“Asterix the Legionary” is the funniest volume of Asterix yet. It is a textbook that comic creators ought to read to learn how to construct a joke, sell a joke, and properly repeat a joke for maximum impact.
Artist: Albert Uderzo
Lettering: Bryony Newhouse
Translator: Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge
Published by: Orion (Hachette)
Number of Pages: 48
Original Publication: 1967
Original Title: “Astérix Légionnaire”
Panacea, and Love in the Time of Gauls
A Model Beauty That’s Off-Model?
Panacea is Soporifix’s daughter. Who is Soporifix? Some guy from the village. This is the first time anyone mentions him in the series. You won’t get the chance to meet Soporifix until “Asterix and the Actress,” which is book #31.
In any case, Panacea went off to school for two years in another French town, only to come back as the cutest thing the village has ever laid its eyes on. You know this is true because Uderzo draws her less as a cartoon character and more as a human. She doesn’t have the big nose and cartoony proportions of all the other characters. She’s more the ideal female figure type, drawn as realistically as Uderzo draws things. It feels…. awkward.
It reminds me of those times when Carl Barks drew dogs into the Duck comics that look like humans with black noses in the middle of their faces amidst a sea of cartoony ducks. It’s a little weird.
Obelix, in particular, is smitten with her. He’s so smitten that he can’t talk, walk straight, or stop his cheeks from turning red. It’s over the top, but it’s cute as all get out.
Love and the Single Menhir Carrier
Asterix and Getafix lend a hand to the lovelorn big guy, but their attempts to help are thwarted when they discover that Panacea already has a boyfriend. In fact, she’s engaged to him.
His name is Tragicomix. We don’t meet him until much later in the book, but you won’t be surprised to learn that he’s drawn in the same style as Panacea. He’s clean shaven, buff, and incredibly good looking. He’s the ideal male figure type of drawing, so Uderzo draws him as “realistically” as his style will allow. No big nose. Just a ridiculously muscular body that doesn’t need the cover of a shirt. You’ll cheer for his love, and gasp at the rigid definition of his six-pack abs.
But there’s a problem! Caesar has volunteered Tragicomix into his Legions and is shipping him off to fight in Africa.
So what do you do to impress a girl? You vow to go save her boyfriend and bring him home!
Now that’s smitten!
It’s also where the humor kicks into high gear.
Asterix Joins the Army, er, Legion!
So Asterix and Obelix walk over to the local recruiting station and volunteer for Caesar’s forces. They insist on getting to the war zone as fast as possible so they can find Tragicomix.
This, needless to say, is the opposite of what everyone else wants or expects. Preparing for war is a long training process. Getting the bodies used to as little food as possible while strengthening them is not an overnight thing. There’s a process in place for this, and one that they’ve gone through for likely tens of thousands of troops before this. It’s just the way things are done. It takes process, process, process to keep such a large organization alive.
Look at it from Asterix and Obelix’s point of view: if you’re just looking to hitch a ride to Africa to save one person, you might as well drink some Magic Potion and get the show on the road!
The Romans are confounded, and Asterix and Obelix pound this home again and again. They show no respect to the Roman processes. They fight for the soldiers but, most of all, they fight for their own quick advancement to save their friend. Along the way, they make serious changes and upgrades to the Roman infrastructure. Not surprisingly, that starts with getting the chef to server a decent bore, not the slop he concocts on a daily basis. In character with how they were previously depicted, the British soldier doesn’t see anything wrong with the old menu.
This all drives the Roman leaders crazy. They don’t understand what’s going on. They’re getting rolled over by these two Gauls — the little one and the fat one. The more they try to restore order to this ragtag group of misfit recruits, the deeper they get into their own frustrations. It’s scene after scene of Asterix and friends driving the leaders absolutely nuts.
It feels very Vaudevillian. It feels like a Marx Bros. movie. This is Zeppo and Harpo giving the lemonade vendor a hard time on the street until he goes completely mad.
This is Bugs Bunny playing with Elmer Fudd by misdirecting him, redirecting him, confusing him, and finally driving him so mad that he runs off.
I love that kind of stuff. This book couldn’t be more up my alley. Sometimes, you don’t need the fearsome villain to vanquish. You can take pushover enemies and have a lot of fun with them. If that’s the case, you need to make up for the lack of danger and drama by raising the stakes and the comedy as the book goes along. “Asterix the Legionary” does just that. It is a ruthless, never ending, snowball of laughter, gathering steam all the way through to the end..
Take a look at this panel where we’re first introduced to the line-up of characters who want to join up with the Roman army.
Here, look closer:
Look familiar? It’s like a Best Of of nationalities from the previous nine volumes. You have a Brit, an Egyptian, a pair of Goths, a Greek, and a Belgian. I’m slightly shocked there wasn’t a Norman in there. No, it might not have made sense, but it wold have been funny. Asterix won’t go to Belgium for another 15 books, but it’s nice to see a Belgian in here now. I don’t think we’ve seen the Greeks yet, have we? (Nope, they show up in volume 12, “Asterix at the Olympic Games.”)
