Artist: Albert Uderzo
Colors: Marcel Uderzo
Letters: Marcel Uderzo
Translators: Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge
Published by: Orion (Hachette)
Number of Pages: 48
Original Publication: 1972
The mission is simple: Steal the laurel wreath from Caesar’s head without him realizing it. To get to Caesar, sell yourself into slavery. Go!
We’re Still An Adult Book, Aren’t We?
While there’s no explicit orgies in this book, there is a lot of binge drinking and drunkenness and hangovers and slurred speech, not to mention a hilarious reference to what you can do with a menhir. It’s not explicitly dirty, but it’s not quite G-rated stuff.
There’s also a topless African woman in the slave trading area if you look close enough on the right side.
Wikipedia’s entry on this book cites more examples and, interestingly, mentions this:
There is an implicit acknowledgement of this [adult-oriented material] in that Dogmatix (a favourite with younger readers) makes only a token (2 panel) appearance, and the lettering in the original version of this album uses a style more cursive and difficult to read than usual, again discouraging younger readers (the updated version released in 2004 uses the same lettering style as all the other Asterix stories)
I don’t have a pre-2004 French version of this book to look that up, but that’s interesting, if true, about the lettering.
Wikipedia also says that the reference to Caesar’s pirate adventure in this book is citing the incident I wrote about in “Caesar and the Pirates“. That would be about 30 years off from the historical record. I’ll give Goscinny the artistic license to include it here, instead. (The worst of the piracy in the area had been eradicated by Pompey after Caesar’s run-ins with the Cilicians, but well before the Gallic Wars.)
Goscinny and Story Structure
The book begins in the future. Or, it starts off by throwing the action over to a flashback.
It’s like all of those movies that have to start on action, so they begin at a big action piece from later in the story until one character says something obvious like, “How did we get here?” And then the action flashes back to the beginning of the story before working its way back to that first page. (For one example, think of the opening to the first “Deadpool” movie. It also happens so often on the Three Page Challenges on the Script Notes podcast that they have a special name for it, “The Stuart Special.”)
It’s not that crazy a storytelling device, but it’s interesting to see Goscinny use it. He’s usually very linear in his storytelling. I wonder if he was influenced by a movie he had recently seen to try this trick. If he can mimic a Fellini film for “Asterix in Switzerland,” surely there’s another film that might have inspired this choice.
Asterix, the 60s Sit-Com
I’ve referred to Asterix before as being like a sit-com, but this one really stands out to me in that department. This is a full-on family-style sit-com from the 1960s here. (The book came out in the early 70s, but close enough.) It is, in its own way, as silly and goofy and funny as any of those shows were of the era — the Gilligan’s Islands or the Brady Bunches.
In this book, Vitalstatistix joins his wife, Impedimenta, for a visit to her brother’s house in Lutetia (Paris) for dinner. The two men don’t get along at all. It’s your typical battle of wills and ego. Impedimenta’s brother is a big time doctor with a big house in the greatest city in the world. Vitalstatistix is merely the chief of a backwards tribe at the edge of the woods in the middle of nowhere, where there’s no culture or other civilization, and all they eat is boars and fish.
The sniping back and forth over dinner only gets worse until Vitalstatistix finally offers his brother-in-law the kind of meal you can’t get in Paris. It’s the kind no other village could provide. He offers up a meal that he’ll garnish with the laurel from the wreath that Julius Caesar, himself, wears on his head. This is the kind of promise that you make only when you (a) have too much alcohol in your system and (b) have Asterix and Obelix on your side.
Vitalstatistix immediately sends the pair to Rome to fetch the laurels.
This is already starting to sound like a Very Special Vacation Episode of The Brady Bunch. You get a family squabble, hurt feelings, a bombastic pledge that can’t reasonably be backed up, and then a quest to pull off the impossible.
Asterix Tries to Get Close
He has a tough time with this one. Obelix wants to just burst in and beat his way through, but Asterix knows that won’t work. The Magic Potion makes them strong, not invincible. So they sell themselves into slavery, to a trader who often supplies Caesar workers for his palace. Asterix does some tough negotiations to get bought, but winds up in the wrong place. Though, as luck would have it, they still get an appointment through their buyer to the Palace, where they are captured as traitors and put on trial.
