Comment realized by Alain Beltran, Senior Research Fellow, French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS).
"Will there be war?”
The Tintin adventure Land of Black Gold was published in three successive versions. The first appeared in Le Petit Vingtième, the youth supplement of a Belgian newspaper. This article focuses on the second version, which takes place in 1938, but was published in 1949/1950. The third version was released later on and is set in a fictional country at the request of the British publishers.
The story begins in France, where car engines and even one of the Thompson’s lighters start mysteriously exploding. It all unfolds against a tense international backdrop, with lines like “Will there be war?” and “Call-up of Army Reserve”. Even Captain Haddock is mobilized. The poor quality of gasoline directly affects the oil companies but, what is worse, if war breaks out, the army risks being paralyzed because the fuel is unfit for use. Following a turbulent journey by ship, Tintin, Captain Haddock and Thomson and Thompson reunite in Palestine, and soon after in the desert. Tintin encounters an old nemesis: Doctor Müller. Then, as Emir Bab el Ehr’s guests, our heroes must put up with the whims of the young Abdullah. After various twists and turns, the bad guy is arrested and the mystery of the explosive gasoline solved.
The World in 1938
The story’s plot is directly related to news events that occurred hardly ten years prior. A clue can be found in a box indicating the date July 18, and from that point on the reader follows the events of September 1938. The international tensions recall the Sudeten Crisis and its outcome in Munich where, eager to avoid war, France and Great Britain tried to appease the Nazi and Fascist dictatorships by ceding the Czechoslovakian territories coveted by Hitler. Against this historical backdrop, Hergé adds the storyline of doctored fuel unfit for use. At the end of the tale, readers learn that Doctor Müller has developed a chemical, known as Formula Fourteen (or N14 in the French version), to reduce the quality of gasoline. Müller has been working for a “foreign power” that is trying to sabotage France’s means of defense with this formula. The German-sounding name of the doctor could imply that he works for Germany, especially given that a comic book published after World War II is quite likely to portray the “bad guy” as born beyond the Rhine. Müller has also been given orders to gain control of the oil wells in the Near and Middle East, as well as sabotage other oil resources with Formula Fourteen/N14 (N standing for nitrogen, the basis of certain explosives, and 14 being the element’s doubled atomic number). It is common knowledge that Germany made desperate attempts to obtain oil for its war effort, such as in the offensives in the Caspian Sea and Mesopotamia. The pre-1939 context is confirmed by a line Tintin says as he walks through Smith/Müller’s fortified city: “One would think one was on the Maginot Line”. The Maginot Line is a chain of fortifications in north and northeast France named after André Maginot, the Minister of War who advocated the well-constructed, yet famously incomplete defensive barrier.
Tintin (and Snowy) arrive in Palestine at a time when the country is under British mandate following the post-World War I allied agreements. Conflict between Arabs and Jews had grown bloody since 1936, with Zionist groups such as Irgun (mentioned in the comic book) carrying out attacks in response to the massacring of Jewish colonists. The unfortunate Tintin, after being arrested by the English, is kidnapped by Jewish fighters, who themselves fall prey to an ambush by the Arabs. Later, Tintin witnesses the nighttime sabotage of an oil pipeline. It is worth noting that in spite of everything that has been said about Hergé, the description of the fighting in Palestine is extremely objective, with no labeling of “good” or “bad” guys. When Hergé wrote the comic book in 1949, the State of Israel had already been officially created. The first of many wars between the Arabs and Jews had also taken place between 1947 and 1948, ending in the division of Jerusalem and the exodus of thousands of Palestinians.