This is also a pretty viable list of candidates for Punny Name of the Week here. I think the Brit wins it, though, with Selectivemploymentax, which is ridiculously long and cumbersome, yet makes a perfect pun with a British meaning.
The Egyptian is named Ptenisnet, which comes close, too. His gag is that he thinks he’s checking into an inn, but the language barrier keeps him from realizing he’s conscripting into Caesar’s forces. It’s one of several running gags that causes lots of great laughs throughout the book.
Playing to Uderzo’s Strengths
This gag-a-minute fast-paced back and forth between Asterix/Obelix and the Romans is right up Albert Uderzo’s alley. The gestures he gives the characters play perfectly to the script.
The way characters can punch a Roman right out of his sandal without breaking a sweat is carried by Uderzo’s body language. Obelix just swats his arm up and the Roman is off-panel instantly, flying through the air.
Asterix is getting fed up with not moving fast enough and he’s trying to plead his case to everyone to move forward faster, and his arms are flailing and his eyes are wide and he’s selling his case and its important with every pose in every panel.
Asterix is determined, and it shows, even without reading the dialogue. This book is the best sample I’ve ever seen for how well this style of artwork can sell something. It’s as large as the plot, itself.
How To Construct a Page
I’m about to go all Strip Panel Naked on this book. Don’t worry, I’m not going to attempt the accent. (Has is also a better editor, script-writer, and critic for these kinds of things. Still, I did do one a couple years ago… )
Goscinny’s skill is on display here in the way he constructs the gags on single pages. He can milk two or three gags out of a single opportunity, just by constructing things in a certain way. He gets into a scene, tells a joke, tells another joke, and then closes on a joke that completes the circle from the beginning of the scene. The formula is so good that he uses it repeatedly and to great effect.
Let’s take a look at page 16 for a good example. I’ll cover it one tier of panels at a time.
As a set-up, Asterix has entered the Legion Headquarters and is looking for where he might find Tragicomix. The first person he asked on the previous page pointed him to the Information Bureau.
On the first tier, Asterix finds the door marked “Information” and opens it.
This begins a funny sequence of Goscinny making fan of the kind of infrastructure and bureaucracy you might find in a large organization such as the one that turns Julius Caesar’s forces: Nobody never knows anything. You always get passed to the next department. Nobody seems to do anything of actual value. They only have one job to do and whatever you need is not it.
At the Information Bureau, the noise of the scribe chipping the stone to write names on it drowns Asterix out. The other man in the room is busy cleaning his fingernails with a knife. He’s kicking back, with his feet up on the table.
In the second tier, that nail cleaner points Asterix to the Personnel Department. There, Asterix finds two soldiers playing cards with a deck of small stone tablets. They point him to the “Centurion of Calends.” Asterix’s face is turning red. He’s already annoyed at the runaround.
I can tell him from my personal experience, that two redirections is usually just a good start. The real time to throw your arms up and give up is when you come full circle and they point you back to where you starterted.
That’s exactly what happens at Calends, where the man doing laundry sends Asterix back to the Information Bureau. As you an see, that sends Asterix off fuming at the end of tier 3, where he kicks open the door, red-faced and ready for a brawl.
Side note: “Calends” refers to the first day of every month on the Roman calendar. Yes, it’s where the word “calendar” comes from. It was the day debts were due and the day the priests would announce how many days were in that month. I guess the gag here is that the Romans do their laundry once a month?
So, in three tiers, Asterix has been redirected three times from people who don’t seem to be doing any actual work. This sends him back to the Information Bureau in tier four.
That’s where he loses patiences and starts smacking around the nail cleaner. The final panel is a call back to the second panel on the page, with the scribe yelling at Asterix that he can’t carve names with all that smacking noise in the room.
It’s the architecture of this page fascinates me so much. It’s its own little story. Asterix going to a new office is a repeated gag. At each office, the workers are either not working or are useless. They’re doing something different in each office that doesn’t seem like work. Then, Asterix gets directed to another department.
The annoyed feeling Asterix has continues to build up over the course of this page. Asterix’s frustrations build up until he explodes at the bottom. It’s not the repetition that’s funny, but the way Asterix handles it with less and less patience. We’ll see a lot of slow burns in this book with people going slowly mad. This cycle is relatively quick — only a page.
With the last panel, Goscinny brings everything full circle, as the gag from the top of the page gets echoed at the bottom.
Albert Uderzo deserves a lot of credit for the postures and gestures on this page, too. Besides turning red, Asterix’s whole body language reads more outraged with each scene. He goes from curious in the first tier to hands thrust deep into the pockets and annoyed on the second. On the third, he’s rearing back and kicking open the door.
