Ampton Reads: Tintin and the Picaros

Here we are, folks. We’ve reached the final Tintin book, the last one Hergé finished before he died. Hergé didn’t write this knowing it would be the final Tintin story, and a lot of critics wish it wasn’t the final book. But beat on we must, boats against the current, or something.

I’ve discussed over the last few stories how Hergé, in his old age, was losing his ability to write earnest, gallivanting adventures. After all, he was no idealistic youth, and he hadn’t been for a long time. He’d spent the last decade or two having his dreams crushed in many ways, even though he tried his hardest to make the best of things. Tintin and the Picaros feels like Hergé was treading his well-worn writing paths without much inspiration or enthusiasm. The jokes are Tintin jokes and the art is Tintin art, but there’s a certain je n’ais ce quoi missing that once tied together even the stupidest of Tintin stories.

Even this opening exposition feels very formulaic and scripted.

The concept is decent. Hergé was making callbacks to The Broken Ear, a story he had loved but that hadn’t done very well, and he was tying it into his impressions of the Cuban revolution that had taken place a decade and a half earlier. The Broken Ear’s background conflict between Tapioca and Alcazar had been based on the Chaco War of the 1930s, and here Hergé expands on his thoughts about endless, meaningless power struggles. The captivity of Castafiore and co is based on the Régis Debray affair, wherein a French writer was imprisoned in Bolivia on suspicion of having acted as an accomplice to Che Guevara. The Picaros themselves are based on a real group, the Tupamaros, a Uruguayan guerilla group active during the 1960s and 1970s. Finally, the involvement of Borduria and Colonel Sponz was based on the involvement of the Soviet Union in many Latin American power struggles.

It really interests me how many later Tintin books hark back to The Broken Ear. I’ve pointed it out as we went along, how often Hergé liked to make reference to his own worldbuilding and story he had created for this book. Other books from the era such as The Black Island and The Blue Lotus are mentioned pretty often, but Hergé’s fixation on The Broken Ear, one of his least successful albums from the pre-war era, makes me wonder if he was trying to chase the one that got away.

The art is classic late-era Tintin, and so excellent in quality, if not overly inspired in this book.

Indeed, The Broken Ear was surprisingly grim and lacking in idealism, and if nothing else, Tintin and the Picaros is at least consistent with that. It was criticism for being cynical, pessimistic, and lacking in energy. In fact, in order to even get Tintin out the door, a large group of his close friends have to get kidnapped, and even then Haddock is more proactive about going to their rescue than Tintin is. Discussion particularly focused on the political apathy of this story, since the changes in leadership that people are fighting for have absolutely no impact on the material reality of the people of San Theodoros. It’s just a race to the top of the garbage heap, and tastes quite different to previous Tintin stories about righting wrongs. Tintin wants to fight wrongs, but now he has accepted that there will be no winning that fight. I’ll be discussing this, and how this influences my perception of the unfinished Tintin and Alph-Art sketches, later in this essay.

How many recognisable characters can you find in this image? I’m fixated on Asterix.

Before publication, preliminary sketches of this story were published in Tintin magazine under the title ‘Tintin and the Bigotoudos’, which means moustaches in Spanish. While the facial hair gags stayed in the story, the title was changed before serialisation, which ran from September 1975 to April 1976, almost a full decade after the previous serial. Hergé had been busy in that time, releasing multiple live action Tintin films and, in a move most unlike his previous self, enjoying some of his fame. He sat for a series of interviews with journalist and director Numa Sadoul, which are now available condensed into the book Tintin et moi (1975). Since Hergé hated interviews, this is one of the few insights we have into his thoughts and feelings. The French version of Tintin and the Picaros was published in 1976 and was followed by the English version in the same year.

AMPTON READS

The first thing that hits readers of this story like a bottle of whiskey to the skull is the aesthetic changes. Tintin is wearing bellbottoms; his plus-fours have finally vanished. The character redesigns required for the live action films are generally credited with prompting this shocking, unprecedented, and apparently very offensive change to the main character’s appearance.

The story has overall been brought forward into the 1970s, and as a result it’s one of the few Tintin stories that feels dated in appearance. Curious, since the previous books had been set in world steadily inching through the first half of the 20th century, that this one should stand out so much, but the aesthetics in this story are so particular to one decade that the story does feel like a product of its time. 

Oh god, it’s so 1970s that it physically hurts.

Other minor tweaks really clue the reader in to the fact that Hergé is ready to shake things up and stay modern. Tintin has been gifted a personality and hobbies. He does yoga, rides a motorcycle, and supports nuclear disarmament. Nestor is no longer a long-suffering butler; he steals drinks and listens at doors. Haddock gets given a first name, Archibald, and most importantly, he can no longer drink alcohol due to how awful it tastes.

Note the sheepskin jacket and the helmet with the CND symbol.

