Artist: Albert Uderzo
Translator: Anthea Bell, Derek Hockridge
Published by: Orion/Hachette
Number of Pages: 54
Original Publication: 1980
Albert Uderzo takes full control of Asterix with “Asterix and the Great Divide.” And it’s…. not bad.
I Admit It
I went into this book expecting the worst, but keeping an open mind. Nobody can replace Rene Goscinny, who died during the production of the previous volume, “Asterix in Belgium.”
Albert Uderzo decided to continue the series on his own, acting as his own writer.
I’m instantly reminded of the old saying about lawyers representing themselves having a fool for a client…
But that’s not fair. There are plenty of amazing cartoonists who can handle both the story and the art.
Still, I had to set my reviewer’s mind up in reading this book not to try to read too much into the creative change, and not to attribute every failing to the lack of Goscinny. You don’t want to be one of those people who complains that everything Apple does now would set Steve Jobs spinning in his grave. “Steve wouldn’t do that!”
“Rene wouldn’t do that!”
Unfortunately, we’ll never know what he would have done.
Maybe he would have, though. It’s certainly possible that Uderzo created this story from leftover ideas from previous conversations with Goscinny. Who knows? Uderzo is a private man who doesn’t speak much of the past in such detail. He seems to stick to the tried and true stories he’s been telling for decades.
My goal, in the end, is to write this review treating the book on its own merits, and not whatever perceptions I may have from the change in creators.
And what does it all really matter? Aside from the historians and the curious, what purpose would it serve? In the end, the work is the work and that is what should be judged.
So, Is It Good?
“Asterix and the Great Divide” is a good “Asterix” album, but it isn’t great. It does make Asterix an active participant in the story, which is good. But then it requires him and Getafix, both, to do stupid things to keep the plot moving.
There’s lots of word play humor in the book, a fight in the village, Magic Potion, and Romans to be punched. All the elements of “Asterix” are here, but they feel pieced together. They don’t come up as naturally as they did in other stories.
The village fight serves no purpose and feels forced. I supposed you could make the argument that Uderzo is showing that all villages fight and there’s a parallel between Asterix’s and the new one we meet in this book that’s just taking it to an extreme. Maybe? I think he just wanted to draw a fish-slapping/fish-throwing fight for a couple of pages
I thought Goscinny revved up his wordplay to its maximum in the previous book, but Uderzo goes three steps further in this book. It’s intense and unrelenting, though some of it isn’t quite clever enough to make me laugh out loud. It almost feels like the default scripting technique on every panel: When in doubt, do a pun or use a themed homophone to keep the reader entertained.
The Politics of Asterix
This book starts off with the potential to be one of the most political of all Asterix books.
A ditch splits a quaint Gaulish village down the middle, physically dividing the tribe into two. The ditch ends at the front gate of the village. You can easily get to the other side just by walking out front. I consider this part of the charm of the story that the village is so divided that nobody wants to build a bridge or bother walking out front to come back around to the other side. They’ve chosen their teams and they only want to win, not come back together.
This story could easily be spun as an allegory for politics in general in America today, or the politics of Brexit in England. It’s on the nose. The village is divided politically, into two halves that are directly referred to as The Left and The Right. Their two Chiefs are stubborn to the max and refuse to compromise. They should just work together to lead everyone, but they’re both too stubborn or stupid to realize it.
The tribes, when they meet outside the village in the open field, acknowledge each other only by sticking out their tongues.
Yes, this is exactly the state of politics today. This Asterix book is practically Twitter.
But, in reality, it was made in 1980, and so was more relevant to the Berlin Wall. It’s an inversion — instead of a wall, Uderzo makes up a ditch.
Perhaps this teaches us that all things in life are cyclical, and that those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it. Or that political allegories are timeless and that people never change.
Something like that.
We also get a return to form for Asterix in that there’s another labor strike. You might remember in “Obelix and Co.” that the slaves went on strike because they didn’t have enough work to do. In this book, the Romans go on strike, holding signs and walking in circles to protest their lack of slaves. They shouldn’t be expected to do all their own work, after all.
Completely reversed positions, yet the same actions.
The Right and Left
Uderzo really goes to town with the division, milking it for every gag he can. Most of them come in the form of puns and wordplay. There are a lot of right/left references in the book.
