Asterix v26, Asterix and the Black Gold, cover detail by Albert Uderzo
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Asterix v26: “Asterix and the Black Gold”

The Middle East has a lot of oil and warring factions.  It’s as true today as it was in Asterix’s day.

It’s almost good enough that I would have assumed Rene Goscinny had written it, if I didn’t know better.  Uderzo even reaches for punny names in this book in most spectacular ways.  It’s going to be tough to nail it down to one favorite later….

Without any further ado, let’s look at the 26th volume of the “Asterix” series:

Asterix and the Black Gold

Writer: Albert Uderzo
Artist: Albert Uderzo
Translator: Anthea Bell, Derek Hockridge
Published by: Orion/Hachette
Number of Pages: 48
Original Publication: 1981

What’s Going On

Since the beginning, this series has been split between stories set in the village and stories that explore other cultures by traveling to them under various excuses.  The previous volume, “Asterix and the Great Divide,” was technically a travel tale, but felt mostly like a Village tale, since it was set in a relatively nearby village that looked a lot like Asterix’s own.

This book, though, falls solidly in the other camp.  Once again, Getafix needs an ingredient for his Magic Potion, and the only place to get it — for various plot-specific reasons — is near Jerusalem.

They’re joined by a Roman spy.  You see, Caesar is once again fuming that he hasn’t turned that Armorican village over to his side yet.  One of his direct reports, one M. Devius Surreptitius, has an option for him.  (That name might have won the Best Name contest in a weaker book.  It never stood a chance against this cast of characters.)

Rather that directly attacking the village or trying to divide the village from within, they just need to get the recipe for the Magic Potion.  Then, it’ll be a fair fight, and the Romans will win by sheer number.

Dubbelosix is a secret agent and very gadget-friendly

His plan is to use a spy dressed as a druid, compete with all sorts of crazy gadgets.  They call him Dubbelosix.  And he looks just like Sean Connery.  Of course.  If you’re a James Bond fan, you’re going to love this book.  Uderzo throws in all the Bond gags he can get.  He gets so into it, he even adds a Mission: Impossible “This Note Will Self-Destruct” gag.

It’s an extended pop culture reference for “Asterix,” but I’ll allow it.  It’s pretty funny.  It gets funnier as the book goes on, because we see what a loser this Dubbelosix is.  He pretends to be suave and prepared, but his gadgets fail, his plan fails every step of the way, and he can’t talk his way out of a paper bag.  When the chips fall, he gets the most desperate and outs himself. He’s hopeless, though he can’t wipe that smug smirk off his face through much of it.

Chief Vitalstatistix tries one of Dubbelosix's gadgets

Coincidentally to Dubbelosix dressing up as a Druid to find a way to get into the Village — hey, this is a comedy book, so those kinds of things are allowed — the Druid Getafix is missing the latest Must Have ingredient in the Magic Potion.  His expected supply doesn’t come in, causing him to have a stroke or a heart attack or something.

If only he had read my essay on “A Bus Factor of 1“….

The Druid Getafix waits for his ship to come in with the Magic Potion ingredient
The Druid Getafix waits for his ship to come in with the Magic Potion ingredient.

A lot of Asterix stories center on keeping the supply of Magic Potion going. Ever notice that?  Why can’t the Villagers?!?  (I know, I know, I’m thinking too much about this with a modern continuity-based mind that filled with too much literalism.  I should just enjoy the magic of the comics more.  And I do.  But I am also writing 2000 words or more about each of them.  I’m supposed to over-think them!)

With Getafix out of the picture, it’s a convenient time for Dubbelosix to show up in his best Druid garb, wreak some havoc, and get the formula for that Magic Potion.  If the Romans have the potion, too, then the Villagers will no longer have the upper hand. Caesar could conquer the last corner of his empire….

To find that magic ingredient — oil — the gang travel to Mesopotamia and have Caesar on their heels the entire time.  Uderzo structures a great series of events to continue to up the drama that Asterix and Obelix get into along the way. When you think they’ve finally lost the Romans, other warriors come out to play. When they finally dodge them, the Romans are getting pesky again.  It’s a great series of smaller conflicts that fuel the plot, while providing plenty of openings for the usual puns, silly situations, and physical humor.

Who’s On First?

There’s a great extended sequence when Asterix and Obelix are wandering around the desert. It goes on for four pages.  As the pair wander, they come across four different tribes, each of which wants to start a war with someone.  It’s a big circle of fighting, and Asterix and Obelix are repeatedly caught in the same situation until Asterix finally boils over as they run out of warring tribes.

Asterix and Obelix wander the desert and come across the warring Assyrians

I know I’ve said in the past how much these two resemble a Vaudeville show at times, but this whole bit feels like something you might have seen in a classic Hollywood black and white buddy comedy.  Uderzo lets it go on for a very long time, just enough to make you uncomfortable that it might never end, but then ending at the right time to get enough repetitions of the gag in to make its point.

