Asterix and the Secret Weapon, volume 29 cover by Albert Uderzo

Asterix v29: “Asterix and the Secret Weapon”

Oh, my.  This one will be interesting.

Look, I don’t like talking about politics around here.  I avoid it like the plague, actually.

But this book — hoo, boy. Originally published in 1991, it reads wildly differently in 2018.

I kept rooting for it through the whole book, thinking maybe it would go in an interesting place.  1991 was not 1961.  Surely, Uderzo knew enough to stay away from certain stereotypes, right?

And then I laughed out loud at where it did go, because it seems so ludicrous these days. It was bad in 1991, but it’s over the top ridiculously wrong today.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present “Asterix vs. Feminism.”

 

Asterix and the Secret Weapon

Writer: Albert Uderzo
Artist: Albert Uderzo
Lettering: Bryony Newhouse
Translator: Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge
Published by: Orion/Hachette
Number of Pages: 48
Original Publication: 1991

 

The Smurfette Story

I’m sure you know the origin story of Smurfette. She was created by Gargamel and unleashed into Smurf Village. Gargamel figured having one girl in the village would destroy all the Smurfs.

“Asterix and the Secret Weapon” tells the story of what happens when Cacofonix is replaced by a woman who storms into the Village, assembles all the women, and unites them in a brutal fight against the patriarchy!

And once she topples the Village patriarchy, she throws a fashion show! Of course.

You might have forgotten it, but we saw in the very first book, “Asterix the Gaul,” that Cacofonix was not just the Village bard, but also a teacher for the children.  In “Asterix and the Secret Weapon”, some of the mothers have decided that he’s not very good at his job. They are replacing him with a woman from Lutetia (a/k/a Paris).  Cacofonix is aghast that he’s being replaced by a woman and storms out of the village.

As bad as that scene is, I do enjoy the wordplay:

The bard Cacofonix thinks women should be barred in Asterix and the Secret Weapon

Asterix without a hat!

 

Asterix and the Politics of the Early 1990s

I felt myself walking on eggshells for the first half of the book. I remember the politics in America of 1991-ish.  Those were the days when the National Organization of Woman was a voice on the scene.  A Supreme Court nominee fought against an accusation of sexual harassment.  The economy was good and so lots of political chatter centered on areas of social norms and not economic ones.  (There was a brief economic downturn late in 1991 that got overstated for political purposes in the 1992 presidential campaign, but things were fine.)

Everything is cyclical, politics and comics included.  That was American politics, though.  I have no idea if French politics were similar or not.

But, still, Albert Uderzo had been drawing Asterix for thirty years at this point.  He was working at a much slower pace, and some of the caricatures felt toned down. Even the single worst recurring example — the black pirate — seemed to be pushed off to a small corner for as little panel time as possible Was that Uderzo recognizing the problems with the character’s design, and shunting him out of the way for good?

When I started reading this book and realized it was going to be Uderzo’s statement on feminism, I cringed a little.  Maybe he’d tread lightly and not do anything that wouldn’t pass muster today.

Riiiiiiight.

Actually, it’s not so horrible for the first three-quarters of the book.  One might even charitably describe the book as empowering and a counter-balance to the first 28 books’ pure machismo.  People would complain about certain bits here and there, but it’s not over the top.

In particular, I liked this early exchange between Asterix and the Druid Getafix.

Druid Getafix says it's a new and modern world. Woman have an equal place in it.

Getafix sounds so modern and progressive, and then — that last panel happens.  Made me laugh. It’s a classic bit of humor.  And it also shows there’s a limit to just how far you could push these characters.

The blunt truth of the matter is, women weren’t equals in those days in the ways we’d expect today. To try to force that equality for the sake of a gag is anachronistic, but — well, this is “Asterix.”  Anachronistic humor is a part of the game.  Like the Twilight Zone, when you’re trying to draw a parallel to the modern world, sometimes you have to stretch credulity a bit. The audience has proven in the past it’s more than ready to do that.

 

Back to the Story

The new teacher, Bravura, comes in and immediately opens the eyes of the women in the Village to the kind of power they should have.  They’re mad and they’re not going to take not being equals anymore. 