Let’s stop to take a look at the courtroom scene. Asterix and Obelix go on trial — and they want to lose. The courtroom scene is a classic in all forms of drama — including comic books — as a great way to cap off a series of events. A character can look back on their actions and be held accountable. It’s also naturally dramatic, because you have the built in conflict of prosecution versus defense.
This is more of a farce than a character analysis piece, though. It’s hilarious.
And because Uderzo didn’t have enough to draw, he establishes the courtroom with this panel. There’s at least 60 people in this panel. They each have to be drawn from the correct angle to sell the semi-circular seating.
This is also the only book so far where the pair get thrown in jail and don’t want to immediately bust the door down and escape. They have to play it smarter than that, which leads to more hijinks.
Eventually, they find their way to the palace and the laurel wreath. It’s thanks to some contacts they’ve made, some favors they can call in, and more drunkenness.
The Critic In Me Has To Say…
If there’s one weak spot in this story, it’s that the plan doesn’t drive the plot. More frustratingly, the plan is overruled by happenstance out of the actors’ control. You want your characters making decisions that drive the plot forward. Asterix and Obelix get a lot of help in this book from the plotting gods.
The good news is, this is a comedy. You can forgive a lot of that so long as it provides the set-ups for funny scenes.
And, as we’ve seen before in Asterix and other Franco-Belgian comics of the time, there’s not that firm adherence to the three act structure that we love today in North America. If you look at this book, it’s Caesar and Asterix in Rome on a mission where they bounce around until they land in a place to complete their mission with a last minute plan. Then they’re home and all is well.
The third act isn’t a summation of everything they’ve been through. There’s not even a panel with Caesar and Asterix in it at the same time. That’s the battle the whole book felt like it was working up towards. In the end, they sneak in and out and get away with it. There’s no great drama. It’s like completing a video game level without a showdown with the Big Bad.
You could make a movie of this book. I bet, thought, that the screenwriter would do a major rewrite of the ending, with Caesar nearly catching them. That leads to a great chase through the streets of Rome that earlier scenes established already.
Since such a movie would have to be kid friendly, though. I don’t see this movie translating to that very well. Or at all.
Stories Don’t Have to Ramp Things Up Every Time
If there’s one thing that bothers me about modern series storytelling, it’s this belief that every new story has to one-up the previous one. The challenges have to be bigger and more difficult. The obstacle the hero must overcome needs to be harder. If the hero defeated one bad guy in the first story, he must defeat two of them in the next. The team beat an alien in the last movie, so they must defeat swarms of them in the next. If the hero saves the village in the first book, he needs to save the whole world in the next.
This story isn’t about big stakes. It’s about keeping Chief Vitalstatistix’s ego puffed up. It’s a stupid mission done for stupid reasons, which could have dire consequences. As we are reminded in this book, magic potion doesn’t make you invincible. It only makes you stronger. The threat level is relatively low, though. Asterix goes out of his way to keep it that way, by finding a better way to get the laurel wreath without just bursting through the front door and doing a smash and grab.
I like it for just that reason. Goscinny wrote a few very long running series, most notably Asterix, Lucky Luke, and Iznogoud. He didn’t burn out on either by trying to write bigger and bigger stories every time. His scripts just got funnier and funnier, but that’s good practice and experience paying off. He didn’t write himself into a corner where Asterix had to take down the entire Roman army. Lucky Luke didn’t have to stop a train with his bare hands.
They are all isolated stories, free of the ball and chain that is continuity, that tell complete adventures in their natural form. There are formulas and beats you want to hit in each story, but that still leaves plenty of room for creativity and experimentation. There’s some of that in this book, the 18th in the series.
There’s not going to be a letdown on the reader’s part because Asterix had such an epic adventure last time that this one couldn’t hope to top it. That’s not the point. I love that.
More “Big” Art from Uderzo
This book features more large scale cityscapes from Uderzo, along the same lines as we saw in the previous book, “The Mansions of the Gods.” The book starts off with a stunning overhead view of the city of Rome, and then parallels that angle to a similar shot of Lutetia a couple pages later. It helps serve the gag that Goscinny is serving up where each city’s inhabitants think their city is the greatest.
Rome obviously looks denser, more advanced, and better laid out. Lutetia, at that point, was an island city filled with relatively ramshackle wooden huts with thatched roofs. Given the same size panel, you couldn’t fit all of Rome in, but Lutetia is dead center with plenty of the outlying areas still in view.
