Thursday, October 28, 2010

Hergé: The Secret of the Unicorn

“The Secret of the Unicorn” is generally considered to be the best comic book in “The Adventures of Tintin,” both by fans and by its creator Hergé. It is not surprising, then, that this is the story Steven Spielberg chose to adapt to screen. Along with its sequel “Red Rackham’s Treasure,” this comic book comprises one of the most enjoyable romps in the entire series.

In narrative terms, this is probably the best and most coherent books in the series. The book opens in a marketplace, where Tintin meets the Thompson twins. The detectives are investigating a series of pick-pockets, but when they stop to buy a number of canes, they discover their own wallets had been stolen. Tintin, meanwhile, stumbles across a sailing-ship model and decides to buy it for Captain Haddock, just before two other antique collectors attempt to purchase it as well. When Tintin presents it to Haddock, he realizes that it’s identical to the sailing ship in the background of a portrait of his ancestor, Sir Francis Haddock.

This reminds Haddock of a sea-chest that belonged to his ancestor gathering dust in the attic, where he finds a cutlass (by which he terrifies his neighbors and landlady) and Sir Francis Haddock’s journal, in which he relates a sea battle with the dread pirate Roberts… er, Red Rackham. The panels alternate between Captain Haddocks’ dramatic storytelling and re-enactment of the events, and Sir Francis Haddocks’ experience of the events themselves. The effect is dazzling. Captain Haddock fights with the cutlass and his finger for a pistol, only for the next panel to show Sir Francis Haddock fighting in the same stance with a cutlass and an actual pistol.  When Sir Francis duels the terrifying Diego the Dreadful, Hergé depicts the pirate’s demise via Captain Haddock’s skewering of a cushion. These pages are a highlight of the comic book, and in my opinion of the series as a whole.

Returning to the modern day, Tintin discovers that his model ship was stolen and his apartment ransacked. He suspects one of the other collectors, but soon realizes the man's innocence when he finds that the collector owns an identical miniature that was also stolen. Tintin had purchased one in a matching set of sailing ship models. He soon discovers that there is a scrap of parchment hidden in the mast of each model, with a message from Sir Francis Haddock to his sons: the location of Red Rackham’s treasure.

The story proceeds with murders, mayhems, and pick-pocketing. Tintin is, predictably enough, kidnapped by the villains, questioned for information he could not possibly possess, makes a daring and clever escape, and ultimately discovers his kidnapper’s insidious plan.

The ending of the comic book is truly delightful. It turns out that, while everyone was busily trying to gather the three parchments, the serial pick-pocketer was stealing their wallets with those parchments. When Tintin and the Thompson detectives finally catch up with the man – Aristides Silk, civil servant and kleptomaniac – they discover his alphabetized collection of wallets, and Tintin finds the remaining scraps of parchment.

Before he leaves to share that discovery with Captain Haddock, Tintin reminds the detectives to look under the letter "T" in Silk's wallet collection. The detectives' realization that the entire section had been filled with wallets belonging to them... I still laugh when I read it.

It turns out that when each scrap of parchment is held together to the light, it reveals a message, along with a latitude and longitude where the pirate’s treasure would be found. But that story waits for the sequel: “Red Rackham’s Treasure.”

This comic book is probably the best in the series, both in literary terms and in narrative heft. The recurring motif of pick-pocketing neatly book-ends the central story, and there is an impressive diversity of settings even though the story occurs almost entirely within a modern city. The back-story of Captain Haddock’s ancestor is brilliantly written and sketched, and it is a true highlight of the entire series. Most of all, the story dovetails perfectly with its sequel: the works are distinct in style and in their setting, but coincide splendidly in narrative tension and dramatic movement.

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