In my disappointment at the lifeless new release Asterix and the Actress,
with its unfunny jokes, its muddled plot, and perhaps worst of all, its dolphin
ex machina, I turned back to the classics, to a time when France's greatest
comics team, Goscinny and Uderzo, were in the first magnificent flush of their
powers and, best of all, both still alive. Uderzo's attempts to continue the
Asterix series after the death of his partner have been of uneven quality (to
put it kindly), and while there have been some little smashers like Asterix
and the Black Gold, with its superb caricature of Sean Connery in full Bond
mode, he's never produced anything quite so good as the early collaborative
works. Let's not dwell on this. Let's haul ass to Egypt.
It's hard not to be impressed by Asterix and Cleopatra. After all, it
tells you right there on the cover, it's 'The greatest story ever drawn: 14
litres of Indian ink, 30 brushes, 62 pencils, 1 hard pencil, 27 erasers, 1984
sheets of paper, 16 typewriter ribbons, 2 typewriters, 366 pints of beer went
into its creation!' This parody of the breathless publicity for Elizabeth Taylor's
outing as Cleopatra sets the tone of exuberant satire and silliness for
the story. And I don't know about you, but I really like knowing exactly how
much beer contributed to the story I'm reading.
For those of you who just joined us, the Asterix stories are boisterous
comedies set in the Europe of around 50 BC, when, according to the frontispiece
of every book, 'Gaul [modern France] is entirely occupied by the Romans. Well,
not entirely... One small village of indomitable Gauls still holds out against
the invaders.' Asterix is, to quote from another of his adventures, a 'yellow-whiskered
midget of uncertain age' and Gaulish warrior from Armorica (Brittany), who,
with the help of his best friend Obelix and liberal doses of a magic potion
which gives him superhuman strength, romps about disrupting the Pax Romana and
cracking puns at every opportunity. Fans of the anachronistic classical-world
humour of the Hercules and Xena TV series will probably find a
great deal to enjoy in the Asterix books, as will devotees of Monty Python's
Life of Brian; they've also been likened to Terry Pratchett's Discworld
novels, while operating on a different scale, and I think it's fair to say that
if you liked Pterry's tribute to the clichés of Ancient Egypt, Pyramids,
you're going to dig this.
Asterix was originally conceived as a comic especially for French children,
a homegrown alternative to the American titles which flooded the market in the
post-war years, while France struggled to rebuild its national identity and
pride. French cultural chauvinism has always had the screaming meemees about
American cultural imperialism; not without some reason. The historical setting
was chosen because every French schoolchild learned about the Gauls, as something
quintessentially French, and would be familiar with the commonplaces parodied.
Of course, I started reading the English translations as a New Zealand six-year-old
with no idea that any such people as Gauls and Romans ever existed, and enjoyed
them immensely. They're very multi-layered works, in that they can be warmly
appreciated at a surface level, but the more you know of their background, the
more jokes there are to get, which also makes for great re-read value. Not many
'all ages' works are not only 'safe' for all ages to read, but genuinely offer
so much to appeal to all ages. Every public and school library in New Zealand
possesses a battered stack of well-loved Asterix books.
Back to the plot! In Queen Cleopatra's magnificent palace in Alexandria, she
has a tiff with Julius Caesar (you may remember he had a little thing for her,
in between epileptic fits), who claims that her country is 'a decadent nation,
only fit to live in semi-slavery under the Romans.' To prove him wrong, Cleo
lays a wager that 'in three months' time I'll have a magnificent palace build
here for you in Alexandria.' The lucky guy who gets to try to make this happen
is the affable but only semi-competent architect Artifis, who realises the hopelessness
of the situation and turns to his old friend, the Gaulish village druid Getafix,
for magical help. So Getafix, with Asterix, Obelix and Obelix's small but fearless
puppy Dogmatix, packs up and comes to Egypt, where they have to contend with
the time limit, skulduggery from Artifis' rival Edifis, who is peeved that he
didn't get the contract, and interference from the locally posted Roman forces.
Oh, and they also manage to squeeze in a tour of the pyramids, accidentally
knock the nose off the Sphinx (one of the story's funniest moments), and get
framed for attempting to poison the Queen. The action just never stops, and
nor do the sight-gags and nimble wordplay, which, in the English version, is
a real tribute to the wit and imagination of translators Anthea Bell and Derek
Hockridge. YOU try translating a French pun. The Asterix translations
are a brilliant balancing act between faithfulness and adaptation where the
joke would be lost in transmission to another language and culture; would that
more of the Anime shows that end up on Western TV were so well handled.
Every panel is full of lively and lavish illustration, with the Egyptian interiors
and Cleopatra's costumes being particularly atmospheric and glamorous. As an
artist, Uderzo never went in for scrupulous archaeological accuracy so much
as a style which concentrated and celebrated popular conceptions of antiquity;
not so much the Egypt and Rome which really existed as the Egypt and Rome we
all carry around in our heads (e.g. no horse manure in the streets), especially
if we've had a bit of classical education. Where it would be funny to draw something
anachronistically, he does, and it works every time. Check out Edifis' papyrus
newspaper with comic strips like Ptarzan and Pnuts.
If I haven't made it clear that it's funny, it's FUNNY. Sample dialogue:
First Roman Legionary: If we advance, we'll be driven into the Nile!
Second Roman Legionary (obnoxiously cheerful): We'll be annilated!
Maybe I like the puns a little too much...
Some Asterix books are more coloured by their French origins than others,
and this is such a book; there are jokes referring to a remark of the philosopher
Blaise Pascal about Cleopatra's nose, paraphrased in the first panel (THIS is
why everyone in the story is so obsessed with her nose), to Napoleon's line
about 'From the summit of these pyramids, forty centuries look down upon us,'
and a very complicated and dopey poetic pun which relies on the fact that a
person from Alexandria is called an Alexandrine, and an Alexandrine also means
a twelve-syllable line of poetry, and Edifis the Alexandrine greets Getafix
with a twelve-syllable line. Incredibly, Bell and Hockridge translated this
faithfully and left it there for the enjoyment of anyone nerdish enough to understand
it. It's another of those 'As every French schoolchild knows...' things. While
these cultural references will probably go right by most English-speaking readers
without diminishing their enjoyment of the story, it's kind of satisfying to
know what they signify, since it's thanks to Napoleon and his fascination with
those pyramids that Egyptology as we know it today got started. So the French
HAVE made a worthwhile contribution to world culture besides Asterix books,
long bread and champagne.
Besides the specific delights of this plot, there are all the usual and much-loved
running gags; Obelix' attempts to get a taste of magic potion (which he is not
allowed because he had an overdose as a child), the ill-fated pirates who are
so frightened of the Gauls that they'll scuttle their ship rather than fight
them, the wings on Asterix's helmet moving like bunny ears in accordance with
his moods. Hats with wings on rock.
While I fear that a reader who was introduced to the series by a later outing
like Actress or the muddled, misogynistic Asterix And The Secret Weapon
would not be inspired to read further, I can recommend early gems like Asterix
and Cleopatra wholeheartedly to Asterix newbies young and old.