When Asterix met James Bond

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Asterix first appeared in Pilote magazine in 1959 and has since been translated into 100 languages, selling over 300 million books. The series revolves around a sleepy village by the sea in ancient Gaul (a region of Western Europe during the Iron Age and Roman era which included France - where Asterix is set) that steadfastly refuses to acknowledge Roman rule because they have a magic potion brewed by their venerable druid Getafix that gives the recipient super strength. So any Romans with designs on the village can expect a magic potion enhanced bashing. Despite the invaders controlling the outside world (save for the surrounding forest - which the Gauls consider their own private domain) life there amongst the little thatched huts goes on as normal with bickering, banquets, hunting, mass brawls, friendships, gossip, rivalries, celebrations.
The Asterix series was a perfect unison between the talented and amusing artist Albert Uderzo and the equally talented and amusing writer René Goscinny (who in terms of sales must be the two most successful authors France has ever produced). They met in 1951 and emerged together at a time when the French comic industry was starting to become irritated by the increasing pop culture domination of America and expressed a vocal desire for some patriotic swashbuckling homegrown heroes of their own to read and enjoy. So together they created Asterix, a diminutive but cunning and brave yellow pig-tailed Gaulish warrior.
Asterix was surrounded with memorable supporting characters and this was always a huge part of the appeal of the books. From his portly boar munching menhir obsessed best friend Obelix to the long suffering Chief Vitalstatistix (who always insisted on being carried around on a shield and frequently got dropped) to Getafix (Panoramix in the French version) the wise druid. Getafix is one of the greatest characters in the world of Asterix and like a cross between Gandalf and a hippy with his huge beard, white robes and golden sickle. Getafix is a humanist and provides moral guidance in the village. He is like everyone's grandfather. The Gauls might be near invulnerable with their potion but they are a superstitious bunch and greatly fear the day when the sky might fall on their heads so their druid is always a reassuring presence, as of course is his magic potion, the secret of which is "lost in the mists of time..."
Not forgetting of course Unhygienix the fishmonger (instigator of many fish related comic mass brawls in the village) and Cacofonix the Bard. Cacofonix is the truly awful singer who thinks he's a genius and - in a funny recurring joke - is always shown tied up and gagged in the big celebration banquet under star strewn skies coda that ends each volume so that he can't possibly sing. I love too the Barbe Rouge inspired pirates who are always being hopelessly sunk and shipwrecked and in terms of fame quickly surpassed their Redbeard inspiration.
Asterix is broader and more 'comic book' than Tintin and often seems simplistic on the face of it, never seeming to deviate too much from the staple elements. But look closer and there is much clever and subtle material. The riffs on real historical events, works of art, paintings, the cultural references (Fellini, James Bond, Laurel & Hardy etc), even an ecological message and some rather poignant moments. In The Mansions of the Gods, Asterix and Getafix walk in the forest amongst the trees in fading light and wonder if the magical forest will even be there one day as logging and civilisation spreads its ugly tentacles. Getafix tells Asterix that all they can do is enjoy the forest and what time they have while they can.
Asterix is a comic farce and big, bold and colourful but it could be surprisingly thoughtful and even adult and strange (the man being whipped during the "cheese orgy" scene in Asterix in Switzerland). The depiction of Julius Caesar in Asterix in particular is very interesting and cleve. Although he rages and plots against the Gauls he is not a merciless dictator or ever made to look completely foolish for too long. He even shows kindness and generosity when the Gauls perform a deed he considers to be noble. The most important thing is that he remains more than a mere one dimensional character and a worthy opponent for Asterix and the Gauls.
Asterix is possibly something of an acquired taste but the wonderfully cosy art by Uderzo is always superb and these books are remarkably clever at times beneath the surface. What other comic would reference The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp by Rembrandt or the Peasant Wedding Feast by Pieter Breugel the Elder. Perhaps the most genius element is the historical time period of the books. Albert Uderzo's Roman and Gaulish interiors in particular remain fantastic. I absolutely want to live in that Gaul village by the sea with its cosy firelit huts and sleepy way of life. When Goscinny died in 1977 and Uderzo took over the writing duties in addition to his artistic obligations the series was sadly never quite the same again. One bright spot though is Asterix and the Black Gold, the second volume to be written and illustrated by Uderzo alone after the death of René Goscinny. Asterix and the Black Gold is fun for Bond fans in particular because of the James Bond riffs and the presence of an obvious Sean Connery caricature secret agent in the story.
