This volume worries me a bit. Is the golden age of Asterix over now? Is this the dividing line? It’s not a bad book, but it feels different. Simpler. I don’t know.
Or am I over-reacting to some minor tweak in the art that nobody else even sees? Let’s explore together, shall we?
Artist: Albert Uderzo
Translators: Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge
Published by: Orion (Hachette)
Number of Pages: 54
Original Publication: 1974
Original Title: “Le Cadeau de César”
The Historical Backstory
The inciting event is based on true Roman traditions. In Julius Caesar’s time, a soldier served out his time and got paid handsomely for his service on the way out the door, often in plots of land and/or money.
Keep in mind, also, that in Caesar’s time, the soldiers worked for Caesar, not directly to the office of the emperor or the state. It sounds like a fine line, but it’s a big difference. It’s why another military leader with a few legions loyal to him could turn around and come after the emperor to overtake the Roman Empire. The soldiers were loyal to the man who led them into battle where they could cash in on the slaves and bountiful treasures they could steal from the cities they conquered.
Caesar had a lot of debts. There was a certain profit motive to the Gallic Wars, and so everyone was happy.
This system would not be so great further down the line, when emperors would find themselves at war with their own generals who controlled legions against them. Roman Civil Wars were regular events for awhile there.
But I digress…
A Brief Summary of “Asterix and Caesar’s Gift”
Caesar has to decide what to do with a ne’er-do-well soldier who spent his twenty years drunk and, most likely, ineffective. Take a look at that lineup and you’ll know instantly which one I’m talking about.
Instead of crucifying him or strangling him in public or sending him to the lions for the public’s bemusement, Caesar shows his occasional — and often politically brilliant — leniency. He instead has fun with the soldier. He gifts him a plot of land in the northwest corner of Gaul.
Yes, Caesar bestows Asterix’s village upon this bad soldier. That’ll team him! (This, I’m sure, is a story in the unreleased appendix of Caesar’s Commentaries.)
The soldier doesn’t realize this and, being a drunk, trades the plot to the local inn keeper, Orthopaedix, to pay for his food and alcohol. Orthopaedix takes his family — his wife and daughter — out to the country, to settle down in their new plot of land and to lead a prosperous new life.
This inn keeper and his family are the purest victims of this story. Sure, the wife is a bit of an antagonistic power-hungry shrew, but she didn’t ask for this trouble. She didn’t do anything to tick off Caesar. The family, like the villagers who now laugh at them for their silly mistake, has been wronged by Rome’s leader — or, more specifically, the one drunken soldier.
So the village welcomes them with open arms and offers them a place in their village, right?
Sure, that would make sense, but it would also make for a short story.
Chief Vitalstatistix shows some leadership and sets them up in a house to make a new inn. The village could use one.
They throw a big party for the opening night of the inn and things go wrong. Tempers typically flare, a fight erupts, the bar is trashed. Worst of all, the two wives get off on the wrong foot.
Orthopaedix is ready to pack it in and move to Lutetia, where his wife originally wanted to go. But now she wants more. She wants her husband to be somebody, and she thinks he’s the perfect candidate to be the Chief.
Surprisingly, the villagers aren’t necessarily sure she’s wrong.
Ultimately, this book is about politics and electioneering. Don’t worry, it’s not a treatise on politics from one side or the other.
It’s about the inherent silliness of elections. While we may all breathlessly champion the representative democracy we live with and how important one person/one vote is, there’s certainly a lot of unquestioned silliness and ceremony that goes on around it.
We let people vote who don’t know who the candidates are or who’s running. They rally around a song as much as an idea. People vote based on who looks better or whose name sounds friendlier or which party they’re running under. (Look down the ballot sometime and you’ll find some ridiculous political party names.)
Debates are held, but they’re all for show. It’s verbal gladiatorial battle, where opponents land cheap points and the audience cheers on their favorites. The rules must be upheld even if they don’t make sense or feel completely arbitrary.
In the days of the great Roman Republic — which was all but dead by 50 B.C. — elections often turned on who best bribed who, or whose army was stronger. When the empire started, they stopped bothering with the votes and succession turned into a bloodline, a big bank, and a strong backing force of men with swords and sandals.
Remember “Asterix and the Big Fight“? That’s the one where Chief Vitalstatistix was challenged for his role with a public boxing match.
Hey, if the voting population is as ignorant as most are, who’s to say that a fist fight isn’t the best way to decide a leader?
I’m feeling REALLY cynical today.
