BILLIONS OF BLISTERING BLUE BARNICLES!
by Rob Lopresti
My father was a elementary school principal so I often got books as presents. That was fine with me.
On Christmas when I was seven there was a book under the tree called Explorers On The Moon. This was half a decade before before Neil Armstrong took his short step so I glanced at the cover and assessed it as a popular science book – “When our astronauts visit the moon they will…etc” — and put it aside in favor of more exciting narratives.
But when I opened it up I was in for multiple surprises. First of all, it was a comic book – the term graphic novel was further away than Armstrong’s step. Secondly, it obviously started in the middle of the story. The ship had just taken off and there were a bunch of characters we were supposed to have already met.
Even with that handicap the book was a terrific read. I eventually figured out (and I don’t remember how I did literary research at age seven) that this book was part of the Adventures of Tintin, by a Belgian artist named Hergé (Georges Remi).
Two year later my family visited Europe and I was astonished to discover that Tintin and his characters were as ubiquitous there as Mickey Mouse in the U.S. Books, dolls, and clothing were all there for the buying.
I had stumbled into one of the longest running single-author narrations in world history. (What other stories went on for more than forty-five years? Christie’s Poirot series? Schultz’s Peanuts? Balzac’s Human Comedy? And then what?)
I bring this up now because my wife bought me a book by Michael Farr called Tintin and Co., which reviews the career of each of the continuing characters in the series. I was surprised to find that the most popular character (according to a poll of Tintinophiles) didn’t enter the series until one third of the way through its run.
Oh captain, my captain
You see, Hergé had a problem with his series hero. Tintin, the “boy reporter” who is almost never seen writing anything, much less filng it with a newspaper, had no personality. All he had was a set of virtues, like the Scout Law (trustworthy, loyal, helpful, etc.). Hergé wisely decided to bring in a character with a little more oomph. Enter Captain Archibald Haddock, a hard-boozing, cautious, clumsy, fiercely loyal seaman. Suddenly the adventures got a lot more interesting.
Let’s say volunteers are needed to go on a dangerous mission for a good cause. Tintin wouldn’t think twice, he wouldn't even thinkonce. His only question would be: When do we leave?
Captain Haddock on the other hand would roar a refusal, stubbornly insist that there was no way on earth he would go on any such fool adventure, and then, after much muttering, grumbling, and kicking the carpet, come up with a reason to go.
We all know people like that. Some of us see them when we shave.
But Haddock gave Hergé an interesting dilemma. If your character is a hard-drinking hot-tempered sailor, it would be natural for him to use, shall we say, vigorous language. But Hergé was writing for children. What to do?
The usual solution is to use grawlix, which is the technical term for those curse substitutes you often see in cartoons: $)*%*)%!!!
According to Farr, Hergé found his own solution at a Brussels street market when he heard a merchant arguing with a customer. One of them, apparently running short on standard insults, snapped “You Four Powers Pact!” . This bewilderingly irrelevant political reference stopped the fight in its tracks and started Hergé's mind racing. What if the Captain had a wide vocabulary of bizarre insults and exclamations?
And so it was. Haddock is best remembered for the insults he poured down on people and objects that annoyed him. They ranged from the appropriately nautical (“Sea lice!”) to the irrelevant (“Guano gatherer!”) to the utterly baffling (“Hydrocarbons!”)
Hergé kept a large Larousse French dictionary in his studio and whenever Haddock lost his temper, he turned to the big book for inspiration.
A road rage revolution
So, in honor of Tintin’s eightieth birthday this year, here is a suggestion. Mind you, I don’t say it’s a very good suggestion. Next time some idiot cuts you off on the highway and you feel the road rage ready to burst out roll down your window and give him a dose of Haddock oil, in alphabetical order:
Abecedarians! Bagpipers! Caterpillars! Dunderheaded coconuts! Ectoplasms! Filibusters! Gallows-fodder! Heretic! Iconoclasts! Jellied eel! Kleptomaniacs! Logarithim! Miserable molecule of mildew! Nitwitted ninepins! Ophicleides! Pickled herrings! Raggle taggle ruminants! Shipwreckers! Technocrat! Ungulate! Vegetarian! Weevils! Zapotecs!
Then, while your opponent is fumbling for his dictionary, hit the gas.