Artist: Albert Uderzo
Translator: Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge
Published by: Orion (Hachette)
Number of Pages: 48
Original Publication: 1968
Asterix competes in the Olympics, but has to do so without his magic potion. This is Asterix tying into an event of the day in the best sit-com fashion. It’s “Asterix in Greece” with the Olympics as a backdrop.
A Little Background
This is the second Asterix album published in 1968, right after “Asterix and the Chieftain’s Shield.”
The year was 1968 and it was, indeed, an Olympics year. Mexico City hosted the Summer Games. It was not without historical note: This is the Games with the Black Power salute on the podium, a student protest in the city that left potentially hundreds dead, and a very strong design aesthetic that graphic design folks still marvel at. If you want to learn more about all of that, here’s an episode of 99% Invisible for you to listen to. It’s a good one.
Two interesting things about those Olympics: Those Summer Games happened in October. And Mexico City won the bid to host the Games by beating out three other cities: Buenos Aires, Lyon (France!), and — Detroit.
Detroit. Can you imagine?
Even worse: “Asterix in Detroit”.
Someday, I’ll have to come up with Top Ten list of the worst possible Asterix adventures that Goscinny (thankfully) never wrote. I think we have our first there, though. “Asterix in Fargo” might be funny, but “Asterix in South Central” too sensitive.
My meme game is strong, though a couple years behind the times…
The Plot: Loopholes to the Olympics
The Romans in the nearby Aquarium camp are very excited. It’s Olympics time! And they have a strong contender for the Olympic games. They plan on bringing glory to Julius Caesar through wins by their strong and fast warrior, Gluteus Maximus.
He’s part Gaston and part Muhammed Ali, as he constantly refers to himself as “The Greatest” in the earliest pages of this book. This isn’t the first Ali reference in the series, either. Cassius Ceramix was a reference to Ali’s original name, Cassius Clay, in “Asterix and the Big Fight.”
When the villagers hear of the Romans’ excitement, they want to join the fun. They think they could win these games, too. With their magic potion power, they will destroy all the Greeks and Romans.
Except — the games are only available for men from Rome or Greece. How will they compete?
Don’t worry; Asterix has the loophole: Julius Caesar says he’s conquered all of Gaul. The Village is in Gaul, so they’re all Romans! Party on!
Most of the point of this book is that the Romans are demoralized that the Gauls are going to win with their magic potion. The Romans are going to disappoint Caesar and there will be heck to pay. If they’re lucky, they’ll be cleaning up the circus and not entertaining people from inside of it.
Things get tense enough from the Roman side of things that their leader comes into the Village seeking an audience with the Chief. As with everything in the series, that doesn’t go off without a hitch. The Chief was in the middle of his annual bath:
Once the action moves to Greece, it becomes a major clash of cultures. The Gauls “invade” Greece, and it’s like the redneck hillbillies coming to the big city for the first time. They’re loud. They bringing dozens of boars with them, carry signs, and cheer loudly.
They also don’t act like the other athletes, who plan to eat plain but healthy foods and go to sleep early to keep fresh for their events. The Gauls’ loud parties and frequent gourmet eating ripples through the Olympic village, and the other athletes can’t resist.
The Gauls are, once again, destroying something merely by their presence.
There’s a lot of Greek jokes along the way, including a bunch I don’t get. I recognize that they’re jokes and probably play on words for local place names or something, but they’re lost on me. The vast majority of the jokes, though, are easy to understand and still bring a smile to my face.
It isn’t until two thirds of the way through the story that the Gauls are told the Magic Potion is an artificial stimulant and not allowed at the games.
Then, there needs to be a Plan B. And that’s what the last third of the book is about. Don’t worry; Asterix and Getafix have a cunning plan!
The Olympics, Themselves
Someone who saw the live action movie first might be surprised to find out there’s not many games played in this book. There’s no chariot race. There’s a foot race and a wrestling/boxing hybrid thing. That’s it.
Goscinny and Uderzo left a LOT of jokes on the table with that. I could very easily see how this story could be expanded out to two volumes, just to go through a bunch of games for the gags you could get out of them.
They wouldn’t be necessary to the story, at all, but they’d be funny. I guess it’s better to stick to the story, though. Otherwise, you end up with something like “Asterix and the Banquet”: a series of gags that don’t have much of a plot behind them.
A Couple of Pacing Problems
This might come from being a serialized story first, but there are two weird pacing issues in this book.
The first and more minor of the violations is a page-long introduction to the architecture of Greece. It feels like a completely wasted page. They’re establishing a bunch of buildings that have no relevance to the story and that from which almost no humor comes.
Maybe Uderzo was a big fan of the architecture and wanted to spend a week drawing these buildings? Goscinny (or maybe Bell/Hockridge) salvages a funny joke about shoe sizes that he can then call back to later, but there has to be a shorter way to that joke.
The bigger issue is the end of the book. It comes up fast and feels very compressed. The story is done, sure, and there’s not much left to do but to have the banquet and end the book. But it still feels very sudden.
