Shock! Scandal! Outrage! Who is this baby on Asterix’s doorstep?
Why are the Romans sneaking around to get him back?
And when he falls into a vat of Magic Potion, will he be forever in a state much like Obelix’s?
All these questions and more will be answered by Albert Uderzo in the 27th volume of the “Asterix” series…
This review has it all: Asterix, Ancient Egyptian history lessons, and Star Trek! Read on:
Asterix and Son
Artist: Albert Uderzo
Translator: Anthea Bell, Derek Hockridge
Published by: Orion/Hachette
Number of Pages: 48
Original Publication: 1983
What’s Going On
Asterix and Obelix wake up one day to find a baby sitting at the front door. Who is he? Where did he come from? Who can they return him to? And why are the Romans so interested in the baby that they’re sending people into the Village to get him back out?
That’s what “Asterix and Son” is all about.
As with many of the books in this series, there is a feeling of a sit-com plot taken to an extreme. In this case, it’s the two bachelor dads doing some weekend babysitting, but with a particularly unruly baby. They call for help, but they’re mostly stuck on their own. Then, it turns out the baby is in danger and they have to protect him. It turns into “Three Men and a Baby” pretty quickly.
Uderzo uses that as the structure of the plot, but turns it into something that feels distinctly like an “Asterix” story. It carries all the usual settings and characters moments of the series, twisting a trope into something that reveals something new about the surrounding characters.
Spoiler warning: I’m going to spoil a couple major events at the end of this book in this review. I usually hold that kind of stuff back, but there’s some Ancient Roman history to uncover, and a major event I had to talk about, so… At this point, I figure you’re all reading the books along with these reviews, anyway…
This book feels the most “adult” of the series so far. It’s still tame and all done on the sly, but Uderzo uses the sudden appearance of a baby to prompt jokes about unmarried parents, the moral outrage surrounding such a thing, and even the birds and the bees, in general.
The gossip in the Village — led by Impedimenta — arches their collective eyebrow to question whether or not the baby is really Asterix’s. There’s a wonderful sense of moral outrage on the faces of the Villagers in that moment that Uderzo sells strongly. It feels like a throwaway gag, but it hits super hard. You instantly feel bad for Asterix for being so badly misunderstood. Nobody called his moral question into character before, and now this?
Asterix and Obelix are sleeping in the same house at one point in this book, which is a total Joey and Chandler “Friends” moment waiting to happen, but Uderzo leaves those jokes up to the reader.
Later on, the cross-dressing Roman pretending to be a babysitter is accused of being the true baby mama, with Asterix as the father. Uderzo ramps up the silliness as the book goes on, as he should.
The book also begins with a discussion of the storks that deliver babies. Obelix doesn’t quite get how it really works, which leads to a tremendously funny moment at the end of the book to button that gag up. Asterix’s explanation of the birds and the bees is quite literal and funny.
I also like the description of this book from the Alea Jacta Est website:
Highlights the responsibilities attendant on sowing one’s wild oats in the days before family-planning allowed for preventative measures.
It feels to me like Uderzo is working hard to create a story here, and one where the plot comes ahead of the jokes. You can see the plot machinations on the page, and the jokes kind of weave in around and amongst them. Goscinny found ways to seamlessly blend that all together, while also making a point and increasing joke density. Uderzo struggles with that here.
He maintains the secret of the baby for as long as he can in some of the most teasing writerly ways. Scenes cut out just before we get an explanation, for example. Uderzo only returns to them after the conversation ends. The baby acts up and keeps the Villagers’ minds off what should be the focal point of the story: where did he come from?!?
The answer turns out to be intensely satisfying both historically and within the continuity of the series. That’s a neat trick.
It’s obvious early on from the first clues that the baby is Roman. Very quickly we discover Julius Caesar’s nephew/adopted son, Brutus, marching into town for a “census” that’s likely covering up something baby-related. There you have an early example of a B plot that quickly merges in with the A plot.