The overall effect is a bit over the top.  The example of female empowerment in this book is less about equality and more about angry women taking over and trying to prove men are dolts.

This is “Asterix,” though. Over the top caricatures are the norm. You can’t pick and choose your examples.

Mrs. Geriatrix enjoys wearing the pants in her family. From "Asterix and the Secret Weapon" by Albert Uderzo

Bravura frees the women up to challenge their husbands, assert their equality, and wear leggings instead of dresses!  (Even moreso than politics and comics, fashion is cyclical, too.  The women had to borrow their husbands’ pants to make their own, though, leading to some awkward and ill-fitting fashion choices.)

If they drive all the men out of the Village in the process, then so be it!

It’s not until they drive Asterix out that a few eyebrows are raised that maybe this isn’t such a good idea.  Bravura assures them that she’d take care of it.

There is that old line about how different the world would be and how there’d be no war if only women were in charge.  I tend to be skeptical of that, but Uderzo is clearly calling to that here.  Bravura plans to march to the Roman camps and talk business with them.

Bravura thinks she can talk the Romans out of their silly war.....

It doesn’t go so well, and Asterix has to help come up with an alternate plan.  That’s where things take a sharp left turn into “Oh No He Didn’t.”

But, first, let me set up what’s going on in the book’s subplot, because the two are about to meet.

 

Caesar’s Secret — Women!

Caesar quietly plots to sneak in a secret weapon against the Gauls. Women!

The subplot of the book has Julius Caesar, at the end of his rope, pulling his “craziest” move.  It’s one so potentially upsetting that he’s doing it in secret so he isn’t the laughing stock of Rome and the Senate.

He’s raised a century of women soldiers to fight Asterix’s Village. After all, it’s a well-known fact that the gallant Gaul men would never strike a woman.  (They don’t determine in this book if Gauls are OK with hitting people wearing glasses.  Since glasses weren’t a thing yet, I guess that’s OK.)

It’s a great coincidence that as the new bard and school teacher in town is striking blows for feminism in the Village, Caesar is choosing female empowerment to defeat Asterix — not for their strength and training, but just for the loophole in the Gaulish warriors’ code of conduct that he wants to exploit.  Caesar was a great lawyer, it seems.

The problem is, the Roman women are not great warriors.  They’re petite things in women’s version of the men’s uniform — red capri leggings, a tunic cinched at the waist to give it a slightly dressy look, and, of course, full hair and makeup (with really long eyelashes) with some armor over their chest and shoulders.

Oh, it starts strong.  They burst onto the scene and quickly take over one of the local Roman fortifications.  The men seriously underestimated them and so they plow through and take over.  Of course, the men were also fat and lazy from sitting on their butts and refusing to ever engage the enemy.

But that opening attack is the kind of moment you’d center an entire “Wonder Woman” movie around:

Rome's all-woman century of warriors, from Asterix and the Secret Weapon

This proud warrior contingent doesn’t last long, though.

The grand plan at the end to defeat the new soldiers is– well, it made me laugh, but not in the good way.  It’s the kind of laugh you have when you try to think up the worst possible thing that could possibly happen and then laugh because it happened and you can’t believe he actually went there.

Oh, but he did.

Asterix devises the most brilliant plan you could imagine to defeat a group of trained women warriors. He needs to buy some time to pull it off, so he has Cacofonix sing to bring the rain.  (His new power from the last volume made it to this one!)

Women don’t like rain, you know. They’ll retreat in a hurry. Also, the rain brings out “snakes and spiders,” so you don’t want to be in the forest when those creepy crawlies come after you. (Remember, Roman warriors were trained to bring home the decapitated heads of their enemies. A spider is going to scare them?!?)

As a bonus, the Asian-looking woman in the group worries about seeing dragons in the forest.

 

OK, Sit Back, Here’s Where He Hit Trouble

The ultimate victory comes when the Village opens up its gates to let the women warriors in. Confronted by amazing shopping opportunities, the Roman women immediately toss aside their weapons to try on fancy dresses and perfumes before getting their hair done.

