“Asterix and the Missing Scroll” is the second “Asterix” book by its new creative team of Jean-Yves Ferri and Didier Conrad. It’s a winner, as good as any “Asterix” book from the last 20 – 30 years. While the previous book, “Asterix and the Picts,” went through the motions of being an “Asterix” book, this is the one that feels right. This is the one that proves there’s still life in the concept, and that the original style of telling the story can still work. It carries on many of the traditions that Goscinny and Uderzo established originally. It’s a joy to read.
There Be Politics Here, Almost
This book is obviously inspired by Julian Assange, the man best known for Wikileaks. He inspires Confoundtheirpolitix, a muckraking journalist who wants to trumpet the truth at any cost. He wants the fame and the glory of being the one to break big news.
In this case, Caesar has “written” a book that tells the story of how Rome conquered all the lands. In the original draft, Caesar included a chapter in which he admits that there is one small village in France he never got control of: Asterix’s small village in the heart of Armorica. Caesar is convinced not to print that last chapter, though, as it might tarnish his claim of being in control of all the surrounding areas.
This editorial judgment turns into a political bombshell, when someone leaks that final chapter — actually, a scroll — to Confoundtheirpolitix, who is giddy at the idea of exposing Caesar and embarrassing him with this scroll that weakens him and threatens to destroy his credibility.
The stakes aren’t really quite so high in this Asterix tale as they were in the real world version of Wikileaks events that actually happened. The book doesn’t, thankfully, get too deep into the politics of publishing unedited leaks. It merely uses the event as a kick-off to a bigger storyline, much like “Law & Order” might do with a crime case in the news. The leaked scroll is just the plot device to kickstart all the good stuff.
The book also doesn’t paint Confoundtheirpolitix in a negative light, the way one might easily do with Assange, whose personal predilections and bold public proclamations that he never followed though on make him a much more troubled character. This story isn’t about that kind of depth, anyway. It’s about kicking off a story to explain lost tales, a large melee between Asterix’s village and Those Crazy Romans, and some funny puns and sight gags along the way. (There’s an email gag related to carrier pigeons in the book that had me laughing so hard I had to put the book down.)
So let’s skip over the politics and whether Ferri’s script is truly a political parable. It’s not a mirror to the real world; it’s internally consistent; yes, there are some moral questions one might ponder if one wanted to think about it.
Let’s take about how entertaining this book is.
Strength of Script
Ferri fires on all cylinders in this book. The awkward parts of the previous volume are gone. There’s no near-superpowered characters. There’s no lovable cartoony monster. This book is all about the people and the gamesmanship they play while trying to get ahead of each other. Ferri trades on the reader’s familiarity with the various citizens we know and love for laughs and subplots. No one individual is favored in the story. Each gets a little bit of panel time, though, for their fans reading this story.
Asterix and Obelix are perfectly in character, bouncing off into the face of danger on a mission of importance. Eventually, they get caught up in their own curious personality issues and those of their surrounding somewhat crazy antagonists. It’s a slow burn of action and attitude, this book.
And, yes, there’s an actual plot in the book. It’s not all jokes.
Most of all, by recontextualizing a modern day story into a world set in the past, Ferri gets the benefits of making “Asterix” feel contemporary and modern without going through a more garish reboot and giving Asterix a cell phone, or anything silly like that.
Credit, as always, goes to Anthea Bell for her translation. I don’t know just how much of the work we’re laughing at here is her own writing to cover up difficult French language quirks, but I love it. The next time someone comes up with a list of the Best Women Writing Comics today, I want to make sure her name is on the list. For the work she does on these scripts, she deserves a place high in that category.
Telegraphing in Ferri’s Script
For some reason, I saw a lot of the things Ferri set up in the course of this plot.
Generally speaking, I’m horrible at guessing how a story is going to end or even where it’s going. I tend to overthink things and argue in opposite directions, because they’re both possible. When I see the writer planting something to use later in the book, I usually guess wrong as to why that is. Because of that, I don’t see it a lot anymore. Why torture myself by trying to spoil me?
In this book, though, I saw a lot of the planted plot bits. I didn’t question where they were going, but I saw them. Some were simple and paid off in a fairly obvious way later on, like when Obelix spots the extra potions in Archaeopterix’s labs.
The one thing I caught that paid off even better was the fate of the world should the missing scroll never see the light of day. It’s set up by Impedimenta, who screams at her husband to release the scrolls and let the world hear the full story. She didn’t want the world to think Caesar conquered all. I bet she also wanted her village to have its own place in history, too. But check this panel out:
I posted it on Instagram as soon as I read it. It’s an obvious wink and nod to Asterix readers. The scroll is the missing piece of history that the Asterix series of books covers.
And, not to spoil too much, but I would skip the rest of this section if you’re spoiler-averse: The end of the book is a wonderfully sentimental nod in that direction. It points to what I saw in the most specific way. And while some might think it a bit too cloying or self-congratulatory, I think it’s a beautiful nod to the history of this series.
Didier Conrad Channels Uderzo
This book feels right. I liked “Asterix and the Picts,” but had problems with two characters: The antagonist, Maccabaeus, and the Loch Ness Monster. The former looked too much like an over-the-top fantasy villain. The latter was just too cartoony and stuck out in the book.
It’s all humans in this book, and mostly Romans versus Asterix’s people. That keeps everything grounded in the Asterix traditions, right down to Caesar’s appearance. Even the new characters, while obviously caricatured from the real world folks who inspired them, feel right in this universe. They blend in well. They look like they were when Uderzo designed them decades ago.
Some of it is perhaps a bit more cartoony than Uderzo was in his hey day, but it feels like a natural evolution from that work. That’s Conrad adding his style as a layer on top of Uderzo’s. It doesn’t stick out, but it looks good.
The rest of the art in the book is easy to take for granted. There’s a ton of work on every page. Besides the panels with half the village or half a Roman army in them, the “simpler” panels can still feature a half dozen characters inside a house with a full background drawn in.
From an art point of view, there’s nothing not to like in this book for me. Uderzo sticks with the style of the series, maintains the quality, and adds bits and pieces of his own personality in along the way. I hope he sticks with this book for a very long time. There’s nobody else I could imagine doing this job this well.
Absolutely. Hands down. No doubt.
If you like “Asterix” but didn’t think anyone could ever do as good a job as Goscinny and Uderzo, here’s the book to challenge that assumption.
“Asterix and The Chariot Race” is due in stores in a month. Can’t wait for that one now… (Here’s that review.)
(This is Pipeline BD 100 review #66.)