“Asterix and the Chieftain’s Shield” ties heavily into events from the end of the Gallic Wars.
Artist: Albert Uderzo
Lettering: Bryony Newhouse
Translator: Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge
Published by: Orion (Hachette)
Number of Pages: 48
Original Publication: 1968
Original Title: “Le Bouclier Arverne”
A “Little” Historical Background
I’m a soft target for the more historical adventures. If it brings up the Gallic War, I’m going to have a hard time staying completely unbiased. I’ve become a big fan of that time period of history in recent weeks.
This book has a couple of structural issues, but I do love the way it ties into Gergovia, Alesia, and Vercingetorix’s story.
To get a better understanding of the history behind this volume, I recommend reading “Asterix and French History: Who Is Vercingetorix?” That will explain the story of Vercingetorix and his shield that forms the background of this volume.
There are a three locations mentioned repeatedly in this book that are part of that story that I’ll mention here now:
Arvernia: This is the area Vercingetorix comes from. He became its chieftain in the wake of his success at the Battle of Gergovia.
Gergovia: The biggest win the Gauls had against Caesar was at Gergovia. Vercingetorix led the fight against Julius Caesar and his troops.
Vercingetorix won due to a miscommunication on the Roman side of things that ultimately led to them fighting amongst themselves. Vercingetorix took advantage of the confusion to charge and win the day.
This battle will come up again in one of the short stories of “Asterix and the Class Act,” volume 32 of the series. Coming eventually to PipelineComics.com… (I’m guessing that will be sometime in November.)
(Update: That review posted on November 21st. Nailed it!)
The Special Case of Lost Alesia
Alesia is the site of Vercingetorix’s final loss, after the Battle of Gergovia’s big win.
It was the end of the Gallic Wars, for all intents and purposes. Its exact location was lost in history after the Romans later left. An archaeological dig in the 1860s found proof of Alesia’s location, at the behest of Emperor Napoleon III. But even that was controversial. (Was this city found merely to please the emperor? Or because enough proof backed it up?)
Some aerial photographs taken of the area in the 1990s are believed to show Caesar’s fortifications from the rings he built around the city.
Or maybe not: Some disagree. The battle rages on, I suppose.
There’s a museum on site now, though, so just run with it.
At the time Goscinny and Uderzo created this book, nobody knew for certain where Alesia was.
When the characters in this book get mad about Alesia and claim not to know where it is, that’s why. The French knew the story of Alesia, but had no idea where it had been for nearly 2000 years.
Heck, it’s possible they still don’t. I still want to visit that museum, though…
Now, back to the book at hand:
The Story of the Chieftain’s Shield
The story of this book is that of Vercingetorix’s shield. Whatever happened to it, post-Alexia after he threw it on Caesar’s feet?
Julius Caesar is upset that there is still a village holding out against him that he hasn’t conquered yet.
He wants to rub it in their faces that he’s beaten everyone else. He thinks the perfect way to do so is to use Vercingetorix’s shield in an upcoming triumph in Gergovia. (“Triumphs” in Roman times were parades to celebrate the victories of a great leader. Caesar was really good at these. He spared no expense. He even used elephants.)
Problem is, the shield is missing. It never made it back to Rome.
That will not do. Caesar sends some soldiers back to the area to track it down.
Meanwhile, Back the Village
Chief Vercingetorix’s bad dietary habits are making him sick. Asterix and Obelix accompany him to the one place they think can make him feel better: a water treatment facility in the Avernian area. Such was the state of medicine at the time that drinking a whole lot of fresh clean water — along with some nice baths, etc. — was thought to clean you up and heal you. It’s the functional equivalent to Theodoric of York, Medieval Barber dropping leeches on you.
In reality, it’s a bit of a relaxing weekend spa where they restrict your diet so you don’t overeat and make yourself feel sick again.
Asterix and Obelix aren’t welcome there after they interrupt the calm demeanor of the spa. It’s a repeat of the gag from “Asterix the Gladiator” where, in Rome, Obelix can’t help himself and jumps into the pool, splashing all the water out.
To get away, they head off for a small sight-seeing trip to Gergovia, with its beautiful countryside and memories of the great Gaulish victory over Caesar.
As luck would have it, it’s a town filled with wine, charcoal, and good boars to eat.
It’s also where the Romans think the shield might currently be.
And so we set the stage for more clashes….
The Chase Is On
While Asterix and Obelix do enjoy destroying a Roman envoy a couple of times in the book for no good reason other than that they exist, most of the book is Asterix and Obelix playing detective to find the shield. They run from person to person, town to town, trying to follow its path. Along the way, the Romans are doing the same, and the game is afoot!
It’s classic Asterix, as we see the duo venture into new places with cultures that they can crack jokes at. They can insinuate themselves into the situation, make new friends, and get help on their mission. They ask some questions, get some answers that seemingly set them back on their quest, and keep plowing on.
