Ampton Reads: Flight 714

When I tell people about Flight 714, I call it ‘the one where Tintin gets abducted by aliens’, and I’ve yet to find someone who believes me without knowing about the book prior. Where the previous science fiction books in the Tintin series showcased the glory of modern technology and discussed the ethics and future issues in the field in a very 1950s way, Flight 714 wonders about the possibility of aliens in an almost dreamlike way that is very 1960s. 

The four year gap between The Castafiore Emerald and this book has been attributed to many causes. The usual explanation people give is that Hergé was busy working on various Tintin adaptations, and his host of psychosomatic illnesses were only worsening with age, but I would like to point out that Hergé himself said to the English translator of the series that (in my words) by this point, he just fucking hated Tintin and couldn’t bear working on another book. I feel that’s pretty telling.

Admittedly, not everyone was dressed like this in the 1960s, but that won’t stop me from imagining it that way.

When he finally did get around to it, he decided to do what he did best, which was craft a Tintin story around his current interests; in this case, his love of the paranormal, extraterrestrial, and mysterious. Science fiction in the 1960s was growing increasingly comfortable with the idea that humanity would one day walk the stars, due to the number of huge breakthroughs made during the Space Race, and the question had turned from whether we would go to space to what exactly we would find there. Fashion and aesthetics in the 1960s were impacted by this, and this era almost prided itself on being weird and out-there. I feel that this is important to keep in mind when discussing Flight 714, since one of the main criticisms levelled at this story is that it really starts to go off the rails at the end.

Hergé was primarily influenced by a book called Le Livre des Secrets Trahis, written by Robert Charroux and published in 1964. This book was about the somewhat popular topic that humans had been actively influenced by aliens throughout history, which is a belief that has hung on to the modern day, if the History Channel’s Ancient Aliens is to be taken into account. Another writer on the subject of extraterrestrial and paranormal things, Jacques Bergier, was integrated into this story as the character Mik Kanrokitoff (Mik Ezdanitoff in the original French version). The original French name was some kind of joke in Marollien, and the English surname is supposed to sound like “Can rocket off”, or so I believe.

As Hergé had aged and matured as an artist, he had developed a certain self-critical and meta view of his own work, and this shows through most strongly in Flight 714, which goes out of its way to break down the very foundation of the series. The most obvious way in which this occurs is with Hergé’s choice of villains in this book. Allan and Rastapopoulos, two of the best-known Tintin villains, are brought back, and Hergé goes out of his way to paint them as figures of ridicule. Hergé stated after the fact that he had come to realise that characters like these were pathetic creatures due to how many years they had spent being cartoonishly evil. The new character, Carreidas, was similarly a figure of ridicule. This follows on from the experiments in story structure Hergé had conducted in The Castafiore Emerald, a story with no villain.

At this stage, Hergé’s psychosomatic issues with his hands, which consisted of debilitating eczema and boils, limited the amount of art he could do, and almost all of this book was actually drawn by his assistants and artists at Studios Hergé. He did plot the whole thing and sketch it out, though, and he sat down and worked out the Carreidas jet with the same energy he had used to design the moon rocket and the Unicorn from The Secret of the Unicorn. The Carreidas jet was so detailed and intricate that it was probably capable of flight, thanks to consultation with engineers who knew a lot more about aeronautics than Hergé did. Hergé also produced a physical model of the statue head that gives entry to the depths of the temple. And, as always, extensive photographic references were used to build the imagery in this book, especially images of Indonesian volcanic eruptions.

Carreidas was based on a real guy – the founder of Dassault Aviation, Marcel Dassault.

This story was serialised in the Tintin magazine from September 1966 to November 1967, and was published in both French and English in 1968. Minor tweaks were made between the magazine and book version, and between the French and English versions, particularly in Krollspell’s background (his date of birth and his location after World War II). The title was also shortened from Flight 714 to Sydney to Flight 714, which is the title I am most familiar with. The working title was Vol Spécial pour Adélaïde (Special Flight for Adelaide), and a couple of preliminary sketches for this book were published in the magazine under that name.

AMPTON READS

Our story begins with Haddock trying to convey information to Calculus with his entire heart and soul, to little success. Many parts of this story involve issues with communication, and indeed the very next gag in this book is an old one where Haddock mistakes Carreidas for a homeless man based on his appearance and slips him some money. Carreidas’s establishment as a character is interesting. The juxtaposition of his initial appearance as a homeless man, and his introduction as the millionaire who never laughs, which includes his lack of knowledge about the moon landing, do a lot to quickly establish his personality.

Carreidas, as said above, is based on Marcel Dassault. His name is a play on ‘carre d’as’, meaning ‘four aces’ in the poker sense of the phrase. I’m unsure of why Hergé picked this name, but he did incorporate it into the logo of his aeronautics company, which shows the four suits of playing cards.

