Saturday, October 24, 2015

Asterix and the Missing Scroll Review

I like reviewing Asterix books, so let's do it again with a brand new one. Here's my review of Asterix and the Missing Scroll, book 36 overall and the second book by new authors Jean-Yves Ferri and Didier Conrad. The first thing to note is that I hate the title, it invites ridicule by seeming so trivial. Who cares about a missing scroll? The title in French translates as 'Caesar's Papyrus' which cetainly lends it more gravitas. Still, a minor quibble. Onto the contents. This is a much more ambitious book that their first one, Asterix and the Picts, and it has a brand new subject: Julian Assange, press freedom and new communications technology. It's a good choice of subject and continues the tradition of taking modern phenomena and parodying them in ancient Gaul. This album also builds on previous Asterix books with earlier adventures referenced in Caesar's writings and the character of Asterix himself being more in tune with the experienced version than the earlier more exuberant, mischievous version.

This book has been called the best in 30 years by some (is that from a press release?), so the question is, is it? Well, that is a bit of a disingenuous claim because the books of the last 30 years have been pretty average-with the possible exception of Asterix and the Secret Weapon. The last really good book in my opinion was Asterix and Son (1983) so it ain't the best for 32 years! My verdict is that it's better than the last one, but is still flawed. 

It's at this point I should cry a hearty SPOILER ALERT! I'm going to tell you about some good bits and some bad bits that might, just might, give away tiny details such as the ending, so if you haven't read it yourself, do so first. The most important question first: is the book funny? Yes, for the most part. There's an extended bit about horoscopes and believing what you read-Obelix's horoscope affects him throughout the book giving him a fresh problem and some humour to work with. The special unit of Romans that follow the Gauls across the country is quite funny-the appearance of the bear is one of the best jokes, as is when the Roman lets his pigeon go and forgets the attachment- it resonates because we've all done it, and it's funny when applied to ancient communications. Impedimenta has a great cameo-after reading her horoscope she is even more of a dragon than usual, shouting over poor pompous Vitalstatitix, "Blah blah blah!"

Speaking of characters, Confoundtheirpolitix the Assange simulacrum, is rather underdeveloped. He's enthusiastic and driven but so want? Ferri maybe could have made him extremely paranoid-Assange lives in a paranoid world-to give him a bit more comedy. There's one moment when he starts thinking in headlines which feels like a half-finished joke. It calls to mind the tax inspector who speaks in tick-box forms from Asterix and the Cauldron, but that joke is carried right through the scene. Similarly the main enemy, Blockbustus is underdeveloped-that he hates hardship seems to be his only defining trait. I do love his butler Pridanprejudis. He's stoical and Jeeves-like although it has to be said he doesn't really do much. A bit of a wasted opportunity.

Lastly (of the good bits), Archaeopterix the old Druid is a nice conceit-he's a sort of senile super-computer, and the ending with the stories getting passed down to Goscinny and Uderzo is a lovely tribute. Now we come to a few of the problems, the first of which is an odd scene with the pirates. They aren't even sunk! Even in Asterix's most land based books the Pirates are scuttled in some way, and what do they hang on to the carrier pigeon for? They never appear again so we'll never know! It's just a confusing incongruity in the story-simply a way for the pigeon to never make its destination.

But that pales into comparison to the completely stupid solution to the story-the 'emergency measure' for when the village is really in trouble, Cacofonix's moomoophone. Cacofonix blows it when everything is going wrong, and the emergency warning travels all the way, person by person, to Getafix, Asterix and Obelix who then have to drink a special magic potion to run all the way back in record time to save the village! There's never been an emergency measure mentioned before, nor do the villagers actually need it as there's magic potion under Vitalstatistix's chair. Couldn't Cacofonix have had a secret network of bards to call Getafix-that might have been more logical. Did Ferri write himself into a corner by having Asterix and Obelix so far away from the main action? It just seems badly thought out. 

