Asterix in Belgium cover detail by Albert Uderzo
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Asterix v24: “Asterix in Belgium”

Asterix and Obelix head over to Belgium and hit all the cultural references you might expect. But it’s a book with a long and sad back story, and a very personal connection for me.

Sit back.  We have a lot to talk about. And some of it even relates to the contents of this book.

Writer: Rene Goscinny
Artist: Albert Uderzo
Colorist: Marcel Uderzo
Translator: Derek Hockridge and Anthea Bell
Published by: Orion/Hachette
Number of Pages: 48
Original Publication: 1979

Is Rene Goscinny the ultimate Dad Joke writer?  What are Belgium’s finest foods?  Is comedy all about the frustration?  And how did this book almost never happen?

My Life As a “Belgian-American”

As previously shown, the grandparents I never knew — both died before I was born — came to America from Belgium.  I guess that would make me a Belgian-American.

It’s a bit of a joke in my family.  There’s no Belgian-American Pride Month, or Belgian-American Parade Day, or Belgian-American Special Interest Group.  There’s not a Belgian language taught in schools, since no such thing exists.  (“What do they speak there?  Bells?” was the punchline on a sit-com once.)

Belgium is such a small country that there’s not enough people here in America who would identify as Belgian enough to form any sort of group.

It’s one of the reasons identity politics have never been my thing.  In my case, it’s more of a joke than anything.  Whenever one particular group declares its importance or its pride or its strength or anything, we can sub in “Belgian” and have a good laugh.

Belgium, itself, is a very strange country, when you get right down to it.  Forget about the diamond trade and European diplomacy for just a second and try to understand the political system they have set up for themselves.  It’s easy to say they’ve divided the country in half between the Flemmings and the Walloons.

But that’s only the start of it. Yes, it gets weirder.

I couldn’t begin to explain it all, but I do recommend this wonderful video:

It makes no sense, dammit, but they’re my people and I love them so.

When the Belgian chief greets the Gauls, he says, “We’re divided into Bellovaci, Suessiones, Eburones, Atuatuci, Nervii, Ceutrones, Grudii, Levaci, Pleumoxii, Geldumnes, and Menapii, but we’re all Belgians!”  (WordPress’ spell-check just had a heart attack.)

Things haven’t changed that much in Belgium in the last 2070 years or so….

“Belgium in Asterix” was the first Asterix book I ever read.  And I learned more about Belgian culture from this book than just about anywhere else.  It’s filled with very specific Belgian references.

Some Historical Background

Asterix quotes Caesar to Caesar re: The Belgians

Julius Caesar didn’t fight a perfect war in The Gallic Wars, but he did pretty quickly take over everything he set his eyes on.

The one near-disaster in his portfolio of campaigns, however, was with one particular segment of Gauls: The Belgae.  (Pronounced “bell guy”.)  It was 57 B.C. and the Belgians mounted a surprise attack against Caesar and humiliated him.  With the help of his much-vaunted 10th Legion, Julius survived long enough to retreat and fight another day, but the Belgae captured all the Roman standards and killed a whole lot of Roman soldiers. (Getting those standards was a big deal, back in the day.  It’s the ultimate victory, short of making your enemies pass under your yoke.)

He only won when he was able to fight back using tools that could be thrown from a great distance.  It was all arrows and catapults and javelins, etc. Caesar wrote in his papers that the Belgae were known to catch the javelins in flight and turn then back on the Romans, so it wasn’t all easy.  But given how political a document those papers were, Caesar wanted to stress how daunting an opponent the Belgians were, to make it look a little better than he had suffered such a humiliating loss once upon a time.

Some of this commentary reminds me of the way Caesar depicted the Germans in his papers, too.  They were an uncivilized war-like force, capable of cruelty and great strength.  But they lacked certain planning and political skills that would often prove their undoing.  Caesar painted them as savages.

The Belgae, it should be noted, might be descended from Germans who crossed the river and wound up settling in northern parts of Gaul.  So there’s the link.

Caesar, in his chronicles of the Gallic Wars, wrote of the Belgians,

Of all these, the Belgae are the bravest, because they are furthest from the civilization and refinement of [our] Province, and merchants least frequently resort to them, and import those things which tend to effeminate the mind; and they are the nearest to the Germans, who dwell beyond the Rhine, with whom they are continually waging war;

[Emphasis mine]

It is this specific quote that forms the basis of “Asterix in Belgium.”

Why Does Asterix Go To Belgium?

The local Romans are acting goofy.  They’re excited to be in Armorica, surrounding Asterix’s village.  This drastic change in behavior raises from eyebrows in Asterix’s Village.  What is causing this?

Asterix and Obelix ask a Roman.  It turns out that they’re thrilled to be back from Belgium, whose warriors are the fiercest they’ve ever faced. Compared to the Belgians, Asterix and Co. are a vacation.

The Romans celebrate the end of their Belgian campaign with a walk in the Gaul's woods

Chief Vitalstatistix will have none of this attitude!  As a veteran or the Battle of Gergovia (see “Asterix and the Chieftain’s Shield“), he’s marching out to meet with the Belgians to prove that the Gauls are the fiercest and most dangerous people against Julius Caesar. It can’t be any other way!

If nothing else, this can be a cultural exchange where The Chief gets to observe how another culture deals with the Romans.  In that way, it’s more similar to a book like “Asterix in Spain.”

