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
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.
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.
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“….
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
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:
One Last Thing
This one cracked me up.