The story is rolling along, the final trap is sprung and a celebration happens. Then there’s a lot of little panels to fit the rest of the story onto the last page and it’s the end already.
Even the Banquet gets a small panel — about two-thirds of one tier.
This story could have used an extra page for a softer denouement. (Look, Ma! I just used a French story structure term about a French comic!)
Welcome to the Village
It’s something I haven’t talked about in a few weeks, but this book starts to look more at the other characters in Asterix’s village.
Notably, Geriatrix gets a few good gags in for being the old man who has a thing for the ladies. We first saw him in “Asterix and the Gladiator,” but there he just played the old man with a cane who thought himself stronger than he really way. He didn’t even get a name at that point. Here, he gets a few good jokes and a whole dance number that’s very well colored in the 2010 remastered edition. (I like those cut-in shadows.)
You also get roles for Chief Vitalstatistix, Cacophonix, Fulliautomatix (whose main role is to terrorize Cacophonix), and Impedimenta. It’s not like we’re fleshing these characters out or giving them the starring role, but they do seem more present in this book than they have in a lot of the others, where Asterix and Obelix leave them all behind for most of the book to have an adventure without them.
The entire male cast of the village leaves for the games (women weren’t invited in the earliest days), and a panel later, all the women of the village appear. There are even some small children in the village, which you don’t see too much of, except in wide angle establishing shots.
Also, not all of the women are statuesque realistic humans in model proportions like we saw with “Asterix the Gladiator” with Panacea. I’m not sure if that’s meant to be her in the panel above, second from the left. The woman second from the right has the right colors, but looks older. The rest of the women look much shorter, with larger heads and rounder bodies. They’re more in the Asterix style.
Wearing pink in the middle of the panel, that’s Impedimenta, Chief Vitalstastix’s wife, who is talking.
Lots of Good Gags
The previous book in the series had the best page-long example of the Obelix-fighting-with-Asterix running gag. This book plays off that dynamic to tell the joke in an entirely different way. This time, Obelix is riled up and ready to go to war, draws Asterix in, and then lets him off and walks away. It’s hilarious in the way that is subverts the usual arrangement of this joke.
Obelix, by the way, is still not fat:
Goscinny and Uderzo make an appearance in this book, referring to each other as “tyrant” and “despot”:
I read somewhere that the image might also be a reference to the labors of Hercules. Yes, I’d imagine producing two “Asterix” books a year would be a Herculean task….
A Reference to “Asterix and the Banquet”
Obelix has fond memories of Lugdunum while eating in Greece:
The pair stopped in Lugdunum during their tour of France in “Asterix and the Banquet.” The city, now known as Lyon, you may remember for being the maze of buildings through which our Gaulic duo lost the Roman soldiers in pursuit.
They didn’t have time to stop and eat in town, though, and they left with the local specialty of meatballs and sausage. Not veal.
It was on their way to Nice where they stopped at a restaurant and ate veal. The problem is, Obelix wasn’t happy. It wasn’t boar.
I guess he ate it, anyway, and enjoyed it. Good for him.
So Much Stuff
I’ve covered an awful lot in this review, and yet I haven’t hit on three quarters of the stuff going on in this book. From Dogmatix’s various adventures to Gluteus Maximus’ broom obsession to the Spartans to the Parthenon jokes to the boat ride to Greece and so much more.
I have no doubt some of you have favorite parts of this book that I didn’t cover. Thankfully, there’s a comment section. Feel free to use it. I need to pick my battles.
Punniest Name of the Month
This is a tough book to make a decision from, because there’s such a wide breadth of names here.
Gluteus Maximus should win, because it’s a perfect name for such a muscular character. (He also goes by the name “Solar Plexus” in some earlier translations. That’s not a bad one, but I think the right name won out in the end.)
However, I have a tendency to like longer names that you have to parse out as you read until it becomes obvious and you laugh yourself silly. In this book, that winner would be Gaius Veriambitius.
In the end, though, I have a personal favorite. I know it’s not terribly clever, but as a Type 1 diabetic of 30+ years, the winner for me is Diabetes.
It’s as simple and obvious a name as they come, but he’s my people.
Sorry, Philibuster the orator.
Sorry, Invinoveritas, who gets extra points for the Latin name that I could figure out on my own.
They made a movie of this book a few years back.
My review is posted over here. It includes lots of screenshots and the trailer, itself. Oddly enough, the movie mixes in a plot point from “Asterix and the Goths” out of left field.
While I don’t mention it in the review, there is a scene where the son of Julius Caesar sings “What a Feelin'”. No, I’m not kidding.
Crazy stuff, but a fun movie.
Sure. It’s not the best book, but it’s entertaining, with a plot that does have a twist at the end that shows Goscinny was always thinking about the next surprising thing he could do in the book.
It isn’t enough for “Asterix” to be a travelogue, though this one weighs heavily in that direction. It also needs to have a plot with some level of conflict for drama. We get that here, but it all seems to happen very quickly near the end.
— 2018.035 —
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