Monday, October 25, 2010

Herge: The Blue Lotus

**This week is "Tintin Week"!  I'll be reviewing a few of the immortal comic book adventures of the journalist Tintin and his ever-present canine companion Snowy.  Enjoy!**

When I was young I devoured Herge's classic comic book series "The Adventures of Tintin." Some of them were difficult to find, but I read them all, and some multiple times. However, when I grew up I put childish things behind me, or so I thought. But when I heard that Steven Spielberg and George Lucas had put their respective careers on hold to produce a trilogy of live-action films adapting the Tintin adventures, I had the dawning realization that perhaps little 10-year-old me had better taste than I gave him credit for. So I did some research, and ordered the comic books at the library, and discovered the treasure of these books all over again.

Today in "Tintin Week," we turn our attention to "The Blue Lotus," which is simultaneously a sequel, Herge's first mature and genuinely great work, and the most famous entry in "The Adventures of Tintin." Herge published only a few works before "The Blue Lotus" and its prequel "Cigars of the Pharaohs."  But these works -- "The Land of the Soviets," "Tintin in the Congo" and "Tintin in America" -- were more or less self-standing stories that occupied the realm of pure fantasy.  They also conveyed a sometimes disquieting sense of humor. Those three books are frequently (and accurately) accused of conveying racist stereotypes, of depicting cruelty to animals, of treating the world from the insular perspective of a European imperial power.

"The Blue Lotus" changed all of that. It was the first demonstration of Herge's appreciation for real history and events, for communicating the breadth and depth of human culture and human nature through his art and writing. The comic is based on the infamous Manchurian incident in 1931 that led to the Sino-Japanese war and to the 1933 expulsion of Japan from the League of Nations. In brief, the history of these events: Japan wanted to occupy northern China (called "Manchuria"), Japan blew up one of its own railways in Manchuria and blamed it on Chinese radicals, and seized the rest of the territory in 'self-defense.' This incident is complicated by the presence of Europeans in Shanghai's "International Settlement," the ongoing turmoil caused by the British-orchestrated opium trade, and the Boxer Rebellion that resulted from both of the above..

In the midst of all this, Herge places the young journalist Tintin, hot on the trail of a massive international conspiracy of drug smugglers who are using the Japanese imperialist desires to further their criminal enterprise. The first panel places Tintin in India, in the home of the Maharaja of Gaipajama, after his successful prosecution of the same gang in "Cigars of the Pharaohs" (the much-inferior prequel of this same tale). He is brought to Shangai, to the home of the Japanese businessman Mitsuhirato. He orders a rickshaw carriage, and the large half-page panel that follows is really a thing to behold.

The mini-story that follows is immensely meaningful. A British gentleman steps off the curb and is nearly bowled over by Tintin's rickshaw. He begins to strike the rickshaw boy with his cane, but Tintin steps in front, breaks the cane, and blames the businessman for not looking before walking into the street. The businessman angrily retires to a club where his friends are waiting, and starts venting his outrage about being stopped from "teach[ing] the yellow rabble to mind their manners" and how great a debt the "natives" owe to "our superb Western civilization." In the course of this speech, he gesticulates wildly, strikes a waiter who is bringing their drinks, and then beats the "yellow scum" senseless. Modern readers may be amused, but this was a bold stroke for Herge, and perhaps an attempt to redeem his former caricatured depictions of other races.

Machinations arise. Tintin is faced with a number of people who wish him dead; he spends some time in prison; he is nearly beheaded by a madman who had previously saved his life; he is kidnapped aboard a brig and brought to the home of a man who calls himself a friend. This man is Wang Chen-yee, leader of the "Sons of the Dragon, a secret society dedicated to the fight against opium." They discover radio transmissions speaking of "The Blue Lotus," and Tintin goes to investigate. It turns out it is an opium den owned by the same Mitsuhirato, and Tintin is able to witness the Japanese crew that sabotages the Manchurian rail line.

A warrant is put out for his arrest, and Tintin evades it on several occasions -- at one point impersonating a Japanese general. He tries to visit Fang Hai-ying, a doctor who might help combat the 'madness poison' that Mitsuhirato is using to dispatch his enemies, but discovers that Hai-ying has been kidnapped. He also visits Mr. Rastapopoulos, a film director he'd met in "Cigars of the Pharaohs." When he makes another escape from Japanese custody, he walks along a rail line and meets many Chinese civilians displaced by the ongoing war and from the flooding Yahtzee river.

Tintin also rescues a young boy from that flood.  The boy's name is Chang Chong-Chen, and he reappears in several other adventures, notably "Tintin in Tibet." This is another remarkable passage, for Chang wonders why Tintin saved him when "I thought all white devils were wicked," and Tintin responds: "Different people don't know enough about each other." This allows Tintin (and by extension Herge) to explain the common European misconceptions of Chinese culture, errors which Chang finds grotesque and ridiculous and frankly rather laughable.

The final sequences are delightful, with plenty of twists and counter-twists provided (including one crucial twist that occurs right after a page turn, which is probably quite hard to do with a comic book of predetermined dimensions). I won't spoil it, besides to mention that Tintin finds a way to work in the detectives Thomson and Thompson in the ending, and uses them to parody the accepted European stereotype of Oriental culture. It's really quite funny to see them walk down a busy street of Shanghai in cloths fit for a medieval Chinese court, totally self-satisfied with their ability to disguise themselves and totally oblivious to the fact that every Chinese person in frame is following them around and laughing at them.

"The Blue Lotus" is an excellent work, one of the definitive "Tintin" comic books and a delight besides. In terms of historical significance, it ranks with the best of them. I can't say it's my favorite, but it is the seminal work in Herge's career and deserves a good deal of recognition for it.

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