Whew, we made it past Uderzo’s polemic on feminism in “Asterix and the Secret Weapon.”
Now, we can move on to a book that really has no point at all.
Not that it doesn’t have its own peculiar charms, but it’s pure empty calories with some very strange turns. The art looks good, though.
“Asterix and Obelix All At Sea”
Artist: Albert Uderzo
Inker: Frédéric Mébarki
Colorist: Thierry Mébarki
Translator: Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge
Published by: Orion/Hachette
Number of Pages: 48
Original Publication: 1996
What’s It All About?
It’s a little complicated to explain, which is the book’s actual charm. Caesar’s personal ship has been stolen by revolting slaves. So Caesar sends another ship after it. The slaves, looking for a safe place to land, choose Asterix’s village. The Romans land their ship and recruit a local encampment, Aquarium, to help them get the ship back from those slaves.
Along the way, Obelix can’t stand not drinking magic potion one more time and finds a barrel of the stuff to chug, turning himself into a statue. At first, this seemed random and dumb. Then I realized that drinking too much potion made Obelix stoned. If that language choice works in France, as well, then maybe it’s a more clever physical manifestation that I initially gave it credit for.
A desperate effort to save Obelix brings him back — as a child. Of course. Because Uderzo was just making stuff up as he went along.
Then, helping the slaves with their boat nearly lands Asterix, Obelix, and Getafix in the hands of the Romans, sans any potion.
They also visit Atlantis along the way, which looks like a scene straight out of Fantasia.
There’s a part of me that wants to praise Uderzo’s plot construction here. I like the madcap chase at sea, where ships are chasing after each other with interchanging crews flying the wrong flags and going in opposite directions to where their adversaries would think. I like how that pays off in the end, with a final push towards a crazy over-the-top dramatic finale. Caesar’s ships crash and burn with reckless abandon. One is self-immolating, while the other is rammed at speed into a Roman camp.
Everyone ends up in the right place at the end, often because they started in the right places, made a wrong turn, but then followed paths that made sense. So that’s all good.
The problem is, not all of that is earned. It hinges on two things. First, Asterix has to lose a barrel full of magic potion. It wouldn’t be the first time that happened, so I can let it pass. Second, Obelix needs to magically be healed. That latter part is never set up. It occurs at a convenient time for reasons the writer could easily make up as he went along. This is a plot point that needed a rethink in the plotting stage. After that, they need to set something up earlier in the story so the ending is more satisfying and less “Magic Solves Everything and Don’t Ask for Proof.”
I might be too harsh here. This is a simple comedy. We shouldn’t let the plot get in the way of a good gag, but Goscinny had the ability, more often than not, to do both while also making a point. Uderzo is almost there on two out of the three points – plots, gags, points. Is it really fair to judge him by Goscinny’s standards? Nobody could live up to those! But a different writer could probably have helped punch things up a bit…
Land of Fantasy
In his later years on the title, Uderzo seemed to embrace the idea of “Asterix” as a children’s book. He made sure that the children of the village were seen with each book, for example. In this book, he turns Obelix into a child.
He also went for more imaginative fantasy bits. Forget that “Asterix” has a somewhat firm historical setting from the real world. In “Asterix and the Secret Weapon,” we have a dragon parading through the forest in the end for no real reason. Before that, we had a magic carpet ride and a fly that acted as a carrier pigeon.
Now, in this book, he takes Asterix and Obelix to Atlantis, where minotaur children fly small children on their back. Or are those pegasus children? I can never get this stuff straight…
There are also flying cows.
It just doesn’t fit into the series so well, I don’t think. It’s not historical enough. It’s just all made up fantasy land craziness. I suppose there’s a small bit of lip service given to the idea that Atlantis was near the Canary Islands. (In modern times, you can fly from France to the Canary Islands for less than $50.) But the part of “Asterix” that feels so clever is the way it blends historical or modern traits (anachronistically) into the world of Asterix. Atlantis doesn’t fit either bucket.
