About 3 years ago I decided I would make all the Asterix books go through a bracket knock-out to decide which is the all-time best one. It's fair to say I didn't expect it to take this long and my attempts at speeding it up had the opposite effect. I have 10 other things I should do today, but goddamit I can't face doing my taxes.
On the positive side, what with it being a year since I last read any Asterix comics, I will be seeing the competitors with fresh eyes.
(Puzzled by all this? Here's the introductory post.)
- Asterix and the Roman Agent
- Asterix the Gladiator
- Asterix and the Banquet
- Asterix and the Chieftain's Shield
Holy smokes, this looks like a great batch of Asterixes! I'm excited!
Asterix and the Roman Agent
The first 3 panels are amazing. Wow. A beautiful crane shot of the village, then a pun-filled Roman Senate, then an angry senator's finger breaking through the border and into the first picture. I'm starting a slow handclap knowing that everyone reading this will join in and we'll fill the universe with thunderous applause.
You can see from that imagine that the quality of the art is on the low side, and the colouring in my version is especially poor. Some of the text is ill-defined. That could be decisive in a tie-break situation.
We quickly get into the plot - Caesar hears about a troublemaker so annoying and divisive that he can even turn lions against each other. His name is Convolvulus.
His impact is immediate - Caesar's inner circle turn on each other, Caesar himself is tricked, the crew on Convolvulus's transport galley turn on each other, and he foils a pirate attack single-handedly, again with just a simple lie.
People under his spell speak in green text bubbles to show their anger, jealousy, and resentment. He's one of the all-time great characters in literature. I love him.
And of course he's much too bright for the Gauls. There's a lengthy sequence where they turn against each other, their suspicion and mistrust growing with every panel. That climaxes in a gorgeous feast scene midway through the book - Goscinny doing meta decades before it was cool.
Next Convolvulus introduces 'psychological warfare'. The plot thickens, but the Romans are too thick to understand it. There's a nice balance between Gaulish paranoia and Roman bufoonery. The whole psychological warfare bit leads to one of the funniest panels in the history of comics - when the Romans line up for combat with their new weapon of choice. It's perfectly done.
There are only 3 people who understand anything that happens in the story - Asterix, Getafix, and Convolvulus. Everyone else exists in a hall-of-mirrors state of confusion that allows jokes to come from every angle.
We then take some time to prepare for the final battle, presented in one of those overview panels that Uderzo was so good at. It's like a magical book from Harry Potter - it's so vivid it moves. I remember staring at it for AGES as a kid, soaking it all in. Sigh.
Asterix then takes revenge on Convolvulus in the best possible way, but 'we need not worry unduly about the troublemaker' - this likeable villain can fend for himself. His brainpower is his magic potion.
So... that was awesome! Totally enjoyed it.
Asterix the Gladiator
Cacofonix is kidnapped and taken to Rome to be given as a gift to Caesar. Asterix and Obelix give chase. Pages go by without anything funny happening.
It really feels like one of the early books, before Goscinny and Uderzo really got into their stride. There's a couple of good gags but the plot doesn't make sense when Asterix and Obelix could smash every door and bonk every Roman without taking damage. Why do they need to become gladiators?
I'm tapping this one out. It isn't going to win.
Asterix and the Banquet
A Roman dude comes along, gets smashed by the Gauls, and erects a stockade to trap the Gauls inside. Pretty reasonable, really. In response, Asterix vows to go on a tour of Gaul to gather food from every part of the country. Does that make sense to you? If so, seek professional help.
Um... so this was another underwhelming one. They go from city to city fetching delicacies - I presume the jokes make more sense if you're French. But all a bit dull really. They keep hiding from small groups of soldiers that Obelix could legit massacre.
Asterix and the Chieftain's Shield
This one gets off to a strong start, with a tale of a stolen piece of war memorabilia. The panels get smaller, fading away, because this all happened a long time ago. Very interesting and effective.
Chief Vitalstatistix is ill - too much boar and wine and his liver is on the brink. He has to go and take the waters at Vichy to recover.
Once there, Obelix annoys everyone and so he and Asterix go on a little trip. Some stuff happens that leads to other stuff. Man, it's so much better in Roman Agent when the plot is set up right at the start and left to play out. Here there's loads of plodding before the pace picks up.
There are only two things certain in life - Roman Agent beats these other 3 books without breaking a sweat. And taxes, which I should go and sort out.
As is my custom, I compared my findings with Alexander Matthews's ratings for every Asterix book.
He rated Banquet 7/10 and the others 9/10. Quite surprising that he liked Gladiator so much, but maybe it just wasn't what I needed to read today. And if I'd read Chieftain's Shield first maybe I'd have got more out of it. Anyway, I'm pretty happy with my choice.
Into the next round goes ASTERIX AND THE ROMAN AGENT.