Skut returns, and it’s interesting to see him return, and see how he’s established from the start. Although he was a sympathetic character in a previous book, and as a pilot he’s a natural addition to this story, I’m surprised that he appears and his role isn’t just taken by a new character. My guess as to why Hergé used him was to establish early on that he can be totally trusted. Spalding, the other pilot, and other people around Carreidas are quickly established as intense and uptight, and are directly contrasted with Skut. I’ve always appreciated Hergé’s skill at establishing characters, using physical and social cues to convey the new person’s role in the narrative as economically as possible.

Again, Carreidas’s use of CCTV cameras to win a simple game of battleships is used to establish his character as a bastard. While Carreidas never ends up as the villain, he is barely worth saving, and Hergé really hammers that home later. Haddock’s thought that Carreidas is psychic also provides an early shred of set-up for the later introduction of the paranormal. Carreidas’s continued obsession with little things like his old hat and not letting people smoke around him are another way for Hergé to paint him as pathetic.

The Concorde, which was the world’s first supersonic commercial airplane. It was in development throughout the time this story was being created.

An aeronautics businessman was a good and topical choice for this story. The Concorde was first flown in 1969, and due to the Space Race and the consequences of World War II, improvements in aeronautics and plane travel were happening rapidly. This would be the decade of the moon landing, and Flight 714 keeps up with this quite nicely.

The use of the plane that Tintin and co never catch as the title is also interesting. They never get on this plane (catching another iteration of the same flight later), and we never even see it, but everything would be totally different if they had. The plan to rob Carreidas blind would probably have worked as intended, and then maybe everyone would have died in a volcanic eruption, and Tintin and co would never even realise that they could have been in that situation or abducted by aliens. Maybe the title is ironic, in a way.

Sondonesia is not a real country, and Sondonesian is not a real language, but it is obviously based on Indonesia. It looks like the dialogue Hergé put it is based on Indonesian, although some speakers of Malay on the Tintinologist forums have said the spelling is a bit wack. Google Translate gives the above dialogue as “inconspicuous! what can’t be guarded! what gilah!” and the forum user gives the meaning of ‘gilah’ as ‘crazy’. With the comments given there, I would translate the above as “How rude! Can’t you see my sail? Crazy!” Other instances of the Sondonesian language are similarly tricky to translate accurately.

Indonesia was an interesting choice as the pseudo-setting, as it has a colorful history of piracy. Being a nation rich in islands and seafarers, criminals on the seas are to be expected. Apparently in 2012, Indonesia was responsible for 20% of the world’s pirate attacks. Indonesia’s piracy issue didn’t get really bad until the last few decades, but it’s still a logical place to set this story. Rastapopoulos mentions that the Sondonesians that he is working with are nationalists fighting for their homeland, which is probably influenced by Indonesia’s own establishment of independence in 1945. I do think that it’s a pity that they don’t get much attention in this story, as the Sondonesians could likely have provided a Tintin story of their very own.

Speaking of which, Rastapopoulos is in this story. He’s also in a cowboy outfit. Hergé’s choice to put him on a cowboy outfit strongly influenced his characterisation in this story, as the ridiculous outfit makes it clear exactly how pathetic a creature this character actually is. Given how wealthy and influential he was in his earlier appearances, he didn’t have much to gain by continued villainy except power, and that makes him a complete fool, which Hergé had realised. This is cemented during the truth serum scene, in which all the characters attempt to prove how much more evil than each other they are.

And speaking of truth serum, Krollspell, another new character, was one of Hergé’s few explicit references to Nazis and concentration camps, since he drew influence from Mengele and was clearly intended to fulfil the role of ‘evil German doctor from WW2’. Another reference is obviously the Japanese bunker that the group was thrown into, which no doubt dates back to the war. Such bunkers are dotted throughout the Pacific, and incidentally, in my home country of NZ, we have bunkers everywhere for keeping Japanese forces out.

This story averts direction abruptly midway through. People have said that it changes completely from a standard Tintin adventure to something totally off the hook, but I reserve my right to disagree. The exhausted self-awareness of the first half of the story tells us a lot, in a cryptic sense, about why things get so weird in the second half. Hergé was finished with ‘standard Tintin adventures’ and maybe he had been for a while. After many hints that there is something off about the island, supernatural or ancient, Tintin is contacted psychically to hide out in an ancient cave, and the Sondonesians refuse to follow them, knowing it’s tapu. Later, they scarper, being the smarter ones.

This story, like Tintin in Tibet, raises the stakes a little higher than other stories. Snowy is gunned down, and Tintin explicitly fears he is dead. They learn they will be killed by faking a plane crash, and Krollspell spends a lot of time waving around a very pointy needle. That, plus the lava later, makes the danger more explicit than in previous volumes.

