|

Asterix v15: “Asterix and the Roman Agent”

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: The Romans send a spy into Asterix’s village. Asterix sees right through the charade and turns it back around on the Romans.

That’s “Asterix the Gaul.”

This one is a little more complicated. This is what happens when that story graduates to some sort of college-level Political Science course.

Asterix and the Roman Agent cover
Writer: Rene Goscinny
Artist: Albert Uderzo
Translator: Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge
Published by: Orion (Hachette)
Number of Pages: 48
Original Publication: 1970
Original Title: “La Zizanie”

The Roman Agent

Caesar is fed up with not having Asterix’s village. Pressured by the Roman Senate, he takes the nuclear option. He sends in Tortuous Convolvulus, a seedy, greasy, used car salesman with a mean twitch and a nasty disposition.

Convulvulus, you see, is highly skilled at turning people against one another. He can say just the right thing at the right time, and best friends will go to war.  He sows dissent, jealousy, and cynicism everywhere he goes.

Convulvulus displays his powers for Caesar

Imagine dropping that poison into the Village, where the villagers get along mostly OK, but with plenty of rivalries and enmities floating about. (Is “enmities” even a word?) (It is.  I looked it up.  It actually comes from the Old French.  Go figure.)

Not only does Convolvulus have early success on his mission, but things escalate quickly beyond his initial plans until we’re at an all-out war.

If you’ve been waiting for a village story, this is the one for you. The vast majority of it occurs inside their fences, as villager turns on villager, long-held assumptions are questioned, and nobody trusts anyone.

It is, at times, a little over the top in its simplicity and just how easily the agent pulls the wool over their eyes, but that’s the kind of thing you just run with. This is a super funny story that builds up well on everything we’ve seen in the series so far.

Hygienix, having just debuted in the last volume, shows up in a lot of the events in the village, as a small punchline to a larger joke each time.

The woman of the village get together for tea and jealous gossip....

The women of the village come together to discuss the happenings lately and what should be done with it. They’re shrewd political calculators, as it turns out. They also turn out to be dead wrong, but so is everyone else in the village at one point or another.  

Geriatrix is still obsessing over his experience in Gergovia, of course.

It takes a daring gambit from Asterix and Getafix to get the Village to realize the errors of its way, even if it takes a great and possibly risky battle to do it.

Character Introduction

We know Convulvulus before we see him. In an amazingly short span of panels, Rene Goscinny’s script has others discuss his “powers” in such strong and clear terms that you immediately know what to expect from him.

It’s not a long expository section of the story, nor is it a boring encyclopedic entry. It’s TWO PANELS, with a call-back to “Asterix the Gladiator,” where we learned about Italian insulas:

Convulvulus is introduced by way of description to Julius Caesar

That’s just great writing.  Goscinny, for all the running gags and throw-away one-off puns and silly jokes he puts in the book, is a very economical storyteller. He can fit a lot of story into a relatively small space, giving the gags room to breathe.  

It leaves Uderzo the space he needs to pace out the jokes to keep them effective.  This is just one small example of that, but I thought the would be a good time to point it out.

This Should Be the Next Movie

I think this should be the book they consider for an animated movie next. It can’t be a straight adaptation, though. There’s plenty of great visuals to go around, such as the all-village fights and the Romans discovering Psychological Warfare. But I don’t think there’s enough drama in these 48 pages to hold an audience’s attention. It feels a bit like a series of sketches, if you look at it from a movie writer’s point of view.

They’d need to stress more serious internal strife in the village first. There’d be a whole opening where we are introduced to the characters and see how ell they get along, but how just under the surface there are questions. Then you introduce Convulvulus to bring out those bad feelings. After that, you follow the accusations and the serious interpersonal doubts and disbeliefs as they grow stronger and more serious.

The third act is the Battle of the Village. (Spoilers in the rest of this section, in case you’re trying to avoid them somehow in these reviews.). When the allied Roman garrisons descend upon the village and start an outright war, it takes all of one funny page in the book. It’s just a chart of what happened in the war, complete with arrows to show everyone’s movements, and a numbered key to select major events.  It’s a great use of the comic book medium to supply the image and the key, which together tells the story and provides a few yucks along the way.

But with a little computer animation, imagine what a sight it would be on the big screen to see hundreds of soldiers descending on a rag tag group of villagers with only the magic potion to defend themselves.

Also, the magic potion threatens to take all the drama out, so you’ll need to have a weakness somewhere to help the Romans out a bit to make the fight last longer than thirty seconds.

