Cleopatra promises Caesar that Egyptians can still build amazing things. Cleopatra’s architect enlists some help from Gaul. Guess who?
Artist: Albert Uderzo
Colorist: Marcel Uderzo
Lettering: Bryony Newhouse
Translator: Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge
Published by: Orion
Number of Pages: 48
Original Publication: 1965
Original Title: “Astérix et Cléopâtre”
She has a beautiful nose. She’s a bit of a drama queen. Everything is super dramatic and over-the-top. She’s the Kardashian of the Asterix family.
She doesn’t ever say, “What, this old thing?” when someone compliments her dress, but that’s what you’d expect.
Did I mention her nose yet? It’s very pointy, and everyone from Caesar to Getafix is in awe of it.
International Rivalry Leads to International Construction
Caesar is insulting the Egyptians, claiming they’re not good at anything except being workers/slaves for the Roman Empire. Cleopatra rises to the bait, promising that her people can build an impressive structure in three months’ time. She enlists Edifis to design the thing, and threatens him with the crocodile pit if he fails.
Edifis is old friends with a Druid named Getafix, though, and calls on his friend to help. Asterix and Obelix go for the ride. With the help of their Magic Potion, putting this impressive new building together in such a short time space should be a relatively quick project.
Except — the Romans don’t want to see this happen, nor does Edifis’ heated rival, Artifis. He’ll stop at nothing to kill this project, including bribing the suppliers to dump their goods into the Nile, trapping the Gauls deep in the heart of a pyramid, and even poisoning Cleopatra.
It’s a non-stop race to the finish for “Asterix and Cleopatra.” There’s no time for a lull in the action. This book is jam packed. This is Asterix on overdrive. Rene Goscinny did his research for this book and cracks as many jokes as is humanly possible in one 42 page story. And, more impressively, he does it while constantly moving the plot forward.
You also get many returns to old favorite jokes in here. We’ll talk about the jail gag a little later, but you’re also getting a trip to a foreign nation to crack jokes at their expense. You get the pirates at sea. You get several variations on “These Romans are crazy!” You get Obelix complaining that Asterix is bossy. (See below, also.) Fulliautomatix beats on Cacofonix before he can sing. Roman soldiers get punched right out of their sandals.
Obelix also wants more Magic Potion. He tries to sneak it in several times during the book, and then almost doesn’t believe it when Getafix finally offers it to him. It’s a cute moment in the book, but I don’t get why it was necessary. Did he really need it to break down that door? There was not other need for it, and no fall out for Getafix giving Obelix those drops. It’s almost the only part of the book that felt like filler.
But, then, you also get Sphinx jokes (which seem tired by now, but in 1963 were probably new-ish), jokes about tourism in Egypt, puns on the Nile, Egyptians who speak only in hieroglyphics that are almost possible to decipher, Egyptian traffic visual gags, and so much more.
It’s a good mix that brings back old favorites without feeling like one big retread.
Something I don’t think I’ve mentioned before, but has shown up two or three times is Obelix’s jealousy of Asterix.
They’re best friends, but he’s annoyed that Asterix is always the hero of every story. Everyone assumes Asterix knows all the answers and will be the leader. Why doesn’t anyone ever give Obelix that chance? That comes up as a larger part of the story in “Asterix and the Chariot Race.”
Usually, Asterix is able to defuse it quickly, or something else happens to distract them and we all move on. But it still shows up at different times in the books. The level of severity wavers. Sometimes, it’s just an off-handed mention, while there are other times when it explodes in full bold lettering and shouting back and forth. In the end, Obelix always falls back in line.
Asterix is a better strategist. Obelix just want to punch his way out of every situation. It makes sense that Asterix should lead, but there are times when I feel badly for Obelix, who probably just isn’t feeling completely appreciated.
Asterix’s Get Out of Jail Free Card
In my review of “Asterix and the Banquet“, I griped that Asterix and Obelix being “trapped” in jail and getting out easily is becoming repetitive and, perhaps, less funny over time.
After this book, I think I may take that back. At this point, Goscinny is so committed to the gag that I’m beginning to appreciate the way he makes sure to include it in every book. Part of me wants to start a Tumblr for all the panels of Obelix breaking down the door of a jail.
While I groaned when I saw the trio back in a jail cell in Egypt, something snapped inside of me this week and I learned to just go along with the running gag and laugh at how easily they take the situation in stride.
At this point, I half expect the next book to feature Asterix in jail, rolling his eyes, shrugging his shoulder, facing the readers and breaking the fourth wall with some kind of comment like, “Oh, this old thing?” while throwing a thumb at the door.
One of the Gerard Depardieu-helmed live-action “Asterix” movies adapted “Asterix and Cleopatra” in 2002. I’ve not seen it, and there’s no English language edition of it (see “The Complete Asterix and Obelix Streaming Guide” for details), so I likely never will. I am, however, curious about it just because they cast Monica Bellucci as Cleopatra. The movie can’t be all bad, if only for that…
And, of course, the relationship of this book to the classic Elizabeth Tailor movie can’t be ignored. That “Cleopatra” movie came out in 1963. This book was serialized in 1963 in “Pilote”, with the first collected edition printed in 1965. (You can find the exact issues in “Asterix: The Pilote Publication Guide.”)
The cover shows two obvious influences. Check out the similarity in font between the two titles, and then the obvious homage in the character positioning. It’s not exact, but it’s close enough.
Whose Buddy Hackett Is It, Anyway?
Upper Left: Buddy Hackett, legendary Hollywood funny man.
Upper Right: Scuttle, a dinglehoffer-collecting character from “The Little Mermaid” that he voiced, and who looks a lot like him.
On the bottom left is Cleopatra’s food taster.
On the bottom right is Exlibris, the Egyptian scribe who works for Edifis.
Did Uderzo really use the same actor as inspiration for two characters in the same book? Or am I just reading too much into things here?
(Update: Fittingly, the character of Exlibris, the scribe, is actually being played by Rene Goscinny here. Thanks, JC, in the comments below. You are all reading the comments, right? We’ve got a full scale book club going on there.)
Best Names of “Asterix and Cleopatra”
No doubt the two winners are the Egyptian architects at the center of this book, the perfectly named Artifis and Edifis. I love both names even if I need to look them up whenever I’m writing about one or the other because I confuse their names so easily. The connection between their names and their jobs is too perfect.
A close second place goes to Rome’s own, Superfluous. His appearance is brief and he is quickly knocked out, but I love that name.
Very much so!
This book is a big step up from the previous one. There’s a solid plot happening here, with multiple twists and turns along the way. Ultimately, the good guys out-think the bad guys, with a dash of help from some Magic Potion power, of course. Even when overwhelmed, Asterix and Obelix find a way out. (Thanks, Dogmatix!)
The book is chock o block packed with gags, both verbal and visual. It’s like a Best Of book for all the previous jokes in the series, with a helpful scoop of brand new, Egypt-themed gags. It’s arguably the best book in the series so far. Now that most of the recurring gags are establishing, it feels like Goscinny and Uderzo are firing on all cylinders, at a breakneck speed. (As albums, this book and “Asterix and the Banquet” were released in the same year.)
— 2018.020 —
“Asterix and the Big Fight” is next, as we return to the village. The Druid has amnesia, they’re out of Magic Potion, and things go from bad to crazy.
Also, I have to ask the question, “Just how much of this book is written by its translators?” It’s time to raise that important question…