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The one where Calculus is kidnapped
on 12 April 2010
The Calculus Affair comes in the wake of Hergé's greatest achievements in the Tintin series which peaked with the double-length works, The Secret of the Unicorn/Red Rackham's Treasure, The Seven Crystal Balls/Prisoners of the Sun and Destination Moon/Explorers on the Moon. The qualities that are evident in those books are all here in The Calculus Affair, the story packed with amusing incidents and adventure, strong characterisation, entertaining secondary characters and superlative clear-line artwork that is not only well designed and laid-out, but expressive and dynamic. There's only one area in which The Calculus Affair is lacking from the double-features, and it might well have something to do with length - there's just not much room left for a decent plot.
Essentially, although there is a little bit of a mystery at the start of the book with glass, crystal and ceramic objects shattering in Haddock's Marlinspike mansion, the plot involves an experiment that Calculus has been developing, creating a device that can destroy objects through the use of high-frequency sound. Two rival neighbouring Balkan nations, Syldavia and Borduria (fictional nations first encountered in King Ottokar's Sceptre), both recognise the potential for the invention to be used as a weapon with the power to destroy entire cities, and between them vie for kidnapping the Professor and obtaining his secrets.
If the plot has little that is inventive, complicated or nuanced in any way (when it comes to where Tintin's sympathies should lie during an encounter with agents from both countries, Captain Haddock amusingly recommends just hitting the ugliest ones) The Calculus Affair is at least a masterpiece in visual storytelling terms, every single page filled with seemingly insignificant little incidents that are meticulously storyboarded and realised. Some of the more memorable are the crossed telephone lines during the storm at the start that involves Mr Cutts the butcher and introduces insurance salesman Jolyon Wagg, there's the incident with the sticking plaster on the plane and there's the chase sequence with an eager Italian driver that culminates with a magnificent large frame of the car weaving through a small town on market day - but even seemingly minor throwaway jokes (Haddock's attitude towards hitchhikers) are brilliantly encapsulated in a couple of frames.
More than just amusement, these little situations (the crossed lines, the persistent sticking plaster of doubt that keeps on nagging at your conscience, the switching of ideals to suit self-interest) also reflect the conflict of ideals where morality isn't so clear - not least of which is in the use of science to develop weapons of mass destruction - so that it's consequently hard to determine which side to support. As far as comics go, this is highly sophisticated material under the guise of simple entertainment, Hergé dealing to some degree with the same concepts as Watchmen, questioning the use of nuclear weapons and the motivations of those with the power to use them for their own ends. Lacking a strong plot to hang these ideas upon, The Calculus Affair may not be as complex in narrative and structural terms as Alan Moore's 80's dark meditation on imminent nuclear Armageddon, but it's no less brilliant and innovative in terms of its visual language, still looking fresh and relevant while Watchmen is already looking dated, and it's certainly less self-important.