Land of Black Gold
On 9 May 1940, the invasion of Belgium during World War II brutally interrupted the publication of Land of Black Gold. Tintin's universe was still young: Captain Haddock, Professor Calculus and Marlinspike Hall did not yet exist. Eight years later the adventure was re-started in Tintin magazine; with a couple of nifty tweaks, Hergé integrated into the story the new characters who had come along in the meantime. In 1950 the adventure was published as a book, and as the years went by and the world changed, a slightly updated version was released in 1971.
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“Boom!... One day your car goes Boom!” Hergé loved to pepper his stories with humour, especially when things were serious. And who better to lighten the mood than Thomson and Thompson? As they drive along in their old Citroën Torpedo, singing along to a catchy radio jingle, little are the dopey detectives aware that they are about to fall victim to their very own “Boom”!
As Thomson and Thompson try to get to the bottom of the mystery explosion, the mishaps continue. As breakdown truck drivers, they manage to break their truck; as sailors, they fail to show customary respect to their captain. When the detectives demolish the wall of a mosque they narrowly escape mob justice but end up in prison. Later on, suffering from headaches, the misguided policemen think their lucky day has come when they find what looks like a tube of aspirin in the sand; they end up swallowing doses of Formula Fourteen, a chemical compound used by Dr Müller to sabotage petrol supplies. The net result of this compound on the hapless Thom(p)sons' capillary systems will be felt for a long time to come...
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Of all Hergé's stories, Land of Black Gold is set against one of the most realistic contemporary backdrops. The economic, political and strategic importance of petrol is a key element in the narrative, much of which takes place in the Middle East.
The countries of this geographic region remain in the news today; much of the fragile peace in the world depends on events in this area.
Professor Smith, archaeologist
Tintin's investigations lead him into the middle of the desert, where he is surprised to find that the leader of a gang sabotaging an oil pipeline is on old acquaintance called Dr Müller (see The Black Island). Living under a false identity – as archaeologist Professor Smith – the criminal mastermind Müller is in fact working for a foreign power, supporting the interests of Skoil Petroleum and Sheik Bab El Ehr.
To make his cover as an archaeologist more believable, Müller has, on display on a side table in his office, a copy of an important Mesopotamian artefact, the gold helmet of the Sumerian Prince Meskalamdug of the Third Dynasty of Ur Dynasty (2400-2600 B.C.), the original of which is kept in the Museum of Baghdad.
Friends in the right places
Tintin's wheeler and dealer friend Oliveira da Figueira, has moved to Wadesdah, the capital city of Khemed, to open up a shop. Gone are the days of the travelling salesman (see Cigars of the Pharaoh); now he's happily settled down. Trustworthy and brave, and willing to risk his life (or at least his reputation) for his friend Tintin, the kind and talkative Portuguese man is very well-connected, with clients including almost everyone in town: just the kind of help Tintin needs as he carries out his undercover detective work.
A shocking coincidence
Is Bianca Castafiore somewhere in Khemed? Luckily it turns out that Tintin has just stumbled across a radio broadcast; he quickly changes station.
Emir Mohammed Ben Kalish Ezab
The all-powerful King of Khemed, Mohammed Ben Kalish Ezab, is a doting father as well as a ruthless dictator. His name, which Hergé chose from the many Brussels slang expressions he loved so much, means "liquorice juice".
With an uncontrollable temper, the ruler of Khemed is a Jekyll and Hyde character who goes from being a soft-hearted father (despite the fact that his son is unbearably difficult) to a torture-threatening tyrant (when he hears the names of his enemies) in the blink of an eye. Hergé brings Ben Kalish Ezab back to the universe of Tintin in The Red Sea Sharks.
Abdullah, new kid on the block
Abdullah is an only child, which is a godsend for peace-loving people everywhere. He sees everyone he comes across, even Snowy, as a potential target for his mischief. As next in line to the throne, Abdullah is untouchable on pain of death, and he loves taking advantage of his privileged position to wind up his entourage and the wider circle of people he meets – including Tintin, Captain Haddock and even the dastardly Doctor Müller – who in turn try to tame the terror with a good old spanking! But Abdullah does have one or two good tricks up his sleeve: it is thanks to his itching powder that Dr Müller crashes his car while trying to escape.
Along with his father and Sheik Bab El Ehr, Abdullah returns to see another day in a different adventure. And he is as naughty as ever!
Big brand names
Hergé draws well-known brands into Land of Black Gold, as he does in other Tintin books; thus Tintin drives through the twentieth century in a variety of classic automobiles. In this adventure the author of Tintin makes a reference to a pharmaceutical company.
Who is the mysterious beauty with the red ball of thread? Only her smouldering eyes are visible, and what beautiful eyes... The funny thing is that people often say that women are under-represented in The Adventures of Tintin.
When Hergé does draw females in his stories he is often criticised for depicting an array of unpleasant character traits: nagging, vanity, gossiping, etc., but in this particular instance that does not seem to be the case. The red bundle the woman holds in front of her accentuates the depth of the picture; Tintin, in disguise, is pushed into the background.
In 1938, the Belgian surrealist artist René Magritte painted Time Transfixed. The picture shows the fireplace in a classic Belgian townhouse, out of which a train spewing smoke emerges in place of the usual stove-pipe.
It is tempting to see similarities between this painting and the frame showing Dr Müller emerging from the fireplace like a devil rising up out of the flames of hell. Out of an open fire appears a force of evil and malice, and from the depths of its being... it sneezes!
Three versions for three eras
Land of Black Gold had a stormy ride over the years. As Hergé worked on the first version of the story it was brutally interrupted by the onset of World War II; the definitive version of the adventure would not be published until 30 years later. First appearing in the children's magazine Le Petit Vingtième, the initial publication was halted on 9 May 1940, when Germany invaded Belgium. On 16 September 1948, Hergé took up the adventure again and the story was published in colour in Tintin magazine, before the book finally came out in 1950. The images below come from this version of the story.
The historical context of the adventure – Palestine under British mandate – remained the same in the two versions published between 1940 and 1950; in 1971 Hergé changed Palestine into a fictional country, Khemed, as the backdrop to the narrative.