The cultural exchange winds up being lots of food and a constant banquet (Obelix is a natural Belgian), paired up with a contest to see just who is the fiercest after all.  The Gauls and the Belgians divide the local Roman camps and run around beating them all up.  The goal is to hear back from Caesar as to which side he fears more.

Caesar wants none of this tomfoolery.  He just wants them to go away, and he’s ready to go to war against them both with lots of his legionaries to do it.

Frustration and Anger: A Terrific Comedic Combination!

Ultimately, this book derives its humor from everyone being frustrated and angry with each other. Vitalstatistix is angry with the Belgians.  The Belgians are angry with Vitalstatistix.  Both sides don’t like Caesar, and Caesar is angered by them both.  He can’t believe he’s still putting down uprisings after a successful Gallic War, nor that Asterix’s Village is still defying him. He’s Caesar, for goodness’ sake!

Meanwhile, the pirates are angry that their ship got sunk for no reason. It has very little to do with the story, but that extra vector of frustration serves to ratchet up the tension another notch.  It gives Caesar another chance to blow his lid late in the book, and leads to an extra Belgian food reference.

This book made me sooo hungry…

Caesar, in particular, spends the entire book at his wit’s end.  It starts in the Roman Senate, where he’s stuck listening to a Senator orate at great length about the fate of the cauliflower farmers.  These are the kinds of things that come up in local politics.  Caesar must miss the days of traipsing across Europe and taking village after village.  When word of the Belgians and Gauls comes down in front of the whole Senate, now he has to save face, and into action he leaps. It’s Caesar’s best look, after all.

Caesar goes to war with Asterix's Belgians

This panel may be Uderzo’s riff on “Napolean in the campaign in France” by Ernest MeissonierWhen he gets to Belgium, he’s annoyed that he’s been brought across the continent to judge some Gallic pissing match.  The whole world is crazy!  If it’s war they want, he’ll give them the last battle they could ever hope for.

How Do The Belgians Look?

The Belgian warriors attack! From "Asterix in Belgium"

They look like particularly brutish warrior Gauls.  They make Asterix’s village look fairly cosmopolitan. The men from Belgium run around with their long hair and bushy moustaches and their shirts off and a murderous look in their eyes. They wield spiked clubs and helmets with wings just like Asterix’s.  They look almost like Vikings (Normans) to me.

But you can picture a cross between a German and a Gaul to get to the Belgians.

This is also part of the difference between trained Roman soldiers and many of the less-organized Gallic warriors during this period.  The Romans were organized, trained, and had a rule book.  The Gauls tended to be wilder warriors, more prone to just attacking with all their might up front and hoping to win right away.  The Romans could often outlast them on the field of battle.  They had a plan and a formation that would counter such brutish attacks with no logic or planning.

At one point in Roman military history, they’d form three lines to attack with.  The front line was the younger, more physical soldiers. The back line were the veterans.  They might not have been the strongest, but they were the smartest. By the time they were needed, the younger guys up front had already worn out the enemy and the wiley veterans could make short work of them.

Not a Sestertii’s Worth of Difference

In the end, though, there’s not much difference between these fearsome Belgians and Asterix’s people.  The Belgians act a little crazier, plowing their way through a field full of soldiers and knocking everything over without the bare beginnings of a plan.  But do Asterix, Obelix, and Vitalstatistix do anything all that different? Thanks to the Magic Potion, 95% of their Roman-thumping can be done with pure muscle and a quick attack.  That’s exactly what the Belgians do.

Quelle est la différence?

Uderzo shows us these similarities multiple times throughout the book. Conversations between Vitalstatistix and the Belgian Chief create a strong visual representation of this. It’s not quite a mirror inbetween them, but close.  Uderzo practices the well-taught rule from the world of animation about avoiding twinning. (Basically, no mirroring anything exactly, usually applied to arms or legs.)  Yet the similarities are obvious.

The Belgian and Armorican leaders are not all that dissimilar, physically or mentally.

They stand differently, but the details are very similar.  They’re both round in the same areas, with red capes, a sword on their hips, a hat with feathers, and a mustache. The beat up on Romans, enjoy a good feast, and rely on their wives for lots of cooking.

Also, they know they’re right that they are the bravest.

Duelling Chiefs know their own people are the bravest

Goscinny’s story continues, showing the similarities.  There’s no way Caesar could choose between them, because they both do the exact same thing – rush in, knock everything over, leave their name, and walk away. They’re all Gauls, with all the same egos.

Beglans meet the Armoricans, and Uderzo lines up Asterix and his friends into a perfect triangular formation.

This might be my favorite panel in the book.  It does show the difference between the two groups, but I love love love that triangular composition Uderzo uses on the right side.  He lines up Dogmatix, Asterix, Vitalstatistix, and Obelix in perfect height order, as opposed to the more chaotic assemblage of fearsome Belgians on the left, standing in no order, with weapons in hand and nary a smile to go around.

When the challenge is happening and scenes cut between the Gauls beating up on the Romans and the Belgian beating up on the Romans, we get more echoes and mirror images to compare the two.  It’s obvious and deliberate, and helps drive the point home.  They’re not that different, and the Romans never stood a chance.

Goscinny/Bell Wordplay Reaches New Heights

It feels like every panel in this book has some kind of wordplay in it.  it’s omnipresent.  It’s word association taken to a new level, and it’s a kind of humor you don’t often see in comics.  You might see the occasional pun or a character making a play on words for a joke in a comic, but Goscinny does something slightly different here, and in lots of other Asterix books, as well.