A Couple of Couples
In “Asterix and Caesar’s Gift,” the challenge to Vitalstatistix really comes not from Orthopaedix, but from his wife, Angina. She’s the one who controls most every one of his moves, right from the start of the tory. When he’s offered the plot of land, the first he does is run to his wife to see if it’s a good deal. She’s not terribly happy to be in the village at first. The residents are a little too “rustic” and weird for her.
But if she’s going to be there, she might as well make sure her husband comes up through the ranks. And she can effectively bribe just enough people to force an election. Buy a few fish here, compliment the right people there, send her daughter out to woo Obelix for a vote, and suddenly Vitalstatistix looks like the mean old father the teenagers want to run away from.
Part of the humor of all of this is that the two couples — Vitalstatistix and Impedimenta on the Village side, and Orthopaedix and Angina on the Roman side — are so much alike. I’m almost surprised there’s no point in the book where one of them doesn’t say to their counterpart, “We’re a lot alike, you and I.”
Again, this reminds me of 60s sit-coms. There’s the trope of the henpecked male being controlled by his overbearing wife. It’s not one that would fly too well these days, but for this particular character, it works.
Vitalstatistix and Orthopaedix bond early on over a shared dislike of their brothers-in-law and Lutetia. (You might remember Vitalstatistix’s brother-in-law from “Asterix and the Laurel Wreath“.)
But Angina and Impendimenta don’t have that same realization. They’re too busy working behind the scenes to ensure their husbands’ future at the top of the social food chain. Keeping up appearances was very important back in those days.
The village didn’t quite have a full caste system with slaves or anything crazy like that, but there’s definitely the feeling of different stratas. Getafix, Asterix, and Obelix wind up being separated just a bit from the rest of the village. And Impedimenta enjoys the benefits of being married to a man at the top of everything, above the smelly fish sellers.
How Bad Does It Get?
Obelix turns his back on Asterix, and not in the cute way where they hug it out and make up thirty seconds later. Asterix wants to get rid of the new family, but Obelix enjoys their daughter too much to let her go.
OK, so it does get cleared up a few pages later:
…but that’s only temporary and falls apart again when you turn the page.
“NUDGE!” is the best sound effect I’ve read this year.
Here Come the Romans!
The only way to unite the people of this fine village which is on the brink of civil war is the oldest trick in the book: Find another enemy they can all agree to hate.
No, not foreigners! The Romans! They’re attacking!
(Geriatrix gets some great moments in this book, running as a third party as the anti-foreigner candidate. He’s about as close to pointed topical political commentary as this book comes. Remember, Rene Goscinny wrote this 40 years ago. Everything in life is cyclical….)
The drunken Roman soldier returns! He’s changed his mind and wants his land grant back. He goes to the local Roman camp to request their help to get this done.
The problem is that the politics of the village have gotten so crazy that the Druid Getafix withheld all magic potion for everyone’s safety. And when Asterix discovers the impending Roman invasion, he can’t get the village’s help to fight back, because they’re too busy watching the Chief debate his political rival.
Eventually, he gets their attention. The rocks catapulting into the village help, too.
The highlight of the book for me is this battle between the Village and the Romans. Uderzo goes all out in drawing the Romans’ siege items. I haven’t studied Roman military history closely enough to give you all the names, but there’s lots of moving towers and walls and catapults and formations. And the village uses a couple battering rams and a few quickly-mixed batches of magic potion to drive them all back in typically hilarious fashion.
Not Serialized Original Art
This is the first Asterix volume that was created specifically for the album. It was not first serialized in Pilote magazine.
I knew that going in, and I wondered/worried what effect that would have on the storytelling. At first glance, I didn’t see anything too unusual. Uderzo still works primarily in four tiers per page. There’s an obvious division halfway down the page to indicate where Uderzo was working in half-page segments.
The most noticeable change, at first, was the lack of a number in a circle in the bottom right corner of the top half of each page. Uderzo wasn’t numbering the half pages anymore, only the full pages.
The original art of Uderzo up to this point is classic Franco-Belgian cartooning. Instead of drawing the full page on one art board, he’d turn the art board on its side to make one half of the page. Effectively, he’s drawing twice-up on the same size paper, just taping them together on the long sides. For the magazine, I guess they sometimes only needed to fill a half-page, perhaps for an ad on the other half?
From what I can tell looking through original art scans available on the web, Uderzo still worked at that size for the books after the magazine. He was used to it, so why change? He just didn’t need to label the half-page numbers anymore. There was no need for a half-page break for an ad in an album.
