ASTERIX AND THE PICTS
The first new "Asterix" book not done by either Rene Goscinny or Albert Uderzo came out at the end of last year. The big, worldwide release included, yes, an English edition. If you're an "Asterix" fan, it's worth a read. It feels like a classic "Asterix" tale with all the trappings. It fits the mold well, with plenty of funny moments and a familiar art style. The story isn't quite all the way up to Goscinny's absurdly high standards, but it's a strong effort from a freshman team.
The temptation must have been there for writer Jean-Yves Ferri and artist Didier Conrad to include a Greatest Hits of Asterix moments in this first book, just to show that they are familiar with the material and know what they're doing. Their first mission was to win over the die hard fans, of which there are millions in Europe. The danger there is in repeating past gags and looking like a cut-and-paste team brought in to stretch the series out for one more cash grab. What they manage to pull off in "Asterix and the Picts" is a book that fits the model without looking slavish. It has everything you'd expect to see in the series from the final banquet scene to the Obelix's tendency to throw first and ask questions later to crazy proper name wordplay and a new oddball foreign nation to visit.
"Asterix and the Picts" brings Obelix and Asterix to Scotland, an island nation filled with characters painted in various colors, a mysterious monster in the water (though drawn a bit too cartoony, I thought), and a devilish villain looking to take it all for himself. The story begins when a frozen Pict washes up near Asterix's village, encased in a block of ice. The women go crazy for him, but after thawing him out, he's mute. When he finally talks and explains what happened to him, the action moves to Scotland, where Ferri maintains the series' deft ability to explain modern day things in terms familiar to the locals in funny ways. It's not quite as densely packed as Goscinny's scripts were during his prime when Asterix and friends would visit Great Britain or Belgium or Germany, for example. But this one does fit nicely into that pattern.
All the while, our newly thawed Pict speaks in occasional gibberish with random cultural references. They're not all exactly Scottish, but they each made me laugh for crazy reasons. I wonder how much of that was the work of the original author, and how much was contributed by long-time "Asterix" translator, Anthea Bell? Were some of the original French references too deep for English-speaking audiences to understand? As much as a good Lewis Carroll or "Jingle Bells" reference might be, their inconsistency in origin and utter randomness are an odd mix in the book.
Didier Conrad is a great choice to fill in for Uderzo here. His style matches the characters beautifully, only exaggerating them a bit. The characters seem to be pushed further in their natural directions here and there, with one short character a little squatter or one tall character slightly skinnier. Overall, Conrad nails the style of the book, maintaining Uderzo's style guide throughout the book while adding his own touch.
While part of me is curious about how this book might look if approached from a different angle completely, I can understand why this style was used. But, then, Conrad has also worked on books derived from "Lucky Luke" and "Marsupilami". He's used to following runs of books from this school of art. And those two books were junior versions of their respective titles. Imagine if this had been an "Asterix Jr." adventure? Ferri and Conrad might have been chased out of France.
To my eye, the biggest change comes in the inking. Conrad's style has more open lines. They don't all connect. To put it in Photoshop terms, you could easily Bucket Fill Uderzo's work. Conrad's leaves more open to the eye.
Here's an example panel from the first page:
Look carefully at Obelix. See the way the line on the inside of his bicep doesn't quite connect to his forearm, or the way his eyebrows form the top of his face, with the coloring defining where his face ends, and his hat or sky behind him begins? Look at his thumb. See the thick outline at the base of his hand and how it doesn't connect to the rest of the digit? In fact, the top of his thumb isn't drawn at all. The nail and knuckle is suggested, but not connected. Even the top of Asterix's near arm doesn't make it all the way to Obelix's body. Obelix's belt has such lines. It's a little thing, but it adds up across the pages.
It also feels like Conrad's lines are looser. Uderzo's line, as masterful as it is, always felts tightly controlled and precise. Conrad loosens that up a bit, giving the book an extra energy.
In one of Conrad's previous works, "Les Innommables," we can see a major difference in his line. It's much thicker and inkier. The shapes are all the same, but he plays a lot more with throwing ink on the page. They feel heavier. "Asterix" is built more for the color to define everything, and to maintain the style of the series. Conrad, though starting from the same family of art styles, adapts his art to the book to best fit it. Impressive.
