In retrospect, “Asterix and the Picts” shares a lot of things in common with “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”
After a couple of books the original comic’s co-creator, Albert Uderzo, did by himself that didn’t go over too well, he retired.
Then, Jean Yves Ferri and Didier Conrad came in to continue the series. Their first book harkens back to the formulas of the classic Rene Goscinny/Uderzo volumes of yesteryear, done very much in the same style. It brought back the old faithful readers, and kept the doors open for new people to come in. It didn’t rely on continuity. It didn’t turn over the apple cart. It didn’t change anything.
It went back to an old formula: Asterix and Obelix wind up in another country, where all the tics of the people of that land are exploited for maximum comedic value.
You can see the “Star Wars” parallels, right up to and including the George Lucas and his three bad movies. Lucas sold Star Wars to Disney. Uderzo sold Asterix to book publisher Hachette, and then was involved in a legal dispute with his daughter on that decision.
We need an “Asterix in Space” volume next, I think.
That’s a joke. Please don’t take me seriously… (Maybe Stan Sakai could pull it off, though…)
Here now is my review of that first outing, “Asterix and the Picts,” originally published at CBR.com in January of 2014. I’ve tweaked a little bit of the formatting, fixed a couple of typos, and thrown in a new conclusion.
The first new “Asterix” book not done by either Rene Goscinny or Albert Uderzo came out at the end of last year (2014).
The big worldwide release included, yes, an English edition. If you’re an “Asterix” fan, it’s worth a read. It feels like a classic “Asterix” tale with all the trappings. It fits the mold well, with plenty of funny moments and a familiar art style. The story isn’t quite all the way up to Goscinny’s absurdly high standards, but it’s a strong effort from a freshman team.
The temptation must have been there for writer Jean-Yves Ferri and artist Didier Conrad to include all the Greatest Hits of Asterix moments in this first book, just to show that they are familiar with the material and know what they’re doing. Their first mission was to win over the die hard fans, of which there are millions in Europe. The danger there is in repeating past gags and looking like a cut-and-paste team brought in to stretch the series out for one more cash grab.
What they manage to pull off in “Asterix and the Picts” is a book that fits the model without looking slavish. It has everything you’d expect to see in the series from the final banquet scene to Obelix’s tendency to throw first and ask questions later to crazy proper name wordplay and a new oddball foreign nation to visit.
Asterix Goes to Scotland (and It’s Not Crap!)
“Asterix and the Picts” brings Obelix and Asterix to Scotland, an island nation filled with characters painted in various colors, a mysterious monster in the water (though drawn a bit too cartoony, I thought), and a devilish villain looking to take it all for himself.
The story begins when a frozen Pict washes up near Asterix’s village, encased in a block of ice. The women go crazy for him, but after thawing him out, he’s mute. When he finally talks and explains what happened to him, the action moves to Scotland, where Ferri maintains the series’ deft ability to explain modern day things in terms familiar to the locals in funny ways.
It’s not quite as densely packed as Goscinny’s scripts were during his prime when Asterix and friends would visit Great Britain or Belgium or Germany, for example. But this one does fit nicely into that pattern.
All the while, our newly thawed Pict speaks in occasional gibberish with random cultural references. They’re not all exactly Scottish, but they each made me laugh for crazy reasons. I wonder how much of that was the work of the original author, and how much was contributed by long-time “Asterix” translator, Anthea Bell? Were some of the original French references too deep for English-speaking audiences to understand?
As much as a good Lewis Carroll or “Jingle Bells” reference might be, their inconsistency in origin and utter randomness are an odd mix in the book.
Conrad Mimics Uderzo
Didier Conrad is a great choice to fill in for Uderzo here. His style matches the characters beautifully, only exaggerating them a bit. Conrad pushes the character designs a tad further in their natural directions here and there, with one short character a little squatter or one tall character slightly skinnier. Overall, Conrad nails the style of the book, maintaining Uderzo’s style guide throughout the book while adding his own touch.
While part of me is curious about how this book might look if approached from a different angle completely, I can understand why this style was used. But, then, Conrad has also worked on books derived from “Lucky Luke” and “Marsupilami”. He’s used to following runs of books from this school of art. And those two books starred junior versions of their respective titles. Imagine if this had been an “Asterix Jr.” adventure? Ferri and Conrad might have been chased out of France.
The Inks of Conrad
To my eye, the biggest change comes in the inking. Conrad’s style has more open lines. They don’t all connect. To put it in Photoshop terms, you could easily Bucket Fill Uderzo’s work. Conrad’s leaves more open to the eye.
Here’s an example panel from the first page:
Look carefully at Obelix. See the way the line on the inside of his bicep doesn’t quite connect to his forearm, or the way his eyebrows form the top of his face, with the coloring defining where his face ends, and his hat or sky behind him begins? Look at his thumb. See the thick outline at the base of his hand and how it doesn’t connect to the rest of the digit? In fact, the top of his thumb isn’t drawn at all. The nail and knuckle is suggested, but not connected.
Even the top of Asterix’s near arm doesn’t make it all the way to Obelix’s body. Obelix’s belt has such lines.
It’s a little thing, but it adds up across the pages.
It also feels like Conrad’s lines are looser. Uderzo’s line, as masterful as it is, always felt tightly controlled and precise. Conrad loosens that up a bit, giving the book an extra energy.
In one of Conrad’s previous works, “Les Innommables,” we can see a major difference in his line. It’s much thicker and inkier. The shapes are all the same, but he plays a lot more with throwing ink on the page. They feel heavier. “Asterix” is built more for the color to define everything, and to maintain the style of the series.
Conrad, though starting from the same family of art styles, adapts his art to the book to best fit it. Impressive.
Two Issues I Have
I have two qualms to raise with this book. The first is that the main villain, MacCabaeus, is a little too supernatural for me. He doesn’t have any powers or display any questionable moments, but the angular features of his face, the green skin, and the fiery red hair give him that aura.
Whenever he was on the page, I was worried that they’d “go there” with the story. They didn’t, but that weird feeling stuck with me. (Part of what made “Asterix and the Falling Sky” feel so weird was the inclusion of robots and superheroes and a purple Mickey Mouse analogue. Those didn’t belong in Gaul of the time.)
So many of Uderzo’s creations were based on real life politicians or celebrities that the inclusion of one here who is so cartoony feels odd.
The other issue is the Roman entering Asterix’s village to take the census. He’s great comic relief that provides for some very funny moments in the village, but his story doesn’t go anywhere. I thought he’d interact more with the main plot, but never does.
I’m still not sure if that’s me putting my assumptions on the story and judging it for that, or seeing unnecessary filler used to get to the 48 page count of the book. The main story is fairly straightforward. An extra twist or two along the way would have helped the book.
The census taker made me laugh multiple times, though, so maybe I’m asking too much. As comic relief, he hits the nail on the head. (I like that he even counts the town’s population in roman numerals.)
Yes! After the disastrous release of 2005’s “Asterix and the Falling Sky”, the series needed a boost from a book like this that puts it back on firm, familiar footing. Ferri and Conrad do a great job, overall, and I hope it earns them another shot.
I’d like to see them break away from the mold a little bit more next time now that they’ve established themselves. But even if the next book is just “Asterix and the Canadians,” count me in. Why fight what works for 35+ books?
Sure enough, they got their second chance with the 2015 release of “Asterix and the Missing Scroll.” I’ll be reviewing that later in the week. Spoiler: It’s an even better book.
And, in just about a month (as I type this), their third book together, “Asterix and the Chariot Race,” is due out. It will have an initial print run of over 5,000,000 copies. You bet I’ll be reviewing that one as soon as I can, too.