Blake and Mortimer are two characters whose names don’t exactly ring bells in the realm of mainstream comics. Ask the average reader if they could name anyone from a Franco-Belgian cartoon strip, and if they didn’t look at you funny for asking such a question, they’d probably name a different character - Tintin. But Blake and Mortimer, a thoroughly (and surprisingly) British duo, have been around a very long time on the niche European comic scene. They originally made their debut in the official Tintin magazine way back in 1946, and since then have earned themselves a reputation for action, intrigue and daring escapades that are remarkably similar in spirit to their famous Belgian companion. A total of seventeen adventures have been chronicled by various writers since their inception, but the three-volume Secret of the Swordfish is their first - and a typically bombastic one it is too. World War Three, thrilling desert pursuits and experimental fighter jets are just a few of the exciting post-War pulp-action elements hidden away in this pair’s opening act. Sadly, so too are examples of the ignorant racial attitudes that were prevalent at the time, ultimately making this debut outing a collectable curiosity rather than an essential Belgian classic.
Professor Philip Mortimer and Captain Francis Blake are two friends from fairly different walks of life - the former is a leading physicist, and the latter is an officer for the British intelligence service. It’s assumed that their partnership has already been established prior to this first story, as we are given little explanation on how the two even met. What is known however is that barely a year on from the end of WW2, new totalitarian regimes are rising up to destabilize the global peace that has followed. From the frontiers of Asia, the Yellow Empire (yes.. that’s the name) is about to unleash its war machine upon an unsuspecting Europe, and claim the West as its own. We’ve barely become acquainted with Swordfish’s heroes when the Empire’s aerial fleet sweeps across the continent - paratroopers are dispatched into immediate combat, and worse, nukes are unleashed upon upon Europe’s fair cities. Rome vanishes in flames, as do others - the continent is rendered to rubble in mere hours.
Luckily, our titular heroes manage to catch the coming destruction on the radio network of their remote Scottish hideout, and escape their headquarters just before the Empire’s platoons descend upon it. A long-time enemy and hindrance to the Empire,Mortimer knows only too well that an Imperial attack on the British Isles would also mean an attack on his own retreat. Even if he and Blake have given their assailants the slip though, it is small consolation - Europe has already surrendered.
But the canny physicist has one final trick up his sleeve. He’s been working on the Swordfish, a revolutionary fighter jet project with the potential to not only outfight the Empire’s air force, but decimate its entire expeditionary army as well. The only counter is that the Empire, and a certain Imperial Commander, the dastardly General Olrik, know about this war-changing secret weapon as well. With the Swordfish’s blueprints in hand as they make their escape, Mortimer and Blake are thrust into a trans-continental pursuit as they flee Olrik’s clutches in the hope of a chance to re-group. Should they manage to, they can then concentrate on building the Swordfish itself, and bring about the liberation that Britain - and the world - is desperately hoping for.
Edgar P. Jacobs was the Belgian artist responsible for founding the Blake and Mortimer franchise; seven more follow-ups would follow Swordfish before his death in 1987. With the regional comic scene practically dominated by Herge’s Tintin serials, Jacobs’ inspiration for starting his own did not come with much difficulty - he was even friends with the great Herge himself, having been a collaborator with Belgium’s comic godfather to produce color editions of early Tintin works. These initial artistic toils, and the influence they placed on Jacobs’ own drawing style, are practically impossible to miss on Swordfish’s pages. Although its characters aren’t quite as caricatured as those found in Tintin, the style is very much the same - strong-lined, clear and detailed scenes contradicting with the exaggerated characters that fill them. At times you’d be forgiven for thinking this wasn’t actually one of Herge’s works - even the title font on the cover is the exact same.
But there are still moments where Jacobs own ideas flourish under the style, specifically when he’s laying the landscape for the war that has erupted around his main characters. The vast battles that spring up at both the opening and the climax of the story are still visually impressive, with fearsome, thunderous explosions and fierce gun-fighting setting scenes that are truly thrilling - and epic - in scale. The machines delivering most of the carnage are a retro-futurist’s dream too - the Empire’s distinctively sleek aerial gliders, and Mortimer’s own Swordfish, mix elements of both the military research projects of the time, and hints of Flash Gordon-style sci-fi. It’s a combination of tech that not only epitomizes vintage cool, but also enables Jacobs’ work to stand out from the shadow of the master he was clearly inspired by.
