Thursday, November 21, 2013

Asterix and the misfiring book

There's a huge issue taking up most of the airtime, column inches and bandwidth of every media outlet in the world right now, as I'm sure you know. The issue is this: Why is the new Asterix book not that good? Well I've decided to add my own 'thoughts' to the mix, although they can only loosely be categorised as that.

The book certainly feels authentic, as the new writer has chosen as his topic a new tribe, ripe with silly customs to lampoon and silly names to play with. Yet unlike the Spanish, who Goscinny brilliantly wrote as a group of haughty, arrogant matadors, the Picts don't have much discernible personality at all. Instead, John-Yves Ferri dwells on tartan and body paint with endless jokes about different colours. It sort of works, but not very well, but what really doesn't is lead Pict Macaroon's tendency to speak every now and again in Scottish verse, written in a celtic font. I've no idea what this device adds to the story. It certainly isn't funny. Maybe it is in French.

The first half of the book I quite enjoyed, and it sets up the story rather well. There's some good jokes about 'pictograms', tossing the caber, freezing people in ice and the usual array of amusing names (my favourite being the Pictish druid Macrobiotix). There's the women of the Gaulish village fawning over the frozen Pict, the Roman census guy (Although why the village which isn't part of the Roman Empire would let him count them I don't know) and there's Nessie, but none of these elements really come together later to create a good second half.

The big fight at the end with the Picts and Romans falls rather flat, and is just not as good as the earlier fight with the pirates. The census guy doesn't really get a big finish and as for Nessie...she's just not utilised as well as she could be. There was a bad decision made along the way in Asterix and the Picts and that was to leave Dogmatix at home. Imagine Dogmatix and Nessie getting on each other's nerves or fancying each other. Massive comedic potential missed and for no reason at all! It's just another weird thing about this book. 
There's also a bit where Asterix and Obelix shout at each other and then it's immediately forgotten. Why? Is it just a tip of the hat to those sequences in other books? The thing is, Goscinny used those moments to move the story along and deepen Obelix and Asterix's relationship. Even more baffling is this frame below where the drunken roman suddenly calls Maccabaeus the Pict chief by another name. Does he drunkenly mistake him for someone else? Is it a joke? Why does he say 'our priest'? Did they just want to slip in a joke that plays on the name McVicar? This frame is going to keep me awake at nights.

But the artwork, by Belanos! It is pitch perfect. Dider Conrad has done quite a remarkable impression of Uderzo. There are images that are perhaps slightly cuter or more Disneyfied, but overall it's a hell of an achievement.

So, in summary, this book doesn't really add anything of significance to the Asterix canon. It's a good attempt and I'm looking forward to Ferri upping his game for the next one. Perhaps it's a question of momentum-the more your write the better you become at it. Of course the elephant in the room with Asterix will always be René Goscinny. The guy was a genius and I doubt anyone can do Asterix better than he. Uderzo certainly couldn't-but at least with his solo books he was pushing Asterix in new directions. This feels like familar territory that Goscinny had already mined for every juicy laugh he could.


Anonymous said...

Maccabeus was a famous Jewish priest who led a revolt, a Vicar is a type of priest common in Britain and McVicar is a Scottish surname.

Mac said...

While the story may not be the most original, there seems to have been a conscious effort(in light of the preceding oddball offerings) to go back to basics with this book. With an adventure to a new country and a story packed with puns, wordplay and cultural references aplenty, it’s a fairly successful return to form for Asterix.

To give a few examples, on the first page of the story we get "Poor old Geriatrix! He's always been inclined to ramble on" meaning: 1. he talks too much and 2. he leans on and walks with a stick.

The next page reminds us that you should only buy oysters in months with an r in them, luckily it's February which has two, so the world is their oyster as Obelix notes. On the third page Obelix ventures that the pict with his tattoos, might be a footballer, who after all, do that sort of thing in the TRANSFER season.

The book is full of amusing stuff like this, later on we get a bard, a Johnny Hallyday lookalike named Maccool, after the French title(meaning my mouth) of one of the singer’s biggest hits, his hit song Hush is also referenced. In a Reference to his namesake, the hero of Irish/Scottish legend Finn MacCool and the story of the Salmon of Knowledge, he plays an instrument shaped like a fish.

There are also numerous references, by way of old English and Scottish folk songs, to the independence referendum. A few mentions of a Salmon, an obvious nod to the former SNP leader Salmond, crop up on occasion also.

In voting for a new leader, even the pict nats find the “independent's talk heavy going”. One pict, dressed in white with a red cross, has nothing to say on the matter. Other recent debates in Britain also get a mention - the eldest daughter should succeed to the throne, proportional representation, quotas for minorities etc.

Some people haven't been all that impressed with the puns used for the pictish characters but both French and English versions are deceptively clever. In France our pictish hero is Macoloch - son of the loch or a pun on the French “ma coloc” meaning my roomate - probably a reference to the auld alliance between France and Scotland. In English he's Macaroon, a French tasty treat, or according to Samuel Johnson(an 18th c English man of letters notoriously bigoted towards the Scots), a coarse, rude low fellow.

In French there's Mac Mamah a clever nod to one of Goscinny and Uderzo's other creations Oumpa pah. Admittedly this is somewhat lost in the English version Macmama. The druid is Macrobiotix, the kid is Macmini the rebellious tribe led by a traitor are the Maccabees headed by Maccabaeus(also a pun on French slang for a dead person - probably why he's green), all good and educational stuff perfectly suited to the - information/explanation at your fingertips - age of the internet. Whisky, porridge, Nessie, tartan, caber tossing and the origins of golf all feature as well. Nothing special but overall a much needed improvement for the series.