He just has characters speaking homonyms in ways that readers of the text can see what’s going on, but would be almost impossible to make sense of in a verbal context. Yet the characters are in on the gag, so they “see” the wordplay and go along with it.

For example, Obelix uses “plane” instead of “plain” in this panel, and then follows it up with the word “Concorde.”

Obelix things the concorde is plane crazy. Oh, Rene Goscinny is the master of Dad-level jokes

The person he’s talking to might think it funny that he goes to such extremes to use the word “concorde,” but wouldn’t necessarily get that Obelix uses “plane” instead of “plain” earlier.  It sounds like normal language to the characters, but for an astute reader it’s a clever play on words and their spellings.

I wonder if really bad spellers don’t get half the jokes in “Asterix” books…

I’d show you more examples, but I don’t want to wind up reprinting half the book in this review.

I don’t know to what extent this particular bit of word play comes from Goscinny’s script, and how much of it comes from Anthea Bell or Derek Hockridge’s translation.  In the past, when I’ve assumed it comes from Bell, I’ve often been wrong.  I also know, though, that many of Goscinny’s French puns don’t translate directly to English, and Bell/Hockridge tap danced their way through those moments.  Only extremely rarely can you see them vamping for time or trying to just make it through a panel, hoping that nobody notices a missing gag along the way.

Too Literary

On the other hand, this book is a little thick with its literary references.  I can take a Shakespeare riff here and there, but this one goes well past that.  There’s a special “thank you” section at the beginning of the book that reads:

with apologies to:

George Gordon, Lord Byron,

Mr Wm. Shakespeare, Mr John Milton

and Pieter Breughel the Elder

(Yes, it’s missing the Oxford comma.  I’m trying to ignore that for argument’s sake here…  But I did notice and “tsk” disapprovingly….)

Sure enough, there are references to all of those creators in this book, and I missed most all of them.  I spent too much time growing up reading Spider-Man, I guess, instead of English Lit.

The entire final act of this book is set to a poem, I guess, of some literary merit.  I didn’t recognize it at all and had to rely on a cultural reference guide on another website to figure it all out.  I won’t repeat it all, but I’ll point you to OpenScroll for all the references.

French Fries Are Not French

They’re a Belgian invention, you know.  Goscinny and Uderzo knew that.  They never come out and say it, but they set up the creation of the so-called “French Fries” right here in this story.  The proper term for them is frites, you know.

I blame my lineage for my ungodly love of french [sic] fries, which are no doubt responsible for at least ten of the pounds I’m overweight.

When the Belgians come across a Roman running late in boiling oil to throw over the walls at them, a bit of wordplay and free association leads to frites:

The secret origin of "french fries" comes from a Roman soldier boiling oil, who is rooted to the spot.

Adding another layer to it all, the Belgians in this book think of pairing the frites up with the mussels they found attached to a board from the pirates’ ship:

Obelix and the Belgians create moules-frites in "Asterix in Belgium"

Ergo, the beloved moules-frites dish.

(For more fun with frites, check out Zidrou and Lafebre’s “Glorious Summers,” which I’ll be reviewing soon, too. That book is set way back into the past of the 1970s.)

On the healthier side, I love a good Brussel Sprout.  The trick is in not overcooking it.  Goscinny and Uderzo reference those, too, in this panel:Brussel sprouts are delicious, I don't care what anyone says....

After all the jokes about cauliflower in the book, you might need to slow down a second to realize the word “sprout” is in the dialogue balloon there.  You can see the little green goodies in her pot and on his plate there.

There you have it: three very Belgian foods that don’t get a direct namecheck, but are references.

Waterzooi is in there, too, but it’s named specifically and never explained.  It’s a stew with either fish or chicken in it.

And the Belgians like their beer, but can’t quite take credit for its invention.  Still, it gets a funny reference when they claim it as their own “Magic Potion” for beating up Romans with.

The Fourth Wall

Asterix and Obelix break the fourth wall.  It’s not the first time they’ve ever done it, but it feels like the most blatant use of the tactic.  Early in the book, Asterix and Obelix discuss story structure, particularly because Obelix wants an adventure to be done so they can tie up the Bard and have a feast!

It’s not the last time “the story” will be referenced in the book.

I’m not a big fan, to be honest.  I can handle a panel with Asterix giving the reader a knowing wink, but this feels weird and un-Asterix-like.  This isn’t “Deadpool” or “Saved by the Bell.”

There’s also a bit or two in here that feel like shortcuts. This likely won’t be the first Asterix book for anyone — ironic, then, that it was for me — so some of the usual jokes get shortcutted.  Obelix jumps ahead of Getafix, for example, to explain why he’s not getting any Magic Potion before Getafix can deny him.  I remember reading “Asterix the Gaul” after this and being satisfied that it answered some of the questions I had about the overall mythology of the series.

I guess after 24 books in a series, you can start going a little “meta” in your humor.  Readers have certain expectations, and the creators know what they are.

That said, I’m ready for a return of the “Asterix and Obelix break out of a prison at will” trope again.  It’s been far too long!

The Most Belgian Thing in the Book

The Manneken-Pis! Yes, it’s the small statue of the little boy peeing.  It’s a national treasure.  They even dress him up for special occasions.

In 2017, when there was an exhibit centered around this book in town, they dressed him up as Asterix:

The Manneken-pis dressed up as Asterix in Belgium

Here’s a brief news blurb about the exhibit (in English!) that will give you a quick look around at what they had to show:

You can see from the video that today’s Belgians don’t look nearly as war-like as their Ancient predecessors.

