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
Artist: Albert Uderzo
Lettering: Bryony Newhouse
Translator: Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge
Published by: Orion/Hachette
Number of Pages: 48
Original Publication: 1991
Original Title: “La Rose et le Glaive”
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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:
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.
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
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.
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 Claphamomnibus. I 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…
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 —
We’re up to volume 30 next, “Asterix and Obelix All At Sea.” Obelix overdoses. Caesar’s ship is captured.
And there’s a trip to Atlantis, too!
Yes, you heard me. sigh.