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The one where Tintin faces a firing squad drunk
on 14 June 2010
There's an understandable tendency to look dismissively at the earliest solo Tintin adventures - justifiably in some cases. The artwork is somewhat naïve, as are the depictions of the countries that Tintin visits and the racial stereotyping, and the stories themselves suffer from the episodic format that they were originally published in, and there's often no clear overarching story, just a series of adventures based around a theme. On the other hand, the attraction of Tintin's character and the foundations of his investigative nature are established in his exploration of exotic lands, delighting in the diversity of a world rather that is more complicated than it would seem.
In this respect, The Broken Ear is certainly one of the best earliest Tintin exploits and, packed with incident and adventure, it's also one of the most memorable. More than just a series of adventures in a foreign land, there's some real-life relevance to the nature of South American republics in constant revolution, one dictatorial regime replacing another and not appearing to be any different or less cruel, while American investors, oil companies and weapons dealers manipulate the situation for their own ends.
The story starts off innocently enough with Tintin becoming interested in the disappearance of a South American fetish from a museum only for it to be replaced the next day, with its formerly broken ear now suspiciously intact. It's clearly been switched, but why would anyone go to such trouble for an object of little more than ethnographic interest? Tintin follows up the trail of a murdered sculptor and a talking parrot, before finding that the trail leads him right back to San Theodoros and the Arumbaya tribe living in its jungle. Before Tintin can investigate further however, he finds himself caught up in a revolution and appointed aide-de-camp of General Alcazar who has just deposed the evil dictator General Tapioca.
Certainly much of the storyline is built on cliché and standard plot devices - masked revolutionaries in sombreros running around carrying fizzing bombs, last minute escapes from firing squads, Amazonian tribes with poison darts - and the artwork is rather simplistic, showing little of the meticulous detail and research that Hergé and his studio would put into later works, but even so, this is the stuff of grand adventure. The storyline may freewheel from one incident to the next, but Hergé remains focussed on the story, returning repeatedly to the missing fetish and its mystery, allowing it to be the motif that threads through the narrative. And while the clear-line artwork might lack the finesse of mid-period Hergé, there's still a wonderful dynamism to the visual storytelling elements and the layouts, fully capturing the exoticism of the locations and the danger within them. Tremendous fun.