Here’s 33 seconds more video from the exhibit, where you can see some original art (or a replica thereof) on display too.

They even published two different special editions of the book around that time, too.  They sound fantastic. The “luxury” edition includes replicas of the script and black and white art from the book.  I don’t think you can find it anywhere anymore, though.  Darn limited editions. (Memo to my family: Christmas is only 5 shopping months away.  Keep an eye on this URL for your gift-giving needs.)

Also noted: Obelix had his turn with the Manneken-Pis a couple years earlier, in connection with a different comics show of some sort.

The Manneken-pis dressed up as Obelix in Belgium

They haven’t dressed him up as Geriatrix because, let’s face it, he’s so old that he has issues in this department….

Click through on those images for more pictures of all the outfits the little boy has worn over the years at Manneken-pis.bl

“Asterix in Belgium” offers one origin story for the statue.  It’s super cute.

The Asterix origin of the Manneken-PIs

The Cover

Asterix in Belgium cover by Albert Uderzo

It’s weak, as a cover.  There’s just too much going on.  The only thing that stands out on the page is the Belgian man sitting astride a giant barrel of beer.  Everyone else and all their food is part of a mushy lower third that doesn’t distinguish itself from anything.

It represents the book well.  The Gauls and the Belgians spend a lot of time eating in this book, and Belgium is well known for its beers.  It all makes sense, but it’s a a weak cover composition. Most of the characters have their eyes closed.  Nobody is looking out towards the reader.  The main characters have their backs turned towards the reader.

There’s just lots of stuff on the page. It’s all competing for attention, and thus nothing stands out.

As much as I don’t like many of the simpler, more stylistic covers, I do have to admit that they work better as covers than this one.

Adieu, Marcel

This is the last book that Albert Uderzo’s brother, Marcel, would work on.  He inked and colored many of the Asterix books, but — well, there was some kind of falling out at this point, and the two brothers have had a frosty relationship ever since.  Whether you believe that Marcel wasn’t happy not to be credited or that he just wanted to work on some side projects on his own and Albert didn’t like that idea, I don’t know.

Marcel goes out with a bang, though. He did the full-page painting at the end of the book in the style of Brueghel.

Adieu, Rene

René Goscinny
By Peters, Hans / Anefo – Nationaal Archief Fotocollectie Anefo (cropped) Nationaal Archief, Den Haag, Rijksfotoarchief: Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Fotopersbureau (ANEFO), 1945-1989 – negatiefstroken zwart/wit, nummer toegang 2.24.01.05, bestanddeelnummer 924-5891, CC BY-SA 3.0 nl, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22670427

It was during the production of this book that Rene Goscinny died at the far-too-young age of 51.

From the Eisner Award-winning TCJ.com’s excellent longform biography on Goscinny:

Then, 10am on November 5, 1977, a taxi dropped both Goscinnys off at his cardiologist. Suffering from angina, the writer needed evaluation in the form of a “stress test.” As Goscinny started to peddle on the cycle, however, he complained that his arms and chest were hurting. Asked to carry on “just a few more seconds,” the scenarist collapsed – and, because it was Saturday, no one else was present. There was no emergency aid, no defibrillator, and, by 10:30 that morning, he was dead.

It breaks my heart reading that today, 41 years later.  Unnecessary.  Needless.  Horrific.  It lead to laws being passed in France to stop it from ever happening again. But for comics fans (let alone his family), those laws were too late.

Imagine the Asterix stories we’ve lost.  I wonder how long the two would have continued at their book-a-year pace, had Goscinny lived.  How long would the series have continued with them together?

It’s just another “What If?” scenario that makes for an interesting thought piece, but it’s pointless.  Sadly, we didn’t get any more.

Adieu, “Asterix”?  Almost.

Production on “Asterix in Belgium” came to a standstill with Goscinny’s death. Uderzo didn’t go back to it for almost a year.

For the entire run of the series up until this point, a new book came out at least every year. Several times, two books came out in the same year.  (That’s like Mel Brooks doing “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein” in the same year. Then imagine him doing that more than once.  It’s insane.)

“Asterix in Belgium” came out in 1979, three years after “Obelix and Co.”  It was, by far, the biggest publishing gap in the series’ history up to that point.

To help explain the delay, let’s take a quick step back first for some background.

Georges Dargaud had saved “Pilote Magazine” — which serialized Asterix originally — from financial trouble after its first year in the early 1960s.  To make a long story short, Goscinny edited the magazine until 1974. At that time, he felt the magazine was going too far in an adult direction, which didn’t fit Asterix.  He left his role as editor and Asterix left the pages of the magazine, to be published directly as albums by Dargaud, starting right after “Asterix in Corsica” in 1973.

Dargaud also joined Goscinny and Uderzo in creating their own multimedia (animation) company, Studios Idefix, in 1974. It went on to produce the “Asterix and the Twelve Labours” movie and a Lucky Luke movie, “The Dalton Ballad.”  (That scroll in the company logo underneath Dogmatix reads “These Romans are Crazy!”)

The studio folded after Goscinny’s death.

Goscinny and Uderzo worked a lot with Dargaud over the span of 15 years.  I don’t know what the problems were between them, but they festered. Goscinny and Uderzo even talked about splitting Asterix off from Dargaud’s publishing.

Then, Goscinny died in the middle of production on “Asterix in Belgium.”

That brought things to a dramatic stand-off.

Uderzo didn’t have it in him to finish drawing the book.  He was ready to let the series die with Goscinny, the last book unfinished and unpublished.

