Artist: Didier Conrad
Colorist: Thierry Mebarki
Lettering: Arvind Shah
Translator: Adriana Hunter
Published by: Hachette/Orion
Number of Pages: 46
Original Publication: 2017
When I think about the apex of what Franco-Belgian comics can be, this is the kind of book I think of. This is a very good album.
The Story So Far…
This is the third outing for Ferri and Conrad with everyone’s favorite Gauls.
In the first, “Asterix and the Picts“, they took a trip to Scotland and met the Scottish people and enjoyed all their quirks. It was a good book, but nowhere near up to the level of the havoc Rene Goscinny would unleash upon a country when he’d take his characters to their homelands, like Germany, Belgium, and England.
The second, “Asterix and the Missing Scroll“, injected a bit of real world politics to tell a sold story ripped from the headlines of Wikileaks. A missing chapter in Caesar’s history of Rome’s greatness sends Gaul to war with the Romans.
It’s a cat and mouse game to the end, complete with an ending tip of the hat to Uderzo and Goscinny. Better than “The Picts,” this is the book that proves that the concept of “Asterix” still works, and can be very good on its own.
Now, just a couple of years later, “Asterix and the Chariot Race” brings Ferri and Conrad back to try to top themselves again.
And they do.
How Good Is This Book?
At its core, this book borrows from the same playbook as “Asterix and the Picts.” Again, Asterix and Obelix visit a foreign country — Italy — and learn a lot about its people and their traditions in a hilarious way. Just to make sure things are always happening as they do this, the plot centers on a cross-country chariot race to prove the greatness of Italy’s road system.
And, as we all know, every last one of those roads leads only to one place: Rome!
The background to this serves as the best kind of political farce. The roads of Italy are in bad shape and the politician in charge is ignoring the problem. When other Senators press him on it, he deflects attention away from the issue by hosting a road rally chariot race.
The idea makes no sense and is so insane that there’s no proper reaction to it.
Yes, just like real life politics.
Thus, this panel:
And just like in real life politics, the politicians lie and cheat. Charioteers from all around come to compete for the large prize. But the Italian racer, a masked man in a red cape, gets all the advantages. How can Asterix and Obelix and all the others overcome that huge advantage?
The story is fairly straightforward. There’s a race. It’s the Italian racer versus everyone else. It’s a fight to the finish. And on that framework, Ferri’s script hangs every joke imaginable. From sight gags to puns to running gags to visual gags and more. This book has it all, and it all feels right. There’s no slow spot to the book. There’s no bit that’s filled with exposition for the purpose of jumpstarting the story.
It’s a smooth read. It may not be quite as allegorical at the last book, but that’s ok. There are different types of Asterix stories, and this one is as good as any of the other books played for laughs at the expense of another nation. (Plus, Ferri gets bonus points for pizza and pasta references in a country that doesn’t have tomatoes yet. It’s explained in the book, don’t worry.)
There’s even a font-related joke that I literally laughed out loud at. Thankfully, nobody else was home at the time. That would require some explaining…
The only thing I think some people will miss would be the townsfolk Asterix and Obelix live with. They’re not in this book much. They’re there in the beginning, cameo in the middle, and feast at the end. But that’s it. There’s no part of the plot that relies on anyone from back in the village. This book is strictly an Asterix and Obelix story.
The Horse Thing
We have to give credit to Didier Conrad for his art on this book. Not only does his style perfectly follow Uderzo’s in a way that maintains the consistency of the series without being a carbon copy, but he can draw horses.
Very few artists enjoy drawing horses. This is a book filled with horses. I can only imagine how thrilled he might have been when he heard he was about to drawn an entire album of a chariot race for just that reason.
Not only doesn’t he avoid it, he embraces it. Check out this half-page panel that features about two dozen horses in the same image.
The coloring by Thierry Mebarki is also perfect for the book, fitting in line with the series as a whole, and keeping things clean and clear. It’s very much literal coloring, where the sky is always blue and the grass green. He plays with it once or twice in darker light, but it works just the way it is.
My scans for this article don’t do them justice. Trust me, they pop better in print than they do here.
No Panel Wasted
True to the Asterix tradition, there’s not a single wasted panel in this book. There’s not a single shortcut in place. Most panels are drawn from at least a middle distance, with full backgrounds and details at every distance. Every panel is well composed. Every character emotes. Every panel has a small punchline or is setting one up in the next panel.
Crowd scenes happen on as many panels as need them. And when we’re talking about a chariot race where people occasionally line the roads to cheer the chariots on and where they cross the finish line inside of villages, there’s a lot of opportunities to draw more people. When Asterix and Obelix walk through a little fair, every vendor has a purpose, often a gag associated with their name, and a good example of what they do.
There are zero shortcuts in this book.
I read an interview with Jean-Yves Ferri recently where he talked about the difficulty of writing a new “Asterix” book in two years. At first, I laughed. Most writers in North America would have two or maybe three months to write this number of pages. But 50 pages of Asterix is probably triple the amount of writing as the next issue of “Superman.” There are no splash pages. There’s two or three half page panels, but that’s as big as they come.
That’s a huge task. Add on top of that all the expectations from the series’ past, and it’s something that could break a lesser writer.
I waited a week to read this book because I wanted a big enough spot of time to read it all in one sitting. An “Asterix” book is a lot of reading. It’s the good kind of reading, though. This isn’t “Blake and Mortimer” where 75% of the page is word balloons. Asterix relies on the mix of words and pictures in all the best ways. It just happens that there’s a lot to take in. The character names are worth slowing down to read out loud. All those details I mentioned before need to be appreciated. No panel is pointless.
Translation in Transition
Anthea Bell is still alive and kicking. She’s enjoying her retirement. That means that this is the first “Asterix” book she didn’t translate. There’s a special thanks to her at the end of the book.
The new translator is Adriana Hunter. It’s tough to say how much work your typical translator has to do with a French album to bring it into English. Given the amount of word play and puns in your typical “Asterix” book, though, I’d guess that this is one of the harder jobs.
I have no complaints with the work she did here. Nothing jumps out at me for being dumb or in bad English, or lost in translation. The names are as fittingly hilarious as you’d expect. The running jokes hit hard. Obelix and Asterix sound like themselves.
That’s all I need.
And whoever came up with the name for the character under Coronavirus’ helmet deserves a pay raise. It’s another gag I laughed out loud at. But I can’t spoil one of the big “reveals” of the book, so I can’t mention that name right now. You’ll know it when you hear it….
Yes! This one is an easy, funny, packed read. It looks great, it never bored me for even a second, and it even made me laugh out loud a few times.
It is worth the price of admission.
After you’ve read it, I suggest visiting the Alea Jacta Est website’s write-up on the book for a further breakdown of the gags and some of the history behind them.
(This is Pipeline BD 100 review #97.)