It’s a pretty good description of the situation in the Middle East, really.  It’s also based on history.  The give tribes we meet in this sequence really do come out of ancient Mesopotamian history.  In fact, the order they appear in this book is the reverse of the order they conquered one another.

Speaking of such history: The Wikipedia entry for this book has a lot of great trivia in it.  If you want to learn more about the caricatures in this book and the historical inaccuracies (doesnt matter; it’s all fun!), go there.

The Return of an Old Friend

Ekonomikrisis returns!

I know Uderzo started to bring back more characters in his run moving forward.  Some people don’t like it so much, and I’ll have to make that judgment as we go along.

However, Ekonomikrisis is used well here.  He’s a welcome face whose first appearance had one of the funniest gags of the early Asterix days. He treated the slaves that were rowing his boat as if they were contractors who merely failed to read the fine print on their contract.  Then, they revolted when the pirates attacked the ship, on the basis that fighting off the pirates wasn’t in their contract.

Ekonomikrisis works with his contractors on an update

That’s all in “Asterix the Gladiator,” the fourth volume in the series. That’s a panel from it above.

Now, he’s offering packages to tourists who want to be treated as boat rowers, basically.  It’s a logical and funny next step for his business.

Ekonomikrisis plays a slightly larger role in this book, but it’s mostly the same: He’s giving Asterix a lift to a far off place, but he sticks around more and helps out where he can.  Asterix proves to be a big boon to his business, solving problems creatively to keep the money coming in.

Asterix, as it turns out, is a good entrepreneur.  He shows an ability to generate multiple income streams while facing problems head-on.

It’s the Little Things

Albert Uderzo likes to draw a forest filled with animals

Follow the birdies in this book. They look like the blue Twitter bird.  There’s a family of them on the first page of the book that are leaving their tree, bindle sticks in hand.  They show up again at the end.

The boars discuss their inevitable fate as food for Obelix...

Uderzo looks like he’s having fun drawing animals in this book, though I do have to admit that it’s a bit awkward to watch the boars discussing their imminent fates at the hands of Obelix.  Having your food talking about their impending arrival in someone’s stomach worked really well for Douglas Adams (“Restaurant at the End of the Universe”), but otherwise feels icky.  Boars should just be those numerous forest-clogging animal pack that Obelix can forever pick clean for personal weight gain.  (Not that he’s fat or anything…)

Also, boars making bacon puns is a bit cannibalistic…

The Battle for Best Name in This Book

Uderzo pulls out all the stops on this one.  He doesn’t go with simple names.  These are full multi-syllabic mouthfuls.  I love it!

I already mentioned Dubbelosix and his boss, M. Devius Surreptitius.

Giving the man washing his hands constantly the name “Pontius Pirate” is either hilarious or heretical.  Since I’m of the school of thought that you can make a joke about anything, I’m going with “hilarious.”

Ekonomikrisis is a classic, but an old one.

Albert Uderzo casts Rene Goscinny as Saul Ben Epishul in Asterix and the Black Gold

I think I’ll be partially a softie and go with Saul Ben Ephishul, just because it’s such a reach to get to “So Beneficial” from there.  I had to read it carefully out loud to get the gag.  Also, it’s Rene Goscinny, who was also Jewish.  He fits nicely into the story.

A Quick Thing About the Pirates

The lookout, i.e. the black pirate with the unfortunate character design, is not in this book. He’s a silhouetted itty-bitty figure in one panel, but that’s it.  I wonder if that’s an oversight, or something Uderzo did on purpose.  It feels like Uderzo is working very hard at not drawing him in this book, while keeping him in there, out of sight.

Was it finally dawning on him that the character design wasn’t so great, maybe?

Recommended?

Asterix v26, Asterix and the Black Gold, cover by Albert Uderzo

Yes!  This is a solid Asterix book. It’s better than the previous one. It feels like it selects its Asterix-isms a little more carefully and doesn’t just slap together a bullet point list of gags that should fill up a book.  We get more classic Julius Caesar.  Asterix is an active agent in the story.  The villain is a potential danger to our heroes, but he’s also witless enough to be funny at the same time.  And we have more geography-specific humor.

This is a good outing for our favorite Gauls.

— 2018.078 —

Buy It Now

Amazon has print editions here:

It’s also available digitally in Europe:

Click here to buy digital BD comics albums through Izneo.com

Izneo.com Preview

One Last Thing

This one cracked me up.

