Adventures of Tintin: King Ottokar’s Sceptre

By Hergé & various; translated by Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper & Michael Turner (Egmont)
ISBN: 978-1-40520-619-8 (HB)                    : 978-0-31613-383-8 (PB)

Georges Prosper Remi – AKA Hergé – created a true masterpiece of graphic literature with his many tales of a plucky boy reporter and his entourage of iconic associates. Singly, and later with assistants including Edgar P. Jacobs, Bob de Moor and the Hergé Studio, Remi completed 23 splendid volumes (originally produced in brief instalments for a variety of periodicals) that have grown beyond their popular culture roots and attained the status of High Art.

Like Dickens with The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Hergé died in the throes of creation, and final outing Tintin and Alph-Art remains a volume without a conclusion, but still a fascinating examination and a pictorial memorial of how the artist worked.

It’s only fair, though, to ascribe a substantial proportion of credit to the many translators whose diligent contributions have enabled the series to be understood and beloved in 38 languages. The subtle, canny, witty and slyly funny English versions are the work of Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper & Michael Turner.

On leaving school in 1925, Remi worked for Catholic newspaper Le Vingtiéme Siécle where he fell under the influence of its Svengali-like editor Abbot Norbert Wallez. The following year, the young artist – a passionate and dedicated boy scout – produced his first strip series: The Adventures of Totor for the monthly Boy Scouts of Belgium magazine.

By 1928 he was in charge of producing the contents of Le XXe Siécles children’s weekly supplement Le Petit Vingtiéme and unhappily illustrating The Adventures of Flup, Nénesse, Poussette and Cochonette when Abbot Wallez urged Remi to create a new adventure series. Perhaps a young reporter who would travel the world, doing good whilst displaying solid Catholic values and virtues?

And also, perhaps, highlight and expose some the Faith’s greatest enemies and threats…?

Having recently discovered the word balloon in imported newspaper strips, Remi decided to incorporate this simple yet effective innovation into his own work.

He would produce a strip that was modern and action-packed. Beginning January 10th 1929, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets appeared in weekly instalments, running until May 8th 1930.

Accompanied by his dog Milou (Snowy to us Brits), the clean-cut, no-nonsense boy-hero – a combination of Ideal Good Scout and Remi’s own brother Paul (a soldier in the Belgian Army) – would report back all the inequities from the “Godless Russias”.

The strip’s prime conceit was that Tintin was an actual foreign correspondent for Le Petit Vingtiéme

The odyssey was a huge success, assuring further – albeit less politically charged and controversial – exploits to follow. At least that was the plan…

Originally published as a weekly monochrome strip Le Sceptre d’Ottokar ran from August 4th 1938 to August 10th 1939. The rousing Ruritanian saga of plot and counter-plot was designed as a satirical critique of Nazi Germany’s nefarious expansionist policies, but in a remarkably short course of time real life terrifyingly caught up with fictional hijinks. Another commercial winner, the tale was promptly released in collected book form upon conclusion and Herge’s team moved straight on to new serial Land of Black Gold. That tale was curtailed by the fall of Belgium in 1940 and the closure of Le Vingtiéme Siécle. We’ll talk more about that later…

When the war ended and Tintin led a resurgence of European comics, Le Sceptre d’Ottokar, was revived, reformatted, reconditioned and rereleased in a full-colour album. It was the first book to make the jump to English editions – in 1956 – and was adapted for the small screen by Belvision Studios. Twice in fact, as Canada’s Ellipse/Nelvana crafted their own animated version in 1991.

Older British readers might have another reason to recall this tale. Many of them had an early introduction to Tintin and his dog (then called Milou, as in the French editions) when fabled comic The Eagle began running King Ottokar’s Sceptre in translated instalments on their prestigious full-colour centre section in 1951.

During the Occupation, Hergé continued producing comic strips for Le Soir and in the period following Belgium’s liberation was accused of being a collaborator and even a Nazi sympathiser.

It took the intervention of Resistance hero Raymond Leblanc to dispel the cloud over Hergé, which he did by simply vouching for the cartoonist and by providing the cash to create the magazine – Le Journal de Tintin – which he published. The anthology comic swiftly achieved a weekly circulation in the hundreds of thousands.

The story itself is pure escapist magic as a chance encounter via a park bench leads our youthful hero on a mission of utmost diplomatic importance to the European kingdom of Syldavia. This picturesque principality stood for a number of countries such as Czechoslovakia that were in the process of being subverted by Nazi insurrectionists at time of writing.

Tintin becomes a surveillance target for enemy agents and, after a number of life-threatening near misses, flies to Syldavia with his new friend. The sigillographer Professor Alembick is an expert on Seals of Office and his research trip coincides with a sacred ceremony wherein the Ruler must annually display the fabled sceptre of King Ottokar to the populace or lose his throne.

When the sceptre is stolen it takes all of Tintin’s luck and cunning to prevent an insurrection and the overthrow of the country by enemy provocateurs…

Full of dash, as breathtaking as a rollercoaster ride and as compelling as any Bond movie, this is classic adventure story-telling to match the best of the cinema’s swashbucklers and as suspenseful as a Hitchcock thriller, balancing insane laughs with moments of genuine tension.

Clearly just as the world headed into a new Dark Age, Hergé was entering a Golden one…

These ripping yarns for all ages are an unparalleled highpoint in the history of graphic narrative. Their constant popularity proves them to be a worthy addition to the list of world classics of literature.
King Ottokar’s Sceptre: artwork © 1947, 1975 Editions Casterman, Paris & Tournai. Text © 1958 Egmont UK Limited. All Rights Reserved.