Look at the middle panel in those first three tiers, too. It’s the same panel composition, with the door on the far left and Asterix’s head peeking through. He goes from curious with the raised eyebrow on the first tier to annoyed with the eyebrow pushed down over his eye in the second to a face that’s all scrunched up and emanating lines of annoyance.
That panel layout in the last this up better than two-thirds of theater to see Asterix skipping the politness and going straight for the jugular, standing on top of the Roman and slapping him around.
Study the pages of this book carefully and you’ll see similar structures happening a lot. There are lots of callbacks and running gags (shows of politeness and love, for two examples) sprinkled throughout the book.
A Bit of History
Tragicomix ends up with Caesar’s forces in Africa. We’ll get there in a second.
First, we have to pass though Massilia, now known as Marseilles. Settled originally by the Greeks, it became an ally of Rome and a major shipping port, with its convenient and valuable waterfront property along the Mediterranean Sea.
It’s also the site of a major battle following the Gallic War. Caesar started a civil war after the Gallic War — everyone needs a hobby — against his frenemy, Pompey. (That’s where “alea jacta est” comes from.)The two fought hard, occasionally dirty, and Caesar eventually won.
But in 49 BC, the town of Massilia aligned itself with Pompey. So Caesar, while travelling past the town on his way to Spain, left three legions of his soldiers behind to take the town back for him.
Long story short, they did.
So in “Asterix the Legionary,” Julius Caesar has a military center in Massilia, which means this story has to take place in 48 BC, at the earliest.
More importantly, Tragicomix is over in Thapsus, a town in Northern Africa, where Tunisia is today. Caesar is seen in his tent plotting his movements there, referencing “the traitor Afranius,” who was one of the big wigs for the opposing forces, and Scipio, who was leading the whole shebang. (This battle took place after Pompey’s death, which is another amazing story for another time, perhaps.)
The Battle of Thapsus, which seems to be the one taking place in this book, happened in the real world in 46 BC. Next time you read “The year is 50 B.C.” at the beginning of an Asterix book, now you know how much of a lie that is.
Uderzo also missed one key ingredient in the Battle of Thapsus. Scipio’s forces had an extra weapon Caesar did not have: War Elephants. 60 of them.
Uderzo passed on drawing those, I noticed.
Caesar was smart enough to have an answer for the elephants, by the way. He had his archers fire at them. This spooked the elephants, who then trampled Scipio’s soldiers.
In the real world, Caesar won this battle too, as he won nearly all of them. He’s just that good. (Let’s not forget he also single handedly beat a ship full of pirates once.)
Second Punniest Name of the Month
Earlier, I gave the award for the week to Selectivemploymentax, for the longest and craziest pun ever.
We do have a ton of good options this month, though, and there’s one more I wanted to highlight:
The man bent over in the middle of this panel is Nefarius Purpus, whose French (and most other languages) name is Hotelterminus. That’s fitting for the Egyptian, who thinks he’s checking into a hotel… (It’s also a name that brings me the spellcheck’s wrath.)
Nefarius Purpus is the leader of the 1st Legion, 3rd Cohort, 2nd Maniple, and 1st century. Asterix and Obelix destroy him repeatedly over the course of the book, from training to the front lines in Africa. He’s a square-jawed military leader ready to pounce on any infraction to whip new volunteers into fighting shape for Julius Caesar. Then these two Gauls come along and give him no respect. Along with their silly group of friends and all their issues, Purpus is on the brink of a mental breakdown. It’s just a matter of time…
Yes, yes, yes, and heck yeah! This is slow burn slapstick comedy at its finest. Every page is a treasure. It’s not the drama of this book that keeps you turning the page. It’s the joy of watching Asterix and Obelix being so single minded in their effort to save Panacea’s fiance that they plow through everyone and everything to get there.
The grand finale has a couple funny twists and turns to it, all of which fits in with the tone and tenor of the book, as a whole. It’s the ultimate slow burn when Asterix and Oeblix can frustrate two warring factions into battle.
Two final side notes:
First, I lost track of how many times in the last week I’ve wanted to refer to this book as “Asterix the Legionnaire.” Why is that?!?
Second, now that I’ve reviewed the first ten books, I wrote up my ranking of The 10 Best Asterix Books from v1 – v10. If you want to skip ahead a bit, I also have my Top 10 Goscinny/Uderzo Asterix books list.
— 2018.029 —
Scheduling Announcement – Next Book!
The Asterix Agenda is taking next week off. Because I can.
There’s 35 books to review and 52 weeks in the year, so I do plan a week off here and there to keep things fresh.
The good news is, The Asterix Agenda will return the following week with a look at “Asterix and the Chieftan’s Shield,” which will get me deep into the history of the area known today as France and the Gaellic Wars. Alesia, Vercingetorix, and Gergovia, oh my