But, in the second half of the book, there are a lot more two-tier panel heights in the middle of the page. He started to combine the second and third their into one tall tier for lots of sequences. It’s not unheard of. He’s done it in most every book since the start, but they seemed to be more frequent in this book. I wonder if that’s cause-and-effect or just coincidence. Maybe that was the mood Uderzo was in when he laid out this story.
I also wonder how that works with the original art. Does he have to tape two pages together before he starts drawing those layouts? I did a few searches through different search engines and ComicArtFans.com to see if I could find any examples showing pictures of the original art used on such pages. I couldn’t find any. All the examples I’ve seen were split perfectly down the middle.
The internet is so good for so much that we take it for granted. Then I get frustrated researching these silly niche topics, because it gets harder to find results.
Is the Art Simpler?
Something is still bothering me with the art in this book and I’m still not sure I can explain it or quantify it. It just looks…. simpler. I flipped back through previous volumes to make some mental comparisons to try to figure this out, and I have a couple of ideas.
First, this book came during the time when Albert Uderzo’s brother, Marcel, wasn’t inking him. He took a few books off, but will be back with the next one. I didn’t see these problems in the last two books, though, which Marcel also didn’t ink. Maybe there was a different uncredited inker on this book? Was Albert Uderzo inking himself? Or did he farm that out to a different third party, whose style maybe doesn’t mesh with Uderzo’s pencils as much as I’d like it to?
The one thing that stood out to me in this book is how often the backgrounds were just solid colors. The number of panels where one or two characters are talking from the waist up or higher seems to increase. Also, more shots outside from a wider angle don’t fill in the background details. You have enough in the foreground to tell the story, and then the rest of the world in the background doesn’t exist.
Uderzo’s storytelling style has always included close-up shots at key moments. Usually, they’re saved for a key character moment, like when someone is making a proclamation or realizing something. Sometimes, Uderzo smooshes the character down to the bottom of the panel to make room for a large word balloon.
In some panels, it feels like characters are drawn slightly larger in the panels, which might be to draw less backgrounds by using a closer angle, or by having a larger figure that obscures more of the background.
This panel feels cramped:
The down angle feels weird. All the characters being cut off on the left side feels arbitrary. The giant solid green section for grass with no details looks odd. And then the next two panels need to fit in word balloons and so rise up into the panel above them.
Am I just asking too much?
In this book, there feels like a larger-than-usual number of close-up shots. There’s a larger-than-usual number of panels using the old comic strip trick of placing solid blacks for a background around the character to obscure the background or stop from having to draw anything back there. Maybe this is Uderzo playing with some new techniques, though?
There are also a lot of profile shots in this book. Angina, in particular, shows up from the side more often than not.
What is going on with this sequence? The house in the background comes and goes across the three panels. The bushes in the second panel should be between Obelix’s feet in the first, but there’s blue sky showing there. If you’re going to make the background disappear in the third panel, then the moon should disappear, too.
The thatched roof off to the far left also disappears in the third panel. Was it all just too busy with Geriatrix in the foreground to include it? The house Geriatrix is sitting in front of is completely redrawn from panel to panel, too. there’s no consistency with the stone work.
I don’t mean to nit-pick, but I started noticing all these things adding up.
And what’s up with this panel? Is there a joke that couldn’t be translated? Is it just a visual gag that the three characters align perfectly with the barrels and look like they’re popping out of them? Did Uderzo just not want to draw feet? I hear that’s an issue with some artists….
Did the restoration kill the book? Were so many lines lost before the 2004 reprint that the raw material they had to work from was so devoid of the usual details that they couldn’t replace them? I see a lot of characters drawn in outline, but without detail textures sketches in, or enough variation in the line weights.
This is all what bugs me about this book. I’ve been analyzing it through both the printed 2004 version and the remastered 2010 edition available digitally on Izneo. I can’t put my finger on it. There’s no one piece of damning evidence I can use to justify this opinion. It’s an overall feel, I guess. I could try to quantify it by counting wide panels versus closeup or something, but that wouldn’t solve anything.
Sad to say, but the overall effect remind me a bit of when Looney Tunes moved to the UPA style in 1948 and everything went from being lush and painted to being simpler shapes. OK, it’s not THAT bad, but it does feel flatter somehow.
Hey, The Movie Borrowed That BIt
Leading into the climax of the book, Asterix finds himself behind enemy lines in the Roman camp without any magic potion. This is, needless to say, a perilous spot for him. He manages to bluff his way out, partially. The Romans know he’s always full of the magic potion, so they give him plenty of space.
