Asterix and the Chariot Race cover detail by Didier Conrad
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Asterix v37: “Asterix and the Chariot Race” [Redux]


I hate to say it, but it’s not as good as I originally thought. In fact, it’s disappointing.

That’s what happens when you read three dozen other Asterix books before reading this one. It’s exactly what I was afraid would happen when I came into this “Redux” series of reviews: I found the book I thought less of…

Chariot of Credits

Asterix v3 "Asterix and the Chariot Race" through Italy by Jean Yves Ferri and Didier Conrad

Writers: Jean-Yves Ferri
Artist: Didier Conrad
Colorist:Thierry Mebarki
Letterer: Arvind Shah
Translator: Adriana Hunter
Published by: Hachette/Orion
Number of Pages: 48
Original Publication: 2017


A Tour of Italy

For all the times Asterix visited Italy or Caesar, he never spent time outside of Rome. That threw me when I started this book. It felt weird to be doing another tour of Italy, but then I realized Asterix hadn’t done that before. Crazy, eh?

Jean-Yves Ferri has an Italian politician stage a chariot race along the entire length of Italy to prove that his roads are in fine shape and the best of Europe. Complaints of the potholes are lies, he says. Italy is superior to everyone else, dagnabit!

The Roman Senator denies allegations of poor roads.

The scene at the beginning where the politician is goaded into creating this race is very funny. I like the writing from Ferri but especially the acting from Conrad in it. The look on the politician’s face when he realizes what he’s done is hilarious.

That’s something I appreciated throughout this book: just how much Conrad animates these characters. Follow their gestures and their facial expressions and you’ll see how he’s careful to emphasize every moment in the book with just the right physical presence of these characters. They act, even in those so-called “quieter” moments.

And after some juggling and moving plot pieces into place, Ferri gets Asterix and Obelix into the right place to want to take part in the race.

There’s the first problem: Their interest in participating in the race comes coincidentally just as Obelix decides he wants to learn to ride a chariot. If the announcement of the race caused Obelix to want to learn the chariot, then the plot would feel much more pro-active instead of reactive.

Not a good start.

The british charioteers are good for a laugh.  They have funny names too, like Madmax and Ecotax.

From there, it’s a multitude of nations racing their chariots in stages, much like the Tour De France. It’s a bit of an episodic tale, with mini-adventures in each stage of the race. We get some in-jokes at the Italians’ expense, some historic humor, and Luciano Pavarotti. We meet lots of people from lots of nations, all of whom are destined to fall by the wayside. Cannon fodder is always easy to spot.

It doesn’t come together enough for me.

The main plot of the book, if you can call it that, is following how the Italians are trying to rig the race in their own favor. It’s blatantly obvious something is going on when every other nation’s chariot has malfunctions in every leg of the race, but nobody suspects anything. They just assume the masked Italian racer, Coronavirus, has the home field advantage, I guess. Willful ignorance is a strange hobby.

Coronavirus is introduced to the chariot races...

Obelix, at one point, is a witness to the conspiracy. He doesn’t realize what’s going on and never reports it. That’s a dead end plot point. There’s no follow-up to it. It’s not like Obelix later feels guilty for missing it and so plows ahead in full fighting mode. There’s no cause and effect here. It’s all cause.

I suppose that’s the thing that bothers me about the book now: It’s pointless. Granted, this is Asterix and often the plot comes secondary to the hilarity, but the best books mix the two well.

Yes, we get some nice gags here and a lot of funny names, plus the return of many nations to the pages of Asterix, but the plot that is supposed to hold all that together is paper thin. Very little is done to counter the effects of the conspiracy against anyone. The Gauls’ entry into the race, itself, is done from convenience, instead of forward action. And the “villain” of the story only gets away with it because everyone else acts stupid enough to not realize he’s doing anything.

In the end — spoilers! — the race is lost by the Italians from something of their own doing, and not any action Asterix or anyone from any of the other nations does.

I suppose there’s sweet irony in that, but as a reader it feels too easy. Yes, Ferri plays this plot point honestly. It’s set up at the beginning of the book and pays off at a most convenient time. That’s working on his side. But the end result isn’t as satisfying as it might have otherwise been.

Let’s Talk More About That Ending and The Mask

The biggest letdown with this book is the ending, which also helps explain the most curious part of the first half of the book: Why is the Italian charioteer in a mask, anyway? What possible reason is there for that? Why bother?

So I need to spoil all of that to discuss it. If you haven’t read the book yet, skip ahead to the next section now.

The whole point of masking the charioteer for Italy is because it provides cover for Julius Caesar to come in at the end to attempt to win the race. The final reveal that it’s Caesar under the mask this time instead of some hapless Italian associate is a big twist.