So what is this book missing? Asterix! He hardly has a role to play at all, and when he does come up with a plan to cross the river, for no dramatic or plot-advancing reason it's immediately abandoned. Seriously, he isn't needed at all apart from to beat up the special unit, which Obelix could have done had he not been avoiding conflict because of his horoscope. Obelix himself is really only here as comic relief. Getafix needs accompaniment on his journey of course, but in this book that's the only role our heroes perform-bodyguards. Ferri must use Asterix and Obelix better than this in future. 

According to interviews the authors have conducted they had a lot more time to compose this book, and it shows in the density of the ideas and more intricate plot than the previous book, but it seems to me that they might need more thorough editors. I really think the script for this book (and Picts) needed another draft. The extra time has afforded the excellent Conrad to better himself considerably. His scenes are fuller and there are moments where you can see him really enjoying himself, such as Archaeopterix's tree hut in the middle of the forest of the Carnutes.

So to sum up, the adventure is packed with ideas, but is actually a little dull, with very little drama or peril until right at the end. There are good jokes and ones that fall flat and some incongruities and odd decisions. I'm going to give it 7/10 which puts it with the best of the second teir books, but a long way short of the true greats like Asterix the Legionary. That said, it is an improvement on Picts and certainly adds something new to the series. I'm enjoying Ferri and Conrad's take, and am happy to accompany them on their journey and see where it takes us. I think they have the potential to pull off something really good somewhere along the line. 

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

All the Asterix Books. Reviewed. Briefly.

To celebrate the release of the latest Asterix book, the underwhelmingly titled ‘Asterix and the Missing Scroll’ I have prepared this epic post. I’ve read and reviewed (briefly) each of the preceding 35 volumes of Asterix and rated them out of 10. Think of it as THE definitive guide to which Asterix books to buy, if you are mad. Think of it as A guide by someone who likes and makes comics if you’re not. If you think I’ve got something desperately wrong, or even just bit wrong, feel free to comment or tweet me.

There are few elements of Asterix that I have taken into consideration in my reviews. Firstly I think that the magic potion device should not create incongruities in the story. In a few books the potion must be pretty much forgotten about for long passages in order to generate some dramatic tension. When you have essentially invincible characters you have to be clever to work around that problem, and on occasion that doesn’t happen. Even though these are humourous stories the series has its own internal logic, and it rings false when that is forgotten. Secondly, I think in the very best stories Asterix uses his cunning to confuse and confound his enemies-the best books have lots of this stuff. Thirdly, the parodies of people and places should feel fleshed out. Finally, I like to see great peripheral characters and antagonists.

Before the reviews, here’s my chart of the books in order of rating.

1. 10/10 Big Fight, Britain, Legionary
2. 9/10 Goths, Gladiator, Cleopatra, Chieftain’s Shield, Spain, Roman Agent, Mansions of the Gods, Obelix and Co
3. 8/10 The Gaul, Normans, Olympic Games, Corsica, Great Crossing, And Son
4. 7/10 Golden Sickle, Banquet, Cauldron, Switzerland, Soothsayer, Caesar’s Gift, Black Gold, Secret Weapon
5. 6/10 Laurel Wreath, Belgium, Great Divide, Picts
6. 5/10 Magic Carpet, All At Sea, Actress
7. 4/10 Class Act
8. 3/10 Falling Sky
9. 2/10 Golden Book

You’ll notice that it’s mostly the Goscinny volumes at the top. That’s because he really was a genius. Uderzo did a pretty good job at emulating his great friend in his solo books, but really, you don’t need to read any books after Belgium. Notes on the changes to the creative team are also below. I’ve also marked milestones such as first appearances of characters. Lastly, my reviews are far more focussed on the writing than the art and that’s because the art is so consistently brilliant that endless praising would end up rather repetitive.