Women like to shop. That's what Albert Uderzo taught me.

“Lutetian Lingerie”

Shopping. Asterix beat a trained group of Roman warrior by opening up a shopping mall.

No, I’m not kidding.

And it worked!

I– I just had to laugh. It’s just that… bad.

One could be charitable, if one wishes, and say that this proves war and violence isn’t a necessity.  People can learn to get along, particularly if they share what they have in common instead of fighting over what sets them apart.  And only the women of Rome and the Village could pull that off.  I don’t see Caesar and Vitalstatistix sitting down and chatting about Greek history over a loaf of bread and a bottle of wine….

I could say that, but it feels awfully charitable.

 

The Nameless Women

The women of Asterix are often known only by their relation to their husbands. They don't even have names.

There’s a not-quite-subtle panel in the sequence that calls out to one of the complaints I’ve heard about Asterix before.  The woman have no names.  Impedimenta is the exception. The rest are just the wives of their husbands.  So you get this moment, which Uderzo doesn’t put a lantern on, but which does call out to that complaint.

I had to mention this here because, as someone who has written over 60,000 words this year talking about “Asterix,” the lack of names on these characters is something I’ve noticed.  Occupational hazard.

 

Where Did The Joke Explainers Go?

One of the things about the Uderzo Solo era of “Asterix” that rankles some people is the way he explains the jokes in footnotes.  It’s usually explainers for the Latin expression.

Sometimes, I understand why he would do them.  They’re relatively obscure phrases, or hard to translate ones.  Why let only the Latin-trained people who were trained in Catholic School thirty years ago be the only people to get the gags?

But, then, there were times he translated Roman numerals in the footnotes, and that just seemed to be a bridge too far.

Do we need footnotes to explain Roman numerals? Isn't the joke obvious enough?

In this book, it’s almost completely random. At first, I thought he had give up on doing it, but they they start appearing again in the middle of the book.

It’s just weird.

(Look at that panel one more time.  “Herpes”?  Oh, wait, Bravura is spoofing “Hermes” there, isn’t she?  “Herpes” seems like an unfortunate attempt at wordplay, though…)

 

The Art of, I Assume, Uderzo

I enjoyed the cartooning in this book.  It’s great stuff. The characters have great body language, facial expressions, and gestures.  They’re on model and have a consistent look and feel.  It feels, as I’ve said of many recent books, very animated.  I have nothing to complain about in the technical aspects of the art.  The Village characters have never looked better.

Whether it’s a new inker or the extra time Uderzo took to make the book or unnamed studio assistants, I don’t know.  I just know it all looks great.

It’s a bit lighter on backgrounds than the best of the series, but this is also a Village story.  There’s not much reason to draw all the detailed backgrounds here.  We’re not exploring a new space or showing off an expansive vista.  Uderzo keeps the action well-situated and uses silhouettes as backdrops to keep things grounded.  When the action needs to be focused on the characters acting something out, it’s OK to focus on them and not the same hut we’ve seen for the last six panels.

 

Best Name of the Book

Not much to work with here.  You can choose between Bravura or the Roman, Manlius ClaphamomnibusI had to use Wikipedia on the latter, so I guess I’m just going for Bravura. It’s a good word to fit her personality.

For as brash and bombastic as she comes in, by the end of the book, she’s kind of sympathetic and enjoyable.  Uderzo sets her up a bit to be a mirror of Asterix: strong, powerful, idyllic.  Though she takes things a bit too far, the goal she fights for is a noble one.  When the real world intervenes with her plans, she does pivot quickly to join a good plan when she hears it.  Asterix gives her that.  In the end, the two have a mutual respect and camaraderie.

The biggest punchline, though, is that she’s just as bad a singer as Cacofonix.  But whereas Cacofonix can be pushed around, everybody fears Bravura just enough to let her carry on…

 

Recommended?

Asterix and the Secret Weapon, volume 29 in the series

It’s one of those books that flies off the handle so badly and so memorably at the end that it’s almost worth reading just for that.