But I had to read through the first three quarters of the book wondering why the rider had a mask in the first place. Was it some kind of commentary on superheroes? Or wrestling? Anything?!?

When the mask is stripped off and the identity of the charioteer is discovered the first time, we just don’t care. The character was never set up in any way. He’s just an Italian man with conflicted feelings about his participation in the race. That part makes him interesting, but if you set up a needlessly masked character, there needs to be a reason for that mask. Usually, it’s a revelation of who’s underneath.

The first time he’s revealed, there’s still no good reason.

There’s a good reason the second time, and it’s one which honestly surprised me the first time I read it. Still, it feels like an awful lot of work to go through to get there. There’s misdirection and then there’s just jerking the reader around.

I remember when they announced this book to the press a couple of years ago, they had someone dressed up as Coronavirus as the event. (You can see the picture in my write-up of that press conference.) Were they trying to create a superhero type of atmosphere with this book? Was this an attempt to create a new villain in the mold of a Darth Vader or a Doctor Doom or, as I pointed out at the time, Doctor Bong?

Maybe this is something that got lot in translation?

I looked up “ancient Rome masks” on Google, and found that full head masks were used in the theater as a means of amplifying the voice and providing a visual cue for the people sitting in the back. But those were not made of heavy metal material like Coronavirus’ appears to be. So this isn’t an historical reference.

It feels like a misfire to me.

Best Name of the Book

I don’t think there’s a single volume of “Asterix” that packs itself with as many funny names as this one. I gave up listing them all about halfway through reading this book.

I think I have to go with the chariot dealer named Turbocatalitix.

I give runner up credit to names like Tiramisus, Bioethix (the dentist), Dolcevita, and Outinthastix.

And let’s not forget Tekaloadov, Zerogluten, and Betakeroten.

So many good names…

Introducing Adriana Hunter

This is a good debut for the new translator, Adriana Hunter. In my original review of the book a year and a half ago, I mentioned that she had taken over for the retired Anthea Bell, who gratefully was still with us.

Sadly, Bell died last year. She translated an awful lot of stuff in her lifetime, including some things she took a weekend to learn the language for. But she’ll be best remembered for her work on Asterix, no doubt.

Hunter has ridiculously big shoes to fill on here, but her debut is an auspicious one. I can’t give you a line-for-line review of the rabbits she pulled out of her hat to make the original French version of the book read so well in English. It’s enough for me that it doesn’t feel translated. It reads naturally, and is very funny from all its angles, including the Dad-joke-level names and puns.

I’m sure lots of people read this book without ever realizing that the change happened.

I hope Hunter returns for “Asterix and the Chieftain’s Daughter.”

Is It Better than “Asterix and the Picts”?

This is a hard question for me to answer. “Picts” gets a little bit of grace for being the debut of Ferri and Conrad. Even reading it at the time, you could sense they were feeling their way around the world still. They tested some waters to see what the right combination of things was. They wanted to include a Village plot and an “Asterix and Obelix travel to another country” plot.

They also included a Loch Ness Monster type of cute creature, and the green villain guy who I worried at first was meant to something supernatural. It also had a census taker in the village who served no purpose besides one bad piece of misdirection.

This book has a different set of problems, but most of them come straight from the main plot. It’s more a series of gags loosely punctuated by an unexciting plot than anything else. I can’t complain too much about the characterizations of the characters or the art. Those are great.

I guess this one might be more disappointing if only because it’s their third book together. By now, I’d expect some of those rough edges to be sanded down. Plus, the second book, “Asterix and the Missing Scroll,” was so good that I thought they had figured things out.

If someone who had never read Asterix before asked me to choose between the two books, I’d choose between whether they’d be more interested in the romance at the center of “Picts” or the national travelogue at the center of “Chariot.”

Or, if they are artist-centric, I’d send them straight to “Chariot.” Conrad draws his tail off with this book. There are so many scenes of horses pulling chariots in crowded panels…. Those would have broken many an American artist.

Recommended?

Asterix v3 "Asterix and the Chariot Race" through Italy by Jean Yves Ferri and Didier Conrad

It’s not a great book, but it has its moments. It has all of the decorations without the Christmas tree underneath, so to speak. It’s the first book from the new creative team that I thought lesser of, having read the entire series now.

I’d recommend “Asterix and the Missing Scroll” over this one, but this still has enough raw material in it to be entertaining and worth your time.

The good news is, we’ll see Ferri and Conrad taking another swing at the Gauls in the fall…

Buy It Now

Digitally, the book is available in Europe in English through Izneo:

Izneo.com Logo

But you can still buy the physical books through Amazon:

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

12 Comments

  1. It’s been a wee while since I read this, reading just after the review for Missing Scroll came out but just looking through it it all comes flooding back. My overriding feelings about this comics are it feels so much like Asterix and the Banquet. Not just in the aspect that there’s a race, lots of chariots and roads, rather in the structure of the story. A quickly constructed raison d’etre for everything to happen and then a lot A LOT of ground to cover both in story and out.

