Saturday, October 24, 2015

Asterix and the Missing Scroll Review

I like reviewing Asterix books, so let's do it again with a brand new one. Here's my review of Asterix and the Missing Scroll, book 36 overall and the second book by new authors Jean-Yves Ferri and Didier Conrad. The first thing to note is that I hate the title, it invites ridicule by seeming so trivial. Who cares about a missing scroll? The title in French translates as 'Caesar's Papyrus' which cetainly lends it more gravitas. Still, a minor quibble. Onto the contents. This is a much more ambitious book that their first one, Asterix and the Picts, and it has a brand new subject: Julian Assange, press freedom and new communications technology. It's a good choice of subject and continues the tradition of taking modern phenomena and parodying them in ancient Gaul. This album also builds on previous Asterix books with earlier adventures referenced in Caesar's writings and the character of Asterix himself being more in tune with the experienced version than the earlier more exuberant, mischievous version.

This book has been called the best in 30 years by some (is that from a press release?), so the question is, is it? Well, that is a bit of a disingenuous claim because the books of the last 30 years have been pretty average-with the possible exception of Asterix and the Secret Weapon. The last really good book in my opinion was Asterix and Son (1983) so it ain't the best for 32 years! My verdict is that it's better than the last one, but is still flawed. 

It's at this point I should cry a hearty SPOILER ALERT! I'm going to tell you about some good bits and some bad bits that might, just might, give away tiny details such as the ending, so if you haven't read it yourself, do so first. The most important question first: is the book funny? Yes, for the most part. There's an extended bit about horoscopes and believing what you read-Obelix's horoscope affects him throughout the book giving him a fresh problem and some humour to work with. The special unit of Romans that follow the Gauls across the country is quite funny-the appearance of the bear is one of the best jokes, as is when the Roman lets his pigeon go and forgets the attachment- it resonates because we've all done it, and it's funny when applied to ancient communications. Impedimenta has a great cameo-after reading her horoscope she is even more of a dragon than usual, shouting over poor pompous Vitalstatitix, "Blah blah blah!"

Speaking of characters, Confoundtheirpolitix the Assange simulacrum, is rather underdeveloped. He's enthusiastic and driven but so want? Ferri maybe could have made him extremely paranoid-Assange lives in a paranoid world-to give him a bit more comedy. There's one moment when he starts thinking in headlines which feels like a half-finished joke. It calls to mind the tax inspector who speaks in tick-box forms from Asterix and the Cauldron, but that joke is carried right through the scene. Similarly the main enemy, Blockbustus is underdeveloped-that he hates hardship seems to be his only defining trait. I do love his butler Pridanprejudis. He's stoical and Jeeves-like although it has to be said he doesn't really do much. A bit of a wasted opportunity.

Lastly (of the good bits), Archaeopterix the old Druid is a nice conceit-he's a sort of senile super-computer, and the ending with the stories getting passed down to Goscinny and Uderzo is a lovely tribute. Now we come to a few of the problems, the first of which is an odd scene with the pirates. They aren't even sunk! Even in Asterix's most land based books the Pirates are scuttled in some way, and what do they hang on to the carrier pigeon for? They never appear again so we'll never know! It's just a confusing incongruity in the story-simply a way for the pigeon to never make its destination.

But that pales into comparison to the completely stupid solution to the story-the 'emergency measure' for when the village is really in trouble, Cacofonix's moomoophone. Cacofonix blows it when everything is going wrong, and the emergency warning travels all the way, person by person, to Getafix, Asterix and Obelix who then have to drink a special magic potion to run all the way back in record time to save the village! There's never been an emergency measure mentioned before, nor do the villagers actually need it as there's magic potion under Vitalstatistix's chair. Couldn't Cacofonix have had a secret network of bards to call Getafix-that might have been more logical. Did Ferri write himself into a corner by having Asterix and Obelix so far away from the main action? It just seems badly thought out. 

So what is this book missing? Asterix! He hardly has a role to play at all, and when he does come up with a plan to cross the river, for no dramatic or plot-advancing reason it's immediately abandoned. Seriously, he isn't needed at all apart from to beat up the special unit, which Obelix could have done had he not been avoiding conflict because of his horoscope. Obelix himself is really only here as comic relief. Getafix needs accompaniment on his journey of course, but in this book that's the only role our heroes perform-bodyguards. Ferri must use Asterix and Obelix better than this in future. 

According to interviews the authors have conducted they had a lot more time to compose this book, and it shows in the density of the ideas and more intricate plot than the previous book, but it seems to me that they might need more thorough editors. I really think the script for this book (and Picts) needed another draft. The extra time has afforded the excellent Conrad to better himself considerably. His scenes are fuller and there are moments where you can see him really enjoying himself, such as Archaeopterix's tree hut in the middle of the forest of the Carnutes.

So to sum up, the adventure is packed with ideas, but is actually a little dull, with very little drama or peril until right at the end. There are good jokes and ones that fall flat and some incongruities and odd decisions. I'm going to give it 7/10 which puts it with the best of the second teir books, but a long way short of the true greats like Asterix the Legionary. That said, it is an improvement on Picts and certainly adds something new to the series. I'm enjoying Ferri and Conrad's take, and am happy to accompany them on their journey and see where it takes us. I think they have the potential to pull off something really good somewhere along the line. 


Pan MiluĊ› said...