Of particular note is Circumbendis, the owner of the local wheel factory, who is the lazy CEO type, protected by all the people below him. One wonders how much real world experience Rene Goscinny put into this sequence. It comes complete with the people doing the paperwork by chiseling into rocks, the messenger system which is people running out from under the desk to go to the next room, etc. (This comes hot on the heels of Asterix having such issues with paperwork in the previous book, “Asterix the Legionary.“)
The Romans, meanwhile, are doing the same thing in parallel. In fact, up until the end, there’s very little direct crossover. The Romans know what Asterix is up to, and Asterix knows what the Romans are up to, but it’s very much a cold war of sorts.
The Romans defeat themselves. Their soldiers are depicted either as drunks or as thoughtless and cruel leaders. They just happen not to talk the right way to the right people to get the answers they want. Their brute force dictatorial approach to every problem — storm through every house, threaten people, turn things upside down — wins them none of the friends they need to get the final answer. It’s not like Asterix and Obelix torture the Romans in fun and creative new ways until they crack. The Romans are just incompetent. It’s not even because they’re afraid of Asterix. I think that’s one of the weaknesses of the book.
It is only through the most miraculous of meetings that the location of Vercingetorix’s shield is finally uncovered.
How? Where? We need to move into spoiler territory in the next section to talk about it. I have a feeling there’s not anybody reading this review by now who hasn’t already read the book, but just in case: Spoiler warning for the next two well-marked sections!
Spoiler Section, Part One: Story Structure
Turns out, the shield that Chief Vitalstatistix stands on is Vercingetorix’s.
That’s a neat trick, given the mythology of the series. I like that part.
But is it a cheat for the story? There’s no chance a reader of this book, in particular, would have any chance of guessing this ending. In retrospect, it makes perfect sense, but if you’re playing along, this solution to the quest of the story is pretty far out of left field. There’s no mention in this book of Vitalstatistix’s shield at all. There’s never a chance for a reader to guess it.
The twist ending where the answer was under the reader’s nose all the while doesn’t work here because we never see the Chief on his shield, or mention his shield. He packs it away in one panel before they leave the village. Is that enough? Doesn’t feel like it.
On the other hand, does it matter? If Asterix had found the shield after tracking down one person after another until he finally got to the owner, a previously unknown Gaul that we meet for the first time on page 46, would that make the story any less interesting? The journey is the reward, right?
I’m torn, to tell you the truth. This book isn’t a mystery, but doesn’t Chekov’s Law still apply? (Anton Chekov with the gun on the wall, not Pavel Chekov with phasers set on stun…)
Spoiler Section, Part Two: A Little Research
Let’s say that Goscinny was playing the long game on this plot point.
The following is a silly superhero continuity-drenched mindview of the world of comics, where everything must be accounted for to exacting detail. It is pure ethrcise, not a practical historical deep dive.
Here’s is Uderzo’s art of Vercingetorix with his shield, as seen first at the beginning of this volume (bare-legged) and then from the first volume, “Asterix the Gaul”:
The art is consistent with what little we can see of the shield in both books. It’s a blue shield with a lot of yellow dots around the outside edge. We’ve seen Chief Vitalstatistix standing on top of it since the first volume, “Asterix the Gaul“:
It’s there in the second volume, as well:
It’s blue with yellow circles around the perimeter in both cases. We never get a top down view of it, though, so this will have to suffice.
In “Asterix and the Big Fight,” there’s this memorable sequence where Vitalstatistix goes into training on his shield, before Asterix points out he’ll need to run, himself.
You can’t even see the shield here, but I still laugh every time I see that panel, so I had to include it. Also, this shows that the shield he uses is not the one hanging on the front of his house.
So everything is pretty consistent here. We’ve seen the shield before. If you’re super observant at the beginning of “Asterix and the Chieftain’s Shield,” you’ll see the same blue shield with yellow circles pattern being thrown on Caesar’s feet at the beginning. When Vitalstatistix packs it away for his wellness trip, though, we only see the backside of the shield:
So “Asterix and Chieftain’s Shield” is a very clever name for this book. Your assumptions on first reading it is that the “Chieftain” the title is talking about is Vitalstastix. In fact, it’s Vercingetorix’s shield. Goscinny set this story up from the first page of the first book! If you’re an insanely detail-oriented person, you might see the final punchline of this book coming a mile away.
Probably not, though. I’m sure Goscinny made up this story as the series went along. He didn’t plant a seed for this one; it just happened to fit.
The problem is, it does feel like there’s a bit of a letdown. Getting the shield should be harder than wandering around blindly until the person you knew from early on finally confesses that he knows more than he let on just a moment before the shield literally walks through the door from outside the cast of suspicious characters.
I’m still not sure if that’s cheating or a smart fake-out on Goscinny’s part. The final meeting with Caesar functions well as the third act for the book, giving the story a strong, tense ending. Maybe that’s enough. There doesn’t need to be a Boss Battle to get the shield, necessarily.
The Art of Uderzo
In the comments to last week’s post ranking the first ten books, we talked a little about the effects of Uderzo’s art on the rankings. My theory is that it was still developing over the first five books, became more solid in the second five, but that each book has memorable moments from an artistic point of view, whether that’s in the way Uderzo drew a large gathering or military forces, or the way he drew the buildings in a crowded city chase scene. No one book jumped out in particular over the others.