I just think that final battle could be huge and hilarious and dramatic, all at once, if properly expanded into something a movie could handle better than a comic.

Dear Hollywood — I’m available to review your scripts….

Good Uses of the Medium

The green word balloons indicate the jealous feelings Convulvulus brings out in people

Let’s talk about those green word balloons. There’s not much to say. It’s pretty obvious what’s going on. The jealousy in the people talking that has been planted by Convulvulus turns their balloons green. That’s all. It’s a trick no other medium could use besides comics.

I already talked about the war map above, but it deserves mention in this section, too. So there, I just mentioned it.

Something else I noticed Uderzo doing a lot in this book is silent panels.  They serve multiple purposes in the book.  Sometimes, it’s just a matter showing the passage of time.  You need that one panel where the two characters walk off the stage so someone else can drop in behind them in the next.  Sometimes, they are used for reaction takes.  Something crazy just happened in the previous panel and the silent one is where the character does their spit-take or their bug-eyed look or whatever the scene calls for.

Romans and Villagers surround Convulvulus and end his ways

And, in one memorable moment near the end of the book, it’s the moment where the jig is up.  It’s the full width panel of Convulvulus caught in the middle between the Roman soldiers on one side and the whole of Asterix’s village on the other.  His head is turning back and forth while everyone else is not looking too happy with him.  It’s the climactic moment. It’s the comeuppance you’ve been waiting for the entire book.  It doesn’t need any words.  There’s a bit of a twist to this moment in the next panels, which just makes it all the funnier.

The False Ending

That’s another interesting part of this book.  They catch up to Convulvulus five pages before the end.  For a series that so often eschews denouements for a ridiculously quick ending, that felt like Goscinny and Uderzo left way too much room to close things out.

Don’t worry; there’s more story there.  Getafix and Asterix plot one more test of their village’s sanity to prove to the villagers, once and for all, that all that jealousy is not a good thing.  It’s the mini story that happens after the main story. It connects the two and teaches the lesson by example, not just a sudden bit of dialogue where everyone tells the reader that they understand their mistake now.

The whole bit — and this story, as a whole — also helps identify how contentious the village can be at times.  Even Caesar makes note of it at the beginning of the story, but I never considered it that big an issue before the last volume.  Sure, nobody likes Cacofonix the Bard, but there weren’t any big disagreements that brought the whole village into chaos like happened in “Asterix in Spain.”

Getafix turns into the wise Gandalf-the-White wizard here, too, proclaiming of the villagers that “they’re fond of a fight, impractical, eccentric… But you have to like them.  They’re only human!”

Goscinny isn’t just characterizing the village here, but also humanity, as a whole. He also describes the mindset of modern internet users, too…

Recurring Gags

Asterix and Obelix have another fight that ends quickly in hugs. This one is particularly funny for the way Uderzo stages it in his art. Obelix stomps out of Asterix’s hut. Afterwards, you slowly see him deflate over the course of four panels until he realizes the error of his ways. Then he turns tail quickly and runs back to Asterix.

We get this panel on his way out:

Obelix gives Asterix the old Roman salute, "Ave, Asterix!"

It’s both hilarious AND heart-breaking.  Dogmatix looks shocked! This is as bad as Captain America whispering “Hail, Hydra!”

The fish are flying into faces again. Goscinny and Uderzo must have hear from a lot of readers that they liked the gag in the previous book, because they’re pushing it hard in this one. The best part is the way Hygienix sees the fight about to start and urges his wife to put the fish away. That little bit of dialogue — sometimes off-panel — cracked me up every time.

Chief Vitalstatix has some great gags about standing on his shield in this book. There’s a half dozen gags centered on that and they all made me laugh. It’s part slapstick, part verbal comedy. And those are never easy to draw. I love it.

And Obelix, on the last page, gets a new variation of “These Romans are crazy!” that is particularly funny.

Quick Thoughts

Caesar looks different to me somehow in this book. Is Uderzo changing his look, or is my memory particularly short? Maybe it’s just the extreme closeups, though.  I don’t think we’ve seen too many of those before with Caesar.

Caesar in closeup by Uderzo looks different

The Brutus jokes just didn’t land for me as well as I had hoped. They feel forced in.  For example:

The Brutus joke falls flat due to some bad delivery

The latest editions of this book have a new cover coloring.  Instead of the solid block of green behind the four characters up front, it fades out to white up top and everyone is coloring in shade of green. You can see the background characters more clearly this way.  It’s a nice update to the cover that keeps with the theme of the original design, but with an improvement.