Ominus the Cook is just good word play for Asterix and the Black Gold

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

24 Comments

  1. This is Uderzo’s take on the middle-east conflict/oil crisis situation that started hitting Europe hard (and probably America as well) in the late seventies, and was most of the conversation for a long while after that (still is). In a different vein, it also gave us J.R. (of Dallas fame), so there’s that. Up until that point, the pop culture (and regular culture) references were subtly waved into the stories in a non-invasive fashion by a skilled writer. Now they seem to just take over and replace all the humour that was the main appeal of the book. It’s a real shift that made people realize how great Goscinny was, by comparison. This is when his reputation in the general public began to change from “author of kids’ books” to “proper author of some literary merit” and scholars began delving deep into his works (sometimes too deep, producing a level of BS only matched by Hergé worshippers).
    I wish someday we find out how much “help” Uderzo had crafting those books; I seriously doubt he did all that alone, as he claims.

    1. Yup, we felt the gas shortage over here in the late 70s. I was but a baby, but even as a kid I remember hearing the stories of those times just a few years back at that point where cars could get gas only on specific days. It was something like the odd number at the end of your license plate meant you could fill up your gas tank on the odd numbered days of the month, and even numbers on even days. If you’re younger than 40 these days, I’d imagine it’s possible you never even heard those stories….

      So Uderzo is less subtle than Goscinny, then? That’ll be something to keep an eye on. It’s not like he ever started drawing aliens into the series— oh, wait, never mind. His last book. Yikes. That one ought to be fun to cover. =)

  2. I went into this comic with worried hopes. I remember really enjoying it, but did wonder it this second post Goscinny story would hold up. I need not have worried, I love this story, I really do. As Augie says a few moments aside I’d have easily have thought Goscinny had written it. In the ‘Great Divide’ (there’s a Fruadian slip at the beginning of the review there Augie – you say “Great Crossing”) I mentioned that I think Uderzo makes that mistake so many artists turning writer ,or indeed new writers, make – saying too much, cramping words in where they aren’t needed. Here, as ably demonstrated my Augie with the Getafix at the beach (which is actually an extended 9 panel sequence in almost complete silence), Uderzo avoids this almost completely.

    Its as if Uderzo relaxed and realised he shouldn’t try to be Goscinny and in doing so was able to get closer to the tone and feel of his great friend and partner.

    The book is wonderful and one of my favourite of the travel books. It looks glorious, just glorious and the colours in my first UK edition are so evocative and help tell the story so well. Its also one of the funniest volumes, piling on the gags and again echoing Augie the sequence of Asterix and Obelix wondering through the desert meeting different warring fractions is just brilliant and one of my favourites in the series as a whole.

    The story is really well plotted and just fits its 44 pages perfectly. So much happens and nothing feels rushed at all. There is some great use of the fimilar supporting cast, Caesar in particular well used here. I really like the sequence with the boars as well as it goes. New characters are great and it makes some very bold decisions. After all Asterix and Obelix fail. Its not like some of the weaker volumes where they don’t do much – which can be a problem, just the opposite in fact. They try and try and almost get there, but ultimately fall at the line. The struggle to get the oil makes the comic genuinely exciting, they have a real challenge and you feels Asterix’s frustration and tension growing. To then have victory snatched (almost literally) away at the end is really effective. It then makes the cute solution when they return to the village just about work too.

    Its not perfect. We see green shots of a problem mentioned last time with more fantastical elements (the chariot while not magical feels a bit of a stretch) and what could be heavy handed pop culture references build. However here they are keep very neatly contained and work really well in the context of the story, so it gets a pass.

    So yeah while we are at the start of the dip and I fear we will dip hard, we have one of my favourites and one I remember so very findly from my childhood that utterly holds up to gets a relieved 11 out of 10.

    Favourite puns, there are many but I can’t ignore one of the obvious ones its so good.So I give it to M. Devius Surreptitius.

    1. Whoops on the Divide/Crossing faux pas. I fixed it now, because I’m obsessive/compulsive about getting the basics right. 😉 Thanks for the pointer!

    2. Hi Colin — Good point on Uderzo relaxing into his job and trying new things. I would welcome more such silent sequences and some more contemplative moments, if that’s what Uderzo wanted to go for. That sequence of Getafix on the beach was great. You could really feel his worry just because he wasn’t talking. I know it’s a little too late for it now, but I’d love to see a completely silent Asterix story. Or maybe a potion goes awry and everyone spends half the book not being able to talk, leading to another Village fight, or a weak defense against Roman invasion, or — something. Now my creative juices are flowing. I need to stop before I get any crazy ideas. (Coming in 2019: I write an Asterix story! And then I try to draw it! And by January 5th, I give up on that silly project. Too much work…)

  3. The meeting with the Assyrians is of course quoting Lord Byron’s poem ‘The Destruction of Sennacherib’. He was always popular abroad too so I wonder if the same line is in the original French?