This book is, once again, a solid Uderzo effort. He draws scenes in the forest, the village, the bath houses, the open plains, and inside plenty of smaller buildings. There’s ample detail given to the ornamental patterns on the walls, the exposed beams in the ceilings, and the tile work of the floors.
Some of the building exteriors feel a little simplified, but I think a large part of that was done to keep from competing for the reader’s attention with the more important happenings in the foreground.
The character work is still right on point. There’s plenty of slapstick to go around on this book, including more drunk people.
Dirty, Dirty Romans
The interesting part of Uderzo’s artwork in this volume is the way he draws characters who have been hiding in or going through the charcoal piles. (Charcoal was used to heat houses. They might burn in holders in a central room or a room-by-room basis. Or, they might burn from below the house, letting the warm air rise through the walls. That doesn’t sound dangerous at all, does it?)
In any case, lots of people get sent through the charcoal in this book and they always come out the other side coated in black coal bits. Uderzo does a great job in pulling that look off. He uses lots of little slashing lines, for the most part, to indicate the dirty areas without getting stuck with just using a big black ink brush and going to town.
It looks dirtier with the slashing lines than it ever might with solid black areas, or just living it up to the colors, if that was even possible in the late 1960s with the limited printing capabilities of the time.
The Love of Friends
Asterix and Obelix get into a page-and-a-half long fight in this book. It’s the usual thing where Obelix Asterix bosses him around too much. We’ve seen abbreviated versions of this sequence a few times. (It’s something that will come back again in one of the more recent books, “Asterix and the Chariot Race,” too.)
But this is the best of those moments so far. Goscinny and Uderzo give the moment room to breathe. Asterix and Obelix aren’t talking to each other, and Dogmatix is caught in the middle. The two talk through Dogmatix to get their messages to each other.
Uderzo’s body language throughout this sequence is great. Moment to moment, he tells the story as each emotion turns. The two also mirror each other a lot from opposite sides of the road. As silly as their argument is, they realize it, too, and we can see the shift happening even before we read the word balloons.
And in a way that makes no logical sense but makes perfect sense between two best friends who are practically brothers, they make up and get along fine a few panels later.
This, of course, confuses Dogmatix and gives us the best Dogmatix panel ever.
Worst. Printing. Ever.
I’ve mentioned some of the issues with the 2004 printings of these albums before.
This one takes the cake. There’s not a single page that’s right in this book. Whatever problems you may have with the remastering in 2010, trust me: They’re a godsend compared to the disaster this volume is.
Here’s a sample panel from page 2.
This is a particularly bad example. The whole book doesn’t have that bad a level of purple bleed through, but there’s still a lot of misregistered colors, coloring shifts, and ugliness. It’s a chore to read through the 2004 edition of this one, often like there’s a cataract on your eye making everything look off.
Also, take a look at how they changed the lettering. They properly separated the word balloons from Asterix and Obelix. It doesn’t look like one is a continuation from the other, just by completing the first word balloon’s outline.
It looks like the entire lettering layer has shifted slightly up and to the right. The balloons are in the same spots, but the lettering inside of them moves just a hair to the right and up. That can’t be a coincidence when it happens to all of them.
OK, that’ll be the end of me ever complaining about the 2004 coloring. It can’t get worse than this. I’ve made my point. Time to move on.
Punniest Name of the Month
Druid Diagnostix is nice, but almost too obvious.
We’ve come so far with these names now, I almost prefer the ludicrously long names that feel like stretches.
I like Noxius Vapus because it has a nice ring to it. I also like the combination and repetition of the relatively simple names of Applejus, Prunejus, Carrotjus, and Tomatojus.
But I’m giving this one to Caius Pusillanimus. We just don’t use the word “pusillanimous” enough these days. Also, he reminds me of Gaston La Gaffe (a/k/a “Gomer the Goof“). He has that small lazy limp look to him. Give him a green sweater to go with the broom and you’d have Gaston’s twin.
From someone who enjoys these books with a historical eye, yes. As a solid story on its own, though, this one is not the strongest. There are repeated gags in here from other volumes, a couple gags that go on too long, and a plot that’s basically a wild goose chase, with Romans who are mostly incompetent and not dangerous enough to care about. You might feel a little empty at the end of it.
If, however, you’re freshly learning about places and people like Pompey, Vercingetorix, Julius Caesar, the Averni, Gergovia, and Alesia, this is a great book to feel like an “insider” on.
Critically, I’d recommend other books. Personally, I like it a bunch. But if I had to rank it alongside the first ten books, I’m not sure it would be in the better half of the list.
It’s still better than “Banquet“…
— 2018.033 —
Buy It Now
It’s time to tackle “Asterix at the Olympic Games,” a book that’s inspired a video game and two movies! Is the Magic Potion legal in The Games? Can Greece survive the Gauls? And how much fun will the women of the Village have while all the men are gone to the games?!?