Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Hergé: The Crab with the Golden Claws

Today in Tintin Week we turn to “The Crab with the Golden Claws.”  As in so many stories, Tintin travels to an exotic foreign land and unmasks an international gang of professional bad dudes. This tale is particularly notable for introducing Captain Haddock, who will be a constant companion for Tintin in all subsequent adventures. “The Crab with the Golden Claws” is one of three Tintin books that is being drawn upon for the upcoming film “The Secret of the Unicorn,” directed by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.

The story begins in Belgium. Tintin is taking his dog for a walk, and Snowy sticks his head into a garbage bin and gets it stuck in a tin of crab meat. They meet Thomson & Thompson in a bar, and the twins tell them about their recent investigation. Tintin realizes that one of the pieces of evidence the twins had gathered was a scrap of paper taken from the very tin can Snowy had found earlier. This sets them up for a wild ride: the name of a ship, the “Karaboudjan,” is written on the scrap, and when Tintin goes aboard to investigate he is kidnapped and imprisoned in the ship’s cellar by the first mate.

He escapes the cellar, only to meet the captain, an arrogant and alcoholic clod. I later grew fond of Captain Haddock, but in this tale he is maddeningly obtuse and gets in the way of everything. Perhaps this book is one of the reasons alcohol never appealed to me. I’m sure my decision had nothing to do with the white wine I accidentally drank when I was eight, because my grandmother had stored it in an apple juice carton. That wasn’t traumatic at all.

Anyway, Tintin and Haddock escape on the longboat, at least until Haddock burns the oars to keep warm. Then they’re shot at by a seaplane, but thanks to Tintin’s ridiculous ability to swim several hundred yards underwater while fully clothed and wearing  a raincoat, they capture the plane and fly it to Spain. Only they crash-land in the middle of the Sahara. Pity. Haddock, thirsting for a drink, hallucinates that Tintin is a giant bottle of whiskey. He almost suffocates Tintin, but is knocked out, courtesy of Snowy’s ability to wield a camel femur. They wake up in a desert outpost, having been picked up by a sentry patrolling the area, and are soon on their way to “Bagghar, a large Moroccan port.”

While drunkenly carousing the harbor walks, Haddock stumbles across the Karaboudjan, recently repurposes as the “Djebel Amilah.” He is kidnapped shortly thereafter for the commotion he caused. Tintin tries to track him, but fails. However, he discovers that Omar Ben Salaad, one of the wealthiest merchants in Bagghar, is the distributor of the tins of crab meat, and is the suspected head of a gang of drug runners that uses those tins for smuggling opium.

Tintin infiltrates the gang’s headquarters – Hergé clever alludes to the philosopher Diogenes who lived in a barrel, for a hint as to the secret passageway – and rescues Haddock. They escape, they are pursued, the police are called in, and Tintin triumphs. He returns home to Belgium and listens to tales of his exploits on the radio, and discovers that Captain Haddock has also returned, and is lecturing (without the least bit of irony) on “drink, the sailor’s worst enemy.” Unfortunately, he takes ill after he consumes a glass of water when he had thought it would be whiskey.

This is not the best of the Tintin adventures -- indeed, it is somewhat unremarkable. This was partly by design -- this was one of the first of the Tintin comics published after the Nazis invaded Belgium, and Hergé was forced to set aside his more controversial and politically oriented stories for lighter fare. But the locales are splendid, the story is coherent, and the art and the writing are top-notch. Not to mention that there should be some recognition for the first appearance of Tintin's enduring friend and companion-who-isn't-a-dog.

To purchase, check out
Tintin - Crab with Golden Claws

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