Welcome to Economics 101 with Professor Rene Goscinny. His assistant today is Albert Uderzo, we think. I mean, it mostly looks like him…
Artist: Albert Uderzo
Translators: Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge
Published by: Orion (Hachette)
Number of Pages: 48
Original Publication: 1976
Original Title: “Obélix et Compagnie”
Caesar Has a New Plan
It’s Obelix’s birthday. What better gift to give him than a fresh camp of Roman soldiers to beat up?
Done right, this should be super simple. Just divide the village and conquer.
It almost works, except neither Caesar nor his economist thought the plan all the way through. There are consequences for every action, and sometimes you need to think four or five steps ahead to realize what trouble that first step could land you in.
This isn’t just capitalism, by the way. This is true of every system. As I’m fond of saying, no game can’t be gamed. You can change the rules but the players will just find new ways around them. Close one loophole and they’ll find two more that opens. This is my Whack-a-Mole Theory of Life. (TM) and (C) 2018 Augie De Blieck Jr.
This isn’t a book where Asterix has to plot and scheme and work his way around people in clever ways. Asterix’s plan, ultimately, is one of passivity. He’s the ultimate laissez-faire actor in this book. I don’t think he quite grasps how this scheme will ultimately fail, but he’s smart enough to know it will. He’s wise enough to step to the side and let it run its course.
Capitalism Run Amok
This isn’t the first time Caesar has decided to break his Gaulish enemies in ways other than a direct frontal assault. He tried it once before with “Mansions of the Gods,” where he planned to build high rise apartment buildings just outside Asterix’s village to make them miserable. (No forests means no boars, after all. And those buildings are eyesores. NIMBY!)
Economics played into that book, as well. The village became a tourist mecca for the new inhabitants of the Mansions of the Gods, and the villagers were ready to ditch their small businesses selling useful goods to server the new neighbors who wanted things more touristy.
Rene Goscinny dips back into that economics well for this book, in spectacular fashion.
Goscinny takes the craziest parts of capitalism and throws them into one big stew for this book. He pushes every angle as far as he can, using every dimwit in the village to support it, and then letting a great more macro-economic event take care of evening things out. Things go crazy enough that you know everything is going to collapse eventually. Whether you see elements of the Great Tulip Craze or pet rocks or the 2008 lending crisis, there’s elements at play in this book that can be applied to just about any economic undoing.
It’s fun to watch Caesar’s economist, Caius Preposterus, try to keep one step ahead of his own plan. The best move is when he returns to Rome with all the menhirs and has to then play the other end of the financial deal in much the same ruinous way as he played the front half. How does he get rid of all those menhirs that are useless and worthless, but that he paid so much for? Marketing! Sell menhirs is hard, after all!
Of course, as demand grows, then you need to create an umbrella to capture the market at all price points, which Rome fails to do. That leads to open competition, commoditizations of prices, and ultimately the unravelling of the whole menhir market.
It reminds me a little of the story we get every year with the hot Christmas toy of the season. Supply is constrained by production and distribution issues, then demand sags just as those problems get saved, and the natural market price drops, and the producer of the hottest toy of Christmas suddenly ends up bankrupt or selling themselves to a larger toy company to save themselves.
This book is deep, if you look at it from the right perspectives.
And then the labor union goes on strike by blocking off the Appian Way, which is how every labor strike in Paris always starts.
Goscinny Still Brings the Funny
Goscinny doesn’t just run a bunch of economic theory past Obelix.
We get lots of absurdist jokes, alongside ones that land so well because we’re familiar with the characters by now.
On the outlandish side, we have the worries about slaves losing their jobs. Here, let me just show you one whole gag. I laughed out loud:
Describing business and economics gets messy, so Preposterus starts simplifying his language to Obelix to something he can understand:
I love how this one becomes a running gag, with Goscinny getting to play both ends. He can write the high-falootin’ economics fanciness, but also the simplification of that wordplay. Then he gets a third side out when, a few panels later, Obelix tries to repeat the fancy talk without understanding a word of it:
The bulk of the book is about Preposterus working Obelix into an economic frenzy. This preys on Obelix’s feelings that he’s always the second fiddle, and never respected for his own ideas. Preposterus feeds into that easily, and Obelix becomes an unwitting pawn. The money from the menhir sales go to his head quickly. He quickly learns one of the first rules of business, though: As you grow, you have to learn to delegate jobs, and as you do you’ll naturally grow up the food chain and —
Oh, heck, I might just write a separate article someday showing how this book illustrates the growth of the solopreneuer into an eventual CEO.
The visual metaphor in this book is Obelix’s clothes. As his wealth increases and he rises in his station, he suddenly has need for new fancy clothes to set himself apart from everyone else. And, yes, they’re as laughably garish as you might guess.
No, Really, Who Drew This?
This book still looks great, but it’s not the same. Whether it’s the shift to album-first publication or something else, I don’t know. But the last three books have been different beasts, artistically, from the first 20. I’d love to hear from Uderzo what was going on around this time. Was he consciously doing something different? Was drawing the same old thing for 1000 pages getting boring to him, so he started to alter things bit by bit?