I have two qualms to raise with this book. The first is that the main villain, MacCabaeus, is a little too supernatural for me. He doesn't have any powers or display any questionable moments, but the angular features of his face, the green skin, and the fiery red hair give him that aura. Whenever he was on the page, I was worried that they'd "go there" with the story. They didn't, but that weird feeling stuck with me. (Part of what made "Asterix and the Falling Sky" feel so weird was the inclusion of robots and superheroes and a purple Mickey Mouse analogue. Those didn't belong in Gaul of the time.) So many of Uderzo's creations were based on real life politicians or celebrities that the inclusion of one here who is so cartoony feels odd.
The other issue is the Roman entering Asterix's village to take the census. He's great comic relief that provides for some very funny moments in the village, but his story doesn't go anywhere. I thought he'd interact more with the main plot, but never does. I'm still not sure if that's me putting my assumptions on the story and judging it for that, or seeing unnecessary filler used to get to the 48 page count of the book. The main story is fairly straightforward and might have benefitted from an extra twist or two along the way.
The census taker made me laugh multiple times, though, so maybe I'm asking too much. As comic relief, he hits the nail on the head. (I like that he even counts the town's population in roman numerals.)
After the disastrous release of 2005's "Asterix and the Falling Sky", the series needed a boost from a book like this that puts it back on firm, familiar footing. Ferri and Conrad do a great job, overall, and I hope it earns them another shot. I'd like to see them break away from the mold a little bit more next time now that they've established themselves. But even if the next book is just "Asterix and the Canadians," count me in. Why fight what works for 35+ books?
"Bad Ass" #1 just came out through Dynamite. It's a European import in the manga-influenced kind of Franco-Belgian art style that we see in many books today. Humanoids has a book I'm looking at now that's similar in style, "The Ring of the Seven Worlds." Looks like that one came out of Italy, but the influence is also clear.
Written by Herik Hanna and drawn by Bruno Bessadi, "Bad Ass" is the story of a man in a full face mask and proper suit who's exceptionally good with guns and blowing things up. He works with organized crime (led by a talking crocodile), and sometimes against it. He's very good at what he does, and has a vicious sense of humor about the whole thing. It's also established that he has some kind of bad disfigurative facial issue; one has to wonder how much of an influence "Deadpool" was on the creators. An alternate cover is even an homage to "New Mutants" #98.
He is, yes, one bad ass. Hanna is sure to start an "origin" story to help explain it, in which we see the younger Jack getting bullied in high school and developing a sarcastic mean streak from it. I'm sure future issues might continue telling that story and linking it to the "current" time frame.
The coloring from Gaetan Georges, is open and easy to read, though with too much of an orange/brown tone to it. It feels like a Vertigo comic from the 1990s. Even in the opening scene, which occurs on a sunlit mid-afternoon day, everything feels orange/brown. The buildings and the backgrounds lean that way. During the flashback scenes, an orange wash helps differentiate the time frame, but not as much as if Georges had picked any other color available. I wish he had been a little more imaginative with his coloring there. Making the basement a darker brown/orange hue might seem "right," but it makes the pages overall look a little less exciting than they might otherwise be. Brown doesn't pop off the page like primary colors do. (For example, Malibu once made a change to its coloring style early in the Ultraverse's history to put more color on the cover to help them pop off the stands.)
The important thing is, the art doesn't fight with the colors. They complement each other, with shadows cut in to add depth without being busy or too painterly. While I'd like a little more variety in the coloring, I can't fault them for picking a style and sticking with it.
Because the book is breaking down a 48 page European album into multiple issues, it ends abruptly as a fight scene is just beginning. I suppose that's one way to leave them wanting more...
"Bad Ass" is worth keeping an eye on, though. The attitude and delivery works, the art is nice, and the villains are ridiculously crazy, setting this world off onto an axis of its own.
- What if... The X-Men had their own bathroom?
- Wannabe comic artists should check out Ron Marz's latest column for the chance to show off their potential with a real live script sample. Marz has a page from "Shinku" you can test your skills on. He'll be sharing the response. I can't tell you how tempted I am to draw the page using Smurfs. . .
- Finally pulled together all the issues of a mini-series that were scattered across the room, but now the trade is coming out next week, so I'll just wait for that. Has that ever happened to you? There has to be a German word to explain that feeling.