apparently unrelated to the storm. Windows, mirrors, and precious items like china vases are being destroyed and the main characters are helpless to prevent it. It’s fascinating, because ‘glass and china break’ is a relatively simple concept but one that targets the upper-class protagonists very effectively, since glass and china are the domain of the wealthy.

This book introduces us to Jolyon Wagg, insurance salesman, as a force of pure annoyance. Hergé disliked salesmen and used Jolyon Wagg as a humorous outlet for this frustration, much as he utilised other characters to poke fun at other kinds of people that he found annoying.

It’s really amazing how Hergé manages to establish the entirety of Wagg’s character in just a few panels. He’s annoying, sure, but a very specific kind of annoying that I swear digs deep into some animalistic part of mind and sets loose the purest rage. I will credit Hergé for the fact that he was able to write characters with a relatively short list of personality traits or who exist as stereotypes, like Jolyon Wagg, but still fit them into his nuanced stories without them ever seeming too out of place. Bianca Castafiore is a jab at the kind of people in opera who Hergé found exhausting, but she’s also a character with a lot to contribute to the stories she appears in. I also love the panels below for the subtle character work they do:

Haddock and Tintin are driven from their home by shattering glass and gawkers come to observe said glass, and driven towards Geneva, Switzerland in pursuit of Calculus, who is possibly in danger. In this book, Calculus is attending a conference on nuclear physics, and in the absence of his ear trumpet he has reverted to his generally benign and clueless state. As I’ve said previously, Calculus’s variable deafness is the perfect tool for making him a smart, capable character while being so oblivious he can be neither reasoned with or brought to understand the reality of a situation.

This story spends a significant amount of time in Switzerland, which as you may be aware is a real place. Hergé tried to reproduce Switzerland and more precisely Geneva as accurately as he could without actually going there, relying instead on large amounts of reference material. The hotel that Calculus was staying in, Hotel Cornavin, still exists despite extensive renovation, and there is a room 122 there (the same as Calculus’s room), although they report that Tintin fans keep stealing the key from it. The villa that gets blown up by a massive explosion is also a real place, albeit not one that has experienced an explosion.

Tintin and Haddock must try and find Calculus, who is safe for the minute but just outside their grasp. It’s this part of the story that is most like a classic detective thriller as the protagonists as quietly pursued by mysterious agents, and the overarching mystery of what was causing the glass shattering remains unsolved.

This panel in the middle really stuck with me since the expression of the driver is much more emotive than Hergé normally draws. Hergé’s drawing style is static, with each panel an artwork on its own without messy transitionary panels. This makes his art very beautiful to look at, but often lacking in any feeling of energy or movement.

Tintin and Haddock finally get some answers. They go to the house of someone Calculus was intending to visit, but the house is concerningly empty, and full of clues that continue to build the atmosphere of rising danger. This right here is also the only time that World War II is explicitly mentioned in any Tintin book. This is a real book, by the way, and Leslie E. Simon is a real historian. That’s the correct cover of the book (originally published in 1947) barring the omission of a swastika that was in the centre of the book’s cover. This book has since become a collector’s item due to its inclusion in this Tintin story.

Eventually they find Calculus’s friend, Topolino (the Italian name for Mickey Mouse), tied up in the basement, and we learn that Calculus never arrived to his meeting. Borduria is finally mentioned properly, since Topolino’s servant hails from there.

And then they all died.

Haddock survives and locates a clone of Tintin so they can continue on their adventures. Throughout all of this, Snowy has been determined to keep a hold on Calculus’s distinctive black umbrella, no matter the cost. They head to the Bordurian Embassy to try and see how that fits into the whole picture.

Honestly I mostly just included these panels because I enjoy Hergé’s drawing of night scenes. The scrap was between Bordurian and Syldavian agents, both attempting to take Calculus for themselves. The Syldavians end up winning, and Tintin and Haddock take that helicopter and use it to pursue Calculus’s abductors, first in a boat, and then in a car. It contains one of my favourite parts of the book, where they attempt to radio for help, only to get Jolyon Wagg, insurance salesman. They can’t convince Wagg that they’re actually in a helicopter chase and need help.

I like this as a device because Hergé’s art style wouldn’t lend itself well to a silent, white-knuckled chase scene, and adding this extra element lets Haddock angrily but humorously narrate the scene.

They lose Calculus, and he’s flown away in a Syldavian plane. Later, they see a news article saying that the plane was shot down for violating Borduria’s airspace. Calculus is back in Bordurian hands. As I explained in my introduction, the friendly, open Syldavia depicted in the previous book is absent here. Haddock and Tintin head to Borduria to try and find their wonder boy.

