Albert Uderzo and Didier Conrad work together on Asterix and the Picts cover a
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Asterix v35: “Asterix and the Picts” [Redux]

Prelude to a Review

I originally reviewed this book at CBR back in 2014, and reprinted that review on this site in late 2017. Having read all 34 of Uderzo’s Asterix books in the year since, though, I thought it would be interesting to see how differently I see this book now.

I’m not going to read my previous review until after I’ve written this one. Let’s get started, and then we’ll circle back at the end when all is said and done.

The Tease

Asterix and Obelix help a lost Scottish man return to his homeland to reunite with his one true love and keep his people from being ruled by a mad man. Also, the Romans send someone into the Village to take a census, and he’s not at all part of any plot against them. No, seriously, he isn’t. He’s just kinda…. there.

A New Generation of Credits

Writers: Jean-Yves Ferri
Artist: Didier Conrad
Colorist: Thierry Mebarki, Murielle Leroi, Raphael Delerue
Letterer: Bryony Clark
Translator: Anthea Bell
Published by: Hachette/Orion
Number of Pages: 48
Original Publication: 2013


Can It Live Up to 50 Years of History?

“Asterix and the Picts” is not a great Asterix book, but it is a good one. In fact, it’s probably better than anything Uderzo did on his own.

It feels like Ferri and Conrad are still finding their balance here, though. Figuring out how many wordplay gags to deliver versus plot-specific scenes versus local references is an art that even Goscinny took a couple books to work out.

Conrad’s art, while slightly different from Uderzo’s, is right on the money from the start. He takes Uderzo’s style and runs with it. There’s something about it that feels a little more cartoony and perhaps a little less smooth in the inks, but you can’t look at this book and be disappointed that it doesn’t “look like Asterix.”

It does feel more like later-era Uderzo Asterix. If you were hoping for a return to form from the early teens, you’re going to be disappointed. Conrad would need a different inker to pull that off, I think. At this point, continuity is more important. As Conrad does more books, perhaps we’ll see his art shift in some way, as well.

The Asterix Traditions

There are a lot of the classic Asterix elements in this book. While there’s nobody saying “Alea Jacta Est”, pointing out that “These Romans are crazy!”, or throwing fish at each other in The Village, there are other traditions staying the course:

Obelix doesn’t like the word “fat” being used around him.

You really shouldn't say the word "fat" around Obelix

Asterix and Obelix get into a half-page long verbal brawl, which is interrupted and quickly forgotten.

The Scottish speak with a new font at certain points to make it sounds like a modified version of their accent.

Macaroon speaks funny after this defrosting

The bard is still being tortured by Fulliautomatix.

Nearly everybody in Scotland has a “Mac” name.

Obelix rushes in to play without considering the consequence of, say, tossing a caber a great distance.

There’s a Latin phrase being quoted. (Literally, it’s in quotes, but at least there’s no footnote explaining it.)

We come very close to a jail break scenario, which we haven’t seen in a long time. It was one of the first running gags I noticed, but then it disappeared. It’s been so long that I’m missing that trope now. Instead, Obelix and Asterix have to break someone out of the prison.

Obelix turns red when a pretty girl gives him attention.

The big fight at the end against the Romans is told with a half page panel from an overhead perspective, with arrows to show who’s doing what.

The album ends with the traditional banquet scene.

Asterix and the Picts puns off of pictograms, because of course it does

And, of course, the general structure of the story remains similar to all the other books over the years in which Asterix and Obelix visit another country and poke fun at their culture and traditions. Since we’re dealing with Scotland here, we get references to golf, the Loch Ness monster, the “Mac” names, tartans, Scotch, etc.

A Brief History of This Book

It took awhile for Uderzo to finally retire, but he did in 2010. While earlier in his life he vowed the series would end with him — and he nearly did end it after Goscinny’s tragic death — he eventually relented and agreed to bringing on a new creative team.

Uderzo named Jean-Yves Ferri the new scenariste/writer. You may remember that name as the co-writer of Manu Larcenet’s “Back to Basics.”

For the art half of the book, Uderzo had an ace up his sleeve. He chose an artist from his own studios, one who had no doubt helped him in previous books and done some licensed work along the way. That artist had the style down pat. He was a perfect choice to take over Uderzo’s role on the series and maintain the style.

Except — that artist succumbed to the pressure. Taking over a beloved French institution after 50 years came with a certain level of expectations and public scrutiny. He didn’t want to deal with that, so he left the book early in the process.

The Art of Didier Conrad

For a new artist, Uderzo cast Didier Conrad, a French comic book artist who had been spending recent years in California working in animation for Dreamworks. Conrad was a perfect replacement: He had an animated style that Disney fan Uderzo always strove for. He could change his style to fit Uderzo’s. He had a long career in the BD world already, working on a whole lot of material that hasn’t been translated yet.

