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The Books > #18: The Calculus Affair

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message 1: by Sammy (new)

Sammy (thecardigankid) | 72 comments Mod
After surprising an intruder in the opening of The Calculus Affair, Tintin and Captain Haddock realise the Professor is in danger, and race to join him at a scientific conference in Geneva. There, they discover that Calculus' latest invention has properties as a weapon of mass destruction, and both Syldavia and Borduria will kill to get their hands on it. Helped and hindered by Bianca Castafiore, and a boisterous insurance salesman named Jolyon Wagg, Tintin and Haddock must save their friend while preventing a Cold War from becoming more dangerous.

Throughout his 17 'Tintin' adventures thus far, Hergé had always been keen to incorporate real-world political situations, and found a wealth of possibilities in the growing Cold War, and the weapons race which had accelerated since the shocking nuclear climax to WWII. That very war had curtailed Herge's ability to write direct political satire, but he was able to return to his old ways here, with the now well-established tensions between his fictional Syldavia and Borduria. To this end, he created the villainous Colonel Sponsz of Borduria, and again centered the story around Professor Calculus' life being in danger.

As with many of his recent albums, Herge - and his fans - had come to love the growing cast of the series, and here we have all of the regulars, alongside La Castafiore, Nestor, and a new recurring character: Jolyon Wagg, the insurance salesman who menaces Haddock's life both at home and abroad.

There was a year-long break between the end of the previous serial, Explorers on the Moon and the opening of this one in December 1954. During this time, however, Herge had been able to release the Moon albums as well as draw Cigars of the Pharaoh in colour. He was also busy now managing a growing "Tintin" empire, and taking some time to recover his mental health. In early 1956, when the serial was finished and subsequently published, he was facing the potential of a series of English-language translations, film versions and his next story - The Red Sea Sharks - that would again bring back many of his favourite characters. Herge by this point was able to write "Tintin" completely on his own terms, and each of his stories was now as perfectly-plotted and shaded in tone as any fan could hope for.

"The Calculus Affair" was published in English in 1960 by Methuen. In 1959, it was made into a French-language series of television segments which were edited into a film for English-language viewers. This was called "The Calculus Case". In the early 1990s, the story was made into a two-part animated episode of the TV series, and a two-part radio play for the BBC series. "The Calculus Affair" is generally regarded as one of Herge's best works.

Links:

Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Calc...

Tintinologist: http://www.tintinologist.org/guides/b...

24 Days of Tintin: http://tintinblog.com/2009/12/08/24-d...


message 2: by Merry (new)

Merry | 34 comments Places visited or mentioned in "The Calculus Affair":

* Brussels, Belgium
* Geneva, Switzerland
* Nion, Switzerland
* Borduria


(This is Tintin's first and only visit to Switzerland in the albums, and is his final reported visit to Borduria.)


message 3: by Sammy (last edited Nov 05, 2010 08:17PM) (new)

Sammy (thecardigankid) | 72 comments Mod
My review:

There's a vague consensus amongst fans and critics that "The Calculus Affair" is Herge's greatest creation. Well, in some ways that's true, but things aren't perhaps quite as clear cut.

The plot is really quite simple: Calculus invents a new technology with possible weapons applications; he is kidnapped by agents from Syldavia and/or Borduria; his friends must save him. It's the plot of Prisoners of the Sun set in the richer locale of King Ottokar’s Sceptre, in a nutshell.

Where "The Calculus Affair" triumphs is in the artwork: never before had Herge's work been so exquisitely rendered. Everything from the crowded Bordurian streets at evening, to the pink skies of sunset and the European vistas. (Perhaps, despite all of Herge's meticulous research, this suggests that photographs have nothing on experience after all?) One suspects that after the colourless emptiness of space in Explorers on the Moon, Herge relished the challenge to draw scenes bursting with life again. Some of his half-page frames (the crowd outside Marlinspike's gates, a Bordurian town) are lush and joyous.

Again, though, there's nothing in the plot that distinguishes this from the serialised comic strip that it was. The album breaks up rather neatly into quarters: first, a string of strange scientific anomalies with no explanation (which last perhaps too long), then an uneasy tour of Geneva, followed by a dash of political intrigue, and then a chase sequence. But what elevates "The Calculus Affair" is in the beauty, the atmosphere, and the interconnectedness.

From the opening page, there is a strong sense of foreboding with more than one mysterious figure stalking our heroes, and this unease fills the pages relentlessly until the opera sequence, where we're dashed into a chase narrative to climax the work. And the plot is overarching whilst also using our characters to their fullest. Various dangers loom in and out of the frame, but their motives remain consistent and it never feels as if one villain is simply replacing another in a tired formula. Also, Herge subtracts the comedy of the Thompsons (and even Calculus and Snowy, neither of whom appears for any length of time), but gives us the brilliantly blabbering Jolyon Wagg in their stead. (Wagg instantly proves himself a marvelous foil to the Captain, since - unlike many leading men of comics - Tintin is never annoyed at anyone, so can only be outraged by villainy.) Not to mention a certain infamous piece of sticking plaster...

As always, there are a couple of useless elements, but only a couple, primarily involving the cliffhangers. When the cliffhanger is "how will they survive this?" and the answer is just "oh! they survived!", it's not really good enough. Herge at his best didn't like to show the strings - note his touches of realism in explaining why Tintin and Haddock found disguises so easily, or why it is that Tintin can drive a tank - but on a few of the later pages, this gets lost. (And there is some outright silliness when Tintin drives over some mines in terror, and then we learn that the mines must have been duds. For a three-frame episode, it seems redundant.)

Perhaps this will lose a little something for children of today, who know little of an era of mounting European tensions, but then again I hope not. While Borduria very much relies on comparisons with the central Europe of the time, it comes alive and the politics within work on their own terms.

Artistically, this is an outright triumph. In terms of plot construction and consistency, it is really no more than an engrossing political conspiracy movie, but it stands on an equal footing with the surrounding albums. "The Calculus Affair" is an example of what Herge could achieve when he was working at full creativity and with great resources, and for that it deserves five stars.


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