Also, the sexy Roman Legion is Halloween-appropriate for this time of year.

And maybe, just maybe, Uderzo is parodying feminism, itself, with this book, and that he pushed it as far as he did purposefully to be ridiculous.  This book is meant to be over-the-top, and who could seriously take Uderzo’s art seriously here? He did everything but put the Roman warriors in heels….

I kinda doubt all that, but I’ll leave open that 1% chance there’s a cultural difference I’m completely missing from across the ocean and 25+ years…

The reviews of this book on GoodReads are particularly vitriolic.

The frustrating thing is that there’s still a lot of classic and very funny “Asterix” material in these pages.  Obelix taking umbrage at being called fat and then calling Bravura for wearing horizontal stripes is funny.  Her sending him back to school to learn math is funny.  The end sequences of Asterix and Co. flattening all the Roman camps is great.  The little kids at the beginning of the book are adorable.  The in-fighting amongst the Villagers is on point.  The way the men of the Village cower in front of their wives is also adorable.  The cartooning, itself, is as good as it’s been in this era of the series.

But the main plot is a train wreck, unfortunately. This is a bottom three book, even though the art is so good in it and the high concept is a worthy idea…..

— 2018.086 —

 

Buy It Now

If you’re in Europe, you can buy it digitally:

Izneo Logo (updated 12/2017)

In North America, there’s always print and Amazon:

 

16 Comments

  • Augie October 13, 2018 at 10:05 pm

    It’s been three weeks since I did an Asterix review? Yikes. I have 5 more books to go before the end of the year, so a bi-weekly pace is do-able. Barely. I’m going to try to speed things up around here. I also have a few related Asterix Agenda articles to finish up and post that I’m hoping will be finished by the end of the year. And I’m still 14 reviews short of 100 for the year. Come for the reviews, stay for the melodrama of Augie trying to hit self-imposed deadlines…

    Thanks for sticking around!

    Reply
  • iamfear7 October 14, 2018 at 3:03 am

    Another book that was probably funnier as a teen than it would be now, and I don’t recall liking it that much to begin with, as it did come across as terribly dated in its sexism even in 91.

    I don’t think I’ve ever noticed that most of the village’s women don’t actually have names, not that most of them ever really do anything of note besides Bonemine, they’re just kind of there filling village space.
    Except that the fishmonger’s wife is called Iélosubmarine in French. I suppose referring to only her by name in that scene would have looked odd tho, hence the universal Mrs use? More likely that Uderzo just couldn’t be bothered to give them real names 20 years late.

    Reply
  • dancondonjones October 14, 2018 at 4:48 am

    Funny one this one. The first half has lots of jokes at the expense of the men being so sexist, and then the second half has loads of sexist jokes at the expense of the female soldiers.

    Reply
  • dancondonjones October 14, 2018 at 4:49 am

    Gah. I can’t get my comments to show…

    Reply
  • dancondonjones October 14, 2018 at 4:53 am

    Okay – I’ve put the words I think might be problematic backwards…

    Funny one this one. The first half has lots of jokes at the expense of the men being so tsixes, and then the second half has loads of tsixes jokes at the expense of the female soldiers. The msixes could have been problematic, but he pushes it so ridiculously far that it somehow comes out of the other side and is okay again. It is quite funny, and that salvages this one just enough to get it a 2.5/5 from me.

    The worst bit was having musical notes as actual physical objects, closely followed by the dragon. Uderzo appears to have no appreciation for suspension of disbelief.

    The best name for me is Claphamomnibus.

    Reply
    • Augie October 18, 2018 at 4:52 pm

      Uderzo couldn’t help himself. He had to force in a dragon there. He should have retired from Asterix and drawn a fantasy series. It feels like he would have enjoyed that. He keeps trying to add that kind of material to the book.

      Good point on who the jokes are coming at the expense of there . I hadn’t thought of it like that but it’s so true….