    1. No that’s a B&H addition. It says “Je sais ! Vous êtes des Assyriens et vous vous excusez ! Mais enfin, pour qui nous prenez-vous ?”
      No mention of the wolves in the fold there. So I went to look for the French text for the poem, just to be sure. Here it is on that page comparing both languages:
      http://www.lieder.net/get_text.html?TextId=85665
      That seems to confirm what I thought earlier about the English version being better than the French one from this moment on.

  4. Looks like I’m in the minority, but I really don’t like this book. It gets a 2.5/5 for me – the lowest yet by a wide margin.

    Strange thing is I don’t really know why I don’t like the book. There are a few things I can point to. Sentient talking boar is a bit creepy – but I did also kind of like the sequence, and the clever solution that one boar had to avoid being eaten. The sentient fly – that was too much though. And seriously, how could it keep finding them in the middle of the sea? The far too advanced technology of Dubblosix rubbed me up the wrong way too.

    None of this was the real problem though. The problem was much more subjective – I just didn’t find the jokes funny, and I didn’t find myself particularly caring about the plot at any point. In ways, this was a bit closer to Goscinny’s style than Asterix and the Great Divide, but I didn’t like it nearly as much.

    There is one joke in the book I love though – and that’s Obelix trying to swim in the Dead Sea. I just love that panel of him looking like a beach ball.

    Best pun name by a mile for me was Dubblosix. Nothing else comes close.

    1. Dan you hit a very big nail on very big head. We seem to highlight very similar things about the comic but at the end subjective enjoyment will rule the day. I’ve mentioned here a few rimes, that for no reason I can decern I get on with book x better book y. Not for a reason I can rationise, but just cos. It will always be the tricky thing about review. You try to analyse and understand what makes a book work or not. But at the end of the day its hard to ignore personal preference!

      1. I gave this a little bit more thought in light of Augie’s review and I’m beginning to see why opinions are so split on this book. It seems to me that from this point onwards, the English version becomes better than the French one. Uderzo hits us with the lowest level puns (i.e. really bad), especially a long streak of jewish-related ones, culminating with this Rosenblumenthalovitch character, which is really grating. At the same time, you guys profit of the ever-reliable B&H adaptation to soften the fall.

          1. Yeah but as you put it Dan that was a subjective view so maybe JC has hit another nail firmly on the head (though I do thing that should be ‘Pushed a nail into the wall with his finger’ in this context!). Maybe the change from Goscinny to Uderzo is soften for us English readers as we have the softening layer of the superb translations inbetween.

        1. The funny thing is, I worried so much in the write-ups of the first 25 volumes to give credit where credit is due on the writings that I probably gave Hockridge and Bell too much credit. Goscinny was just that good that often. And now we’re reaching the point where H&B are doing more of the lifting, just as I’ve given up crediting them for too much?

          Nobody ever said this job was going to be easy! 😉

  5. This is my favorite book of the post Goscinny stories. It seems much closer to the Goscinny spirit than Great Divide and makes one wonder if Uderzo made use of some older material. No way of knowing, of course. Perhaps Uderzo did it all by himself, and if so kudos to him. My favorite joke in the book is the sea bird complaining of getting oil spilled on it far too soon in history, its absolutely brilliant. However, as Dan points out, is has some elements ominous of bad things to come in later stories, like advanced technology. Anyway, I think its better than Great Divide by some margin and much better than the next one in line.

    1. Better than Asterix and Son??

      That’s crazy talk. Asterix and Son is the absolute pinnacle of the non-Goscinny books – and honestly, better than a lot of the Goscinny ones.

      1. Oh wow interesting. can’t wait to read this now as I must admit as I put away Black Gold this morning I looked at ‘And Son’ looming down at me with a degree of dread, took it off the shelf and flicked through it and… it looked fun… so I’m really interested to see how I got on with it now.

  6. Not only is Dubbelosix a Sean Connery lookalike, but his boss M. Devius Surreptitius looks just like Bernard Blier, who frequently played spies and spymasters in French films (see for example “Les Barbouzes” [aka “The Great Spy Chase”, 1964] or “Le Grand Blond avec une Chaussure Noire” [“The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe”, 1972]).

  7. Also, There’s a reference about Jews not allowed to eat pork or, Kosher dietary law. Also, Muslims aren’t allowed to have pork too.

  8. When this book 1st came out in 1981, Roger Moore was playing James Bond and the 12th James Bond film For Your Eyes Only, the 5th film in the series to have Roger Moore as James Bond came out in theaters.

    1. As you can see in that comment I made there, I’m a James Bond nerd and fan of the series.

      1. Sean Connery whom Dubbelosix is a caricature of died on October 31st, 2020 at the ripe old age of 90 years old. RIP Sean Connery 1930-2020!