On the other hand, much of that earlier material pushed the boundaries of “family” entertainment in Spirou Magazine, something for which he was quite controversial, and eventually got him fired. When he returned to “Spirou” in the 1990s, he finally gave in and produced a family friendly series there, but continued with the more mature stories at the same time.

Read his Wikipedia page. It’s quite a storied career.

Bonus trivia: Conrad was born a few months before Asterix debuted in “Pilote” in 1959.

Conrad picked up the Asterix baton and ran with it, continuing the storytelling and artistic style consistency from Uderzo. It’s not that you can’t tell the two artists apart, but that Conrad does a better Uderzo than Uderzo has done for years. Conrad returns these characters to their very animated, bouncy, cutely proportioned selves. It’s what Uderzo wanted, and it works for the book.

Conrad swoops in here and gets to the core of Uderzo’s style. He makes enough subtle tweaks to keep it his own, but at first glance, a child might not even notice the artistic shift. To me, the heads look proportionately a little big bigger. That’s the big giveaway. And the ink line is different from Uderzo’s mostly smoothly, long and brushier lines. Conrad’s art looks slightly more mechanical, which I don’t mind. Ink-wise, it feels more like a Terry Austin job than a Mark Farmer job, is what I’m trying to say here.

If you want to complain that Uderzo’s chosen successor is a clone, you can. I can’t argue with you. The styles are purposefully close. We’re not getting Bonhomme drawing Lucky Luke or Lauffray drawing Valerian here. Conrad sticks with the style that Uderzo established.

Now, Uderzo’s art style evolved over the years. There’s no better example of this than the graphic I put together recently for that Ten Year Challenge thing everyone was doing:

That’s the most dramatic of the changes. Things are subtler after that, mostly owing to changes in time allowed to complete the book and the inking style done on top of Uderzo’s work. Also, Conrad’s hands look closer in style to Franquin’s than Uderzo’s, which is an interesting happenstance.

The Census Taker

Limitednumbus is sent by Rome to take a census in the Village.  From "Asterix and the Picts" by Ferri and Conrad

I’m trying to figure out what the point of the Census Taker, Limitednumbus, was in this book. He shows up to count the Villagers, they are not thrilled to have him there, he nearly goes stark raving mad trying to count the anti-Roman population, and the Villagers enjoy picking on him.

There’s a long enough history of Asterix volumes where the Romans try to sneak inside, or where the Villagers are wary of anyone coming in for fear that it might be a dirty Roman. Heck, it’s the plot of the very first book, “Asterix the Gaul,” where Caesar sends in a Roman undercover to find out what he can about their secret weapon, i.e. the Magic Potion.

Is his inclusion here to help pad out the page count to a final 48 pages? Was he part of a longer plot that got cut to fit the story into the allotted pages? Is he there as a full circle sort of thing, so the new “first volume” by a creative team can have more echoes to the original?

I don’t know, but it’s definitely a question I’d ask Ferri if I ever had the chance to interview him. (I’d find a tactful way to do it, of course.)

The Near-Supernatural Asterix

In latter books, when Uderzo had control, he began to add in some more fantastical elements. We had pegasi and helpful dolphins and magic carpets. While the series started with Magic Potion, that’s about as far as that kind of thing went. The Druids, being incredibly wise and judicious people with arcane knowledge, were the be-all and end-all of the fantastic, and they were used sparingly.

Maccabaeus Rex, the villain of Asterix and the Picts, surrounded by two of his warriors

I was a bit worried when I flipped through this book the first time. The villain of the book, MacCabaeus, has green skin, bright red hair, and some very sharp features: the long chin and the pointy nose, most obviously. I was worried he was a demon of some sort.

Good news: He isn’t. He’s just a bad, bad man who’s the leader of one Scottish faction. That being said, we still get the all-too-cute Loch Ness Monster. The Monster is more than just a one panel gag. She is a part of the overall plot of the book, being a consummate hoarder of stuff.

In one of the most blatantly plot-driven moments of the book, the monster steals Asterix’s gourd of elixir that was supposed to be used to help MacAroon get over his speech issues. That leads to more stuff later, like when Nessie returns the gourd after it’s too late, Asterix throws it back into the water instead of bringing it back, and Ferri tries to tie that into modern Loch Ness Monster theories. It felt like a big reach.

That leads me to another problem with the book —

What Is MacAroon’s Deal?

When he’s unfrozen in the earliest part of the book, he can’t talk. OK, I can deal with that. He’s in recovery. Getafix’s elixir helps him get his voice back, though at first it’s in some kind of heavily accented Scottish brogue nobody can understand. That gives us a series of funny references, like quotes from Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky“, a Christmas carol and, of course, “Loch Lomond.” (“Ye’ll take the high road, and I’ll take the low road…”)

Macaroon quotes from Loch Lomond and he'll take the high road, thanks

When he loses the elixir, he can still speak normally. Most of the time. When he’s stressed later, he falls back into speaking in tongues. And when the plot is resolved and he’s happy, it all goes away, I guess.