A Mere Episode in the Oil War
The issue of oil is visible on three levels in the comic book. First, it serves as a leitmotif through the unexplained explosions of car engines (aptly named internal “combustion” engines). These recurring incidents are capable of ruining the economies of developed countries and heighten international tensions, as each side accuses the other of wrongdoing. Secondly, the journey to Palestine takes place aboard an oil tanker, the Speedol Star. Lastly, the comic book depicts the destruction of a pipeline and the reaction of the oil companies when they notice that the flow has stopped. As the story is set in Palestine, the sabotaged pipeline is likely to transport oil from Iraq to the Mediterranean Sea, with one branch terminating at the Port of Haifa (now part of Israel) and the other in Lebanon. In reality, the first branch was not in operation for long due to the geopolitical environment. The oil originated from Iraqi fields that were managed at the time by the Iraq Petroleum Company, a powerful U.S.- and U.K.-dominated trust, with slightly less than one-fourth of output reserved for the Compagnie Française des Pétroles, Total’s direct ancestor company.
The plot also highlights the rivalries between oil companies, as Doctor Müller tries to pit them against one another by sabotaging a pipeline in the middle of the desert (there are actually two nighttime sabotages on two consecutive evenings). Müller also stirs up rivalry among the sheiks, who support different international oil companies. Sheik Mohammed Ben Kalish Ezab, for example, has signed a contract with an English company. When the contract is up for renewal, Müller tries to make him believe that the attacks were carried out by Sheik Bab el Ehr so that he will sign with another “non-English” company. If he does so, the attacks will come to an end. Müller kidnaps the son of Sheik Mohammed Ben Kalish Ezab, who receives a letter in which Bab el Ehr claims responsibility. If the Sheik wants to see his son alive again, he must drive out the English. Müller, going by the name Smith, has a secret agent-style “cover” as an archaeologist... and oil company representative.
Even though oil issues are omnipresent in all of their geopolitical dimensions, Hergé’s description of the Near East does not make them the region’s defining feature. And while the oil is transported through the region, the wells are located in Iraq. Furthermore, the aspect of the story that stands out most is the incredibly strained relations between the British Empire, members of the developing Zionist movement and the Arab population. Hergé foresaw all the complexity of this unresolved conflict, which continues to shape the region. Unlike The Blue Lotus, in which Hergé clearly sides with the Chinese against their Japanese aggressor, Land of Black Gold echoes General de Gaulle’s reference to “the complicated Orient” with a certain amount of neutrality.
Do You Speak Brusselair?
The names of the oil sites and operations once again give Hergé a chance to make a nod to his Brussels roots by creating puns in Marols, or brusselair, a language mixing French, Flemish and even Spanish. For example, the Bir El Ambik well sounds similar to the name of a famous beer, Halambique. Likewise, the Skoil Petroleum oil company evokes the word for cheers, skoll. Other examples include the names of some of the Arab characters, such as Ben Kalish Ezab (similar to the word for licorice juice), Bab El Ehr (which sounds like babeler, meaning to be talkative) and Yussuf Ben Mulfrid (a reference to moules frites, or mussels with fries, a Belgian specialty). The capital of Khemed, Wadesdha, sounds like wat is dat (or “what is that” with a heavy French accent). It is not the first Tintin comic book to use puns, but they are particularly numerous in this volume.
Tintin in America
While this highly original volume gives center stage to oil, it is not the only one to treat the topic. A very famous plate from Tintin in America, published prior to Land of Black Gold, is also themed around oil. In this third comic book, dating back to the early 1930s, Tintin accidentally leads to the discovery of oil on an Indian reservation. After refusing a meager compensation, the Indians are thrown out and, unbelievably fast, a city springs up out of the oil wealth. In the United States, unlike in France, the subsoil belongs to the owner of the land, making the appetite for oil voracious. In this volume, however, Hergé is clearly rooting for the Indians against greedy capitalism. Two comic books, two messages: oil can be depicted in multiple ways, even by the same author.
Find Out More
Read Land of Black Gold and Tintin in America. Immerse yourself in Albert Algoud’s Dictionnaire amoureux de Tintin (Plon, 2016). Check out a few books on the history of oil (Luttes pétrolières au Moyen-Orient, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power, etc.).
The visuals of Hergé are protected by the copyright and can not be used without the prior written consent of the company MOULINSART (contact: [email protected]).