Saturday, 12 September 2015

Asterix and the Banquet Review (Rene Goscinny, Albert Uderzo)

Set in 50 BC, all of Gaul (ancient France) is conquered by Julius Caesar’s Roman army. All? One small village still holds out against the Romans: Asterix’s village. And it’s thanks to their druid Getafix’s magic potion which gives them superhuman strength! 

In Asterix and the Banquet, one of the earliest Asterix adventures, Inspector General Overanxius orders a stockade be built around the rebel village to contain them so Asterix makes a bet with the Roman. He and his best friend Obelix (don’t call him fat!) will go on a tour of Gaul, collecting the finest regional food and drink and bring them back to the village for a banquet, proving that they are free to move within their own country, stockade or no. The race is on! 

I think the Banquet was the first Asterix book I read cover to cover when I was a kid - before then I’d just pick up a book and randomly leaf through it, staring at the pictures, maybe reading a word bubble or two (I was, like, 5!). Re-reading it as an adult, it’s amazing how appealing the comic still is and not just in a nostalgic way. 

Rene Goscinny’s script is tight and fast-moving - it has to be, the book is only 43 pages long! And even though each half page (usually about 5-6 panels) was serialised in magazines and newspapers, collected into the books, they read seamlessly. It helps that Albert Uderzo’s art is so gorgeous with bright colours and wonderfully designed locations, bringing the ancient world to life with startling vivacity. 

I didn’t realise this book was also Dogmatix’s first appearance (Obelix’s dog). He just shows up out of nowhere, standing outside a pork butcher’s shop in Lutetia, Asterix and Obelix’s first stop, and follows our heroes from then on. He’s not named yet though and our heroes don’t acknowledge him until the very end when Obelix turns to notice him in one panel. 

Fulliautomatix, the village’s blacksmith, is also not a final character yet either. He’s here in name only but his character design is very different from the later books, and his running joke will be the guy who beats up Cacofonix (the village’s bard) whenever he tries to sing. 

As I remembered, the visuals for black people are quite racist too - big cartoony red lips - but then again everyone’s drawn cartoony. I’m not saying it’s right but it’s worth noting that this book was published in 1963 and that was still more-or-less the norm of how black people were portrayed in comics so it probably doesn’t reflect the creators’ beliefs (I even remember getting Gollywog badges from Robertson’s Golden Shred marmalade in the ‘90s - that’s how long these negative images persisted!). 

The story’s a bit flimsy if you start to think about it - basically the magic potion makes the whole thing pointless. I mean, why don’t they just knock down the stockade themselves, and why are they afraid of the Romans at all when they smash them up whenever they encounter them? But then we wouldn’t have the fun adventure so I’ll give it a pass. 

Strangely for a French comic translated into English, a lot of the humour is linguistic with more than a few puns that are a bit cheesy, but I still love a lot of the physical gags. Like when the Romans are trying to put our heroes in chains but they keep breaking out because of their super-strength, and the repeat joke of the Pirates still gets me. 

I’m amazed and delighted that Asterix comics still have a powerful effect on me, years after first reading them. The Banquet is a wonderful read and probably one of the best comics in this series, suitable for, and recommended to, readers of all ages. By Toutatis, this book is great!

Asterix and the Banquet

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