(2013) Jean-Yves Ferri and Didier Conrad, Orion, £10.99, hrdbk, 48pp, ISBN 978-1-444-01167-8
This is the first new, graphic novel adventure of Asterix the Gaul without the original story writer René Goscinny and artist Albert Uderzo.
I am sure that many of the more older regulars of this site will be familiar with the comedic, comic-strip/graphic novel adventures of Asterix the Gaul. These began in 1961 but first came to Britain in English in 1969. Since then Goscinny and Uderzo have created nigh on a score of adventures of the indomitable Gauls.
For newcomers, the set up is this. It is 50BC. Gaul is entirely occupied by the Romans. Well, not entirely… One small, coastal village in northwest Gaul still holds out against the invaders. And life is not easy for the Roman legionaries who garrison four camps surrounding the villages. The Gauls' secret is that their village druid (Getafix) brews a secret magic potion that gives the Gauls superhuman strength. Two Gauls, Asterix and the large Obelix (who is permanently strong having fallen in the cauldron of potion when a baby) are entrusted with the Chief's special missions…
When one winter a Pict entombed in ice washes up on the shore near the village, a new adventure takes our two Gaulish protagonists to Scotland… Alas, say much more than this would lead us into spoiler territory. But what I suspect fans of the original Goscinny and Uderzo adventures will want to know is how does this story by the new team stack up against the originals? This is not withstanding that the new team has the blessing of Uderzo and Goscinny's widow as well as being produced by a company named after an amalgamation of the two creators' names – Les Editions Albert René.
It should be said that a couple of recent Asterix adventures were both written and drawn by Albert Uderzo following René Goscinny's death. These were welcomed by afficionados who thought that we might have seen the last of the indomitable Gauls. Having said that, the scripts were sadly lacking, especially Asterix and the Falling Sky (2005) with the addition of sci-fi elements; Asterix seemed to work best when the only fantastical element was the Getafix magic potion. In fact this was so poor that I could not bring myself to review it given my love of the original series.
So how does the new story, Asterix and the Picts stack up? Well let me say straight away that the artwork by Jean-Yves Ferri is very much in the tradition of the originals (except perhaps the very first story which buffs will recall had slightly cruder an art style). This artwork is fine, and visually the Uderzo heritage is in safe hands. This is perhaps not entirely surprising as I understand that Ferri has worked at the Uderzo studio.
The problem, sadly, comes with the storyline. Clearly Didier Conrad has read the previous adventures. But did he sit down and list all the characteristic elements of each individual story and then build up a characteristic map of what makes an Asterix story? I think not. The relationship between Asterix and his friend Obelix has depths more than Asterix being the alpha male and Obelix the dumb brawn: the two occasionally fall out but are quick to make up; Obelix has his own simple but perfectly logical view of the world (which is why 'these Romans are crazy'). Then there are the Romans themselves. The immediate adversaries are always led by someone seeking glory or riches or to preserve honour, and who is usually reliant on a subordinate who may have their own agenda or, if not that, their own view of the situation. Alas in Asterix and the Picts the Obelix-Asterix dynamic and that of the legionary leaders is not as in the René adventures though we do fortunately get a couple of brief Aterix-Obelix tensions but no odd Obelix logic. And then there are the fantastical elements other than the magic potion. And so we get a Pict in ice in suspended animation as well as (sorry about the spoiler but it comes early on in the story) the Loch Ness monster. The adventure would have been far better without these. There are a number of ways in which this could have been handled. For example, the Pict could have been betrayed to the Romans and travelling over land to Rome to avoid the heavy winter seas when they come by the village. This would also have negated the need to have the Pict recovering from suspended animation speaking in ridiculous tongues. This last was a complete McGuffin. (And in case you don't know, a McGuffin is a term coined by Alfred Hitchcock to describe a plot device that, though the story revolves around it, is not of intrinsic importance to the story itself.) Another McGuffin is the arrival in the village of a census-taker: this was a complete waste of time. And then there is food. Food is always an essential component of Asterix adventures and comparisons made of the cuisine of whatever country there are in and Gaulish boar. But how come, with Asterix in Scotland, there is no mention of haggis, neaps or shortbread?
Handing over franchises is a tricky affair. One can go for a complete re-boot, which is what happened with the recent Star Trek films and these are clearly in a parallel universe or time line, which explains the differences between the original and re-booted franchise. Or one has to keep things exactly the same. Trying to tweek franchises, with the new franchise owners putting on their own stamp, is almost always a disaster in the making. (I recall a Jonathan Frakes -- who directed the Thunderbirds (2004) film saying that he wanted to present his own interpretation. In which case, if he is not prepared to stick with the original franchise elements, one wonders why he should not go ahead and create his own franchise instead of mangling an existing, much-loved one?)
Finally, there is the script; though to be fair this could be the translation into English. There are places where one senses that something is missing. I am not sure whether or not this is due to the new scriptwriter, Jean-Yves Ferri, with whom I already have indicated I have issues, or whether this is down to the translator Anthea Bell? I do note that Anthea has translated all the other Asterix tales from French to English. This does mean that she must be getting on in years. Could it be that she has lost some sparkle?
So what to make of it all? Well, despite delight at seeing Asterix and Obelix continuing having adventures, I do miss the old ones. Newcomers should seek out the René Goscinny originals. Having said that, Albert Uderzo imagery is successfully conveyed by Didier Conrad and for that I am most grateful.
The big question is whether or not Jean-Yves Ferri can hone his script-writing? If, after a couple of more adventures, he cannot then I respectfully suggest that Les Editions Albert René might hold an open competition among French comic story writers for a new Asterix adventure and, if they are of sufficiently good quality, publish the best one(s). Meanwhile, I am pleased and positively delighted that the publisher Orion in Britain is keeping the Asterix stories alive, even if they are missing a trick not publicising the original backlist on the back cover.
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