Tintin said a swear word.

While plunging through the volcano, the group meets the source of the psychic transmissions, Kanrokitoff. He confirms to the group that psychic powers exist and that he’s here to have his twice yearly meeting with his alien overlords, obviously. The aliens are going to abduct the group and dump them somewhere safe with their memories wiped, which is probably preferable to staying on this island. When this happens, we get a genuinely terrifying glimpse of what Hergé’s art style looks like with added sclera.

And I don’t like it.

Eventually, the main characters are rescued after floating adrift and disoriented on the ocean. Normally, the stories end with everyone shaking hands and cheering each other on for success, but not this one. It’s explicitly mentioned how close they were to death and how much time they spent in shock and recovering. All the characters are still disoriented and confused at the end, and they catch Flight 714, finally, and get to where they’re going, with only Snowy aware of what happened in the interim. I would liken this story to Tintin in Tibet at this point, too, since it ends with everyone leaving the place of conflict alive but with much to do to recover.

This guy shaking Haddock’s hand is actually based off a mega fan of the series, Jean Tauré, who asked Hergé very nicely to be depicted in the series.

I’ve compared this book to Tintin in Tibet a few times, but ultimately I’m not going to say they’re similar. Both do toy with the typical structure of a Tintin adventure, but where Tintin in Tibet was a deeply resonant work that fitted together neatly, this one isn’t. It’s all rough edges and pieces that don’t quite slide together. A good example of what I mean can be seen in the tension and strain in Haddock and Calculus’s relationship, which grows increasingly more severe over the course of the Tintin series, although they never had an easy friendship. 

My personal opinion is that the fact that Haddock and Calculus tolerated each other in the first place was for the sake of comedic value, and as Hergé moved towards greater self-awareness and self-deconstruction, then the illogical alliances between characters that are constantly antagonistic to one another were almost inevitably going to fall apart without any character development that might shake things up. Ultimately, much of the main cast of Tintin consists of characters developed by Hergé for comedic reasons, and as he reached the very end of his career and was starting to sand away all but the driest forms of comedy, this was a monster of his own making. It’s even more prominent in the final book, Tintin and the Picaros, which I’ll be discussing there.

This is supposed to be comedic, but it just looks like they hate each other.

Ultimately, Hergé’s slow process of critically degrading the very foundation of his books would bite him in the ass. For the last few books, Tintin has been reluctant to get into an adventure, being more aware of the dangers and only doing so when necessary to help. This marks a sharp contrast from earlier books in which exploring ran in his blood. Because, of course, if we are forced to view the characters and their dynamics in a more realistic light, why would Tintin still want to throw himself into danger over and over if there’s nothing to gain from it? He’s famous, living on an estate, and probably quite wealthy. He has friends he loves and plenty to do. In Tintin in Tibet, he was saving an old and dear friend; in The Castafiore Emerald the adventure comes to him. In this book, he is dragged into the adventure with a palpable sense of reluctance, and in Tintin and the Picaros, he is truly exhausted with the whole affair. This probably reflects Hergé’s mindset as he aged, but it also reflects the natural product of the way Hergé had been going about writing for some time.

Tintin, with gun, shoving Calculus out the door, is a good summary of their relationship.

Critical reception for this book is all over the place. While almost everyone is complimentary of the art, which is lush and beautiful, and most critics enjoy the setup of the story, the ending of this adventure proved extremely polarising. It has been likened to the Peru duo for its temples, paranormal elements, and unsettling strangeness, and to the Moon duo for pushing the boundaries of science fiction and encompassing a feeling of grand adventure of mystery. Some believe it to be a beautiful and deeply strange story, while others view it as a decent setup that degenerates into incomprehensibility over time. Maybe it’s both. Maybe it’s neither. What I can say for certain is that this is the first book that really feels like Hergé wants to give the series up. He had written it for the majority of his life, made his money from it, earned fame and controversy, and been persecuted for it. He had started as a young man and ended as an old one, after one of the most turbulent periods of modern history. It would be almost another decade until he could put together another Tintin book, and Tintin and the Picaros is a book betraying a deep sense of disillusionment. More on that next time.

As this series races towards its conclusion, with only one book remaining, I want to thank everyone who’s been on this journey with me, because it’s thanks to you guys that I even managed to make it to the end. If you’d like to keep up with me once it’s all finished up, I’d recommend following one of my social media accounts or signing up to receive emails from my WordPress when I post; I promise I’m not one to post lots of spammy content, so you won’t be hearing from me too often.

In my final essay next time, I have a couple of important announcements about my future projects that will be relevant to Tintin fans and lovers of bande dessinée in general, so stay tuned and built some internal excitement for those.

-Aмртоп

One thought on “Ampton Reads: Flight 714

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