Here, it merges in quite quickly, but on television shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation (or even Seinfeld), you’d usually find some wild way the two threads come together in the third act. It’s almost meant to be surprising that the two relate. Uderzo doesn’t hold onto that card in his hand very long. He plays it quickly.
He also adds in some complications to make the battle between the Villagers and the Romans last longer than they would otherwise. The baby falls into a vat of the magic potion, and suddenly there’s a concern that he’s the second coming of Obelix. But that also gives him the ability to defend himself against the Romans and anyone else who might want to do him harm. That carries the plot along.
The one part that lands with a thud is the second time Asterix is foolhardy enough to trust a stranger who just happens to stop by the village to watch over the baby. “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on the writer for dragging this out.”
It’s good that Uderzo remembered to tell a story and not just line up a series of gags. That always makes the gags land better, but I think some of the plot machinations are a little weak, and many of the jokes just aren’t as clever as we’re used to.
The Only (Adopted) Son of Caesar?
Who, historically, is Brutus? And is he really Caesar’s son?
First of all, don’t confuse this Brutus with the “Et tu, Brute?” Brutus. They are two different people, though they both played key roles in Caesar’s assassination.
The other Brutus was Decimus Junius Brutus. There’s a story that he’s the bastard child of Julius Caesar, though it seems unlikely to me. Julius would only have been 15 when he was born. But, hell, Nero was emperor at the age of 16. They moved fast back in the day, so who am I to judge?
No, the Brutus in this book is Marcus Junius Brutus the Younger, who was a real distant cousin of Julius’. Some even suggest that people are confusing the two Brutuses and that this one might really be his son.
Family trees in ancient Rome were gnarly beasts.
Ancient Roman history is the world’s biggest soap opera, and people expect every aspect of it to live up to a Friday episode of “Days of Our Lives.”
They got along famously until Caesar’s thirst of power went too far. In the Civil War of 49 BC (whence Caesar crossed the Rubicon), Brutus joined Pompey against his adopted Dad. After Caesar proved victorious, he spared Brutus and granted him amnesty.
Brutus repaid him by joining a conspiracy and assassinating Julius Caesar a few years later.
Those actions caused him to leave Italy all together, until he and his legions attacked the combined powers of Mark Antony and Augustus Caesar. Brutus, quickly losing the battle, ran into his own sword to kill himself.
What About the Baby?
Some dispute it still, but it seems to be true that Caesar and Cleopatra created a baby in a non-stork manner. They named him Caesarion.
He’s also known as “Ptolemy XV Philopator Philometor Caesar,” but I don’t want type that any more than you want to read it repeatedly.
Cleopatra wanted big things for the boy, so she made him co-leader of Egypt at the age of 3 to help groom him. She is also believed to have had her younger brother killed to clear the line to the throne.
11 days after Cleopatra’s death, at the Ancient Egyptian ripe old age of 17, he was killed at the order of Augustus Caesar.
They played for keeps back then…
OK, enough of the history lesson. Back to the laughs!
Language is Hard
Uderzo tries valiantly to stuff in puns with this volume, but most just aren’t that clever or funny. More than just the reader getting used to such wordplay, Uderzo’s choices here are either too obvious or too simple. There are no double meanings and no rapid fire delivery to sell it. It just feels like there’s a fair amount of sleepwalking going on in this department. It’s there because Goscinny always chose it.
Now, I don’t know how much of that is Uderzo’s fault and how much of it is a failure of translation. Did Bell and Hockridge have a tough go of it in their translations with this book? Did they just not have much good material to work with? How much credit/blame should we give to them over Uderzo? We talked about this a bit in the comments section of “Asterix and the Black Gold.”
The other odd thing I noticed in this book is how many word balloons felt very British to me. Yes, this is a French book translated by a couple of Brits and published by a British publisher. I can’t recall reading this many lines in one book that felt constructed in a foreign way. Asterix speaking with a British accent is a little weird. It’s not a problem with the book or anything that I would take points off on my review for, but I did notice it. Couldn’t help it.
A Cinematic Ending?