Best Name of the Month

Magnumopus is a big dumb galoot of a Roman warrior

I am going with Magnumopus.  He’s the big guy above.  It’s one of those highfalutin’ Latin terms that I have been known to slip into conversation occasionally, so it strikes a particular chord with me. Also, the character is an over-the-top simpleton Roman barbarian.  He feels like a classic 1950s Warner Bros animated character.  (“Which way did he go, George?”, which is actually from 1940, now that I look it up…)

Tortuous Convulvulus is a little too far to go on that particular wordplay for me.  Also, I misspelled it consistently in an earlier draft of this review, so now it just ticks me off.

The bizarre choice for the book, though, is Felix Platypus.  Of all the words one might combine with “Platypus,” I never imagined “Felix.”  I guess “DuckBilledPlatypus” was too obvious?

Recommended?

Asterix and the Roman Agent cover

Yes!  The previous volume, “Asterix in Spain,” was on the face of it another travel book to another country.  However, the highlight of it was the first half with all the activity in the village. This book expands that section of the story out, and gives us an entire book of the village squabbling.  It’s a great expansion on what Goscinny and Uderzo set up in that book.

— 2018.042 —

Next Book!

Governor Flavius plots his riches in one year

We’re back on the road and heading to the mountains! The banks! The cheese! And, uhm, the constant orgies. It’s not what you think…

It’s “Asterix in Switzerland“.  As much as I love the village stuff, I think a full-fledged trip to another country will be a welcome respite from all this village talk…

What do YOU think? (First time commenters' posts may be held for moderation.)

19 Comments

  1. I love this book. An easy 5/5 and is currently sitting at the top of my list of Asterix books (though Mansions of the Gods might topple it).

    The Agent’s plan is great – though clearly, Vitalstatistix is at best the fourth most important person in the village, behind Getafix, Asterix and Obelix. I disagree with you on Cacofonix though. I was always under the impression that he’s quite well liked in the village. They just hate his singing.

    The Battle of the Village is great. I love that even the Pirates manage to get in that one.

    Magnumopus is a great name, but words that are already Latin lose a few points for me, so I might have to go with Aberdeenangus or Giantortus.

    Asterix in Switzerland next. That’s always been one of my favourites of the travelling ones.

  2. This one is heavy in subtext. There were a lot of unexpressed frustrations in the country when in the late sixties historians started to study and unpack the whole Resistance/collaboration dichotomy that we had to live through during WWII, and this is Goscinny’s way of addressing it, in a quite masterful and subtle way, he encapsulates the whole dilemma and offers some kind of catharsis in the end. As a kid, all I could see in this story was a bunch of sleazy playground shenanigans, but when I was old enough to read between the lines, I went “Oh wow, so that’s what it was all about!”. It’s just brilliant.
    I have to disagree with you on that all-green cover redesign, it think it lacks the balance of the original one with the white band on top.
    Also, what a strange name this guy has in the English version, I fail to see where the pun is. In French, he’s called Detritus (french word for garbage), which is so perfectly simple and on point.

    1. I had to look up his name in the dictionary to understand it:

      Tortuous: Full of twists and turns

      Convulvus: A twining plant with trumpet-shaped flowes, of which some kinds are invasive weeds (see also bindweed), and others are cultivated for their bright flowers.

      So he’s a twisty turny invasive weed. I think that works quite well.

          1. I was about to reply that it doesn’t work in English. Then I looked it up and it turns out it does.

  3. I’m not really sure why every name has to be changed in translation. The fishmonger’s wife in French is Yellowsubmarine. How is Bacteria better?

    1. Well, partly because Bacteria relates quite well to being unhygienic, but mainly because it ends in “a” and Yellowsubmarine doesn’t.

      Panoramix could have stayed the same though as that works in both languages.

  4. I think Bell and Hockridge decided that all the female names should end in -a. Maybe they thought English speakers associate the -ine ending with modern French and it would therefore not sound so ancient? Bacteria at least relates to her husband’s English name, Unhygienix. But I admit Yellowsubmarine is a great name!
    Come to think of it, Unhygienix is more appropriate for a seller of rotten fish than thr French Ordralphabetix (alphabetical order)?
    I think some of the English names are very clever and funny, though the translators sometimes make the joke too obscure. I didn’t get most of the puns when I first read these books as a child.
    I have convulvulus (bindweed) in my garden. It’s impossible to get rid of. If you cut it down or dig it up, it grows back later. And it winds and twists its way around other plants in spirals. So that sinuous, twisting sneakiness is sort of right for the troublemaker in this book.