      Reply
  • JC Lebourdais October 14, 2018 at 5:22 am

    Hey look who’s back! It’s funny because just a few days ago I was wondering “it’s been a while, hasn’t it?”. Not that you can’t take things at the pace you want, but social media is such a fickle thing that we mere mortals are constantly looking for sources to feed our addiction to smart and pertinent commentary about funnybooks from thirty years ago, so you took a great risk that a young turk would come out of the woodwork and take your place. In the past you’ve always compensated the time between Asterix reviews with others about different series of different genres of books so we wouldn’t feel the empty void that much. Not so this time, just a couple of very topical posts that didn’t prompt deep introspection on my part, to be honest.
    As I was reading your review, it dawned on me that when he died, René Goscinny was and early-fifties eastern european jewish man very much in tune with the society around him; at the time of this book, though, Uderzo is pushing sixty, French man of Italian origin, now fairly isolated from other creative sources which could challenge his natural inclinations and it’s beginning to show.
    In the early nineties, the feminist movement in Europe begins to shift from niche activism to more media prominence, while at the same time, this being France, not wanting to give up the perks of being women, beauty, fashion and all that. It’s the era of Cindy & Claudia, the conscious supermodel (we’d say “woke” today probably) promoting career achievement while still looking glam and on brand. So it’s not surprising that Uderzo falls back into tired clichés which he figured, given his target audience, would hit the mark. In then-Society, lots of conflicting messages about feminism, so it’s no wonder he would retreat to familiar beats (today we’d say “clichés” or tropes”). Yet it doesn’t feel to me like he’s going overboard with the writing, no really low-level jokes, no talking animals, I’d say it’s a definite improvement over the previous couple of books, very much in line with the rest of the French output at the time. You’ve reviewed books by Dany before, that’s when he started drawing mostly “sexy” books and his income progressed tremendously, just to give you a point of comparison.
    Btw for those who don’t know, Clapham Junction is one of the main train hubs around London, I used to live in that area for a few years, so I immediately recognized the main B&H contribution to this book which, it seems, is mostly an Uderzo product through and through.

    Reply
  • JC Lebourdais October 14, 2018 at 5:26 am

    Same thing, I can’t seem to get mine to show either. Some outlandish trigger words?

    Reply
    • dancondonjones October 14, 2018 at 5:46 am

      They seem to block anything which contains any word which could be used in a NSFW context – even if that word is clean on other contexts – and they block it even if it is part of another word. In my case it was tsixes and msixes. I had to type them backwards to get them through.

      Reply
      • Colin Taylor October 14, 2018 at 6:56 am

        Yep might try the Dan backwards methodology and see if that works. Thanks for the warning as I saved my comment on Drive just in case…

        Reply
  • Colin Taylor October 14, 2018 at 7:01 am

    Oh wow! I mean really wow.

    I’d never read this one. I thought I had all the books, but when looking for the volumes to pull out my nerd room (at the back of our garage) I discovered I didn’t have ‘Secret Weapon’ – I caught up the rest but missed this one somehow. So I diligently went to eBay and picked up a copy.

    I almost wish I hadn’t.

    Its bloomin’ awful. I mean really bad. knew things got bad and I figured ‘Falling Sky’ was going to be at the bottom of the slope. But having read this I’m going to have to re-evaluate I think.

    See I don’t believe this would even have read well back in 1991. I think society had moved past the ideas discussed here by then I’m sure? I do see Dan’s point, that Augie suggests, that it’s so ridiculous that it almost moves past outrage and into parody of the tisxes ideas. The way, as Dan says, the men are ridiculed for being so weak could make that reading work… just not for me alas. I mean in the end a crack legion of female troops is defeated by the chance to shop… ouch.

    It read like someone from a different generation not realising the world had moved on and not quite keeping pace. The ideas that feminism is about domination and not equity is baffling and while completely different beasts one that will soon after this make Dave Sim’s Cerebus also fall from grace in a big way.