With the book set in Rome, Uderzo has more of that classic architecture to draw, and he doesn’t skimp on it. Caesar’s Palace, in particular, is an impressive piece of draftsmanship. He uses the same drawing of it twice in the book, and I don’t blame him for that, because it’s a stunning image of the palace.
(Side note: I can’t help but think of casinos whenever I read “Caesar’s Palace.” I’m an ugly American. sigh)
And then things get a little more experimental near the end, with a scene set in the fog of early morning. It looks like he — actually, Marcel Uderzo (see below) — inked the panels in a pointillist style to mimic the effect of fog. The effect is tricky, and the 2010 remastering only sharpens it, since it’s a more refined process and the bigger dotted areas don’t bleed together.
I flip through this book to look at the pages and it always impresses me that these pages came out as fast as they did. I’m sure the serialization helped to keep them coming, but Uderzo doesn’t take too many shortcuts in the course of this book. Yes, there’s that photocopy of the Palace, and a couple cases where characters have a spicy drink and the camera holds on their faces while they change colors. But that’s minor in comparison to everything that is drawn on this page. Even with inking, coloring, and lettering help, it’s insane that this book came out as fast as it did, year after year.
That image of Rome above accounts for a half page, so it’s probably a week or two’s worth of work, alone, after you add in inks and colors.
Updated Coloring Comparison
The updated 2010 remastered coloring is fairly faithful to the original. When I first compared the 2004 editions to the 2010 books, I found big differences. They added streaming lights into dungeon scenes, for example. Things got a little bolder and a little busier along the way. Sometimes, that extra Photoshop work would be distracting.
With this book, I don’t find much they added. Yes, there are some additional colors in small areas, like in the windows of Caesar’s Palace. But there’s no fancy gradients or modeling techniques added to try to make things look more “realistic.” From what I’ve seen in comparing sample pages back and forth, the new coloring is clearer because the linework is clearer, and the colors are bolder because the paper can hold those colors now. But there’s not a huge difference between the two.
One technique I liked in this book a lot is the nighttime coloring style. It’s all shades of blue to indicate the night.
It’s used repeatedly in this book for all the nighttime scenes. I took these panels from the 2010 remastering, but they’re very faithful to the 2004 editions.
In fact, here’s the original coloring from the English edition of the 1970s:
You can see that it’s fairly faithful. Taking out the natural yellowing of the paper in the latter scan, it’d be even closer. They tweaked the colors for consistency’s sake, but the overall effect is still there.
Marcel Uderzo’s Last Book (For Now)
This is the last “Asterix” book that Albert Uderzo’s brother, Marcel, would work on for a couple years. He handled the original lettering, inking, and coloring on the series (uncredited) from “Asterix and Cleopatra” through to this volume, and then again from “Asterix and the Great Crossing” through “Asterix in Belgium.” (volume 22 – 24)
There’s a longer story to tell about Uderzo’s family and the messy ownership issues surrounding Asterix. That’s an article for another time, though. (I think I have a rough draft of it written around here somewhere…)
Best Name in the Book
(This is my 18th review, and I still haven’t come up with a title for this section that I can stick with.)
I’m giving this award not to a single name, but to a family of names. You have the father, Osseus Humerus, the mother, Fibula, and their two kids, Tibia and Metatarsus. Those are all bones in the legs and feet.
Bonus points goes to their major domo, Goldendelicius. Nobody ever says that he’s the apple of someone’s eye. Goscinny and Bell showed such restraint with that…
Yes. It relies on a lot of drunken humor, but isn’t annoying that way. Or, perhaps I just have a higher threshold of tolerance for drunkennes over sloppy fondue eating. To each his own.
The stakes aren’t the highest, but the down-to-earth nature of the conflict is something more people can probably relate to. There’s a lot of funny bits of Asterix and Obelix running around Rome trying to get to Caesar’s Palace. Uderzo’s art is on point, the coloring takes some chances, and the story structure has a couple of tweaks away from the usual.
It’s an interesting book and an entertaining one, all the same. I’m not sure that it will make my top five at the end of the series, but it definitely won’t be in the bottom five. At this point, I’ve come to expect so much from these books that a very good volume is almost a let down.
These reviewers are crazy, eh?
— 2018.048 —
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