It was a nagging suspicion in the case of Asterix and the Picts, the first Asterix adventure to be written and drawn by neither of the original creators, René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo (who took over the writing along with the art after Goscinny’s death). Jean-Yves Ferri, the new writer, and Didier Conrad, the new artist, have only cemented that fear with the latest in the series, Asterix and the Missing Scroll.
The first Asterix comic, Asterix the Gaul, was serialised in the late 1950s, and published in 1961. Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge’s English translation came out in 1969. It’s safe to say that the two books from the new creative duo, the first of which appeared after eight years of a hiatus, are many young people’s introduction to the cult of Asterix.
And you wouldn’t blame those readers for wondering why their parents found Asterix comics so wonderful.
A publishing tale
Missing Scroll is built around the idea of a missing chapter from Julius Caesar’s bestseller (50 copies sold swiftly, so eerily familiar to today’s literary writers in India). This is the one in which Caesar admits his inability of defeat the one Gaulish village despite his vast conquests.
On the advice of his publisher Blockbustus, Caesar decides to junk the chapter, which makes its way through a leak to a parody Julian Assange-like figure of Confoundtheirpolitix. Naturally, Blockbustus wants it back. Naturally, the missing scroll arrives at the Gaulish village, where Asterix, Obelix, Getafix and Dogmatix (who has no role in this story, more’s the pity) are entrusted with its safekeeping.
The story is plotted tightly enough – too tightly, in fact, to accommodate the opportunities for jokes, puns and laughter that the classic Asterix albums did. Translator Anthea Bell may not even have had to stretch herself much to invent equivalent puns, for there just aren’t enough of them in the first place. Sure, there are cursory references to modern technology like a character named wifix, but that’s about as far as it goes.
Not funny enough
But the tropes that bring on affectionate smiles – the village fight, Cacofonix’s insistence on singing, Obelix’s obsession with wild boars, Geriatrix’s relationship with his fetching wife – are either missing or perfunctory hat-tips. The Roman soldiers no longer appear hilarious as they are beaten up. And Asterix?
Asterix himself is barely in the story, even though he’s visually present almost everywhere. Obelix and chief Vitalstatistix at least have some personal drama playing out, while Getafix the druid plays an important role. But our diminutive hero hardly leaves a mark.
And that’s because there is virtually no crisis for the inhabitants of the little Gaulish village. There’s no great threat to the peace and quiet in their lives. Nor is there an enemy - be he ever so bumbling – who has to be defeated. As a result, no strategies are required to resolve the storyline, which leaves Asterix with little to do but to glug the magic potion from time to time and produce the pfaff sound effect while toying with Roman legionaries.
Ferri’s work, sadly, lacks the playfulness that Goscinny brought to his characters and plots, highlighting quirks and inserting funny sub-tales. As for the art, it’s similar to Uderzo’s, but the use of spaces and angles is subtly different. It’s almost as though Conrad is paying respectful homage while pointing out that he’s an artist in his own right.
Perhaps the only sub-text here that’s worth a laugh is the demonstration of the vanity attached to being a writer, one that both Julius Caesar and Vitalstatistix are seen falling prey to. While the Roman ruler is seen to be ecstatic at being asked for autographs, the Gaulish chief dictates what appears to be a classic ‘I’m-the-one-who-did-it-all’ autobiography to a visibly bored journalist in desperate search of a scoop.
Personally, I’d rather re-read the originals. Star Trek, James Bond or even Sherlock Holmes may thrive in the hands of new creative teams, but Asterix hasn’t made the cut, unfortunately. It’s possible that the new writer and artist know they may not be able to surpass the original creators. Read to the end to see if you agree.