    It’s frustrating as potentially this could work. Examining real world issues, but using the lens of the villagers make for some of the very best Asterix stories. Stories that play with the weakness within the village, making them turn on themselves are some of the very finest. Here alas the mark is missed by a mile and it exposes the differences between Uderzo and Goscinny as writers. Goscinny always seemed to hit the nail on the head while maintaining a deft balance. I’m aghast that no one seemed to have discussed the problems with the tale with Uderzo. I take Augie’s point that that during the first two thirds the commentary could been given a more charitable view. Yes the entire series plays with anachronisms and maybe we don’t get to choose which we like or don’t like, but damnit for me it’s just insidious and nasty. During the first two thirds it’s just chipping away, labelling feminism, or even just (removed a specific here…) equality, as a divisive, even destructive concept.

    But set aside the specifics for a second and how I might or might not feel about that. The fact that the social commentry is so hamfisted and awkward means the worst sin of a storyteller is committed regularly. I kept getting pulled out the story with so many ‘ What the!?!?’ moments.

    To illustrate this further it’s not just the way the central theme is handled. The roman numeral stuff Augie has covered. The choice of songs when trying to contrast the modern stylings of Bravura and Cocofonix is… odd… Suddenly Cocofonix is beating up Fulliautomatix … though I did think this was actually really funny, so maybe I’m letting my overall feeling about the book affect my feeling about specifics?

    Anyway the worse case of this is when Asterix just clouts Unhygenix for no discernable reason. It’s just so out of character. Sure Asterix is venting frustration, but this is just unpleasant, a random act of violence so utterly out of character and I ended up searching around the story to that point, seeing if there was a reason for this I’d missed. Weird.

    So yeah something positive… the art still absolutely rocks.

    Not my favourite, can you tell, and I give the a 1 out of 10 on my Asterix scale as I just don’t like it as a comic, let alone an Asterix comic. Maybe the craft when it hits the mark on occasion means I’m allowing my feeling to blinker me a little there… but comics are for enjoying and I didn’t enjoy this much at all.

    Best name, right at the end is a wonderful throw away ‘Ziegfeldfollix’ the ‘Great Lutetian Impresario’ – I like that and not just cos it signaled the end of the book!

    Oh yeah and that Dragon was just strange!

    Reply
    • Colin Taylor October 14, 2018 at 7:02 am

      Bloomin’ heck that took some work to get that past filters!

      Reply
    • Augie October 18, 2018 at 4:49 pm

      I’m sorry I led you to this comic. It’s a level of shame I can’t easily excuse myself for. This is bad. 😉

      It’s almost to the point where I think the one actually culturally relevant point in the book — that the women have no names other than their husband’s — isn’t really a joke. I don’t even know for certain if it’s something Uderzo was trying to point out in that panel, or if Bell just sneak it it on top. 😉

      I loved the art in this book, up until I cracked open one of the single digit volumes and saw just how far the art has come and gone. This book does look like an animated series attempt at Asterix, as opposed to the more detailed art i the earlier books. I still like it a lot, but it’s definitely in a different category.

      “Ziegfeldfollix” was a close runner-up, but I completely forgot about it until after I published the review. Whoops.

      Reply
  • Augie October 14, 2018 at 8:12 am

    At this point, I’m ready to turn off all filtering on all comments — if I can just find where that option is. Sorry you guys went through all the troubles this morning on this. If it makes you feel any better — they weren’t lost, just in the moderation queue.

    Reply
  • Colin Taylor October 18, 2018 at 1:06 pm

    Just heard that Anthea Bell has passed away. We lost Carlos Ezquerra earlier this month and now this. Not a great time for some of the great talents of comics. While I know Anthea Bell did so much more than just the Asterix books I think I like many others will always remember her for the genius she and Hockridge brought to these stories.

    Reply
  • Chinoiserie November 7, 2018 at 6:26 pm

    I guess this would have seen as both good for women and funny in the 70s and Underzo was… somewhat…behind the times… I hope that eventually the new writers for the series could include more reappearing women, expecially in the village. You can use women for comedy and have them occasionally take the magic potion without the social norms turned upside down.

    And the Romans back then were so chauvinistic in some ways that news of Caesar introducing female soldiers would not just have caused laughter but gotten him stabbed instantly since some would have seen it as a sigh of societal collapse for sure. So he is right to keep such secrecy lol.

    Reply

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