Dargaud insisted that he finish the book, however. He was insistent.  How insistent?  He took Uderzo to court to force him to finish it. The court sided with Dargaud. Uderzo didn’t like it, but he picked up his pen a year later, even as he appealed the court’s decision.

Uderzo finished the book, and then, in one more cruel twist of fate, the court ultimately sided with him and overturned the earlier decision.

Needless to say, this put Dargaud and Uderzo in an awful place.  Uderzo would continue to write and draw the series, himself, with Dargaud publishing it. But the damage was done.

Dargaud died in 1990.  When asked, Uderzo said he had never caricatured Dargaud in the series, but would have made him a vampire if he had.

Ouch.

Uderzo would ultimately have the last word. He sued Dargaud’s company to get the publishing rights back of the early albums.  It took nearly a decade for that lawsuit to work its way through the French courts, but Uderzo won.

In 1998, Dargaud Publishing was officially separated from Asterix, for good.  I have an article in the works on the publishing rights to Asterix.  That’s for another day, but there’s some unfortunately juicy drama in that, as you might imagine. Money does funny things to people.

Much of this story comes from the 1995 book, “The Complete Guide to Asterix,” written by Peter Kessler.  It’s a good book, though I have some issues with it.  For example, he misses Marcel Uderzo’s return to the series for these last three books.  Maybe that wasn’t publicly known yet at that point?

Uderzo’s In-Book Tributes to Goscinny

Uderzo did two things with the book after Goscinny’s death.

After Goscinny's death, Uderzo darkened the skies and started the rain in the book.

First, all the pages drawn after Goscinny’s death have dark, sometimes rainy skies. Gone are the happy blue skies.  The entire book has an overcast feeling.

In the most recent remastering of the series, they kept the darker skies, but also muted the colors everywhere else in the scene. If you’re used to the super bright, poppy colors of the remasterings that make it look like a Saturday morning cartoon, you’ll have to adjust to this.

Uderzo drew a bunny sadly looking at Goscinny's signature on the final page of "Asterix in Belgium."

Second, on the final page, there’s a little bunny sadly walking away from the banquet, looking over at Goscinny’s signature.

Heartbreaking.

Odds and Ends

A couple of quick things I can’t let go without mentioning.

Tintin characters show up in Asterix

First, there’s the Tintin crossover.  Uderzo even draws their panel in the ligne claire style.  You can’t ask for a bigger Belgian comic than Tintin, of course.

Border guards at the Belgium/Armorica divide. Armorica is a cushier place.

Second, a pair of Roman guards stand at the border between Belgium and Armorica, having a tiff over how clean and easy a position it is to guard the Armorica border.  Guarding the Belgian side is a horror show of physical abuse.

It brought back to mind the sequences in “Asterix and the Goths” where the border guard at the Gaul/Germany border is the subject of much abuse and amusement.

I have to stop there.  I can list off a half dozen other sequences that cracked me up in this book (the pirates deserve more, I agree), but I’m already over 4000 words.  What was your favorite part of the book I left out?  Let me know in the comments below!

Best Name of the Book

Oh, that’s right.  There are characters in this book, too!

I have to admit that there isn’t one name, in particular, that jumped out at me in this book.  I liked a lot of the names, but there wasn’t a real stand out.

Wolfgangamadeus seems strangely too obvious.

I’m tempted to make it Califlowa, just because of all the cauliflower jokes. Also, I love that spelling.

The one most out of left field was Saintlouisblus.

The Roman warrior, Pseudonymus, goes to great the Gallic invaders.

But I’ll go with a more obscure name, and give it to Pseudonymus.  Of course I’d pick a name with a writing angle to it!

Recommended?

Asterix in Belgium cover by Albert Uderzo

Yes. I admit to being a bit biased in this book’s favor, but I can also step back just far enough to admit it’s not the best book. It’s still pretty good, even with the weird literary allusions.  We get to see Caesar at work, which is always fun, and we see bits of Roman history kickstarting the story.  I love that.

And, of course, the Belgian references are all on point.

Next week, we begin to review “Asterix by Albert Uderzo.”

— 2018.070 —

Buy It Now

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Bonus Panel

Presenting, “Things They Didn’t Say at the World Cup This Year”:

Things they didn't say at the World Cup 2018: "You might say it was a tie between us and the Belgians!"

If I regret but one thing about this review, it’s only that I came about 150 words shy of 5000 words.  5000 is a nice round number, you know?

Nope, still ~110 words shy…

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

31 Comments

  1. I have to agree with your conclusion here which is that Asterix in Belgium is one of the least interesting books in the series. Nothing really happens. The Belgian characters lack the distinctive personalities of Boneywasawarriorwayayix in Corsica or Huevos y Bacon in Spain. The artwork also lacks the grandeur of the scenery in Switzerland or The Great Crossing. It all seems rather pointless.
    The most interesting and sad thing now about the book is learning how Goscinny’s tragically early death coloured the composition. It really is the end of the greatest writer-artist team ever seen in comics.

  2. I’m on holiday at the moment but just popped by to say even by Augie’s exceptional standards that is a simply magnificent review!

    More from me later.

    1. Thanks, Colin! Much appreciated, too, as this one had a lot of work thrown into it, and I only kick myself out of all the other little things I didn’t include. If I ever did a podcast where I went over a book page by page, this one would be in the running….

  3. I was half-expecting that you would publish this on Belgian National celebration Day ( that was this Saturday 21st of July), but that’s close enough. Once again thanks to you I’m late for work (maybe for the last time?) so I’m going to run now and I’ll be back later with more to say on this. Be seeing you.