1. Asterix the Gaul 8/10

A cracking story which establishes some of the best tropes of the series, such as the way Asterix frustrates the Romans. The designs and personalities of the characters are pretty embryonic and there are some elements which were quickly changed-such as the Gauls taking a regular dose of potion rather than when they specifically need it. Asterix displays his playful cunning when he confuses first the ox dealer, then all the Romans in the camp. Some of the best comedy comes from Asterix deliberately confusing people, but it's a characteristic he sadly lacks in many later books. The lack of Gaulish women is slightly peculiar-the men do a dance (with Cacofonix tunefully accompanying them!) after taking the potion-this is chiefly to facilitate the unmasking of the Roman spy of course, so feels rather contrived. The tickling torture scene is just silly. Later in the series such an incongruous scene would have been avoided. The climax with the hair growing potion is just brilliant, especially the page where the centurion progressively picks up smaller stones, convincing himself he's a superman. You can see why Asterix was instantly popular-it's such a terrific scenario. 

2. Asterix and the Golden Sickle 7/10

The designs of the characters have already evolved and we now begin the first 'away' book-this one takes the form of a detective story. (Asterix almost always has a home story-set in or around the village-then an away story where they travel to distant places). Obelix plays a greater part as he accompanies Asterix to Lutetia, and their relationship is already blossoming-Obelix's appetite frustrating Asterix. The journey begins with a short journey across the country and then sets up the mystery when they arrive in Lutetia. It all ends with a fun second half of frustrated Romans and a good use of repetition in the jokes. The parodies of Paris are pretty good, if underplayed, and there's some great wordplay. The other Gauls are not fleshed out yet, which is a weakness, but all the ingredients are pretty much here, it's just that the story never gets into top gear. Obelix says, "Shall we get them? Shall we get them?" for the first time. 

3. Asterix and the Goths 9/10

This book follows on from plot points from the previous book-something that was never repeated. It continues the established form of the series, has Getafix and the potion playing a central role, and this time the adventure becomes more brilliantly labyrinthine. The idiocy of the Romans and Goths as they demonstrate abject confusion chasing Asterix and Obelix around the forest is just wonderful. I particularly like how the two Gauls are described as a 'horde'. The poor swine of an interpreter is a great character, and Goscinny uses the repeated destruction of cell doors brilliantly-that idea is a step up from the same sort of thing in the previous book. Once again Getafix and Asterix have a lot of fun with their enemies-setting the Goths up against each other-which ramps up beautifully to become the Asterixian Wars. One of the strongest books in the series, just once again lacking a few more Gauls.

4. Asterix the Gladiator 9/10

Some genuinely laugh out loud moments in this one such as stuffing parsley in your ears to avoid Cacofonix's music, the baths, Obelix and Asterix confounding the Gladiator trainer and Asterix totally ruining the games. This one also features the first appearance of the Pirates and of Obelix collecting helmets. The manic irritation caused by our two heroes really gets going here, but it reaches even greater heights in Legionary. The one liners are also superb and we are treated to a wonderful depiction of Rome.

5. Asterix and the Banquet 7/10

This book hangs on the flimsiest of pretexts for a trip around Gaul-the Romans build a stockade to isolate the Gauls, then Asterix plans to sneak out to collect items for a banquet to prove the stockade is useless. He and Obelix sneak out by smashing through the fence! Why don't the Gauls just smash the whole thing? It's not like the Romans can stop them. And as the adventure progresses the problem with the magic potion concept rears its head-they run from Romans and then defeat them about two pages later. However, despite this, on the journey itself there are a lot of funny moments such as the chain sequence and it features the first appearance of Dogmatix. 