Calculus’s attempts to invent a cure for alcoholism could have been integrated more smoothly into the narrative. It prompts a significant change in Haddock’s norms and ends up allowing Tintin to save the day much later in the story. It reminds me of Land of Black Gold, where the mysterious fuel explosions and Calculus hiding a secret are a secondary plotline, and I would say it represents the strongest plot thread in this book. However, the contrivance involved in Tapioca’s strategy (who would think of dropping alcohol on a group of seasoned guerillas?) means that it feels more like deus ex machina than it probably should.

The most prominent feeling in this opening act is one of heels being dragged. Tintin doesn’t make it to the location of the conflict, San Theodoros, until page 20, which is a third of the way through the whole story. Instead, the opening act focuses on Haddock’s cold war against General Tapioca, who has put together some complex political scheme to goad Haddock into traveling to San Theodoros. While there are a lot of gags and character moments in this opening act, it is, in my opinion, very dull. Tintin gets little screentime and no great advancements occur in the plot. In contrast, by page 20 of Flight 714, Carreidas and Rastapopoulos have already met and are ripping into each other.

Much of the first act consists of walls of text and shocked faces.

Lots of characters come back in this story, especially by the time the main cast have arrived in San Theodoros. Alcazar was one of the longest-running recurring characters, along with Rastapopoulos, who was finished off in the last book. Other characters from previous stories return such as Pablo, Ridgewell, and Colonel Sponz, who turns out to be the big bad. It does a good job of collecting up yet more secondary characters who haven’t been seen for a while and linking them back into the recent world of Tintin.

The other facet of this story that gives it the same air of finality as the previous few books is Tintin’s reluctance to get into an adventure. He hasn’t tried to go and find trouble since Tintin in Tibet, and even then, he was doing it out of a ragged determination to save his friend. In this book, Tintin point-blank refuses to go anywhere, and Haddock ends up leaving without him, which is quite a turnaround from previous stories. My guess is that Hergé was now an old man who couldn’t really imagine what Tintin would have to gain from another round of danger. He said himself that drawing Tintin running made him feel tired.

These two panels show the character changes quite neatly, with Tintin refusing to go overseas while Haddock wants to see the best of things, and Nestor eavesdropping.

The story creeps forward as Haddock, Calculus, and later Tintin fall into Tapioca’s grasp. They escape into the jungle and joined the Picaros with the help of Pablo, who may or may not be betraying them. I’ll be honest and say that I’ve reread this book three times now while writing this essay, and I still don’t really understand what Pablo’s deal was. This whole section is just so dry considering it should be one of the energetic peaks of the story. It sticks to very safe territory, and pays the price by lacking adrenaline.

The alcohol-dropping plotline marries Calculus’s plot to cure alcoholism very nicely, and again, in a better story it could be quite interesting. Instead, I’m struck with the vague feeling that the alcohol-dropping plotline is offensive to someone. I haven’t figured out who yet, but it definitely feels like it’s taking a kick at someone.

I’m struck with the vague feeling that the alcohol-dropping plotline is offensive somehow. Maybe it’s because indigenous communities often have high rates of alcoholism due to societal oppression.

The only significant new character in this story is Peggy, Alcazar’s wife, who is overbearing and ferocious. Peggy was based on the secretary of a KKK spokesperson who Hergé had once seen on television. This is one of the rare examples of a romantic relationship seen in the series, aside from Calculus’s infatuation with Castafiore, and it’s a fairly bitter look into married life. I think the Tintin series is poorly equipped to deal with romantic interactions, simply because most interpersonal relationships in this universe are built for the purpose of comedy before anything else.

To me, the most interesting and informative part of this story is the final act. Tintin forces Alcazar to promise there will be a bloodless revolution, and Alcazar follows through on this. They sneak into the capitol with the help of Jolyon Wagg and his bus full of clowns (not a joke) and infiltrate the carnival in order to take over the town without bringing fighting into the streets. Alcazar and Tapioca rue the fact that they can’t just shoot each other, and Alcazar takes control of the country. It’s the raw cynicism in this ending that marks a steep difference from other stories. While the entire plot of this book was about stopping Tapioca’s reign, nothing is achieved from it. The final shot of the book shows the slums of San Theodoros looking the same as back at the start, except the police are wearing different uniforms. There’s a deep sense of resignation considering how often Hergé’s other stories about political affairs ended with the good guys winning and wrongs being righted.

Tintin and the Picaros is about the main cast dealing with political turmoil while trying to keep their friends safe, which matches the outline of many other Tintin stories, and is pretty similar to one of the best Tintin books, The Blue Lotus. But the lack of energy Hergé brought, along with a complete absence of idealism or optimism, is what causes this book to feel empty and tired. Rather than a last hurrah, this was a last gasp. This might be one of my least favourite Tintin books, because the other ones that I don’t like are at least fun, barring Tintin in the Congo. I’ll never be defending that shitstorm.

Grotesque!

