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

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

It wasn’t easy to stay clear of the Roman Empire. At apogee, it extended all the way across Europe and the Mediterranean basin, into Africa and Asia.

But one little unnamed village in the middle of the land called Gaul (now France) never succumbed to Roman might, though surrounded by Roman territory and under constant siege. It remained fiercely independent of the empire, its citizens fortified by a secret magic potion that imbued them with a superhuman strength envied and feared by the highest echelons of Roman administration—and even by the great Julius Caesar himself.

Meet the brainchild of French comic book duo René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo; and meet their hero, Asterix, a tiny man with a big nose. With easy access to that wonderful magic potion, Asterix is the de factor champion defender of his turf and gets one up over the Romans at every turn.

Never read an Asterix comic book? Never even heard of Asterix?

You wouldn’t be the only one. Many people on our side of the Atlantic don’t know Asterix or his paunchy BFF Obelix, who fell into a cauldron of the magic potion when he was a baby, or Obelix’s microscopic pooch, Dogmatix. The adventures of these off-beat characters have brought fun since the early 1960s to readers in Europe and elsewhere in the world.

Now fans excitedly wait for the release of Asterix and the Picts, the latest work inspired by Goscinny and Uderzo. (The famously fierce Picts, a Celtic tribe, lived in today’s Scotland.)

Laurence Grove, Reader in French at the University of Glasgow and president of the International Bande Dessinée Society (an organization dedicated to the scholarly side of French comic books), believes the newest comic has everything it takes to satisfy hardcore Asterix fans. “It was sold out in Glasgow city bookstores,” he says. That’s telling, since this is the first new Asterix adventure in a while, and a brand new writer-illustrator team has done it.

Following the death of the original wordsmith Goscinny in 1977, illustrator Uderzo put out a few solo volumes. But I’ll confess here—and I’ve read every single publication several times—that I didn’t really enjoy the Uderzo works. These included “Asterix and the Actress,” “Asterix and Son,” and “Asterix and the Secret Weapon.”

Somehow, they felt different from classic adventures like “Asterix and the Laurel Wreath,” “Asterix and the Roman Agent,” “Asterix in Switzerland,” and all the other volumes I grew up reading in Geneva, Switzerland. Uderzo illustrated his solo books in a glitzier manner, constructed them around thematic storylines, and sometimes clumsily tempted to force them to make larger, more overarching connections to society.

Somehow, they didn’t fly.

“Yes, Uderzo was trying to do something different, and it didn’t quite work,” Grove agrees.

Now the new team, writer Jean-Yves Ferri and illustrator Didier Conrad, seem right back on track. (A “deliberate return to the old style,” Grove says.)

That means the new team stirs up a fun-filled romp through Scotland, a journey rife with puns, double-entendres, Roman blunders, and the multiple references to politics and society that stand as a hallmark of Asterix adventures—all this as perfectly seasoned as a good haggis with kilts, tartans, whiskey, salmon, and an appearance by the Loch Ness Monster, bien sur.

Thinking of getting into Asterix? I urge you to start with the very first adventure, “Asterix the Gaul,” written in 1961. It tells how the Romans discovered the secret of the magic potion that gave the Gauls their incredible strength.

You’ll meet the whole gang. Asterix. Obelix. The wise druid, Getafix, inventor of the magic potion. The cranky village chieftain, Vitalstatistix, and his annoying wife, Impedimenta. The village bard, Cacofonix, whose voice, as his name suggests, produces more discord than harmony.

Or start with just about any of the comics published between 1961 and 1979 (or even “Asterix and the Picts,” when it becomes available here in the U.S. on Dec. 3). You’ll get a good taste of the humor that continues to entertain…and even educate…so many people, young and old, in Europe and beyond.

Be warned that fans like Grove and myself may have a slight edge over American readers. We grew up in Europe. We’re totally familiar with the international stereotypes parodied in Asterix adventures.

Take the Belgians, for example. For decades, les Belges served as the butt of most European jokes. In “Asterix and the Belgians,” the jokes fly thick and fast. But no one is safe in Asterixworld—fanatics for cleanliness, the Swiss always sweep up when Asterix visits their country. The Normans, or Vikings, seem pure brawn in “Asterix and the Normans.” They don’t know fear. And when our little man goes to Britain, he watches in amazement as the British army breaks ranks every single day for afternoon tea.

Even if you’re not keyed into national stereotypes, you find plenty to laugh about…not least the ingenious names of the core characters that figure in Anthea Bell’s amazing English translations. Meet Unhygenix the fishmonger (his name speaks for the freshness of his catch), and his wife Bacteria. Meet the octogenarian, Geriatrix, with a voluptuous young wife, Myopia, blind to his age. Meet Fulliautomatix, the village smith.

Whether Asterix lands in Spain, Switzerland, Egypt, or Great Britain, whether fighting Vikings, Normans, Goths, or gladiators, he always manages to come out victorious and make the Romans look ridiculous.

Goscinny and Uderzo hooked many Asterix adventures to actual headlines. When Asterix met Cleopatra in 1963, for example, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor smoldered on the silver screen in the iconic movie. In 1975’s “Asterix and the Great Crossing,” our man came to North America as the U.S. prepared for its bicentennial celebration.

Every Asterix fan has a personal favorite. Mine (and one of Grove’s, too) is 1971’s “The Mansions of the Gods.” Here Julius Caesar commands the brilliant architect Squareonthehypotenus, inventor of the drive-in amphitheater, to construct a high-end condominium complex just outside Asterix’s little village. The complex—located “less than three weeks from the center of Rome”—boasts all the amenities luxury living requires—a bath and sports hall, a private school for children, a shopping center. This last, in keeping with the times, features a self-service slave market.

Anyone lucky enough to own a flat in the Mansions of the Gods would be blessed. And if they don’t choose to partake of every amenity the complex has to offer? Well, as the brochure states, just have a few friends over for an orgy in the intimacy of the flat.

After all, we’re talking about Roman times, and when in Rome…

Savita Iyer-Ahrestani (www.savitaiyer.net) is a freelance writer based in State College, Penn. She is a contributor to Dr. Oz’s Youbeauty.com and Vogue’s Mumbai, India edition, among others. Savita is the co-author of “Brandstorm: Surviving and Thriving in the Consumer-Led Marketplace” (Palgrave-MacMillan 2012) and is currently at work on a novel.

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