There’s a new Asterix comic in bookstores. A couple of decades ago, that would have led to people sprinting to their nearest bookshop and trying to get a copy, and then fight off the advances of their friends who would try to borrow it (been there, resisted that). Today, the reaction to this news is basically quizzical from the younger folk, although those born in the sixties and seventies, there still is an inclination to head out to the local book monger or if they happen to be more tech-savvy, log in to Amazon. But by and large, the launch of a new Asterix comic, or an album, as the publishers choose to call it, no longer provokes the sort of bookworm stampede that it once did.
The Asterix phenomenon
That is because, for many people, these days graphic novels are synonymous with either the Marvel or the DC Universe, and are basically about superheroes. Or if you are more serious, then about political and ethical issues — the sort that Guy de Lisle and Joe Sacco churn out (magnificent though they are). As a result, many do not even know that there are comics (yes, that is what they were called before the “graphic novel” terminology became popular) beyond superhero land. Comics that actually deliver simple stories and humour that can be enjoyed by adults and children alike. Comics that dominated the seventies and eighties before Hollywood and the graphic novel revolution decided to take matters to another level.
And one of the ambassadors of this brand of comics was Asterix, a French comic strip from Rene Goscinny and Albert Uderzo. The series was based around the adventures of the Gaulish warrior, Asterix, and how he and his friends kept the invading Romans at bay, in the age of Julius Caesar. The plots were not intense but the illustrations were colourful and wonderfully detailed, and there was a rich cast of characters, some of which were actually taken from history (Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, Brutus, among others).
And well, there were the puns.
Rarely has any comic strip come as studded with puns and wordplay as the Asterix series. And this is most evident in the names of the characters. The hero is a short warrior called Asterix (“asterisk”, geddit?), his best friend is a large man called Obelix (as in obelisk), the chief of the village is called Vitalstatistix, the ironsmith called Fullyautomatix, a roman spy is called Doubleosix (remember double o seven, Mr Bond?) and a Roman architect is called Squareonthehypotenuse (Pythagoras would have been delighted).
Even the dialogue was laced with wordplay, sometimes based on famous quotes — imagine Caesar saying “Et tu, Brute” to Brutus while asking for ideas and then asking him to put away his dagger before he does himself an injury, or the Gladiators saying “we who are about to die, salute you” to Caesar in the Colosseum and then going right ahead and playing riddles in the arena! It was tailor-made for an era where books could still provide stiff competition to other sources of entertainment – mainly the television and radio! At the height of its popularity (the seventies and eighties), many – my father included – insisted that Asterix bordered on classical literature, because it involved so much skilful wordplay (a compliment to the series English translators) and gave a glimpse, albeit comic-laden, of European history. The series has inspired “14 films, 15 board games, 40 video games, and 1 theme park” as per Wikipedia. And also spawned a number of kids (now adults) who swore “By Belenos” and “By Toutatis” (both Gaulish gods).
It was too good to last. And after the death of its writer, Rene Goscinny, in 1979, the series ebbed and flowed, as Albert Uderzo took on the task of both writing and drawing. The albums that came out after Asterix in Belgium (1979) were notable for their graphic quality but the puns and the plots seemed a little forced. The frequency of the books also suffered — with just 10 titles released between 1980 and 2012 (compare that with 24 in the 19 years before that). From being a near-annual event, Asterix became something that surfaced once in a while. Indeed, the series seemed to be in danger of fading out altogether, with duds like Asterix and the Actress (2001) and Asterix and the Falling Sky (2005), where the humour seemed almost juvenile.
And then in 2013, a new team took over Asterix, Jean-Yves Ferri and Didier Conrad. And Asterix came back. Sort of.
The new Asterix!
The new team revived interest in the comics, bringing back some (if not all) of the trademark wordplay that made the series legendary, and also weaving it in with plots that seemed more concrete than the paper-thin ones of the recent past). And most importantly, it made the comics more frequent. The team started off with Asterix and the Picts in 2013, followed it up with Asterix and the Magic Scroll in 2015 and Asterix and the Chariot Race in 2017. And now it has come out with Asterix and the Chieftain’s Daughter.
The comic revolves around the discovery of the daughter of the Gaulish chieftain Vercingetorix who Caesar defeated at Alesia. Now, the rebels against the Roman rule are trying to use her as a focal point of the resistance. And they bring her to our hero Asterix’s village for safekeeping even while they collect their armies. There is a catch, though — the young lady is not really interested in leading a revolution and actually wants to escape to an island and live in peace. Of course, the Romans around the Gaulish village are out to capture the girl, as is a Gaulish traitor who wants to hand her over to Caesar for a massive reward.
There is teen angst and rebellion, Roman scheming, and good old Gaulish squabbling — scope for confusion and action aplenty, and well, we do get a fair bit of both, although most of the action happens around the Gaulish village (there are no extravagant travels by Asterix and Obelix). What we also get are a lot of puns — Vercingetorix’s daughter is called Adrenalin, the Gaulish traitor trying to capture her is called Binjwatchflix (he must watch a lot of films) and his horse is called Nosferatus (Nosferatu means vampire and also is the name of a horror film) , one of the children of a Roman captain has a strong sense of music and is called Ludwikamadeus and we are introduced to the next generation of Gauls, one of whom is called Selfipix and is the ironsmith Fulliautomatix’s son. There are the usual staple incidents like war veteran Geriatrix’s boasts about his youth, the inevitable appearance of the pirates (and their ship getting sunk) and oh yes, there is a fight in the village over fish (an old Asterix tradition).
Basically, there is a lot of the staple Asterix magic here, and some have even said that Adrenalin might be inspired by Greta Thunberg, although this has been officially denied. The storyline is a little slow and not as compelling as the Chariot Race and the puns do not fly as briskly as in the Magic Scroll. Diehard Asterix fans also might feel that Adrenalin gets too much space (and frankly spends too much time being a brat, while not being at all entertaining, unlike Justforkix, another angsty teenager in Asterix and the Normans). The Asterix-Obelix duo is also relatively less visible, and the final denouement itself is a little, well, flat. No, I am not telling you what happens.
Still, you do not get the feeling that frames and dialogue have been placed there just to fill up space, as often happened in the Uderzo-only era. The drawings are top-notch, incidentally, although we do wish the printing of the dialogue had been a little darker – we often found ourselves straining to read text (the shiny glossy paper on which the comic is printed does not help). It is in essence, a decent read. One which might not make you smile as often as the classics did – I really think Obelix and Co and Asterix in Belgium set the benchmark there – but will nevertheless, make you grin and even go back for a re-read or two. That’s no mean feat in this day and age, when people insist on grim reality.
All of which make Asterix and the Chieftain’s Daughter pretty much a must-have for hardcore and even less committed Asterix fans. Those who have not read Asterix would perhaps be better off with one of the older classics (maybe Asterix and the Roman Agent or Asterix and Cleopatra) but even they would find enough to smile at in this latest instalment of the short Gaulish warrior’s adventures (although he does not venture too far from the village, to be honest).
It is fantasy, it is fantastic. And thanks to a new team, it is fun again. Oh, and it has an initial print run of about five million (yes!) copies. That’s more than most best-selling authors command.
Asterix is back, by Toutatis.