The year is 50 BC. Gaul is entirely occupied by the Romans. Well, not entirely … One small village of indomitable Gauls still holds out against the invaders. And life is not easy for the Roman legionaries who garrison the fortified camps of Totorum, Aquarium, Laudanum and Compendium…
So began countless hours of reading when I was a boy. At first, I’d just look at the pictures and laugh when Unhygienix flings a ‘fresh’ fish at Fulliautomatix or watch Vitalstatistix falling off his shield yet again. Later I would be fascinated at the weird Egyptian hieroglyphic writing and Gothic scripts or pirates swearing in fists, skulls and other symbols. I’d wonder what Dogmatix would do with another tree falling over or how many boars Obelix would eat (still have to try boar one day) or what he really did with all his menhirs. As I grew older, I’d smile at the puns and other little cultural and political gems hidden in the names and dialogue and laugh at Obelixs infatuation with Panacea and finally understand the other more ‘grown up’ concepts that I never noticed before. Mansion of the Gods, The Great Divide and Asterix in Switzerland became favourites that got so worn the pages had to be re-attached with cello-tape every few years. Asterix & Obelix were childhood companions that I have never grown out of.
I was too young to know when Goscinny died in 1977, but his partner and illustrator extraordinaire, Uderzo, kept Asterix alive and well supplied with magic potion for many more years. He did it so well alone that it’s almost impossible to tell when Goscinny stopped writing without checking the copyright page. Unfortunately the original creators cannot continue forever and last year Uderzo finally handed over the village of the indomitable Gauls to Jean-Yves Ferri and Didier Conrad. Alas, they have contrived to do something that even the mighty Caesar and his legionaries could not – virtually destroyed the characters of my youth. Asterix & The Picts is without doubt the worst in the wonderful tradition of Asterix & Obelix comics.
My wife and I both read it a few days ago after getting it on a whim from the local book store. Yes, we have kindles but we still browse real books… My daughter definitely got the better deal choosing “Fortunately, the Milk” by Neil Gaiman and I have a feeling even my sons dragon encyclopaedia was money better spent.
Why? Well, first, let me backtrack a little. Visually the artwork is very good and Conrad can be commended for maintaining the age old look of the characters and staying true to the original style Uderzo has cultivated. I have a feeling Uderzo maintained a hand in that aspect of the publication but even if he did not, the artwork is great. However, that’s about the only positive thing I have to say. To pinpoint an exact reason why I I think it’s a flop is a little difficult because its a combination of factors – some tangible and others more like irrational gut feelings… It’s like watching a movie and then being unable to decide if you actually liked it or not even though it had all your favourite actors.
If I had to chose the most telling thing for me then I would have to say that the dialogue is the worst it has ever been. In past editions, Anthea Bell & Dereke Hockridge did a great job translating the French originals into something us English folk can appreciate but this latest work (only by Bell) has lost all the charm I have become accustomed to. The awkward translations of older books is part of their appeal and the sometimes odd conversion of puns and phrases into less than perfect English were just how Asterix and the Gauls all spoke. This latest book seems sanitised and proofread by an English professor and the dialogue no longer has the flow and subtle ‘mistakes’ it used to enjoy. The phrases seem as if someone has stuck the proverbial hot potato in the Gauls mouths and everyone now speaks grammatically correct Kings English… Arggh…
Even the pirates sound like they have enjoyed a semester at Oxford and their swearing has been reduced to a small forgotten bubble afterthought. In fact, general cussing has been almost entirely removed as has the frequency of all the “By Jupiter” and “By Toutatis” – as if letting the Romans and Gauls invoke their Gods has become a no-no for kids to read.
Come to think of it, it’s as though someone has decided Asterix & Obelix has to be politically correct and any opinions that the authors may have had have been toned down or scrubbed out. Obelix is not quite as dimwitted as he has been before – he talks a lot in this one. There is only one comment about his weight. Asterix seems far too ‘proper’. No-one slaps anyone in the face with a stinky fish and you have to look hard for Cacafonix to get his shut-up or Vitalstatistixs to fall off his shield. There aren’t even any battles in the village or epic Roman catastrophes with Obelix stacking helmets. No Biff, Blonk and Pfaps, only a few Clacks, Bonk, Plaf, Bom and a Tchak! Did they think Asterix & Obelix was too violent? Only the census man gets nailed with any traditional venom and it’s perhaps the only example of that Gaulish humour linking to the real world that we have become used to seeing in the comics.
The story is pretty poor especially considering the subject matter – lets face it, the Picts as a people were definitely not lacking in history, mythology and there is plenty of inspiration for something far more exciting than this storyline. All we get is red hair, blue tattoos, pictograms, caber tossing and tartan? And Nessie… cliché vomit. I am sure some Scotsman out there is pretty pissed that those are all the authors could come up with. Grief… Just watch Brave and you will see a far more interesting story than this and it still included the tartan.
By Toutatis this is was disappointing – after 8 years one would have thought that they could have come up with something better. It’s a real pity that they could not let Asterix & Obelix stay the way it always was. All I can hope is that this was a “learning” attempt for the new author and if they decide to do another, it improves. Can’t get much worse than this really.