Marcel Uderzo, Albert’s brother, inked this book, as well as the books surrounding it. So we could chalk up some of the differences in the look of this book to the inker experimenting with things. That wouldn’t explain how some character proportions have started to change, but that happens with any artist drawing the same character over a long period of time. Just look at Jim Davis’ original Garfield design, for an obvious example. Things change over time until they hit their peak and then, sadly, they usually falter a bit, or quite a bit.
Someone needs to put Obelix on a diet, as his face is slowly sinking into his chest. Asterix is looking a little taller all of a sudden again. Asterix, in particular, is turning into an animated character more and more. He’s particularly wild in his gestures and his body movements, in comparison to the albums in the teens of the series.
At some point this summer, I’m going to put together some comparisons to show you just how much the characters have shifted over the years. That’s a natural progression, but something here feels like there’s more going on. I can’t get past that.
It looks like Marcel was studying either Neal Adams or Milton Caniff when he was drawing this book. I can almost see elements of both in here. Geriatrix’s wife in this panel looks to get the classic newspaper strip treatment:
And doesn’t her hair reminds you of Michael Golden or Todd McFarlane, too?
Take a look at the up shot at Centurion Ignoramus, here:
That’s a Neal Adams (of Tac Au Tac fame) angle that again takes us further away from the traditional big nose art style of the series.
Caesar looks like something borrowed from a 60s Marvel comic, or perhaps an earlier melodramatic romance comic. He starts to look a lot less like himself:
We’re getting close to someone needing to tap those Uderzo boys on the shoulders to remind them that this is more of a big nose funny comic than a Jean Van Hamme-penned book.
The Animation Impact?
While I’ve been comparing Uderzo’s art in this book mostly to illustrators, there’s one other possibility that comes to mind. This book feels very animated. Uderzo’s characters have never been shy about gesturing, but there are a lot of extreme poses in this book. I’d say there’s more here than in any other Asterix book.
“Obelix and Co.” came out in 1976, the same year that the animated movie, “The Twelve Tasks,” hit theaters in France. That movie was written and directed by Goscinny and Uderzo, amongst others. It was their second outing, having directed “Asterix and Cleopatra” in 1968. “Twelve Tasks” was a brand new story written expressly for the movies. (Marcel Uderzo did the comic book adaptation, which has never been fully reprinted in English, and is long out of print.)
Did working with animators on that movie rub off on Uderzo, perhaps? Are we starting to see those effects here on the posing, if not the finished lines, where Marcel clearly is exerting greater control?
I don’t know. Likely, I’ll never know. Possibly, I’m a crank looking far too closely at these things.
And if you’d like to watch any of those movies, I have a rundown of which streaming services offer them:
Best Name in the Book
I really do like Monosyllabix and Polysyllabix. I love the way their introduction is SHOUTED while they stand inert, with that dumb look on their face. All of those contrasts really work.
Centurion Ignoramus is a great name, mostly because “Ignoramus” is comedy gold.
But, at the same rate and as obvious as it might be, I still love Caius Preposterus as the guy who’s explaining the capitalist system. His name describes his role in the book very well.
Speaking of Preposterus, I should point out that he’s based on Jacques Chirac, who was then the prime minister of France, and would later go on to be its president.
The Big M
Down at the bottom of page 36 in the album (the 32nd page of story), Goscinny and Uderzo sign the art. Why?
That “M” is the key. This is the 1000th page of Asterix the two have done together.
Yes, those of you who’ve been reading along with me have now also read over 1000 pages of “Asterix” comics in one year. And there’s still a dozen books to go or so.
(There’s also a Latin/French pun under the “M” that I couldn’t begin to explain, so I’ll leave it up to Everything Asterix.)
On page two, a pair of Roman soldiers carry a friend on top of his shield:
The two are Rene Goscinny (right) and Albert Uderzo (left).
Here’s the part that made me sad: I didn’t recognize Uderzo, but I did see Goscinny there. The reason why is very simple: Goscinny is frozen in time. He died in 1977, only a year or two after Uderzo drew this page. All the pictures you see of Goscinny are of him in the 1960s and early 1970s. That’s him. That’s how he’s forever stuck in our minds.
When I picture Uderzo, I more likely see him doing press junkets and interviews from the last 20 years. I barely recognize him from any time period earlier than the late 1980s
Yes, absolutely and entirely. This works as a classic piece of satire, and shows off Goscinny’s bright mind as well as Uderzo’s dynamic pen and ink. And while I’m fascinated and curious about the shifting art style, I still like it a lot.
I regret only that I don’t want to bore all of you by covering every funny moment in this book. Fill in the blanks in the comments with the things that I cut out. We can all laugh again together.
— 2018.068 —
A Quick Programming Note
Up next is “Asterix in Belgium.” It is Rene Goscinny’s final Asterix script. As a matter of fact, “Obelix and Co” was the last book he was alive to see published.
All of that has nothing to do with this: I’ll be on something of a vacation next week, and won’t be pounding away on the keyboard all week. I might get some extra reading done, though, so that’s a good thing.
My review of “Asterix in Belgium” will appear later on the week of July 23rd. You might see a new Asterix Agenda article next week, but it won’t be an album review.