- - Thursday, February 20, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

ASTERIX AND THE PICTS
By Jean-Yves Ferri, Rene Goscinny and Albert Uderzo
Illustrated by Didier Conrad
Orion Children’s Books Ltd., $14.95, 48 pages

Growing up in Canada, I had an abundance of U.S. comic books and comic strips to choose from. Yet one of my favorite high school memories was going with friends to the public library located next door to read its collection of great Franco-Belgian comics.

The BDs, or bandes dessinees (literally, drawn strips) such as Lucky Luke, Spike and Suzy, Nero, Gaston and Spirou et Fantasio, are a time-honored tradition in Europe. The strips were either reprinted in oversized comic albums after a storyline in a newspaper or magazine concluded — or directly published in this format.

Many Franco-Belgian comics have since been translated into English. Americans would immediately recognize two titles, “The Adventures of Tintin” and “The Smurfs.” A third title should also ring plenty of bells: “The Adventures of Asterix.”

Created by Rene Goscinny and Albert Uderzo, Asterix made its first appearance in Pilote, a now-defunct French comics magazine, in 1959. The series takes place in 50 B.C. in a tiny Gaulish village that the Romans just can’t conquer. The protagonists are Asterix (“a shrewd, cunning little warrior”), Obelix (“Asterix’s inseparable friend”), and Getafix (“the venerable village druid”). The latter character’s “specialty is the potion which gives the drinker superhuman strength,” allowing the Gauls to constantly frustrated Roman legionnaires and many other individuals.

The Asterix series has been a huge success in France, Belgium and beyond. It’s been translated into more than 100 languages, and 325 million albums have been sold worldwide. There have also been 12 films (including four live-action movies), plenty of merchandise, and a theme park in France.

With the recent release of the 35th album, “Asterix and the Picts,” this legendary series has started a brave new chapter. Mr. Uderzo sold his stake in 2008 to the United Kingdom publisher Hachette, and the 86-year-old comic book legend is now retired. (Goscinny passed away in 1977.) Writer Jean-Yves Ferri and illustrator Didier Conrad are now in charge of the franchise, with Mr. Uderzo advising them.

In this exciting 48-page tale, Asterix and Obelix come across a man in the sea encased in ice. Getafix identified him as “a Pict from distant Caledonia,” or what we know as Scotland, and gave him an elixir to regain his voice. In time, the two Gaullish warriors found out his name is MacAroon. He had “fell into an ambush set by the odious MacCabaeus … chieftain of the MacCabees.” Why? MacCabaeus wanted Camomilla, MacAroon’s “lovely fiancee” and “adopted daughter of our late king, the good Mac II, for himself.”

Many well-loved Gauls in the village, including tribal chief Vitalstatistix, annoying bard Cacofonix, metalsmith Fulliautomatix, hard-of-hearing elder Geriatrix, and Obelix’s loyal pet Dogmatix, appear in this story. The buffoonish Roman legionnaires, who have sided with MacCabaeus, are (as usual) no match for our heroes and various Caledonian tribes.

Meanwhile, Asterix and Obelix encounter their regular foils, the hapless pirates, and destroy yet another one of their vessels. There are a few scenes with a smiling Loch Ness Monster — identified as “Nessie” by MacAroon, and misidentified as “a kind of otter” by Obelix. Julius Caesar and Hadrian’s Wall both make brief appearances, and no Asterix tale can ever be complete without a great final banquet of wild boar, “By Toutatis!”

To be sure, it’s never easy for a new writer or artist to take over an existing comic strip or comic book collection of some stature. There are certain expectations to be met, and if they don’t, the critics often have a field day. That’s why some cartoonists such as Charles M. Schulz (“Peanuts”) refused to name a successor, and why some United Kingdom-based reviewers were less than pleased with “Asterix and the Picts.”

I don’t agree. In my view, Mr. Ferri and Mr. Conrad’s first attempt at preserving Goscinny and Uderzo’s magical creations for future generations can be deemed a success. Mr. Conrad’s artwork is a carbon copy of Mr. Uderzo‘s, which will please older Asterix fans. Mr. Ferri’s writing style is somewhat different than Goscinny’s (and Mr. Uderzo‘s), but he consistently maintains the same humor, whimsy and fun-loving nature. By giving him time to grow and develop in this new and difficult role, I think his good work will eventually become great.

What will Asterix and Obelix do in their next adventure? Only time will tell. For now, it’s just wonderful to know these great Gaullish warriors and best friends will be fighting Romans and eating wild boar for many more years to come.

Michael Taube is a contributor to The Washington Times.

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