You know how every “Star Trek” movie feels the need to be big enough, so they make sure to blow up the Enterprise every time? It crash lands on planets. It gets blown up in space. It has to be destroyed so that the movie has “real stakes” and major things happen.
This book ends with the Romans burning down Asterix’s village.
It almost seems obvious. Why didn’t they hurl some flaming arrows at those thatched roofs 20 books ago? It would have saved a lot of time and money (and a whole economy, see “Obelix and Co.“) to do so.
But, here’s the thing. The Romans destroy the village, but not Julius Caesar. It’s Brutus who orders the conflagration. Julius Caesar, on the other hand, offers to rebuild the Village that, up to the previous book, he only wanted to command and conquer. Then, he invites the Gauls on board Cleopatra’s ship for a grand banquet.
It would almost be a solid ending for the series as a whole. The Gauls and Caesar are now friends, breaking bread and sharing smiles, politics in the rear view mirror. The Village will be rebuilt to return to normalcy and to provide one last major peace offering from Caesar.
Nah, they’ll be back to their battling ways in time for the next book…
No Pleasing All the Fans
That said, some people complained that the banquet wasn’t in its traditional location. And then there’s this quote from Uderzo from the book, “The Complete Guide to Asterix”:
I came in for a lot of criticism over that. The readers insist on the traditions being maintained. It’s very difficult, because when I start a new adventure I have to create something fresh as well as keeping all the leit-motifs. If I leave out the pirates, or the fish fights, or any other traditional ingredient, people complain. It’s not easy. But it’s a job.”
Sounds like Uderzo was writing a Marvel/DC book, when he puts it like that.
And I know I’m a “critic” so I’m not the “average reader,” but I’m fine with skipping some of those tropes. Uderzo should try new things, and not be held back just for the sake of repeating the same gag the two dozenth time to maintain tradition.
It’s too late now to worry about that, though. This book is thirty years old, and Uderzo retired a decade back.
When I’m done with these Uderzo books, I’ll be re-reading the Ferri/Conrad books with a new set of eyes…
Best Name in This Book
As far as funny names goes, this book doesn’t provide a bounty of choices.
Come to think of it, I can’t remember there even being any past Chrismus Cactus.
Oh, wait, there’s Bucolix, which works well as a name, too. His look matches his name. He should probably be the winner, but the odd spelling of “Chrismus” appeals to me for some reason, so I’m giving it to him.
Not as much as the previous book, but it’s still good, with lots of charm. Things feel like they’re slowing down now and some of Uderzo’s shortcomings are starting to show up. But the book is still funny with lots of great moments. The wordplay is a little weak in this volume, and there’s a tonal shift that’s interesting but that might not interest everybody.
As someone who’s fallen in love with Ancient Rome over the course of reviewing all these books, I like the historical tie-in. That might color my opinion a bit favorably towards the book.
I can live with that.
— 2018.080 —
Buy It Now
You can buy the print editions from Amazon here:
It’s also available digitally in Europe:
One Last Thing
Uderzo really loves animal humor. He’s been adding more of it in with recent volumes. I wonder if this was a new interest of his in the late 70s/early 80s, or if it’s something that he wanted to do, but wasn’t something Goscinny thought fit into the world. Who knows?
I like it, but I think it works best in very limited doses, and most often as background gags or brief asides. When it becomes the focus of a page or a sequence, it feels a little forced. Uderzo is walking a thin line here for me, but that’s just personal preference.
P.S. Scheduling Note
If you’ve made it this far, I salute you!
You might have noticed these reviews coming a little later than usual lately. It has nothing to do with a disinterest in the source material or burn out or anything like that. No, it’s just been a busy time at home and work. My overall writing for the site has slowed down a bit in the last few weeks. C’est la vie…
Until more time frees up, I’m going to run with an “every other week” schedule for the Asterix reviews. There are seven books remaining at this point. That gives me just enough time to finish the series off by the end of the year, even if the schedule never speeds back up.
I will delete this entire section in a week. Cue the Mission: Impossible music….