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On the cover for the Tintin book The Calculus Affair, drawn in clear-line style, Tintin, Haddock, Snowy, and an unconscious Calculus hide behind a rock from a team of tank soldiers. The view is framed by yellow shattered glass Image: Hergé/Casterman

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When Tintin entered the Cold War

As a spy thriller, 1954’s The Calculus Affair was far ahead of its time

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Oli Welsh is senior editor, U.K., providing news, analysis, and criticism of film, TV, and games. He has been covering the business & culture of video games for two decades.

In 1954, the Cold War was not even a decade old, and its imprint on pop culture in the form of the spy thriller was still in its infancy.

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Ian Fleming had published the first James Bond novel a year prior, but in postwar film and TV, producers were mostly looking for escapist entertainments and historical epics that got as far from the political zeitgeist as possible. It wasn’t until the early 1960s, when Bond broke into cinemas and The Man from UNCLE hit TV screens, that spies became cool, and the nuclear-powered struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union started to be truly mined for mass entertainment.

But one clean-cut pop-culture hero didn’t waste time diving into this conflict, and he did it in the pages of a French-language magazine for kids. In December 1954, the boy reporter Tintin embarked on an adventure that had all the hallmarks of a classic spy thriller: The Calculus Affair. It would take him into the heart of the Cold War, and embroil him in a secret struggle for the plans to a deadly superweapon.

Tintin and Captain Haddock watch silhouetted figures escort their friend Calculus to a helicopter at night. Suddenly there’s an attack. “My God! What’s going on?” says Tintin.
In The Calculus Affair’s Cold War, confusion reigns, and allies aren’t what they seem.
Image: Hergé/Casterman

This wasn’t entirely new ground for Tintin. Unlike most other comic strip heroes of the mid-20th century, Tintin operated in a world based in geopolitical reality; he was ostensibly a journalist, after all, and his creator, the Belgian artist Hergé, loved to take inspiration from the headlines. In the 1930s, The Blue Lotus took Tintin to China in the midst of Manchuria’s invasion by Japan, while King Ottakar’s Scepter foreshadowed the start of World War II as Tintin helped defend Syldavia, a fictional Balkan state, against the expansionism of its fascist neighbor, Borduria.

But by the mid-’50s, both Tintin and Hergé were in a different place. Tintin’s strip had moved from the pages of a Belgian newspaper to his own magazine, where it was published in full color. The books, or “albums,” that collected his adventures had become enormously popular; the series arguably hit its iconic peak in the 1940s with a pair of two-volume adventures — the piratical treasure hunt of The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham’s Treasure, and the mystical Aztec odyssey of The Seven Crystal Balls and Prisoners of the Sun — that would greatly influence the creation of Indiana Jones.

Hergé, a driven perfectionist prone to bouts of exhaustion and depression, was getting ever more ambitious in the scope, subject and composition of Tintin’s escapades. In 1950, he began telling the prophetic, exhaustively researched tale of Tintin’s journey to the moon in Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon. It didn’t conclude until nearly three years later, after several long hiatuses in publication, and nearly broke its author. Two things were clear: Hergé needed a new process, and Tintin needed to come back to Earth.

A bird’s eye view of a car racing pell-mell through a village square on market day, scattering people, animals, and objects everywhere
Extraordinarily detailed panels like this one were meticulously drawn by a whole team of artists at the Hergé Studios.
Image: Hergé/Casterman

The artist known in real life as Georges Remi (in French pronunciation, “Hergé” sounds like “RG” — his initials backwards) founded the Hergé Studios, a team of artists led by the great draftsman Bob de Moor who would help him complete his work and collectively perfect his inimitable “clear line” style (practically without credit, it must be said). With more time to plan and conceptualize, Hergé reined in the length of his stories, but became even more obsessed with their realism. The first result was The Calculus Affair, a breakneck thriller on a human scale, engineered with clockwork precision, and set in a very real world.

The story starts at Marlinspike Hall, the ancestral pile where Tintin resides with his best friend, the irascible, drunken sailor Captain Haddock; and Professor Cuthbert Calculus, the genius inventor who orchestrated their moonshot. Without explanation, glass everywhere starts shattering; then Calculus abruptly leaves for Switzerland and spies are found skulking around his lab. Believing their friend in danger, Tintin and Haddock follow Calculus to Geneva, where they uncover a Bordurian plot to abduct him, but just too late. It turns out that Calculus has invented a devastating sonic weapon, and both Borduria and Syldavia are vying to be the first to get it.

