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.
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
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;
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Second, on the final page, there’s a little bunny sadly walking away from the banquet, looking over at Goscinny’s signature.
Odds and Ends
A couple of quick things I can’t let go without mentioning.
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.
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.
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!
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 —
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The book is available digitally in Europe here:
Presenting, “Things They Didn’t Say at the World Cup This Year”:
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…