Asterix and the Black Gold is the twenty-sixth book in the series and was published in 1981. The story begins with Asterix and Obelix hunting a couple of boars in the forest and accidently running into some Romans. The boars have learnt to lead the Gauls to Roman patrols so they can escape ending up as someone's dinner (the Gauls can't resist fighting the Romans and the boars can therefore escape in the resulting carnage) but the Romans assume the Gauls have trained the boars to do this. 'That Amorican village is still holding up the might of Rome to ridicule me,' grumbles Julius Caesar when he is told. 'And I hear that my legions now have to face hordes of wild beasts!' Devius Surreptitious, the head of the Roman Secret Service, tells Caesar they must get hold of the secret of the Gaul magic potion which makes them invincible and explains that a druid would have the best chance of doing this. It just so happens he has a brilliant secret agent druid known as Dubbelosix and Dubbelosix is promptly sent off to infiltrate the Gaul village where Asterix lives.
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Meanwhile, the Gaul druid Getafix is looking very worried and preoccupied and some of the villagers are starting to become concerned about him. It turns out Getafix is desperately awaiting the arrival of the ship belonging to Ekonomikrisis the Phoenician merchant because he has run out of rock oil. Rock oil is a vital ingredient in his magic potion but when Ekonomikrisis finally turns up he confesses he forgot all about the rock oil and doesn't have any. Getafix collapses in shock and when he recovers tells Vitalstatstix, Asterix, Obelix and Dubbelosix (who met Asterix and Obelix in the forest in his druid garb and was asked to treat Getafix) that with no magic potion they will now be defenceless against the Romans. There is only one solution. Asterix and Obelix must go to Mesopotamia and bring back some rock oil and Dubbelosix offers to go with them to help. Will our heroes work out that Dubbelosix is a Roman agent out to sabotage their vital mission?
As far as the post-Goscinny books rank, Asterix and the Black Gold is certainly the finest hour of Uderzo and an entertaining entry in the series with some highly enjoyable art. One thing I liked about the story in particular was the abundance of James Bond related jokes. Dubbelosix is drawn to look like a Zardoz caricature of Sean Connery and has a spiffy chariot that assembles itself and is packed with gadgets. There's a great bit where he's with Asterix and Obelix and deploying some of these while Romans chase after them. He rides off a cliff into the sea looking very nonchalant and unworried but the chariot and its three occupants just crash into the water with a big splash. 'Something should have happened when I pressed that button!' he tells an annoyed and wet looking Asterix and Obelix. The Roman secret service run by Devius Surreptitious is called M.I.VI. (a pun on MI6) and Dubbelosix treats (a soon to be very merry) Getafix with a 'grain spirit called Caledonian' which he muses might be better diluted with a spot of soda!
There are some nice gimmicks in the story here, like the way that Dubbelosix keeps in touch with Surreptitious via a trained female carrier fly that just happens to be love with him. There are even a few nods to Mission Impossible in amongst all the spy related jokes and references. Asterix and the Black Gold works because it has a good story and Uderzo has clearly put an awful lot of effort into the art. This really feels like a big old-fashioned epic Asterix adventure in the vein of the ones he produced in partnership with the late Goscinny. Uderzo went to Israel to do some research for the book and there are many lovely panels as a result. There is a wonderful illustration of Jerusalem from above that catches the eye and some of the night panels are excellent. 'Bethlehem, I think,' replies Dubbelosix when Asterix asks them the name of the village where they are currently having a nap in a stable under the moonlight.
The standard is set early here with the mystery of why Getafix is so gloomy and the wonderful panels of him looking out to sea, anxiously awaiting the arrival of Ekonomikrisis the Phoenician merchant as the sun rises and sets. There is a great drawing of Asterix hiding on the rocks behind him trying to see what the problem is and some wonderful art generally in Asterix and the Black Gold with the walls of ancient cities, silhouettes of ships beneath a red sky and Uderzo's Roman interiors, which are always a delight. There are some enjoyable capers at sea here too with Asterix and Obelix taking on the comically rubbish pirates who feature in most of the books in a recurring joke and also smashing up a Roman galley or two, which they are equally delighted to run into. There's an amusing side panel by Uderzo as a prelude to all of this carnage. 'We now have a chance to observe the superbly efficient boarding tactics practiced by the Roman Navy. First ballistae throw out the grappling hooks...'
As a later solo Uderzo effort I expected Asterix and the Black Gold to be one of the lesser entries but it's a surprisingly good adventure on the whole with an excellent story, some lovely art and a great deal of invention. The James Bond jokes and the presence of Dubbelosix drawn to look like Sean Connery adds to the fun. This is a nice read for Asterix and James Bond fans of all ages.
- Jake

c 2016 Alternative 007

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