What first attracted me to the books of Asterix all those years ago in a town of 5000 whose library had a delightful inclination to stocking European children’s authors of every imaginable stripe, was the sheer, good-humoured insanity of it all.
Here was a rich, clever take on history which was full to the brim with visual and written humour, characters who were vividly-realised in a way few comic characters are, and whippet smart but which was also over the top silly.
Very, very silly, the pun-laden names of the characters alone worth the price of admission.
The inestimable joy of the 38th book in the series, Asterix and the Chieftain’s Daughter (La Fille de Vercingétorix), the fourth to be written by the new team of Jean-Yves Ferri and illustrated by Didier Conrad – Asterix was created and written for decades by the immensely talented team of René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo, who sadly passed away 24 March this year – is that it retains this gleefully riotous sensibility.
Set around an Averni chieftain’s daughter whose now deceased father Vercingetorix was defeated in battle by the Romans and who is feisty and not at all inclined to take up the battle in his name, Asterix and the Chieftain’s Daughter is essentially a chase narrative with Asterix and his bestie menhir-toting Obelix in pursuit of the runaway daughter of the title.
Almost right from the word go, when two of Vercingetorix’s under-chiefs deliver his daughter to the care of Vitalstatistix, leader of Asterix’s potion-enabled, successfully Roman-opposing village, the moniker word play begins in goofy earnest.
The chiefs, quite naturally, are called Monolithix and Sidekix, the daughter , who Vitalstatistix is warned is a “bolter” is called Adrenalin – a wholly fitting name when you see how full-on she is in every respect – and the traitor who means to hand the girl over to the Romans is called Binjwatchflix.
It’s a longstanding tradition in a series which features a fishmonger called Unhygienix (his son, naturally, is called Crabstix) and a druid called Getafix (the man who gifted the village with the potent, empowering potion in the first place) and it still works even after 38 instalments in the series and in my case at least of about 45 years of reading Asterix’s adventures (the first title, Asterix the Gaul, came out in 1961).
What makes the names work so well, apart from the fact that they just sound funny, is that they usually have some sort of meaning tucked away in them, not necessarily deep but enough that the parody that drives this delightful series comes through loud and clear.
The visual humour is maintained in the latest instalment too.
We witness Obelix bashing up quivering, fearful Roman troops not once but multiple times, pirates being bested once again and people reacting to the potion they imbibe with frenetic movement so beautifully you swear the characters are about to leap off the page.
It’s this marriage of the visual and the written word that works so beautifully in any Asterix book and which is very much in evidence in Asterix and the Chieftain’s Daughter.
You could argue, of course, that every single comic and graphic novel in existence owes its storytelling to the perfect coming together of art and the written word but not everyone does it as seamlessly and with such merry glee as the Asterix series which reflects its chaotically defiant joie de vivre in every single vibrantly evocative panel.
The whole mindset behind the series is standing your ground against a greater, more overwhelming force – which is why, in the end, Adrenalin’s path doesn’t go quite where you think it might – which suggests a boundless, restless energy that never really sits still.
Thus are books like Asterix and the Chieftain’s Daughter a non-stop, ceaselessly funny romp through an adventure which makes a defiant point or two, more than a few laugh out loud funny jokes all while moving endlessly on towards a punchline of an ending.
While Asterix and the Chieftain’s Daughter doesn’t quite have the fizzing brio of its predecessors with a story that feels a little thin on the ground and lacking in the epic quality for which the series is renowned, it is as gloriously funny and clever as ever.
Asterix and Obelix argue in the way only good friends can do, the Romans are bested over and over in a way that never really happened during the conquest of Gaul but which plenty of French people wish had taken place – the nods to history are fulsome and frequent, and while you’d never confuse an Asterix book with a history lesson, it does a great job of educating as well as amusing – and the village emerges triumphant once again.
But then in this issue of the series, so does the central character who, fittingly in a franchise dedicated to self-determination, doesn’t neatly fit into the box designed for her by resistance hungry Celtic tribesmen as Getafix observes at the end.
“Because her father told her to resist conquest and to be free, and that’s what she did … in her own way!”
That sums up Asterix beautifully – a clever sensibility that celebrates self-determination and independence, friendship, belonging all with an hilarious serving of rioutous silliness that lets up not a bit in Asterix and the Chieftain’s Daughter making it the perfect mood lifter in these sometimes dark days of oppressive COVID-19 madness.