      1. The chief’s wife’s name in French also ends in “ine.” Then there’s Falbala, Obelix’s crush in Legionary, which ends in “a”, so it’s not across the board.

        1. Ah, well in that case I fully support the translators picking on and running with it.

        2. All the women in the Armorican village have names ending in -ine, the equivalent of -ix for the boys. Bonnemine (healthy features) is the chieftain’s wife, Ielosubmarine (no need to explain this one) is the Fishmonger’s, and so on. It’s simple and efficient. Falbala was the exception, because she used to live in Lutece, I guess, hence the gallo-roman name ending in -a. Oh, and of course Mrs. Agecanonix who remains nameless throughout. I would agree with fellow commenters that sometimes the Brits chose meaner names for no apparent reason. Now that I can compare, I have to admit I prefer the French names but maybe that’s just because I’m used to them since I was a wee lad.

  5. Well the Roman Agent is quite simply the best yet, there’s not much else to say really, especially anything that will add to the insights given here… won’t stop me typing a load of course, but just warning you now won’t really add anything!

    When I first learnt the proper order of Asterix volumes, which wasn’t until early 2000s and the Orion releases led to my last re-read, the first backed up by by the Internet, I wondered if ‘Spain’ had been a light bulb moment for Goscinny. He seemed to have so much fun with both the village and the travel elements of that story, yet struggled to give them both space and time in one volume we start a run of one village, one travel, one village, one travel… and they are all gold.

    Why does Roman Agent work so well, well lets set aside the glorious art, I mean that’s not new, its just a delight. No here I’ll focus on the story and how Goscinny brings all the elements he’s been developing to a head quite majestically. The village is now fully formed and we’re seen the inner workings evolve and here he just pulls it all together, with a little more space than available in Spain. By having the interplay between the villagers manipulated to the extremes they become all the more vibrant and fun. Its the French Gaulic comics (!) equivalent to Jack Kirby’s hyper-realised 70s superhero stuff.

    We get another example of that thing I love so much, but seems to appear so little, a really nasty, weasly villian in Convolulus. While at the same time the Romans legionnaries are played much broader than typical villians… well I mean sure they try to crush the village, but they’re as twisted and manipulated as the Gauls, again played to quite astonishing comic effect by Goscinny and Uderzo.

    We see another plot that means the potion isn’t the solution, yet very smartly is still really important. Everything is played so well, from the continued characterisation of the village, to the green word balloons. To the fantastic individuality of even the most background character, to ongoing shield gags, I mean Jez how can one team get so many GOOD gags out of folks being carried on a shield! We get ‘The Battle of the Village’ which just plays with the form so well, it reminds me of the Asterix Wars way back in ‘Goths’ yet so fresh and different, I remember looking at this for hours as a kid, and to be honest now while I don’t have hours anymore I did stir at it in wonder for a while.

    This is simply Asterix at its best and therefore comics at their very, very best.

    To the discussions here. I have to be honest I much prefer the flat green cover. As for name I have to admit I go for Bacteria. I always loved that as the perfect partner for Unihygenix.

    Score… well I have to give it 12 / 10. My scoring system so broken it doesn’t matter anymore, could creep up to 11.5 but think I’ll need space for stories better than ‘Cauldron’ not quite as good as this.

  6. “Bacteria” just sounds… mean to me. Unnecessarily unkind and too on the nose. Anyway, but this book has always been one of my favorites. Soooo much to love about it. The sequence where the agent walks past the Chief (sorry, don’t know the names in English) to hand Asterix the vase is roll-on-the-floor hilarious thanks to Uderzo’s expressions. And the whole psychological warfare bit, a total classic. This is the authors at the top of their form, and as others have said, the next ones to come, all the way to and including the Great Crossing, are all part of the golden period. I don’t like how the art changes in some of the titles, but script-wise, all those books are top-notch.

    1. How can you have the “golden period” stop right before Obelix and Co? That’s one of the best books.

        1. Vice versa. Great Crossing is #22, and Co is #23. Belgium is #24, and that will make us all sad rabbits when we get there…

          I sometimes, in my mind, try to list all the Asterix reviews I’ve written in order. I stopped after five or six. I stink at keeping things like that straight. I’m sure if you asked me to name the first 16 right now, I’d forget one of the names no matter what the order.

  7. Roman Centurion Felix Platypus is a caricature of Italian born French actor Lino Ventura.