    1. I probably shouldn’t admit to this, but I didn’t even realize that that was a holiday until I was doing research for this review over the weekend. I wish I had been that smart about it. 😉

  4. As you look at it in retrospect, with 2018 eyes, Goscinny’s Asterix is the perfect allegory for a blossoming European Union, coming out of its infancy into adulthood. Sure it was an idealized version of this, with some degree of conflict and drama, but nothing that couldn’t be solved in the end, with a sizable serving of food and drinks around a table, like civilized people do. It certainly highlights that Europe is composed of many different populations, but in the end, differences are mostly superficial and deep down we’re all the same.
    This is no wonder that at the time Bruxelles was made the official nexus of Europe since that’s where the heart is.
    In today’s climate, where everyone pulls apart on matters of Identity, Immigration, commerce and whatnot, looking back to a more naive vision of what we were makes me somewhat emotional. In a way, that’s the end of an era. Right from the next book (which is the last one I really got as a kid), Asterix moves into a different territory. I will sure stick around for Augie’s reviews, but I won’t be as invested as I have been for this fantastic trip down memory lane that ends with this very book. Augie, I thank you for allowing me along for the ride,revisiting some of my most treasured childhood memories; that is definitely something I was not expecting to do at this point in my life, but sometimes, you’re at a crossroads and you don’t even realize it until someone points it out, completely out of left field. I have to tell you, I enjoyed every minute of it, even those moments when I playfully let out my grumpy side for some rants that I hope weren’t too bothersome.
    Culturally and historically speaking, there isn’t a lotto say about this volume. There has always been a certain fondness we French have for the Belgian people, like the one you would have for your awkward little brother. Sure you make fun of them all the time, you feel embarrassed by them from time to time but deep inside they have the biggest of hearts and you know it.
    Annie Cordy was a Show Business Icon all throughout the 70s, with songs that remain today stuck in our heads, sometimes goofy comedy, sometimes warm hopeful feelings you cling to when the world around you is in turmoil. She’s still alive but semi-retired since the Music Industry has now completely switched to garbled declamations and social injustice tirades. Welcome to the 21st century. Anyway, she’s on the lower right-hand corner of the cover and she totally deserves it.
    There is no mystery that Belgium remains today sort of a safe haven in Europe, where I’ve now been happily living for almost seven years, for no other reasons than people are nicer and beer is tastier in these parts. I was very amused that during the past few weeks of world cup frenzy, in which the Red Devils team did quite well for itself, there was a renewed fervor around here for being Belgian, putting aside for a moment the economy-based feud between Flemish and French-speaking regions that the Far-right was blowing up into some sort of culture wars; that quieted things down, if only for a moment. As you insightfully noticed, the Concorde era is now long gone and there is no telling what the future holds. Yet, no matter what, you know that the Belgians will tackle it head on high with that messy unpolished enthusiasm that we love them for. Time for some Frites and homemade mayonnaise, they make everything better.
    Oh and I absolutely want to mention that, as a lifelong Zach Morris fan, you made my day with the Timeout reference. That right here is a combo like none other. Don’t change, Augie, we like you just the way you are. FYI this fourth-wall-breaking aparté probably comes from the influence of Goscinny’s other longtime Pilote collaborator Marcel Gotlib, whith whom he partnered on beloved series Les DingoDossiers and would later carry on by himself with that very type of humour on La Rubrique-à-Brac and CinemaStock (Gotlib’s also the co-creator of SuperDupont for those interested in exterior-underwear-sporting heroes).
    I’m trying to stay positive at this moment, not to dwell too long on the sadness and pointlessness of Goscinny’s death. It would take me years to realize what I was missing as a reader, but he left us so many great series to re-discover many times over and every time find a little nugget that we hadn’t caught before. Do you know if Iznogoud is available in English? If so, Goscinny’s take on power and politics is well worth checking out, on par with what we’ve seen him do with Economy and societal issues here on Asterix. And I’m not sure what your plans are once you’re done with our favourite Gaul, Augie, but all his Lucky Luke albums are also longing for a talented reviewer to sink his teeth into. ’nuff said. I’m off to do some actual money-making work now. Have a great day.

    1. And thank you, JC, for adding a perspective I could never hope to bring to the reviews. I’ve learned a lot over these past seven months or so. And it’s nice to have a contact in Belgium. 😉

      When I was a kid, when you wanted to do a “dumb person” joke, it was usually about “the blonde” or the person from Poland. I’m not sure where that all came from, but it was a thing. That’s definitely gone mostly away these days, but the jokes about the Belgians early in the book reminded me of that kind of joke that was prevalent when I was growing up, though these seem to be a bit friendlier than some of the crueler jokes that were the norm in another time….

      Heh, glad you liked the Saved by the Bell reference. I try to infuse a bit of my pop culture into these reviews here and there. Given all the cultural references Goscinny and Uderzo laid into the boxes, it seems fitting. Oh, and something else I learned in researching this review: Studio Idefix once did a commercial for Michelin! After the time they drew that other gas station guy into the book — who was later replaced as the Michelin Man in some other printings — discovering that cracked me up.

      Yes, Iznogoud is available in English. Cinebook is printing it, and I think they’re all available digitally on Izneo. I have one of the more recent books. I want to start at the first book, though, to see how it develops, rather than just jumping around. One of these days…

      What’s next after Asterix? Well, after the next ten reviews — and then a decision as to whether I want to re-review the Ferri/Conrad books from the point of view of someone who just finished reading all the classics — I don’t know. The thought of it tires me out. 😉 Lucky Luke could work. I enjoy Goscinny’s work there, though I’m not sure I have as much to say about them. I’ve reviewed a few already, too.