It feels like the rules for his speech issue were never laid out. It comes and goes as it pleases the author and is convenient for the plot, not for the internal rules of the world.

Best Name of the Book

I like MacAroon: a French baked good that’s also a Scotsman’s name? Works for me. The rest don’t feel all that clever to me, though I do like Limitednumbus. They’re solid Asterix-style names, but none made me laugh out loud or marvel at the world play.

I don’t think that’s Asterix Fatigue, though. If there’s one that stuck out to you, please leave it in the comments. Maybe I’m missing one, or forgot how many one delighted me on the first read through….

Cover by Uderzo and Conrad

Asterix and the Picts by Jean-Yves Ferri and Didier Conrad

Uderzo contributed the pencils for the cover. I don’t like that cover very much. Asterix looks too tall, and the composition just fall flat for me. (Obelix is too close to the Picts to provide a guiding line to them, the caber he’s tossing is half off the cover and hasn’t gone very far yet. It feels very busy.)

But, then, I don’t think Asterix’s covers have ever been their strongest point.

Recommended?

Yes, it’s worth a read to see the new era of Asterix beginning. While everything isn’t clicking into place yet, it is an entertaining story, and Conrad’s art is an improvement on Uderzo’s output in recent books.

It’s a fun Asterix book. That beats out 80% of the rest of comics right there.

— 2019.007 —

Buy It Now

Asterix is not available digitally in North America, so I recommend buying the print edition at Amazon, which I happen to have an affiliate link for:

Buy this book on Amazon

If you’re in Europe, you can read it digitally on Izneo:

Izneo.com Logo

Looking Back…

My opinion of the book hasn’t changed in the last year. I just had some clearer examples of how Conrad’s inking style is different from Uderzo’s in the original review, and expanded on a few portions in the new one.

Also, this review is much more in the same format as the rest of the Asterix Agenda, so I’m glad I did it.

When I introduced the reprint of the review, I also noted how this book reminded me of the first George Lucas-less “Star Wars” movie. The comparison still holds, but I wasn’t thinking of that at all as I wrote this one. I haven’t thought much about “Star Wars” in the time since that review, as a matter of fact…

What do YOU think? (First time commenters' posts may be held for moderation.)

15 Comments

  1. I can’t believe this book is more than 5 years old already.
    Obviously Ferri has seen Braveheart and Game of Thrones!
    You being the history buff, shouldn’t this book be called Asterix and the Caledonians?
    As you mentioned, Conrad had many hits dating back twenty years at least, most notably LES INNOMMABLES with Yann, which was geared towards more adult material. I doubt this will ever be translated in english, but if it it, you should definitely check it out, it’s really good?

    1. I own a French hardcover edition of Tigresse Blanche, collecting the first two books, from 2008. Bought it for Conrad’s cartoony art. It was slightly more adult than I expected going in. heh. But after looking at Pierre Alary’s art, I guess I just liked that style.

      I thought I had another book from the Innommables series, but I can’t find it here. It must be in a box somewhere else instead of on the bookshelf, like it deserves to be. =)

      1. I thought there were only two volumes, but I may be wrong.

        Correction : a quick search shows that the original arc was indeed three volumes, but then it changed publishers and continued up to vol.12! I have a lot of catching up to do! But Tigresse Blanche was actually part of a spin-off series that only had 6 books in it.
        Thank you wiki.
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Les_Innommables

  2. Too bad this engine doesn’t have an edit function like Disqus, finding my typos after I posted always makes me cringe.

  3. Can’t believe you’re giving Conrad a free pass on the art. While his Obelix is fine, he simply cannot draw Asterix! The main character has lost all of his nuance! I thought it would get better, but if anything the way he draws Asterix gets worse with each volume!

    Love the Asterix Agenda by the way, just wanted to add my 2 sesterii.

    1. I’ll pay closer attention for the next couple of books, but I don’t have a problem with it. Maybe it’s because of the way the character has evolved over the years and Conrad’s art feels like a natural pat of that. Or maybe I’m just missing it completely. Now I’m curious for myself… It’ll give me something to look for.

      Thanks for reading The Asterix Agenda, too! =)

  4. Very late to the party. Read this a good while ago in anticipation and kept meaning to go back to it to flick through when I saw the review was up but never got to it. Still the impression I go is pretty clear and we’ll go with some gut feeling on this.