Great review and I agree on the point of Asterix being beryl in this story. The rock-bridge part was super pointless... A part from that I did enjoy this story :)

Unknown said...

I personally thought Cacofonix being the Emergency Measure gave us a reason why the villagers have been so protective of him in earlier stories. Like in that one where he decides to move away and nobody wants him to go, Fulliautomatix even willing to put up with his singing!

CA said...

What exactly was the point in having Blockbustus afraid of stepping on the grass?

Jayant Pande said...

A very good review. I just finished reading the book today, and was quite happy with it after the rather average Picts and the many poor Uderzos--especially the dismal Falling Sky--that preceded it. But much of the after-glow I found myself with had to do with the delectable tribute to G & U at the end, which was as ingenious and perfect as any G & U themselves did. But yes, at many points the story could have been tighter. (To be fair, I read the German version, when my German isn't quite top-notch, which is one thing I attributed the seeming profusion of loose ends to. But reading the review I feel reassured that it was not my comprehension that was at fault. And it couldn't be a problem with the German edition either, because the small jarring notes have to do not with the word-play but with the plot itself.) But with this volume Ferri and Conrad have won me completely over and I hope they keep going for a long time.

CA, the only even slight point I can see, and it is rather minuscule, is that it was his fear of grass that prevented the Romans from attacking the village in the absence of the heroes (page 29 in my copy). But if that's the reason, and I'm afraid it probably is apart from the weak humour potential, then that's a very poor, forced way to explain the fact.

Ian Brett Cooper said...

I think perhaps the review is being too harsh. After all, Alexander states that Asterix and the Missing Scroll is better than Asterix and the Picts, which he rates as a 6/10, so that presumably means the book is somewhere around a 7/10, which means as good or almost as good as Golden Sickle, Banquet, Cauldron, Switzerland, Soothsayer, Caesar’s Gift, Black Gold or Secret Weapon: in other words, as good as a solid Goscinny and Uderzo book. This is surely no mean feat for a new team.

Alexander also criticizes the title, which has been a perennial flaw in English translations since 1965. I would love the titles to be more closely translated, but if the reviewer thinks it's an issue, it's surely also an issue with Banquet, Big Fight, Roman Agent, laurel Wreath, Class Act, Black Gold, Magic Carpet, Secret Weapon, All at Sea, Actress and perhaps even Falling Sky, none of which got the translation right, and all of which seem to have assumed a lack of sophistication on the part of the reader.

Alexander also criticizes the idea that the book is the best in 30 years, and while it may not be the best in 30 years, the only argument Alexander puts forth is that it's not as good as Asterix and Son. But no one suggested it was - after all, that book is more than 30 years old. Alexander says that all the books in the last 30 years have been "average", but if anything, that is a back-handed compliment: i.e. a grudging admission that this book is better than an average Goscinny/Uderzo book. Surely that's not a reason for criticism, but rather reason for praise!

Alexander finishes up his review by stating that Missing Scroll falls "a long way short of the true greats like Asterix the Legionary". Okay, but according to the reviewer himself, so do most of Goscinny and Uderzo's books, since Legionary is one of the books Alexander rates a 10/10 in his previous post.

In short, the reviewer seems to be demanding that the new team produce books that rival Goscinny and Uderzo's very best. Considering that the reviewer has stated (in his previous blog post) that Goscinny was a genius, I think that's a bit of an unfair expectation for a team that are still only getting into their stride. Let's not forget that Goscinny and Uderzo did not start producing their best work until their SEVENTH book. Expecting that sort of quality from Jean-Yves Ferri and Didier Conrad at this early stage is, I think, quite unfair.

Ferri and Conrad's work is improving, and in this, their second volume, they have (judging by the reviewer's own admission) produced a work that is as good or almost as good as Goscinny and Uderzo's second book. So I think they deserve to be given a little slack.

Yavoy said...

Personally I feel that the story never really had a plot. It was just a bunch of loose ends tied together, without any underlying mission or challenge to focus it.
I rate at it as only slightly better than the falling sky.

The artwork is absolutely fantastic, but the font is a little odd.

Bluejay said...

I agree that a network of bards would have worked much better. It would have tied in perfectly with the theme of gathering and spreading information.

Mac said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mac said...

The reviewer says: “Now we come to a few of the problems, the first of which is an odd scene with the pirates. They aren't even sunk! Even in Asterix's most land based books the Pirates are scuttled in some way, and what do they hang on to the carrier pigeon for? They never appear again so we'll never know! It's just a confusing incongruity in the story-simply a way for the pigeon to never make its destination.“

Well obviously they hang on to carrier pigeon because they’re pirates and pirates tend to steal stuff. One caption even notes this by saying an “early case of pirating information”. The puns in this sequence, “message just caught my eye” and “ a bird in the hand” are funny and easy to understand too. I personally found this sequence to be quite clever, especially the Latin phrase “Dat veniam corvis, vexat censura columbas” which in English means: The censor forgives the crows(the pirates) and harasses the doves. The author of this review obviously needs to take a bit more time in trying to understand something before he criticises it.

Mac said...

Grass - slang term for an informer. That’s why Libellus Blockbustus doesn’t want to come into contact with it. Honestly folks, perhaps you guys would be better sticking to Spider-Man or something.

Carl said...

great review, as always!
But you didn't understand the pirates and the pigeon scene. The authors are simply making a joke about hackers (piracy) breaking into email, capturing messages, etc.