A sketchy album
Of all the albums of Tintin, Land of Black Gold remains the sketchiest book in my opinion. When I was a kid, I read this in Bengali and never got my head around many things that were happening in the story. I enjoyed the parts where the Thompsons were lost in the desert and the most of the second half where Tintin invades Dr. Muller’s stronghold and confronts the gang. It was not until my early 20s that I found out why the story is so scratchy in the first place.
It turns out that there are four versions of this album. The first one, published in Le Petit Vingtième from 1939, was in black and white. This serialisation began immediately after the serialisation of King Ottokar’s Sceptre.
After the folding of Le Vingtième Siècle due to Germans invading Belgium, the serialisation of this album ceased. Seialisation was later resumed in other magazines in France, including Tintin et Milou. The title was also changed to Tintin and Snowy in the Land of Liquid Gold.
The second version appeared about ten years later in Tintin Magazine. The official publication year of the album is quoted as 1950. This corresponds to its appearance in Tintin Magazine. By this time, a lot had changed in Tintin’s own world. New characters like Captain Haddock and Professor Calculus had become an integral part of Tintin. Tintin himself had become more of an explorer rather than a political reporter. Hergé made quite a few changes in the opening panels. One notable running gag is the failed explanation of the absence of Captain Haddock. The captain himself is unable to explain the scenario as he gets interrupted by various silly situations.
The upgrade didn’t detach Tintin from political background completely. The story was set in Palestine and the troops depicted were British. A section where Tintin is kidnapped by Irgun  was completely omitted. Most of the Arabic and Hebrew scripts in this edition did not make sense.
The third version is an edited version of the second and was published as a book. This version can still be procured. Casterman had released a facsimile edition of this version in 2004. I doubt if this facsimile edition has been translated to English.
The fourth version, or the one that can be easily bought, came to be during the translation of this album to English. Many political arrangements that did not make sense in 1950, like the British Palestine, were replaced with fictional stuff – for example, the fictional state of Khemed. Many errors in foreign scripts were also corrected. A catalogue of these panels can be found here .
The hiccups of a patched story
The story revolves around Tintin investigating adulterated petrol. The usage of this petrol causes explosion in the device that consumes the petrol. The petrol doesn’t even spare simpler devices like lighters. Tintin’s quest for the truth lands him up on a ship called Speedol Star. This vessel transports their brand of petrol, Speedol Spirit, from Khemed. To his ill luck, he is captured a prisoner by the Khemed police and then by Bab El Ehr.
Khemed is like a war zone. A petroleum company, Skoil, wants the oil concessions in Khemedite Arabia and drive the established company, Arabex, out of market. To do so, Skoil joins hands with Bab El Ehr, the nemesis of amir of Khemed, Mohammad Ben Kalish Ezab. Bab El Ehr wants power, while Skoil wants the concession.
Tintin is captured and taken to Khemed because of documents that were planted in his room that showed his involvement with Bab El Ehr. Bab El Ehr rescues him, assuming him to be his ally. When he finds out Tintin to be no one’s ally, he takes him as his prisoner. Tintin is released and left for dead when he passes out of exhaustion and dehydration. He witness an attack on the oil lines and discovers the mastermind and the owner of Skoil. He is none other than Professor Muller from The Black Island.
In the album, the first half is densely packed with events – a hallmark of earlier Tintin albums. There are also quite a few panels devoted to the Thompsons and their antics. I found their misadventures in the desert quite funny. They end up rescuing Tintin from the desert.
The second half is more action oriented. Muller kidnaps amir’s son, Abdullah, and threatens him. Tintin, with the help of Oliviera de Figuera, invades Muller’s stronghold to rescue Abdullah. The pacing and the narrative is more reminiscent of Hergé’s later albums, like Prisoners of the Sun.
A tale of two storytellers
Indeed, the time-skip between the authoring of the first half and second half contributes a lot to issues like inconsistency of flow, Tintin’s conflicts and the sense of humour present in first half of the book is different than those in the second half.
What starts out as a political conspiracy, ends in a very personal fight between Tintin and the antagonist, Prof. Mueller. It is well known that Hergé created Tintin with a different moral and ethical compass after the war. It shows. The cause may not be immediately apparent to a kid reading Tintin for the first time like it was with me when I laid my hands on the Bengali edition of this book.
Over the years Hergé had become more tolerant and considerate towards other ethnic groups and cultures. As such Land of Black Gold remains a tad bit offensive in nature – mostly because of the contribution of the prejudiced Hergé of the 1940s.
A final word about this book
Land of Black Gold remains a strange album in the Tintin catalogue. To a person who is getting into Tintin, this might still remain an enjoyable album. To a person who has already read its chronological neighbours – the Inca saga and the moon saga, it would be hard to get a grip on the narrative. To a hardcore Tintinologist, this is a book that sparks debate.
The book has a very enjoyable second half. Abdullah, as a colourful character, injects a lot of humour in an otherwise dry story. Also, most jokes in the latter half are at the expense of the main characters rather than through the depiction of an ethnic group.