      I’ve considered Largo Winch, but that’s an awful lot of reading, and I’m lazy. 😉

      Maybe I’ll find a simpler 12 – 15 book comedic series. Or maybe next year will be the year I focus on a greater variety of titles instead of spending so much time on just one. (70 reviews in this year, and 24 of them are Asterix books.)

      I’m glad I don’t need to have a firm decision on that for another 5 or 6 months. =)

  5. This is the third least good Asterix book so far for me – which gets it 3.5/5.

    I really hated the fourth wall breaking and the Thompson Twins cameo. Thinks like that just bring you completely out of the story and don’t fit well with Asterix at all. I think they would have got away with the cameo if Uderzo had adapted the characters to his style – like he did for the celebrity cameos and the pirates.

    The biggest problem with the book though is the lack of plot. They just attack the Romans a lot.

    Namewise for me, I give it to Melancholix, though I do like Wolfgangamadeus and Cauliflowa too.

    Not a bad book – there hasn’t been one yet – but it’s a real shame that Goscinny didn’t get to go out in a blaze of glory.

    1. Well, there’s an interesting question to pose: If Goscinny were to set up about writing The Final Asterix Story, what would he write? Would he bring old characters back? Would he fast-forward 50 years to tell a story that ends in Asterix’s natural death and Rome’s plung into crazed emperor-ship? Would he write some allegory for what he saw as the future of European civilization? Or, would Asterix and Obelix just go on their merry way to one of the countries they hadn’t visited yet? (What’s left? Poland? Norway?Israel?)

      And, yes, I know there’s a short story coming up that’s set 50 years into the future, but we’ll get to that around, what, volume 34, I think it is?

      And here’s a scarier thought: Was Goscinny running out of steam? Was he running out of ideas? Was a book a year too much? Is that why this book suffers? I love all the bits and pieces of it, but there’s a larger plot problem with it, as we all noticed.

      The series was making so much money by the late 1970s, I almost can’t imagine them giving it up. I know that sounds crassly commercial, but I think it would factor in. Would they have just stopped doing it? Would they have done another book together next?

      So many pointless What Ifs, I know, but my mind starts going in these directions, sometimes, and can’t stop….

      1. I think there’s some evidence that the travelling stories were losing steam, but the village-based stories were still top-notch, considering the previous book was Obelix & Co.

      2. It’s the eternal discussion whether you should die young while at the top of your game or suffer a long descent into a pale deliquescent copy of yourself. Is it better to be James Dean or Robert DeNiro? Young Elvis or Old Elvis? Marilyn Monroe or Claudia Cardinale? When I think of what “Astérix: The End” would be, I’m reminded of that Action Comics issue that JM Lofficier wrote and Keith Giffen Drew. By his own admission, Goscinny publicly stated that he was having difficulty finding fresh situations in which to put our favourite gauls, yet every time he produced something not only enjoyable, but Miles above everyone else. IT just takes a moment on wikipedia to see how many other series he did with other artists and they all have something special. So much to read and enjoy. Would he have faded over time, probably. Or maybe quit while he was ahead and do something else. He was barely scratching the surface of his potential in cinema (with Pierre Tchernia) so maybe Studios Idéfix would have ended up our version of LucasFilm or Amblin, who knows.
        Oh yes you’re right there’s the school album with the short stories in it. I remember reading it the first time and feeling very old already and very nostalgic. Life goes on. Goscinny’s death helped me move on into being an adult. I recognize that life is made of cycles and that staring too long into what might have been is probably unhealthy. Life goes on.

  6. I never liked the original on this one, and pretty much stopped reading the series after this, but I find these puns in English groan worthy. There is just no surpassing Gosciny’s brilliance.

  7. So fresh from holiday I find I can no longer put off the thorny issue of ‘In Belgium’. As Dan says its a real shame Goscinny doesn’t bow out on a high… well of course more importantly its a shame he had to bow out at all at such a relatively young age. Alas he did and in doing so does leaves the tricky question of whether he was running out of steam… we’ll never know and so I guess its pointless to speculate.

    What ‘In Belgium’ does quite clearly show is that Goscinny, even debatably running out of steam, is miles ahead of of almost all other comic writers and that is something that we don’t have to debate. Even a volume as comparitively weak as this one has so much craft, so much craft. Its’ word play is turned to a Belgium 11 and this story as almost as many laugh out moments as any. Some of the character work is great too, Vitalstatistix again shows he really is a glorious bonus … or should I say Christmasbonus… to the series.

    I actually really like the meta stuff, as Augie says this comic really does cram in literary illusions, so I quite like the fact one of those is self reference. After all regardless of what authorities might say on the matter, in terms of craft and sheer ability to fill you with joy Asterix is literature. I have no beef with the nod to Herge either, its cute if I’m honest I think I’d have thought it more weird if it’d not been there, so intertwined are the two series in folks minds.

    Ultimately the problems with this story isn’t in the delivery, its in the story and plot. As Alastair, Dan also elude to its just so weak. I think Alastair unfortuantely says it best.

    “It all seems rather pointless.”

    Augie’s provides the insight into the tale’s origin. Its as if Goscinny grabbed the quote from Caesar, thought it had massive potential and then just wrote himself into a corner, it didn’t have any of the things to say and a book about Europe at the time this was written surely should have and one’s that like Obelix and Co could still resonated so strongly today… alas not this time.