But he also uses the ditch for some physical and visual humor. There’s the resident who refuses to choose sides, so his house is split in half by the ditch — and he keeps forgetting that and falling in when walking through the house. There’s the children stealing apples from the tree of their neighbor, whose house (and the trunk of the tree) is out of reach on the other side.
The biggest play on everything is the star-crossed lovers of Melodrama and Histrionix. They are the children of chiefs from the opposite side of the ditch and they’re in love. The split town and the divide between their fathers, politically, makes it impossible to live their love for each other. They are the rational ones in a village filled with crazy self-centered warring leaders. They also enlist Asterix’s help to get the job done.
They’re the ones on the cover. And, yes, it’s Romeo and Juliet, though surprisingly without a lot of Shakespearean references. Uderzo must have forgotten them while writing in all the “left” and “right” gags…
Uderzo’s Stylistic Soup
For whatever reason, Uderzo likes drawing “normal” human beings mixed in with the big nose Marcinelle School style characters we’ve grown to know and love from the Village. (Geriatrix’s wife is the one exception there.)
He does it again in this book, and the two chiefs’ children are depicted as standard human being proportions, idyllic in their beauty. But they always look weird standing next to all the Big Nose characters. It makes the cast of Asterix look like funny talking animals in their own book. The humans tower over the Gauls.
That always bothers me.
And then there’s Codfix, who’s a toady in every sense of the word, including appearance. He’s the lackey of Chief Majestix. Well, he may look more like a fish than a toad. His armored shirt looks more like they’re made of scales. I saw some scans of very early printings of this book where they colored him in with normal flesh tones to minimize that, I guess. In the latter editions, though, he’s turned green to emphasize what an alien little creature he is. Why Uderzo goes for this level of fantasy in the book, I don’t know. I thought the Magic Potion was as far as the series ever needed to go.
Uderzo Aims for a Plot
Give Uderzo credit here: He went for a story. He didn’t rely on a series of gags to pad out 48 pages. He created an honest-to-goodness plot with some twists and some thought put into it.
You have the drama of two halves of a village fighting each other in a Cold War kind of situation. One side is guided a bit too much by a self-interested party who brings the Romans in. The star-crossed lovers engage Asterix and Obelix to help save their people and fend off the Romans. Then, something needs to be done to re-unify the village, ending up in a fight outside the walls. (We’ve seen the fight to determine the leader before, in “Asterix and the Big Fight.”)
Unfortunately, the plot relies on two horrible mistakes on the part of its stars to keep the story moving. First, Getafix has to forget his flask of potion on the ground for Codfix to later find and use. Second, Asterix, in the dead of the night, has to be so busy staring at the stars that he doesn’t hear Codfix sneak up behind him to knock him out with a bat to the head.
Those are the two characters in the series least likely to make those silly mistakes.
There’s also a key moment in the story where Codfix has to act stupidly. He has to assume that his Chief will have no problem with turning the other chief’s clan into slaves. That’s a bit of a jump in logic, and immediately proves his downfall. It does keep the story going for another 20 pages, though, so I suppose it did its job.
All of this leads to a grand finale where the Romans take a bad combination of potions and turn into rejects from Willy Wonka. This is established out of thin air a couple panels before it happens. What a well-timed coincidence! It also robs everyone else in the book of the chance to be the one to finish the job of defeating the Romans. The Gauls beat the Romans through no action of their own. It feels like a cheat.
On the bright side, when the Romans are shrunk down, we finally get to see Dogmatix drawn larger on the page than an eighth of an inch. That’s fun…
Best Name of the Book
It’s in this panel:
No, not Codfix. Not Chief Majestix. (That that one is good.) Not his daughter, Melodrama. (Though she’s definitely a close second.) And the previous Chief, Altruistix, came very close for me, too.
This week, I give the award to Alcaponix, who had some tax issues. Of course.
I don’t normally like too much of the pop culture mixed in with these names, but that one hit me pretty good.
I have a very strong feeling that your mileage will vary on this one. Let’s not forget Schizophrenix, especially…
Well, there are at least 23 other better Asterix books. But if you’ve read them all and need more Asterix in your life, you can read this one, too. It is not a bad comic, though. It has a couple faults that I can attribute directly to the script — in both plot and dialogue — but it’s still very entertaining.
If this is the worst of Asterix, then it’s still amongst the best in comics.
— 2018.072 —
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