Asterix and the picts
Writer: Artist: Publisher: Orion Out: Now
After René Goscinny died in 1977, Asterix co-creator Albert Uderzo forged on without him, writing as well as illustrating the strips. There was, however, something missing. Uderzo introduced incongruous plot devices such as flying carpets and extraterrestrials into the stories, yet ironically the magic was gone. Though drawing as beautifully as ever, he could not conjure up scripts of the same quality; his collaborator had been a master of plotting and sparky characterisation.
Now, with Uderzo’s blessing, two new creators have stepped in to fill his and Goscinny’s sizeable shoes. Jean-Yves Ferri and Didier Conrad are both well-established names in the world of bandes dessinées, and both, by coincidence, were born in 1959, the same year the indomitable Gaul made his debut in the Franco-Belgian comics anthology magazine Pilote. Tartan army Asterix And The Picts opens with a tattooed, kilt-clad Pictish warrior washing up on a beach in Armorica close to the “little Gaulish village that we know so well”. Young Macaroon is frozen inside a block of ice but, once thawed, he reveals that his fiancée has been kidnapped by Maccabeus, the wicked chieftain of a rival clan, who has designs on marrying her as well as forging closer ties with Rome.
Asterix and Obelix, of course, offer to help, and after a sea crossing during which, inevitably, they run into and sink the crew of useless pirates whom they traditionally encounter at least once on every adventure, they fetch up on the shores of Caledonia. Immediately, they meet the Loch Ness Monster, and this is the only bum note the book strikes. Nessie here is a cute, friendly creature resembling the titular beast in the old Disney movie Pete’s Dragon, and is an unwelcome throwback to the fantasy elements of the Uderzo-only stories. (Yes, we realise that Getafix’s magic potion which gives the Gauls superhuman strength is to some extent fantastical – but it’s also an inseparable, embedded part of the Asterix mythos.)
Otherwise it’s fun all the way as our heroes bash Romans and treacherous Picts, save the feisty maiden, and help unite the warring clans. There are plenty of jokes at the expense of the Scots. Bagpipes, whisky, caber-tossing, tartan, Hadrian’s Wall, Robbie Burns – every known stereotype of Celtic life is mined for humour. But it’s done so good-naturedly that you’d have to be Alex Salmond to take offence.
Conrad’s art mimics Uderzo’s perfectly, down to the last brushstroke. Frankly, it’s hard to tell the difference between a page of Asterix And The Picts and a page of any of the previous Asterix albums. This is pastiche of the purest, most loving and skilful kind.
As for the English translation by Anthea Bell – the colleague with whom she usually partnered up, Derek Hockridge, died earlier this year – it’s as witty and pun-packed as ever.
With Asterix now over 50 years old, and with 34 albums already under his belt, his future appears to be in safe hands. James Lovegrove