    Still for craft alone this book can’t be overlooked and Uderzo still does a fine job so its 8 points from the Taylor household.

    Another thing this book does very well is pun names and Augie pretty much nails the best to the post and I give it to Pseudonymus … who its worth mentioning plays a pivotal part in by far my favourite scene, where he tries to get his opinion across as our Chief butts heads with Beefix following the trashing of the Roman fort quite amusingly. Love it and Asterix’s look as Pseudonymus says his goodbyes is pure gold. If ever there was proof needed that even an off form story is delivered with absolute craft this is it.

    … so there we have it The Great Divide might get new meaning after the things I’ve learnt from this review… will it improve the reading…

    1. I’m with you on Tintin. I thought it was a cute panel, and well drawn in a different style for Uderzo. If it had extended past one panel, it might have been too much, though I would like to have seen them interacting with an Asterix character in the same panel, just to bring the stylistic differences home.

      I’m fine with just having a “fun” tale without any sort of political allegory. (Though JC does a good job above in explaining just how much of it is based on cultural issues and differences between France and Belgium.) We just get spoiled by the deeper plots that have all of that. It does add a lot.

      And we’ll be touching on a lot of this same discussion stuff with “Great Divide” soon. (The politics, the wordplay… Oh, the word play. If Goscinny turned it up to 11, Uderzo went for 20 in that book.)

      1. The great thing about this series, is that all the context and perspective is not necessary to enjoy the ride. As a kid I had no idea about most of this stuff, including the art references (maybe in the back of my mind, after twenty-odd albums I could kinda guess there was a deeper meaning vaguely perceivable in the way some things were set up by the creators, but I wasn’t quite able to grasp it yet). And as I grew as an adult, these layers unfolded, one after the other, I can hardly fathom the number of times I paused in my reading and thought to myself “Oh wow, that was there the whole time”. It still blows my mind to try to imagine Goscinny’s and Uderzo’s minds coming up with that level of craftsmanship. In almost 40 years of reading and collecting all sorts of books, from serious classics of literature, to philosophy masters, to the silliest Disney-type illustrated fun, I can probably count on one hand the authors who made me feel that way, and these two are in it. It’s a real shame that at the time those books were produced, there was still great prejudice for BD writers, they weren’t considered “serious” authors because they were doing it “for kids”; all those references may be Goscinny’s way to compensate, trying hard to “educate” and not just “entertain”. Today, we know better and we can fully appreciate those masterpieces for what they are. Today both Goscinny and Uderzo are recognized as the masters they truly are. I kind of feel bad for a young author arriving on the scene to have to measure with that benchmark.

  8. On the off chance anyone is still reading this: Yes, I’m working on the next review. Yes, it’s a little delayed. I had planned on finishing it up last night, but then we had a thunderstorm and I couldn’t pry the dog off my lap long enough to type anything up. (He’s so cute when he’s scared by loud boomy noises outside.)

    So, yeah, look for it this weekend at some point. =)

      1. Ooh, how I wish I had thought of that! How did I miss it? I was thinking more along the lines of the old “The dog ate my homework” excuse.

      2. Why does Manikin wear almost nothing? Including out in heavy rain, with his hair and bare feet clearly getting soaked? and seem to accept it as normality? Completely unequal to his parents who are fully dressed and behave caringly? No explanation. Wanted the explanation ever since age 11 when it came out.

        1. easy answer my friend

          From the visit.brussels website:
          Manikin, the son of Botanix, is suspected of drinking a little too much barley beer…
          This is a clever reference to the statue of Manneken Pis, which is the most famous
          fountain in Brussels, created in 1619 by the sculptor Jérôme Duquesnoy. Standing 55 cm
          high, this ‘young man’ received his first suit in 1698, and that was the start of a longstanding
          tradition (more than 900 today!) in which Obelix’ one in 2005 and Asterix’ in 2017.

          Here is a picture
          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manneken_Pis

      1. Nah, it’s not that (yet). It’s just my own frustration that I WANT to do it, but keep falling short on time for various reasons. I take the occasional week off to keep from burning out.

        Speaking of which, I should be reviewing v26 next week, then will be taking the following week off while I’m at DisneyWorld having fun for the week. =)

  9. The potatoes used for the fries must have traveled with Asterix form his trio somehow to be already in Europe.

    I think the comic has nice comic moments and pleasant and later moody feel with the darkness even if the plot wasn’t special.

  10. Belgian Chieftain Beefix’s wife Bonanza is a caricature of famed Belgian singer and actress Annie Cordy.

    1. Annie Cordy was in the French language dub of Once Upon a Forest 1993 as Bosworth, Pocahontas 1995 as Grandmother Willow, Brother Bear 2003 as Nanaka.

  11. Also famed Belgian cyclist, Eddy Merckx makes a cameo appearance as a messenger sent to warn all of the neighboring tribes nearby Beefix and Brawnix’s village about the Romans coming to invade Belgium.

  12. Before the end after the battle, Albert Uderzo and Asterix parody the famed Dutch and Flemish Renaissance painting “The Peasant Wedding” by famed Dutch and Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

  13. The whole battle in this book between the Romans and Belgians with 3 Gauls and a little dog is all a parody of the Battle of Waterloo which was fought in Belgium on June 18th, 1815 and ended the Napoleonic Wars and French General and Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte met his doom after being defeated by the combined forces of British, Prussian, and Dutch forces.