Artist: Albert Uderzo
Translator: Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge
Published by: Orion (Hachette)
Number of Pages: 48
Original Publication: 1970
Julius Caesar unleashes his most clever and diabolical attempt to force the Gauls out of their village yet: He’s going to NIMBY the hell out of them!
A Caesarian Subdivision
What’s a Caesar to do? How can he possibly conquer the last corner of Gaul?
He’ll force them out! What if he made their village so uncomfortable to live in that they’d quit fighting back and finally submit to Rome’s will?
Caesar plans to do it with the most dangerous tool of all. It’s the one that’s brought whole economies and civilizations crashing to their knees.
He’ll build a development right outside the village, destroying the forest and the source of all those wonderful boars the villagers like so much. They’ll have no choice but to give in to Caesar’s progress.
And it almost works!
This is a great book.
Why I Like It So Much
This book is going near the top of the list of “Favorite Asterix Books,” for sure. I love this one for a lot of reasons.
First, it feels new. While it is, once again, Caesar trying and failing to conquer Asterix’s village, it’s coming at it in a brand new way. It’s not even a direct attack. Why fight the magic potion? Caesar’s plan is to get rid of the Gauls as a healthy side effect of a successful new business venture. Capitalism FTW!
Second, it is not just a comedy. It’s a satire. There’s a little of everything in this book, from (NIMBY) Not In My Back Yard to urban planning to the side effects of upscale populations to how Main Street changes to accommodate the buyers to the unionization of workers.
Third, this is a book about a domino effect. The way the Mansions of the Gods almost destroys the village is from within. As the village becomes a tourist destination, of sorts, the village changes to serve the local clientele. These changes, hilariously turning every house into either an antiques shop or a fish store, nearly rip the village apart. Caesar, perhaps without completely realizing it, plays to the weakest spots of the village: the villagers and their self-interests.
Fourth, Albert Uderzo draws some “epic” stuff. There are large architectural renderings and larger environmental panels. There are massive piles of logs, and village huts seen from the sky. The book opens on a series of half page panels setting the scene for what’s to come. Julius Caesar has gone so far as to build a scale model for his Mansions of the Gods. (See image above.)
Everything is just bigger in this book. The panels are bigger. There’s a full-page splash at the book’s climax. The word balloons are bigger as lots of people are yelling at each other. The buildings are as big as they’ve ever been drawn. With the Mansions of the Gods, Uderzo even draws something that more closely resembles modern architecture, and he doesn’t miss a perspective line on the whole thing.
Fifth, we get to read the brochures for the Mansions. It’s reminiscent of the other times Goscinny and Uderzo have gone off format, like the description of the Asterixian Wars or the Battle of the Village. This is a beautiful two page spread meant to mimic the sales pitch for the development. Uderzo not only includes a whole series of paintings across the double page spread, but also draws the hands holding the brochure. The map layout of the Mansions looks like the layout of a major international airport. The initial plan for the place was quite detailed and a lot of work to build.
Sixth, there’s real danger in this book. Asterix and Getafix let the Romans build away. They weren’t sure what they were up to, but they knew they’d figure it out and find a way to beat it. But the truth of it all temporarily stuns Asterix, who has to ponder why his initial plan didn’t work, and what his new angle towards the same end goal will be.
But Asterix and Getafix are not in total control of this story at all times. People surprise them. Ultimately, their final plan works to save the day, but some of the earlier plans sowed the seeds of doubt. This was a pretty close shave.
Seventh, it’s a village story, not an adventurous trip to another country story. As much as I like those, I think I’m a bigger fan of seeing the villagers more.
The Gauls Drive the Romans Crazy, Of Course
A big part of the first half of the book is the story of the Romans clearing out the forest to make room for construction.
They try to get it done without interference from the villagers, so they only work at night, and very quietly. The slaves are also not in alignment with the goals of the Romans. They’re more interested in doing less work, since they’re not getting paid. They’ll fake out the rooster to wake everyone else up early if it fools their bosses into thinking the night is over so they can go to sleep.
The problem they have to face is that Getafix has magic seeds that instantly grow into full-size trees. It’s a good trick to have, and one that’s super convenient for the plot. It drives Squaronthehypotenus mad. He has a full squad of slaves at his beck and call, and they just can’t get the work done. Even worse, every time he thinks they’ve finished the job, the trees immediately return.
Goscinny’s scripts always do a great job at laying out the slow burn of driving Romans mad, and this one is no exception. Uderzo’s acting skills with a pencil shine, as Squaronthehypotenus overacts and emotes with all his body over how frustrating the whole thing is.