Between the publishing of Tintin and the Picaros and his death, Hergé covered plenty of ground. He got properly divorced in 1977, finally leaving Germaine for Fanny. His father died that same year, and in the following years many members of Studios Hergé moved on with their lives. He went to a very early iteration of a comic convention in 1977, where he was treated like a god, and got to finally explore Asia and America and see the worlds he had been writing about for so long. His American trip was reporting disheartening, as the Native Americans he met were not the noble paragons he had dreamed of, and were instead a tired people beaten down by years of oppression.

After rediscovering him in the the 1970s and corresponding by mail, Hergé was finally able to reunite with Zhang Chongren in 1981. This reunion was much-publicised and was even televised, putting a lot of pressure on the two of them to pick up where they left off as best friends. It didn’t happen. The reunion was an awkward encounter, and the two had grown apart substantially in the years they had been separated. Two years after this, after fighting bone cancer and other health problems for some time, Hergé died of a heart attack in 1983.

The very last Tintin sketch, with Tintin being led to his apparent death.

Hergé left behind a whole pile of notes that he had hoped to turn into the next Tintin story. He had left behind multiple unfinished stories, most notably Le Thermozéro, and Tintin and Alph-Art simply had the luck to be the one that Hergé was halfway through when he died. Critics put a lot of thought into Tintin and Alph-Art, many of whom firmly believe that it was on the right track and would certainly have been a better story than the few prior. I personally disagree; Hergé’s pattern of increasingly cynical and incoherent story writing was evident in the last few books, and I don’t feel there’s any evidence in Tintin and Alph-Art to suggest it would be any better. At the very least, leaving the story unfinished provided fans with plenty of hope and fodder for the imagination.

Whether the story would have been glorious or not, it was just a pile of vague notes upon Hergé’s death. These notes were collated by Studios Hergé and released in 1986; many artists have made their own finished versions of this story. With nothing else to do, Studios Hergé was disbanded and turned into the extant Hergé Foundation, and many of Hergé’s assistants and friends went on to have great careers in many fields. The Tintin magazine stumbled along on comics made by others, devoid of new material from Hergé, until it finally collapsed in 1993.

Haddock says it better than I could.

Since then, Tintin has been fondly remembered and translated into many languages. I grew up reading the books, thanks to the enthusiasm of my grandparents. Most new fans have no idea about Tintin and the Congo, about Hergé’s stint of Nazi collusion, or about how The Blue Lotus caused the country of Japan to bite back at Belgium, and they find the stories as engaging and exciting as the day they were published.

For all I’ve roasted Hergé and the books he wrote, I still love this series enough to write a novel’s worth of essays about them, and while everything I’ve learned has caused my feelings to grow more complex about the series, I will always adore the books. I can’t thank you enough for your support and engagement during this great undertaking of mine. You’ve made this series possible.

-Aмртоп

POSTSCRIPT:

I said at the end of my last essay that I had some announcements, and I do. First of all, I’d like to announce an upcoming project that has been heavily requested on both Reddit and Tumblr by my readers. I am taking on a series of essays on the history of Asterix, another internationally beloved bande dessinée comic. While I shan’t be doing it book-by-book like I did here (there are too many books and not enough meaning in each of them) I’m hoping to broadly cover the history in a few long-form essays. If you’re interested in keeping up with this, I’d recommend you subscribe to my WordPress or some other social media of mine, so that you can hear updates.

Second of all, I’m planning to edit and aggregate my Tintin essays together into an ebook, which I will be selling online for a few dollars, max. I’ll be sweetening the deal by tidying up my extant essays and including three more meta essays, covering Hergé’s self-image, the women of Tintin, and the colonial and social consequences of publishing controversial Tintin books in the modern day. It shall be called Ampton Reads Tintin, and the cover art will be drawn by my dear friend @cuppabee. Again, the best way to keep an eye on that is to follow me on some social media. Hope to see you there!

Actual image of me now this series is finished.

6 thoughts on “Ampton Reads: Tintin and the Picaros

Add yours

  1. Wonderful essay! Your takes on the Tintin ‘verse are always a treat. I weirdly love this particular book, mostly because of the changes to Tintin’s character. It felt like he’d grown up a bit, or perhaps I just relate too well with cynicism. The book is bonkers, for sure. but it (like many of the other books) has a special place in my heart.

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  2. It’s an honour to read these essays, I’ve loved every one of them.
    Your dry humour cracked me up in this essay as it always does, it’s informative and entertaining. Thank you.
    I can’t wait for your Asterix essays.

    Like

  3. Very nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say thast I’ve truly enjoyed surfing around your blog posts.
    In anny case I will be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again vvery soon!

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  4. Pablo’s deal is that he betrays Tintin. The escape from the pyramid is a deliberate set-up to lead Tintin into an ambush. This is a reversal from his role in The Broken Ear. In that book, Pablo was an assassin who later saved Tintin from execution.

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