Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Hergé: Cigars of the Pharaoh

Today in Tintin Week, we're featuring a review of "The Cigars of the Pharaoh," the fourth published comic book in "The Adventures of Tintin" and an immediate prequel to "The Blue Lotus." Though it is not as well known (or as highly regarded) as its sequel, "Cigars" marks the crucial transitional period in Herge's writing, as he transitions from stereotyped location-driven fantasies to highly researched action-adventure escapades.

“Cigars” begins as Tintin is returning from a cruise vacation that had taken him from Shanghai in China to Port-Said in Egypt. He meets the deliciously daft Sophocles Sarcophagus, who shows him a papyrus with the secret location of the lost tomb of Pharoah Kih-Oskh. Dr. Sarcophagus is an early version of the absent-minded professor type that would ultimately lead Hergé to invent Professor Cuthbert Calculus, first introduced in “Red Rackham’s Treasure” and a regular recurring character in later stories.

Tintin is also investigated and arrested by Detectives Thomson and Thompson – this is their first appearance in the “Adventures," besides a brief showing that was ret-conned into “Tintin in the Congo." Their presence here is very different here than in later stories.  Where Hergé would ultimately make them laughably dense – often using them to parody European stereotypes of foreign cultures – in this adventure the twins are at least moderately efficient, and save Tintin’s life on several occasions (though they are of course outmatched whenever they try to arrest him).

Tintin also encounters Mr. Rastapopoulos on the cruise ship, and the set up for this character is brilliant, almost worthy of Hergé’s most mature work. On the ship Rastapopoulos is introduced as a random uncivil clod, much like other one-off characters, but a later random encounter in the desert reveals him to be a wealthy filmmaker who is friendly to Tintin. Their initial tension overcome, the reader is made to feel confident in Rastapopoulos’ character, notwithstanding the frequent (and sometimes glaring) hints that he isn’t trustworthy. Only by the end of “The Blue Lotus” is his true nature revealed: Rastapopoulos is the head of the international ring of opium smugglers and in general a Very Bad Man. He becomes a recurring villain in many of Tintin’s later adventures, such as “The Red Sea Sharks.”

The comic book is set in three primary locations: Egypt, Arabia, and India. Unfortunately, while these locations are depicted in a more realistic manner than Hergé’s earlier works, they seem to occupy a world in which Arabia borders the Indus River. At one point, Tintin flies away from a (distinctly Arab) desert city, only to find himself within the hour flying over a (distinctly Indian) jungle with (lions) tigers (and bears). Oh my. Needless to say, the transitions are a bit iffy.

As for the plot, it is borne on so many escapades and plot devices that description is bland even when reading is a thrill. Suffice it to say that there are Bad Guys, that Tintin meets these Bad Guys and interferes with their Insidious Plans without realizing the trouble he’d gotten himself into, and ultimately brings said Bad Guys to justice with wit, charm, and an ample helping of awesome. What more could you possibly ask for?

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