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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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…”)
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
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.
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:
If you’re in Europe, you can read it digitally on Izneo:
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…