The cast-iron rigor of the vehicles in Swordfish’s world are also complimented by its two main characters. Blake and Mortimer take their stage with such vigorous British gusto, they could probably break granite with the unwavering stiffness of their upper lips alone. They’re a classic pairing of brains and brawn - Blake providing the straightforward army-action dynamism, and Mortimer being the more prudent and cunning of the pair.
With the way the two talk to one another though, you’d also think they had a keen liking for P.G Wodehouse novels. World War Three may have begun and civilization may be burning all around them, but there’s still plenty of time for a few “By Joves!” and “old chaps” to be flung around while they’re trying to outwit their Imperial enemies. In fact, many of Swordfish’s dialogue exchanges are rather quaint and silly, but they do lend an enjoyable charm to the equally fanciful Forties action dramatics ricocheting around the mixer.
That is, when they’re not just as busy pretending to be classic Russian literature:
Golly and gosh, Mortimer! So many words! Secret of the Swordfish certainly isn’t afraid to submerse its reader in verbage. Based on the evidence of some of these panels though, it’ll also outrightly drown you in the stuff at times too. It’s fair to say that this is a comic story that comes from a time when certain liberties could be taken with the format - specifically, narrative elements being progressed by having characters monologue about developments so the writers didn’t have to waste precious cells on them. It’s a plot-hack that might save pages, but it also feels awkwardly shoehorned in, and is a constant hurdle to the story’s pace. It’s even more bewildering just how much Swordfish loves to use it as well, especially when the trademark art style would have done the job far more concisely than its deluge of words ever could.
But even if they do talk like jolly good chums on the golf course - and ultimately, don’t possess any massive distinction in personality from one other - Blake and Mortimer are a complimentary pair. The mish-mash of aerial dogfights, prison escapes and other action-hero exploits they get into are worth continuing with, simply because you know they’ll do a marvellous job getting out of their current scrape before landing in their next one. Uncomplicated as their own personalities are though, their villainous arch-enemy, General Olrik, is just as connivingly pompous - and incompetent - as stereotypical comic book villains of this era would have you imagine. Still, Swordfish isn’t trying to be different from its contemporaries. It’s simply trying to be a good war story about daring, dashing good vs. snide, underhanded evil - and it is able to assume this identity with real poise at times.
But we are talking about the 1940s idea of ‘good vs. evil’ here, and it is with the attitudes of the decade that Swordfish reveals its greatest flaw. As previously mentioned, the bad guys of the piece are the Yellow Empire, an aggressive sovereignty comprised of various Asian ethnicities. It’s also not an accidental nomenclature - frankly, a lot of the European adventure comics’ of this time (including British ones) could be pretty bloody racist. One only needs to refer to Tintin in the Congo (a work Jacobs also did color work on) to realise just how messed up they could be with their white-superior, pro-colonial rhetoric. The racism in Secret of the Swordfish, though paltry in comparison, still hints at these views. One early Imperial character, a propaganda minister, pretty much fits the ‘evil yellow man’ stereotype perfectly, spending a radio address crying both for Western invasion and loyalty to the authoritarian Empire. Subtle hints at how being ‘civilized’ is a virtue known only to gallant white men are also sprinkled here and there throughout the story’s three volumes too - offering mild discomfort, and a shaking of the head, as and when they’re discovered.
Granted, the comic does try to balance this prejudice by adding a couple of non-white heroes to the mix. Unfortunately, these support characters end up bungled too - Ahmed Nasir, one such character, is a Makran Levy Corps officer whose ass-kicking ability is matched only by his polytheist habit of giving praise to both Allah and Krishna when things goes well. For a story produced at a time when the average European writer knew little about the religious cultures of South Asia (and was writing to an audience that knew even less), this mistake could be more about innocent ignorance than outright malice. Still, it’s hard to give benefit of the doubt when you’ve already depicted Asian people as monstrous fascists and Europeans as the progenitors of freedom. The elephant in the room simply cannot be ignored, especially when you’re proceeding to trip over it while shoving it out the door.
Bringing said elephant to attention also means casting a long shadow over Secret of the Swordfish’s numerous merits. It’s deeply unfortunate that it carries such baggage, because despite its long-winded dialogue and lack of complexity, parts of its story are quite riveting and rival the kind of writing present in some of the better Tintin adventures. But under the lens of the 21st century, it’s frankly impossible to stomach its doses of Imperialism, no matter how light they are. Thus, Secret of the Swordfish can only be recommended as a piece of war-time escapism - dated fun though it is - and a relic of a time that humanity has left behind.