    The comic was in an impossible position. Try to be too reverential to the classic material and it was never going to met the challenge and get slated. Try to push things in a different direction and it was never going to be accepted and get slated. For me it kid fails to do either, which is its biggest problem. Rather it seemed to try to be a continuation of the weaker late Uderzo solo stuff. Keeping some of the elements that made those books weaker but at least making it feel like it fitted in place. While it may have soften the extremes of the weakest Uderzo stuff, it was funnier, the story not quite as fantastical, it wasn’t brave enough artistically however and didn’t sharpen but the story enough to be considered a success.

    By going down the route of a travel book it threw in lots of its own things and creations but that wasn’t really being creative in Asterix terms. Adding new cultures made it feel a little safe. Its curious that the census storyline was such a side show. It was almost as if Ferri wanted to nodd his head to a village set Roman mischief book, but had neither space, nor idea to see it through. Which is a real shame for me as this was the way to go in my head… not that my head counts for owt here but bare with me.

    I’d have much rather had a closer village based story. Giving readers the familar by focusing more closely on the characters we know and love but allowing bolder eperiementation elsewhere. And by elsewhere I mean the art. I really like Conrad’s art as Augie suggests some might feel it does try to stick too closely to Uderzo and that’s me that is. Your not going to top Uderzo at his own game so why not go for something bolder and push the boat out artisitcally.

    Still to be fair to all concerned as I said at the top they had an almost impossible job and so maximum respect to them for taking on the challenge. The trouble is while its neither the best or the worst Asterix comic its a damned sight closer to the worst than the best alas. It therefore get a 3 out of 10 on my Asterix scale. A decnt comic but not Asterix good.

    For I’ll go MacAroon for pun name as I can’t remember which one I was going to go for and I love macroons so ya know.

    Now hopefully we’ll get to the next one as that makes for a far more interesting read.

  5. There is always the question of whether or not they should go for a new look or style here. I don’t think it would fly, but I think it would be fun as isolated one-shots, much like Bonhomme’s Lucky Luke book or Lauffray’s Valerian book. We’ll get the all-star tribute book in September, which will likely be as close as we’re going to get on that.

    I also wonder how long Ferri and Conrad will last on Asterix. I’m sure the money and exposure is great, but these books are gruelling jobs and such a high profile brings about all sorts of negative reactions, I’m sure. Even with an every other year schedule, I wonder. And, of course, who could replace them? Boy, this feels like another article to add to The Asterix Agenda sometime….

    The “Missing Scroll” review redux is coming along… It might not be until Monday, but I’m almost there. As it turns out, my initial review of the book a little over a year ago now stands up for the most part. I just have a few additional things to point out in light of reading all the other books. Stay tuned!

    1. I always thought that, if anyone were to continue Asterix, it should be Mourier (of “Trolls of Troy” fame). His style is clearly influenced by Uderzo, but it’s also an evolution and doesn’t suffer in the comparison. (If you haven’t read “Trolls of Troy”, there’s even a “a few of the Gauls” style page at the front!) He has done some Asterix work too (he did the cover for the Uderzo tribute book where several artists paid homage to Uderzo and Asterix. The artists use various styles, it’s like the one shot idea you mentioned.)

      Alas, I don’t really enjoy the new books. Sorry to be so anti-Conrad, and I know that following Uderzo is a thankless task, but the art was so special, and so luscious, and so nuanced before that I just can’t enjoy the new ones.

      I tend to go up to “Asterix and the Magic Carpet”, “Asterix and the Secret Weapon” at a push, (and only those last two because I was still a kid when I read them and loved them at the time) and I never go back to anything after that. Thoroughly enjoying these articles about them, though!

  6. There’s a Scottish variant of Macaroon that are very popular in the country, these ones resemble bars rather than the French cake-type versions and are very sweet.

    This was also the first Asterix to receive a Scots English translation. Many of the characters names were changed (including the villagers bar Asterix and Obelix). I own this version but I haven’t read the standard English one so I don’t know if some of the Scots gags were in both. For example: a Scot running into battle yells “WEARRAPEEPUL” which is a reference to “We Are The People”, a chant commonly heard at Glasgow Rangers FC matches (there’s also a reference to Hibernian FC in a footnote).

    They’ve subsequently started releasing the original albums in Scots.

    1. It’s interesting how those translations roll out. I know there are a couple other cases where books were translated specifically for the location they were set in, and that’s what “broke” Asterix into that market. (I think maybe Catalan was one of them, but don’t quote me on that.)

      Thanks for the additional translation information — it’s always fun to hear how gags get added for local flavor we just wouldn’t get around here. And now I even know there’s a Scottish macaroon, too. Awesome!

  7. A Macaroon, according to Dr. Johnson in his famous dictionary of 1755, is a “coarse, rude, low fellow”. LOL, very naughty of the late Anthea Bell.

  8. The villain Maccabaeus is a caricature of French actor who lives in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, Vincent Cassel best known for starring in the 2010 film Black Swan with Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis, and starred as Monsieur Robin Hood in the 1st Shrek film from 2001.