    So many characters, ideas, locations that nothing has time to gem. So much is stacked on top of so much its all rushed and clumsy. None of the various races of racers have time to breathe. Doctor Bong, as Augie correctly names him, just feels forced and ackward, locations and challenges are pushed in and then pushed out over 3 or 4 pages. Its all just a bit of a mess.

    BUT I do wonder if I’d read this as a kid, back when I read Banquet whether I’d have loved it. I means there’s so many cool pictures… cool when I was between 5 and 10 years old. Mass chariot crashes, Obelix lobbing a boulder into a volcano, lovely crowd scenes with so many characters so beautifully realised and of course my favourite as a boy (…. well yes and now if I’m honest) great big fight scenes with LOADS of Romans being WHACKED in a glorious variety of ways!

    So maybe this comic is an absolute trimuph and I must need to remember that, much like Star Wars films, these things are designed to appeal to child not the grumpy sagging middle aged men (well I generalise via the sterotype) those kids become. Its dawned on me that I shouldn’t be reviewing these comics anymore – bit bloody late now I since I’m whittering about the last available one! I should be giving these to my kids and getting them to tell me what to say.

    That is of course NOT to say that kids books (films, all kids entertainment) can’t and shouldn’t, be enjoyed by adults too, that even with a different audience if its crafted well we can’t also revel in that craft, but its just healthy to be reminded of its intended audience once in a while.

    As an adult the bits I think work best are some lovely Roman political machinations and schnanegans from Senate to Casear. All done very well.

    So to finish off my scoring I want to score it more than Picts and on a par with Banquet – which thankfully Banquets generous 6 / 10 allows me to do. So there we have our score.

    As Augie says the names are another of this comics trimuphs – which speaks very well of the new translator from the very little I know. So its a choice that will change everytime I’m asked. I mean any that Augie mentions could get it OR Madmax the Briton, just ‘cos it so suits the story BUT for today I’ll go with the dubious racial sterotype (in rendering) of Nefersaynefer the Egyptian Princess as it works so hard!

  2. Yes I’m not sure where you copy-pasted these credits from but they need to be corrected.
    I doubt Ferri would know who Doctor Bong is since Howard the Duck was never published in French but the comparison is apt.
    I read somewhere that the masked driver is a combination of references to Diocles and Alain Prost, but there is no point in looking for deeper meaning for this character, he and the (thin) plot are just an excuse to align scores of italian jokes and clichés.

    1. Yeah, that mistake was slightly embarrassing. Thankfully, it happened on a weekend and nobody noticed. Well, not a lot of people noticed. You all are better than “nobodies.” 😉

      I probably am asking too much with the masked character, but sometimes the more “obscure” references just throw everything off. Other times, I don’t even know they’re there and they’re just a pleasant surprise when someone points them out. I guess I just drew the short stick on this one. Ah, well….

  3. The biggest grief I had with the book was Asterix’ sudden outburst of violence, randomly beating up the hitherto friendly competition, which felt totally out of a character.
    And as you noted there are a lot of name gags. Even too many in my opinion. Scroll and Chariot just fell as a vehicle for (not-that-well-done) name gags (at least for the German edition).

  4. The masked racer is a trope that occurs in racing adventures like Speed Racer and Michel Vaillant. The first reveal is that the man behind the mask is a caricature of racing champion Alain Prost. This doesn’t particularly work if you’re not familiar with the man. Racing enthusiasts, however, might find it good for a hearty laugh.

    1. In France especially, but also in mainland Europe, everyone knows who Alain Prost is, even those like me who couldn’t care less about sports. He’s a celebrity still today, years after his last competition, appeared in famous commercials, just an overall celebrity, just like a singer or a movie star. So that was never a problem.

    2. @Thomas – It just seems like a long way to go for a race car joke. But yeah, I’m not the audience for that one, so it makes sense that it would fly over my head…

  5. Sorry, I’m very late to the party here but I just reread your review and it reminded me of something. Adriana Hunter generally does a great job with the translation but makes a few mistakes. One can be seen in the frame you’ve quoted showing Madmax and Ecotax. From their names ending in -ax and their slightly archaic English it’s clear that they’re supposed to be British, but they are described instead as Breton.

    1. Ah, I see what you mean. When I first read it, I read “Breton” as a different form of “Great Britain.” But, yeah, looking it up now I see that it refers to Brittany, instead. So maybe she’s only as familiar with some of these things as I am. I’m still picking up words, so thanks for introducing me to a new one. =)