Maybe if this was a “Li’l Asterix” spin-off series, like “Li’l Spirou” or something, it would be ok. It just doesn’t feel right to me.
My head is going to explode when I get to “Asterix and the Falling Skies,” isn’t it?
At the head of the rebellious slaves is Spartakis. Yes, he looks just like Kirk Douglas from the movie 30 or 40 years before this book was drawn. In fact, Uderzo dedicates the book to Douglas.
I laughed myself silly when Animaniacs used Kirk Douglas as a stand-in for Michaelangelo, but a couple years later when Uderzo used him for one of his most famous movie roles, I cringed a little. If Uderzo had drawn him in as this character in a book during its original hey day of the late 1960s, it might have felt more timely and right. When he’s doing it in 1996, it feels old-fashioned. It feels like another example where Uderzo is still living in the past.
Perhaps I’m being unfair. If Uderzo had drawn some then-current movie start from 20 years ago into the book, I’d probably be complaining that the book was being too modern.
Don’t we have the same problem with Cacofonix? One of the trickiest parts of the series had to be which songs Cacofonix would sing. Were they always going to be traditional songs? Are Beatles songs ok? Should we stick to national anthem type songs? Are they purely made up? Goscinny (and maybe Bell/Hockridge) did all of those kinds.
Is “Asterix” a book set in 50 BC that should always feel like it was done in the 1960s?
Is that a bizarre set of circumstances?
This reminds me of the way Don Rosa draws Disney Duck stories. In his mind, they’re all set in the 1950s, during Carl Barks’ prime time of doing those stories. The technology used in the stories always mirrored that era. Is that how it should be with Asterix, too?
Odds and Ends
Cleopatra is back again for bookending cameos. Uderzo insists on sticking her into every book. I have to wonder if that’s because the original book was a bit of a breakout hit in the series, and Cleopatra figured into the first big Asterix animated movie. (The live action “Asterix: Mission Cleopatra” wouldn’t hit silver screens until 2002.)
It’s not unusual that a character design changes over the course of thirty years, but it seems an odd choice that he’s toning down her nose now. Since there aren’t any jokes about it in these later volumes, I guess he can get away with it.
The opening scene where Julius Caesar is frustrated and keeps referring to Admiral Crustacius as a “silly sausage” and a “Great Gormless Goof” is just bizarre. It feels completely out of character. What weird choices in language, too.
The Goth slave doesn’t speak in the same ornate lettering like he used to back in the day! That’s a shame.
And while we’re not getting anything too misogynistic in this book, there is the matter of this sequence.
My jaw dropped. Of course! Use the black guy for his natural rhythm! No, this isn’t awkward at all to read in modern times. Nope. Not at all. Hell, I think it would have been awkward in 1996, too. (Oh, and try to look past the part where the ship’s captain calls him “Boy”. Yikes.)
Best Name of the Book
We get a few interesting names to choose from here.
I’m going with the one I would bet was contributed by Anthea Bell, who sadly passed away this week. It’s the High Priest of Atlantis, Absolutlifabulos, who I choose to believe was named after the British sit-com that was huge in the 1990s.
That said, Gluttonus as the Chef’s name is pretty good, too!
No, I can’t. Like with the last couple of books, there are nice moments in it. I even like the ending, no matter how hackneyed the writing was to get us there. But the problems add up to being ten too many.
I do worry that I’m piling on a bit. Am I so disappointed with the most recent volumes that I’m just piling on and picking on them? I don’t think I am. When I open up an earlier volume and do a more direct comparison, I only realize more of what the series is missing in its latter days.
Special thanks to The Slings and Arrows Graphic Novel Guide, who reviewed this book from an edition that included the inker and colorist’s names. They liked the book far more than me, but they still give good reasons. Heck, I agree with most of what they wrote, but still disagree on the overall score. C’est la vie!
Coming up next: “Asterix and the Actress”
— 2018.088 —
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