Back to 50 BC
American comics don’t really have this problem. Sure, there are characters that we know were created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and so on, but other writers and artists were soon assigned to create additional stories about them. The characters were owned by the publisher and not the creator, and if readers liked a character, a larger team would be put to work making more stories about that character.
French and Belgian comics tend to be a little different. The creators usually have a great deal of control over their characters, and there’s no question of multiple teams working on them at the same time since most of the comics — or ‘albums’ as they are called — are annual affairs and not monthlies.
So some creators have come to be indivisibly associated with their characters; Herge with Tintin, Roger Leloup with Yoko Tsuno and of course Goscinny and Uderzo with Asterix. Ever since Goscinny’s death, artist Uderzo has been keeping the series going on his own. Some of these books stand alongside the best Asterix albums: The Great Divide, The Gold, and the most visually stunning book in the series yet, Asterix and the Magic Carpet. But, in my opinion, the stories in the next few albums were increasingly whimsical and weightless, full of fantasy elements like the visit to Atlantis but lacking in the dynamic plots and wordplay of Goscinny’s best work.
So I was curious when I saw that Uderzo and Goscinny’s family had authorised a new team to create new Asterix stories — Jacques Yves Ferry and Didier Conrad.
So, is the new comic, called Asterix and the Picts any good? Well, to begin with, the art looks almost exactly like vintage Uderzo. It’s like returning to a place we all know so well, to see the villagers going about their daily routine as if nothing has changed. Those arch-enemies, the fishmonger Unhygienix and the blacksmith Fulliautomatix still scowl at each other from across their shopfronts. Unhygienix’s fish are still of a dubious freshness. Chief Vitalistatistix’s still bring a new meaning to administrative instability every time his long-suffering shield bearers take him out for official work. Cacofonix the bard still finds his musical ambitions constantly thwarted by a very hostile crowd and the druid Getafix still dispenses magic potion and wisdom to the feisty villagers.
The writing is spot on too, replete with cringe-inducing puns. It also continues Uderzo’s added focus on the women of the village, lead by the determined, formidable little Impedimenta, Vitalstatistix’s wife.
Then there’s the way in which the villagers drive even the most minor Roman to come their way completely dotty — in this case it is the hapless census taker who is flabbergasted at the sheer uncooperativeness of the villagers.
Many Asterix adventures have begun with someone arriving in the village; Justforkix in Asterix and the Vikings, or the returning Panacea in Asterix the Legionary. This time, it is a Pict, a tribesman from Caledonia, or Scotland, who is frozen in a large block of ice. When he thaws out, he finds he cannot speak. The villagers have their own theories about how he got here. Obelix thinks it was a quest for mushrooms, the chief thinks he must have been fighting with Romans and the women of the village sense that there is a romantic story of a quest for love here.
They are all correct — at least Vitalstatistix and the women are — and so ensues another notable voyage in Asterix and Obelix’s globe-trotting career! This time they land in the midst of a power struggle between Scottish clans. There are lots of puns and national stereotypes — all in good fun of course — and naturally the meddling Romans are behind all the hubbub.
Along the way, Asterix and Obelix even meet the Loch Ness monster, in a nod to Uderzo’s later more fantasy-driven stories, but this story delivers all the action and thrills of a classic Asterix tale, including one of the best massed battle scenes since Asterix in Belgium — the last album to be written by Goscinny.
All in all, this new addition to the old saga is a success. Purists will still find the new team wanting, but they have done a great job capturing all that was best about this series. This is a good start for a new series of Asterix adventures and I look forward to watching Ferri and Conrad hit their stride and create some new classic adventures.