A car with a mustache fender drives past a statue of a mustachioed leader; in the background is a giant building flying mustache flags
Borduria is a parody of a Stalinist state, plastered with an insignia based on its leader’s mustache.
Image: Hergé/Casterman

Hergé’s two made-up Balkan states had changed roles after the ’30s — and so had Hergé. In The Calculus Affair, Borduria, once a caricature of Nazi Germany, is an aggressive member of the Communist bloc whose agents are all shaven-headed goons in dark raincoats. Its autocratic leader, Marshal Kûrvi-Tasch, has metamorphosed from Hitler into Stalin; his insignia, based on his luxurious mustache, is emblazoned everywhere from cigarette packets to car fenders to the circumflex accent in his name. These are unquestionably the bad guys, although Hergé makes them more buffoonish than sinister, and not immune to the charms of the decadent West. Their monocled secret police chief, Colonel Sponsz, pops his champagne cork at the sight of the insufferable Italian soprano Bianca Castafiore during a brilliant opera house sequence, and is so smugly smitten that he unwittingly lets Tintin and Haddock make their escape.

The Syldavians, now stand-ins for NATO allies, are no longer the good guys, even though they had just assisted in the moon expedition. Tintin and Haddock think they’re in luck when they arrive at the Bordurian embassy on Lake Geneva, where Calculus is being held, at the same time as a Syldavian extraction squad — allies at last! — but the scales fall from their eyes when the Syldavians knock out the reporter and kidnap the professor for themselves. Nine years after the end of the war, a more cynical Hergé is done taking sides. Tintin has no interest in swinging the balance of power any more — he just wants to save his friend. At the end of the book, Hergé has Calculus destroy the plans for his sonic invention so it can never be used for “warlike ends.”

An uniformed official from a Cold War regime demonstrates the destruction of a city with a sonic weapon, apparently shown live on a television screen. “A whole city is erased from the map of the world!” he says.
Hergé mostly sought to make fun of The Calculus Affair’s Cold War villains, but this sequence, albeit a fakeout, is one of the more chilling in all of his Tintin stories.
Image: Hergé/Casterman

This is not to say that Hergé was a political progressive. A Belgian nationalist and staunch royalist, his early work was filled with appalling racist and colonialist caricature. (The indefensible Tintin in the Congo from 1931 remains in print, but has now been discreetly dropped from the grid of covers that adorns the back of every Tintin book.) But in his later stories, world-weary rationality and a satirical disdain for the machinations of political power emerged.

After The Calculus Affair, Hergé exposed modern slavery in The Red Sea Sharks, moving from Cold War cynicism to a kind of issue-led activist thriller, as John Le Carré would decades later in novels like The Night Manager and The Constant Gardener. Then he shunned the outside world and turned Tintin’s focus inward in the existential masterpiece, Tintin in Tibet, and the exquisitely pointless drawing-room farce, The Castafiore Emerald. Hergé’s last complete work, 1976’s Tintin and the Picaros — in which Tintin helps his old friend, General Alcazar, regain control of his Latin American state in a popular revolution — is capped by a mordant final panel showing how little progress has been made; the leader’s name has changed, but the impoverished state remains. By then, Tintin, once a blithe colonial tourist, and usually scrupulous in his neutrality, wore the symbol of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament on his motorbike helmet.

Three panels of a Tintin comic, showing a taxi containing Tintin and Captain Haddock being driven off the road into a lake
Hergé’s meticulous research for The Calculus Affair included scouting the exact spot on Lake Geneva this crash could take place.
Image: Hergé/Casterman

The Calculus Affair was a turning point for Tintin and for Hergé that ushered in this amazing late run of experimental, mature, conceptually acute books, characterized by Hergé’s now-total control of his (and his studio’s) craft. It’s perhaps the most straightforward story of that run: a linear, propulsive rescue mission, driven even more than most by the weekly publishing schedule that drops a cliffhanger at the end of every page. It’s also unfailingly funny, even amidst the relentless chase set-piece that dominates the middle of the book, as Tintin pursues the Syldavian spies across the Swiss countryside.

But The Calculus Affair’s simple, exciting romp is transformed by the specificity of the world. Hergé and de Moor painstakingly scouted real locations around Lake Geneva, even going so far as to identify a spot where a car could be driven off the road into the lake, and reproduced them exactly. Hergé also consciously avoided the series’ usual exoticism, setting the whole adventure in Europe and exploiting relatable irritations, like a Band-Aid that won’t come unstuck or an insurance salesman who won’t go away, for laughs. This was Tintin’s world (and Hergé’s; he loved to holiday on Lake Geneva), and it was being shaken up by a secret conflict for an apocalyptic superweapon. For the first (but not the last) time in the Tintin series, adventure had come to find the young explorer at home, and it wasn’t entirely welcome.

The Calculus Affair’s realism and political ambivalence are remarkable for the 1950s, never mind for a children’s comic strip. It’s thrilling but grounded and credible, and shot through with a healthy suspicion of the machine of power: a perfect entry point into the world of spy fiction that was decades ahead of its time.