Bloated, mismanaged, plagued by ill-conceived rule changes - the World Cup of Asterix has a lot in common with Formula One.
(Puzzled by all this? Here's the introductory post.)
This World Cup started as a simple concept - two comics go head to head, the winner goes through to the next round. After a few rounds there are two left and the winner of the final is the best Asterix comic.
Maybe. But it was all too much for my withering, ageing brain (my lawyers have suggested I remove all mention of Bernie Ecclestone from this sentence). Among the many flaws of the project were:
- Having the wrong number of books for a bracket knockout
- Having to find new things to say about the books in every round
- The fact it took me so long to finish that two new Asterix books were released in the meantime
Like with Formula One, long-suffering fans just have to enjoy it as best they can. So where are we now?
By hook or by crook (my lawyers have advised me not to mention Bernie Ecclestone in this sentence) we are left with 16 Asterix books. In a thrilling rule change, the quarter finals pit FOUR books against each other. Gasp! One from each group will make it through to the semi-finals. Whoo!
I can't remember how I ended up with this selection, but the first quarter-final is between:
- Asterix the Gaul
- Asterix and the Golden Sickle
- Asterix and Cleopatra
- Asterix and the Big Fight
It's been about 18 months since I read any of those - one positive side-effect of the arse-backwards way I've conducted this project. I'm going to read them all after finishing this sentence, write a short summary of each, then decide on a winner.
The books are on the starting grid! The red lights are winking out! It's GREEN! Go go go!
Asterix the Gaul
A really good pilot episode that quickly, sets the scene, the tone, and introduces the characters.
As it was serialised in Pilote magazine, it's not brimming with consistency - Asterix is said to be cunning, and we do see some of that, but we also see him behaving stupidly. We're shown that Cacofonix is an awful bard but when the writers need him to be good, he's good (in the scene with the moustache dancing).
I was interested to note that Asterix the Gaul has a scene with a talking creature (mole?). In the books written by Uderzo alone there are all kinds of annoying scenes with talking animals - maybe I'm too harsh on him, although here it's only as part of a scene and not the whole panel.
Obelix is a side character, Dogmatix only appears as a stray dog, and nothing is really 'set' yet. Those are typical world-building problems - read the first Harry Potter book after reading the seventh and you'll find a lot of stuff that doesn't really fit.
All in all, it's a good start to the series, but not very funny, and with relatively poor art and colouring.
I haven't read the other three yet, but spoiler alert - this isn't going to win.
Asterix and the Golden Sickle
The first half of this was great fun, while the rest slightly dragged.
There are great visual gags here - I'm thinking of the young man speeding his chariot down the highway then being pulled over for a ticket, Obelix overtaking an ox cart, and Clovogarlik's swaggering, henchmanly strut.
I also enjoyed the Paris-bashing we get when our heroes enter Lutetia and realise it is THE WORST.
So what goes wrong? There's a bit too much repetition of certain scenes - going to jail, meeting a drunk, breaking out, meeting the Prefect. But all in all Asterix and Obelix have a good time in Paris and leave with big smiles on their faces. And the reader puts down the book thinking 'yep that was pretty good.'
If this was Formula 1 qualifying we'd say that Asterix and the Golden Sickle has set the fastest lap and is currently in pole position with just two cars to run. The next of those cars is...
Asterix and Cleopatra
Wow! That was fun. The setting appeals to the Egyptomaniacs inside us all, and even the scenes in Gaul feel fresh, since it's winter and the village is blanketed by snow.
There are great puns.
Superb visual gags.
And the part where Obelix 'improves' the Sphynx leads to a scene so good it was ripped off by Superman 3.
Asterix and Cleopatra is as aerodynamically perfect as an Adrian Newey car. It will be tough to beat. Only one book has a chance of stopping it purring into the semi-finals.
Asterix and the Big Fight
The whole camoflage section is amazing - the puns come thick and fast. Roman gallows humour has never been funnier. Lightly covered in twigs and leaves, the camoflaged patrol hears the Gauls approach. 'Do we form a square?' 'No, form a spinney!' It's GENIUS.
Visual humour abounds in panels such as these:
There's a Roman stuck in a cauldron who refuses to come out. His commander threatens to heat up the cauldron, and carries out his threat. The centurion's right-hand man says, 'We ought to stir him, sir, or else he'll stick.'
The string of great jokes is interrupted by the prominent role played by a talking bird, and some magic potions that do real magic (levitation) instead of the 'makes-you-stronger' potion that I have no problem believing in. These act on the story like an overly-long pitstop.
The build-up to the big fight itself is quite good - there's the training montage with the preparations of the two chiefs - very Rocky 4. And there's the interest that grows around the fight - by the end it's a full-blown theme park complete with rollercoaster. (I remember loving that frame when I was a kid.)
Best of all, Chief Vitalstatistix doesn't need magic potion to win - he does so fairly and on his own merits. It all ends with a clash between the Romans and Gauls and a contended feast.
Big Fight drove a sterling lap around the circuit, faster than two of the contenders, but some distance behind today's winner:
Asterix and Cleopatra.
Note - I just compared my findings with Alexander Matthews's ratings for every Asterix book. He liked Gaul more than Golden Sickle (8/10 vs 7/10), and also had reversed rankings for Cleopatra (9/10) and Big Fight (10/10).
He marked Cleopatra down for the weird way the role of villain switches from Artifis to Julius Caesar ten pages from the end - a fair point. But in Big Fight he found Obelix repeatedly hitting people on the head with a menhir funny, and he liked the owl humour.
If you've got a different opinion, let me know in the comments!