To develop the nation of Borduria, Hergé borrowed aesthetics from Stalinist Russia, and borrowed the moustache right off Stalin’s face to use as the nation’s emblem. The above statue is posed in a fashion reminiscent of Stalin, and his moustache decorates the flags, the plinth of the statue, the front of the cars, and the faces of his special agents. You could almost consider this to be a response to Hergé’s portrayal of Soviet Russian in Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, all those years ago.

Like in other stories, Hergé utilises a humorous naming system. The two special agents are named Chronic and Clumsy, and the capital city, Szohôd (with a little moustache over the second ‘o’) is named after the Marollien word meaning ‘crazy’. The hotel Snôrr is actually named for the Dutch word for moustache, not ‘snore’ as I would have first assumed. The fragments of the Bordurian language we see are also derived from Marollien.

This one piece of sticking plaster haunts the main characters for half of this book.

Once they arrive in the capital of Borduria, Tintin and Haddock are greeted by the police, who insist that they will be accompanied the whole time they are there. Tintin is specifically greeted as the first man to stand on the moon, and the two of them are taken to their hotel and not allowed to travel independently. There’s a great bit where Haddock calls Tintin, who knows the phone must be bugged, and Tintin must alert the Captain to this fact without actually saying it. Even when trying to play spy thriller tropes straight, Hergé keeps the mood light and playful.

In order to throw their escorts off, Tintin and Haddock go to dinner with them and get them drunk enough to let their guard down. They escape and make their way to the opera house, where they bump into Bianca Castafiore, who is immediately willing to help them out. With the information they gain by sneaking around there, they steal their way into a military fortress, sneak Calculus out, and end up using a tank to drive their way over the Syldavian border.

And isn’t Tintin saying he hasn’t driven a tank since he was on the moon the funniest thing?

Turns out that Calculus didn’t have his plans, and they were supposed to be stashed in the handle of his umbrella, meaning that Snowy was the only one on the real trail. This is all for naught anyways since he accidentally left them on his bedside table at Marlinspike. This kind of cyclical story where the protagonists end up back where they started has been used by Hergé before, most notably in Red Rackham’s Treasure, where they explore the world only to find the treasure in the basement in Marlinspike.

When they get back to Marlinspike they find the place overrun by Jolyon Wagg’s family, who are only convinced to leave again due to Calculus mishearing Haddock and thinking the whole place is riddled with chickenpox. Calculus burns his superweapon plans to prevent anyone from getting their hands on them, and I assume they spend a genuinely ridiculous amount of money on getting all the glass and china in the building restored and replaced.

The Calculus Affair is regarded by a lot of people to be one of the best Tintin books. That weird literary critic dude, Jean-Marie Apostolidès, thinks the ending of the story is a symbolic castration, so you know it’s good. I do agree with critics who say that the thriller plotline seems a little shoehorned into this universe. Hergé does his best with the material he gives himself, and some of the new characters and elements introduced in this story are great – Jolyon Wagg is an inspired caricature of everything Hergé hated – but I can’t help but feel that this story is not a great fit compared to the previous lineup of stories. Hergé does his best to make the genre his own, but his need to maintain his usual humorous quirks slows him down a little, and since we as the audience know none of the characters can die, there’s a limit to how immediate a lot of the threats seem.

That said, I like it. Without ever really discussing it explicitly, the story does a great job of asking why we develop superweapons and what we’re planning to use them for. As soon as Calculus invented this weapon, his life was in danger and his invention was running the risk of being used to destroy cities. Could he have invented this weapon at all without potentially causing harm? For me, that’s the question I got out of this, and while I’m not a huge fan of this story genre I think Hergé plays it well.

One major compliment I would give this story is the strength of the art. As I mentioned, this was Hergé’s first book fully produced by Studios Hergé, and it shows. Everything in this book is picture perfect, polished, with luscious backgrounds and subtle but effective character art. He covers military scenes, rural scenes, cities, and densely decorated interiors and fits them all into every tiny little panel. Makes me think back to The Broken Ear when he periodically gave up on putting backgrounds in panels for a while. He developed a lot as an artist, and now with a team behind him he could put out his most complex work yet.

Next up, we’ve got The Red Sea Sharks. If The Calculus Affair was a thoughtful expansion of the way Hergé had portrayed Soviet Russia in Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, then The Red Sea Sharks could be described as a similar thoughtful expansion to the colonisation of African peoples as portrayed in Tintin in the Congo. Or perhaps I’m just reading a little deep here.


Additional notes, put here in the name of brevity:

I had no idea who Jack Brabham was while reading this. Turns out he was an Australian car racing champion at the time, so this a witty pop culture reference. I should probably have known this, being from New Zealand, but I didn’t.

Speaking of being from New Zealand, this whole chase scene with this Italian dude flew over my head. I assume Italians being aggressive drivers with long names and a fierce competitive streak is a stereotype that’s prevalent in Europe. It came across as one long non-sequitur to me; I’ve only ever met one Italian person and she’s a laid-back `veterinarian.

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