A few months ago, I read my first Blake and Mortimer album by Edgar P. Jacobs, The Yellow “M.” It’s seemingly the one that is considered his best, and I really enjoyed it. At the time I picked it up, I didn’t realize that it was actually the sixth volume in the series, as in the current English language collection, it’s numbered as volume one. The real first story is The Secret of the Swordfish, which is split into three volumes, and was originally published in Tintin magazine from 1946 to 1949. In English, these stories are actually collected in volumes fifteen, sixteen and seventeen. Confusing! It seemed like a good idea to read the first stories next, so I could have a better understanding of the characters and world.
The Yellow “M” had a very traditional mystery pulp feel, that brought to mind Sherlock Holmes, or maybe even Agatha Christie… set in London and featuring kidnapping, mad scientists, strange henchmen and hypnotizing machines, so I was really surprised when The Secret of the Swordfish begins with the “Yellow Empire” starting a nuclear World War III, destroying all major western cities, and taking over the entire world.
Some weird things I noticed while reading this story…
- The two main characters, Blake and Mortimer (an army/secret-services(?) officer and a scientist), barely have any character at all, and certainly no character development across this long tale. They are blank enigmas, but I guess we are supposed to be interested in them?
- The main villain, Olrik, also barely has any character, and there’s nothing that seems to motivate any of his actions, other than, I guess he’s the bad guy?
- Maybe weirdest of all, the story seems to take place in a world populated exclusively by adult males. Despite at least fifty or more characters having speaking parts, there’s not one woman, or even a child in all three volumes of The Secret of the Swordfish. What world is this?
The story itself has something of the feel of an old adventure movie serial, the kind of thing that the Indiana Jones movies were inspired from. With the main characters getting into to a series of scrapes across the first book as Olrik attempts to eliminate them. Most of the second book is features the story of Mortimer as a prisoner, Orlik’s attempts to extract information about his secret Swordfish plans, and the attempts to rescue him. The third book is set mostly around the secret base where the resistance attempts to launch their devastating counter attack, and restore freedom to humanity, using an atomic plane to overpower the “Yellow Empire.”
Very paper-thin stuff to stretch out over more than one hundred and fifty fairly text heavy pages, but the artwork is excellent, and always a pleasure to look at. This was definitely a book where the art kept me reading, much, much more than the minimal intrigue of the story.
It’s clearly a bit of a rough start for the series, which is almost certainly why these actual first volumes didn’t get put out in English until they released volume fifteen. I probably will read more (I really love the artwork), but it might be a while…