Then, there’s the political side of the story. I have to think the next bit is Goscinny’s commentary on the French working class, particularly in light of the May 1968 uprisings in France which happened shortly before Goscinny would have been writing this. I should write an article about the May 1968 events someday. It is a fascinating story and there are lots of little stories in the course of it that are worth talking about…
The Slavery Issue is More a Union Issue
There’s some modern sensitivities mixed in with cultural commentary on this book. I think it might be a potentially ugly little mixture in these modern times for some people. I also think they’d be reacting without thinking it totally through, so let’s see if I can explain this all.
Asterix’s first plan to stop the destruction of the forest is to arm the slaves with Magic Potion. With that in hand, they might easily rebel, throw the Romans aside, and leave for their own freedom.
The slaves don’t. With the Magic Potion as their tool, they demand a fair wage and their freedom in return for completing their job. Squaronthehypotenus is so desperate to get the job, he agrees to the deal. Armed with interests that are more aligned with the Romans now, the slaves’ production increases greatly.
The slaves’ leader at one point mentions how tired he is and how he longs for the crack of a whip to get over being tired and hungry. There’s a one-liner that I bet wouldn’t go over too well in North American today. (He’s also wrong earlier in the book when he said that there’s not much of a future in slavery. So terribly, terribly wrong…)
The slaves, in this case, include people from Belgium, Spain, Gaul, and Numidia (Algeria/Tunisia) — all countries Asterix has visited before. They’re part cast of characters for the series now. The slave trade was less of a race thing than in America. It was more a power and an economic expediency thing. Romans would enslave everyone they could fight because it was good money. It’s a large part of the reason for the Gallic Wars — Caesar needed money and selling people he captured along the way was very profitable.
I can already see the outrage from a 2018 point of view for the slaves acting like they’re OK working for their owners, and negotiating as a group for a better deal when the opportunity presents itself.
But Goscinny isn’t making a commentary on slavery in this book. This is Goscinny commenting on Unions — collective bargaining! — and the working class of France, which seems to have a major strike every year. (It’s usually in one of the transit unions, it feels like.)
Goscinny pushes it further. The Roman legionaries in the area get wind of the fact that the slaves are now paid better than they are, and they go on strike. There’s a series of negotiations they have with their leaders to get the demands they want. It’s funny stuff, with echoes of modern life reflected in Ancient Roman times. Much like what happens in the “real world,” one successful negotiation prompts another one. If that group is getting more money, why isn’t mine? Human nature is a timeless thing…
The bigger problem than the storyline is, as usual for much of the art at the time, the depiction of the Numidian. His caricature is not something that would fly today. It’s an over-exaggeration that wouldn’t go over so well. The good news is, the accent he had in earlier English translations has been replaced by a more standard British style of speaking. As at least they were able to clean up that part of it.
The Pirate Question
When the slaves are freed, they’re off to sea.
Wait a minute — are those the pirates whose ship Asterix tends to sink in every book?
If so, is this book actually set in the past?
But the Numidian doesn’t really look like the scout on the pirates’ ship. And the rest of the freed slaves in that group don’t look like the pirates that we know and love, either. They’re kinda similar, but not the real thing.
What’s going on here? I’ve read a lot of references to this on-line, and everyone else is just as confused.
Other Random Things
I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned this before, but Caesar’s journals during the Gallic Wars were written in the third person. Goscinny continues that joke in this volume, and points it out directly.
To quote the great Daffy Duck, “Pronoun trouble!”
Goscinny hasn’t forgotten that Dogmatix is very in tune with the earth. All this digging up of trees and destruction of the forest have very anxious throughout the book. The poor guy barks more here than in any other book so far, I’d have to think.
And, yes, they did make a CGI animated movie of this book a few years ago. I have the Blu-ray. I hope to have a review of it next week. We’ll talk about it then…
Best Name in the Book
This was a gimme. There’s not much serious competition vying for the honor in this book. The architect, Squaronthehypotenus, wins it in a laugher. Again, it’s a long name and it has the perfect meaning, given the person’s career choice.
Also, there’s a character named Showbisinus that works well. He’s clearly a caricature of someone in particular. I just looked it up. That’s Guy Lux, a TV host at the time.
I even love that cover. It’s so good that they didn’t need to change it for the recent remastering. Everything stays the same.
Yes, this one is definitely recommended! This is one of my favorites so far. It’s a good commentary on modern life and a capitalist system, but it also feels different from so many previous adventures.
After reading 16 of these books in nearly as many weeks, this is a breath of fresher air. Goscinny can still bring the puns and the wordplay, but here he brings the satire on a grand scale from many angles. This book is an achievement.
— 2018.047 —
Buy It Now
Digitally in Europe: