THE LITTLE RUNT WITH A LARGE FOLLOWING
It was, indeed, a pretty good week for comics. I spent more at the comics shop last Wednesday than I had in the previous two weeks combined, and more than I had in close to a month. ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN. I LUV HALLOWEEN. DEFENDERS. JLA CLASSIFIED. And even a TOMB RAIDER one shot that's five years late. That's barely half the list, but it all added up impressively at the end of the day.
With a bevy of good reads out last week, it makes perfect sense, then, that the most exciting book I wound up reading is a reprint of a 35 year old story that's been sitting on my shelves for a few months already. Thankfully, this column is about the stuff I want to read, and not necessarily the stuff that's assigned to me, forced onto me, or au courant. That's why we're taking a break from all those superhero books and indie darlings to talk about Asterix. Specifically, ASTERIX IN BELGIUM.
That's right -- I'm all about the magic potion-toting Gaul this week, and his big, dumb, but well-meaning friend, Obelix. As the book's introduction tells us, Asterix is a cunning little man with a magic potion that allows him to take on the world in battle, if need be. He's accompanied by Obelisk, the muscle of the operation with a heart of gold and a too-cute-for-words pet dog, Dogmatix. This time around, the two represent their isolated village (surrounded by Romans) in a competition against the notoriously blood thirsty and effective Belgians to the west. The two battle to be recognized by the encroaching Julius Caesar as the bravest people in all the land. Of course, hilarity ensues.
Albert Uderzo's art is glorious to behold. There's so much going on in each page that it's a pleasure to slow down to see it all. Establishing shots are drawn with an eye for detail and background gags. Characters are well animated, with a clean and consistent look to them. The storytelling is straightforward. The ASTERIX style is not like anything you'll see in America today. Imagine an American comic with eight panels and more per page across four tiers, with most panels including all of its characters in full body poses. Body language is important to Uderzo. He doesn't leave it to chance that just the face will tell the story. He adds in gestures, posture, and environment to sell the whole thing.
There's also a hint of Carl Barks' work in Uderzo's work, but that's likely a generational thing. Both artists were prolific in the 50s and 60s. It's an odd little thing, but the women of Belgium are drawn in a slightly more realistic style than the usual madmen and cavorting warriors of Gaul and its surroundings. This reminds me a bit of how humanistic Barks would draw dogs appearing in lieu of humans in a world populated by Ducks. Barks also slipped in a story or two with human beings in it, but those are the exceptions.
It goes beyond that, of course. While ASTERIX is not an anthropomorphic series, the two share plenty in comic, including adventure, humor, and a strong grid approach to storytelling. Barks was not Kirby, nor did he ever try to emulate him in the latter portion of his career. Uderzo began drawing ASTERIX around the time of Kirby's ascension at Marvel Comics, but never emulated it. There are no borders being broken, forced perspective shots, or crazily trippy panels. Uderzo comes from a different school of cartooning altogether. This is one based on straight-ahead storytelling. While some impressive splashes present themselves -- most notably a painted page at the end of the story -- Uderzo's art is about character and animation, not bombast and spectacle. He's a tireless artist, with no shortcuts obvious to the trained eye.
This collection of the series has been re-colored, but I don't have the originals to compare this version to. It looks all so very clean, yet still like it was painted color art originally, and not just slick computerized coloring. If this was done on a computer, then it was done quickly and on the cheap. There are a number of tiny white uncolored areas, as well as colors poking outside of the lines. While there are some isolated exceptions, this is not a book that looks like it's reprinted from source material 25 years old. It looks like freshly scanned material was used. There's no blurring of the ink lines, not grainy appearance to the colors. I've flipped through a couple other books in the series that don't look nearly this good. They barely look recolored, as a matter of fact. This one feels much more modern than it really is.
As much as I enjoy the cartooning, it's the writing and the word play from Rene Goscinny that made me laugh out loud the most. The closest comparison I can make to this book would be Mark Evanier and Sergio Aragones' GROO THE WANDERER. That is another long-lived series of funny stories about an unlikely warrior's adventures and his strength in battle. Asterix's pal, Obelisk, even has a pet dog a la Groo's Rufferto.
With ASTERIX IN BELGIUM, Goscinny provides novel uses and origins for such things as Belgian lace and fish and chips. This series pays closer attention to its time period and makes some attempt to use its period setting (50 BC) to make jokes at the expense of historical accuracy. Caesar, himself, appears in this book, stuffing a couple of famous quotes into the story along the way. At the beginning of the book, in fact, the author apologies to "George Gordon, Mr. Wm. Shakespeare, Mr. John Milton, and Pieter Brueghel the Elder." A couple of characters make cameos in this book that I don't quite get, but I'm sure they're creations of one of those creators listed, too. Wikipedia indicates one of them is a Tin Tin reference, but I've not read that series just yet, either.
Word play pervades everything in this book, most notably the naming conventions. Asterix and Obelix are the heroes. (Think "asterisk" and "obelisk.") But the chief of their village is Chief Vitalstatistix. The minstrel character is Cacofonix. The long-winded senator in Rome is named Monotonous. Sure, these are hardly examples of restraint and subtlety, but they blend in together with the rest of the book very well.
Sadly, this was the last volume Goscinny would write before his death in 1977. Uderzo has continued the series on his own, although there are many who think the series is missing something without its original muse. I can't judge that right now, but even if it is true, that still leaves me with another 23 volumes of Goscinny-penned reading to enjoy.
This isn't to say the book is perfect. There are some serious production difficulties in the book. A few pages appear to be printed slightly off register, resulting in fuzzy lines and coloring that doesn't quite stay inside the lines. The coloring looks like it was redone from original painted linework, where some of the strokes fall outside the lines. That has to account for some of it. I caught a couple of typos in the script, but when I think back to all the ones that were intentional, I have to wonder if I just misread it. There's a line of dialogue that goes, "It's plane infuriating... I shall never be in concorde... " That use of "plane" is purposeful. I'm not so sure about the others, though.
The computer font chosen for the book always includes the lower-case "I" character in the midst of the all-caps font. This is definitely a creative choice, and one likely inspired by the original French text. I just think it gets annoying after awhile, particularly in the midst of the uninspired bold-faced screams and block lettering. I have one copy of an older reprint of an ASTERIX book in which the lettering was done by hand; that one didn't use any fancy tricks with the letters like that, though. These are relatively minor nits to pick. The books are being produced with a mass audience in mind, keeping the price point low and churning out volume after volume. If this were a $20 hardcover, I might be miffed. For a $10 softcover, I can deal with it.
Orion Books is responsible for the reprint series, promising that the books have been "re-inked, re-coloured, and re-designed." Plus, they're now reprinted in their correct order. The story is 44 pages long and, like I said a moment ago, is only ten dollars.
(Late addition: There's a wonderful website of annotations for the series, which explains many of the points I had questions about and even referenced in this review. Check it out for lots of cultural explanations, including the appearance of the Manneken Pis. I can't believe I missed that.)
THE ASTERIX ASIDE
There's something else about ASTERIX IN BELGIUM that I need to mention. My last name, De Blieck, is of Belgian heritage. People tend to guess it's Dutch, but it's not. My mother's side of the family is Dutch, but Dad's parents came over on a boat from Belgium at the beginning of last century. Belgium is a small country. In this part of the country (northeast), you can find large settlements of Irish, Italian, and German people from that time period, but you don't find many Belgian descendants hanging around. There is no "Little Brussels" section of New York City or Paterson. It's almost a joke. I can only imagine how anyone whose grandparents came from Luxembourg must feel.
Being named "Augie" meant that you didn't see personalized mugs and bicycle license plates and all the rest of those tchachkes with your name on them showing up ever. Imagine being an "Augie" who comes from a Belgian bloodline. Wait for the laughter to subside and move on with your life. You don't see little Belgian flags on the back bumpers of cars, nor hanging off the rear view mirrors. Belgians are the forgotten European minority.
So while my family takes some small measure of pride in their Belgian heritage, it's not something that defines us strongly nor informs our every waking moment. We're from a country that most people associate with Belgian Waffles, or maybe a microbrew or two. They don't realize that French Fries come from Belgium, too, and I need to eat at Wendys at least once a week to satisfy my national heritage. While we'd all like to visit the country at some point before we die, it's mostly used as a running gag in the family.
Finding a book like ASTERIX IN BELGIUM, then, is a real treat. The whole idea of a book about some Frenchman taking on a tribe of Belgians to prove who is the mightiest of them all is a topic for some mirth. As long as you have a sense of humor about these things, you'll find a lot to laugh about in this book. It's not that Belgium is the butt of all our jokes in my family, but it is something you learn not to take too seriously. To see our motherland represented as the bravest savages in Europe is a step up from the usual image of beer-toting unknowns best remembered for statuary of a urinating little boy.
Lots of laughs I got out of the book were in taking panels out of context and using the quotes about Belgians around my family. That's why I've scanned in a few of those panels to decorate this review. Don't worry - you don't need to have grandparents from middle Europe to enjoy the book, though. It does add a level to it, though.
In other news: The thirty-third new ASTERIX album was recently announced in Belgium. It's due out next week. If you can't keep track of time, there is a countdown clock on the front page of the Asterix home page. If you're in Europe and worried about where you're going to get a copy, don't sweat too hard. They've printed up something like eight million copies of the book already. This is the comic book equivalent of a new Harry Potter novel.
I'm sure we'll see the book in English before too long, thanks to Orion.
FOLLOWING UP AND UP
- I mentioned last week that the new TOP TEN graphic novel was constructed like a four issue mini-series, leading me to believe that the author's original intent was for this to appear as another four issue mini-series. The book's editor, Scott Dunbier, wrote in this week to correct that assumption. Alan Moore always intended the story to be told as a one part graphic novel, and it was his choice to structure it in four parts.
- One of my criticisms of LOCAL #1 reviewed here last month, was that the location wasn't a big character in the story. Mine was not the only criticism of that nature, as it turns out. Brian Wood explained his thinking on his blog recently, and it's something that makes perfectly legitimate sense to me:
I really don't want LOCAL to be an alienating experience for those poeple who don't live in the cities featured in the stories. I don't want in-jokes or references that would fly over the heads of non-locals. The stories have to be universal, easily understood planet-wide, and the bonus to readers who DO happen to live in these cities will be what I casually refer to as the "oh, [expletive deleted b Augie]!" factor: Oh, shit! Look, she's working at Treehouse/Oarfolkjokeopus Records! (Local #2, Minneapolis) I think a degree of detail like that adds a real sense of authenticity to a story. And on an even more practical tip, I know many of these cities, some more than others, but I am not THAT well traveled that I can write travelogue-style books dedicated to each of them (although I wish I was).
Next week: Pipeline Previews returns. We're looking at December's books already. Doesn't time fly?
Various and Sundry's schedule is a little iffy right now, owing to a hack attack over the weekend. It'll return before long, but I don't know exactly when at this point.
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