When Asterix runs instead of attacking them, they realize he’s powerless and press an assault.
This bit is borrowed in the movie, “Asterix and the Mansions of the Gods,” where Asterix confronts the Romans, powerless, in an even more bold-faced attempt to bluff them out of his way.
Goscinny, Uderzo, Caricatures, and MAD Magazine
Orthopaedix is based on a French actor who died a decade before this book. His name is Andre Alarme, and Uderzo nailed the likeness here:
I haven’t concentrated too much on all the caricatures Uderzo has done over the course of the series, but there’s usually at least one character in each book patterned after a real world person, often a French film star.
Let’s look at one scary potential alternate universe:
Rene Goscinny spent time in America in the years before Asterix. While in New York City in the late 1940s, he worked in a studio and became friends with a few American cartoonists you’ve likely heard of: Will Elder, Jack Davis, and Harvey Kurtzman.
Goscinny went back to Paris in 1951 to take a job editing at the World Press agency, where he would meet Albert Uderzo and start working on a series of smaller strips until they finally started working on Asterix in 1959.
What if Goscinny never returned to France? What if Goscinny became a co-creator of MAD Magazine? And wif he needed more people who could do caricatures like Jack Davis? And what if he heard of some young upstart cartoonist back in France by the name of Uderzo?
Imagine MAD Magazine with Goscinny and Uderzo alongside Davis, Kurtzman, and Elder.
I don’t know MAD’s history terribly well, but I picture Goscinny and Uderzo, being the odd ducks out in that scenario and wanting to own their own stuff doing a little work on the side. And maybe Asterix gets made that way.
Or maybe it never does. Like I said earlier, scary.
But those early issues of MAD would have been even better, don’t you think?
I think this is a case where everything worked out for the best in our world.
A Quick Comedy How To
I remember reading something Gary Larson wrote in one of the “Far Side” collections 25 or 30 years ago. He said that the comedy of his gag panel came because it showed the moment just before or just after the event.
The example he gave was a panel where the chef was rearing back to throw a baseball at a dunk tank a lobster was sitting over, as I recall. He had drawn it out at the moment where the ball was hitting the target and the lobster was falling, but it wasn’t as funny. The tension of the moment just before the incident gave the gag life. Making the reader take the extra step and taking pride (just a little) in the fact that they figured it out made it funnier.
I’ve been thinking of that lately, and there’s no better example of it in this book than this panel at the bottom of page 18:
First, there’s the word play humor from Goscinnny’s script/Bell’s translation. Then you see the fish about to hit him in the side of the face and it’s even funnier. That fish perfectly encapsulates the “moment before” theory that Larson had. I think it’s even funnier than if it was hitting him on the panel.
It’s an almost subtle gag and I bet some people racing through the story and anticipating the page turn didn’t even see it.
Best Name in the Book
I’m not giving it to Orthopaedix, because I don’t think the name has anything to do with the character there. Also, as an American, having to type “ae” always trips me up, even with Julius.
I considered Angina, though I think Agita would have been an even better name for her.
So I’m going with their daughter’s name, which is completely nonsensical to the story. Obelix refers to her as Zaza, but her full name is Influenza. It’s a simpler choice than usual for me, but it was a bit of slim pickings in this book. And Eggsandlettus does nothing for me as a name.
I’m not so sure. This one feels a little “thin” to me. It’s a village-based Asterix tale, which I normally love, but the villagers act even more stupidly than usual in service to the plot. I’m prepared to buy a lot to get a funny story, but at some point, I just groan. Thankfully, Goscinny uses that initial hesitance of the characters to write something that makes more logical sense, but that initial hump left a bad taste in my mouth.
Combine that with this being the first book I can remember in the history of Asterix where the art didn’t look as good as previous volumes, and I have some problems.
Is it worse than “Asterix in Switzerland“? No, not really. The art is the bigger disappointment than the story . We’ve had tales in the past where you have to accept a momentary bad decision or leap in logic to get to the funny stuff, and I’ve been OK with that. Here, though, something rubs me a little wrong.
I knew we’d be heading into some uncertain waters with Asterix in the upcoming volumes, but I didn’t think I’d start noticing problems so fast. Maybe this is just a momentary bump, and we’ll be back to normal with the next book.
— 2018.059 —
Oh, wait, it’s “Asterix and the Great Crossing“? I’ve been fearing that book for awhile. I haven’t read it in years, but I remember that it includes Native Americans in it, and I don’t want to be making excuses for bad stereotypes next week. We’ll see….