6. Asterix and Cleopatra 9/10

Dramatic and spectacular story with Egypt wonderfully realised. Some brilliant comic moments and Dogmatix gets to play a lead role in rescuing our heroes. Like in Gladiator, the problem of making slavery amusing is overcome with a great play on worker's rights and exploitation, but in this book it is used to drive the story forward. It's always bugged me that Edifis, the best architect in Egypt, is quite as useless as he is, but it makes for good comedy. The book is structured as series of problems in the construction of the palace, but each of them are strong ideas so it works, although it's a little odd how the story with Artifis peters out with 10 pages left before Caesar takes over as the baddie. There are some nice visual jokes too such as the Egyptian children crossing the road like hieroglyphs and 'Ptarzan' and 'Pnuts' on the back of Artifis' newspaper.

7. Asterix and the Big Fight 10/10

This book has some truly hilarious scenes and running jokes such as Obelix tapping people on the head with Menhirs, crazy manic Druids mixing potions and the wonderful scene early on with the camouflaged roman patrol. "Try to look as botanical as possible." "Do we form a square?" "No! Form a spinney!" Later the legionary disguised as a tree is just as good-the owl is a brilliant touch. Obelix gets some fantastic lines such as when he flattens Getafix with a Menhir in order to cure him: “My careful nursing”, and the banquet punchline is one of the best. The climactic scene with the fair put up around the fight is wonderfully conceived, as is the fight itself and the Roman double-cross (incidentally you have to wonder why they bothered with the brilliantly named Cassius Ceramix when they could have just captured Getafix in the first place and then attacked the village-but I suppose then it wouldn’t be much fun). 

8. Asterix in Britain 10/10

Goscinny has reached his peak with this book and the last one (and finds it again two books later). All the elements come together perfectly-wonderful parody of the British, a well plotted dramatic story with a great double climax, hilarious one-liners and great puns. (The translators have done a wonderful job). Uderzo seems to have raised his game slightly too, the characters are a little more expressive and the designs even more elegant. The scene in the Tower of London and the Romans getting drunk searching for magic potion are particular highlights, as is the Rugby match. This is quite a unique sequence in the series-it remains classic Asterix, yet is markedly different from any other set piece, and it adds another element to make this book a real standout volume. 

9. Asterix and the Normans 8/10

The meaning of fear conceit doesn't quite work-the Normans seem to understand the word but also think it will make them fly? It's a peculiar device that may work better in French, but it hangs the plot together adequately. Obelix's quest for Cacofonix is over too quickly-tension could have been built up further. Again there are issues with invincible Gauls-Asterix and Obelix could have just waded in and freed the young Lutetian Gaul, Justforkix. Incidentally, Justforkix is a great character that makes Asterix and Obelix seem like peculiar middle aged heroes. Goscinny's satire on modern youth culture and Parisian life takes centre stage and ties in throughout with an excellent use of Cacofonix. His jokes and word play are particularly strong. Uderzo's Normans are a joy-beautifully designed. In this book Dogmatix howls at trees being uprooted for the first time and we finally see a fully realised Fulliautomatix. 

10. Asterix the Legionary 10/10

The lead into the story is wonderfully paced, full of humour and intelligently set up to feel natural, but when we get to Condatum the story suddenly becomes a sustained exercise in comic genius. It's the culmination of an idea that has been developed before (frustrating the Romans to the point of madness basically), but by throwing Asterix and Obelix into the army where they are subordinate to the Romans, that idea really sings. What is so brilliant about Asterix is that it's not just about bashing Romans with superhuman strength (although that never stops being satisfying), it's about when they're NOT doing that and using their wits and good natured humour as weapons instead. Just about the best running joke is here, the repeated asides about crying because you're in love. Plus..."We Romans are crazy!"

11. Asterix and the Chieftain's Shield 9/10

This one is plotted like a detective story fitting around the larger concerns of Gaulish history and with some classic moments-like Vitalstatistix's liver pain. The structure gives the story more urgency and drama than many other books. The charcoal is a lovely repeat joke-I'm sure it works even better in French as it's got to be an in-joke, but even better is the gloriously lazy, sometimes drunken legionary, Pusillanimus, who sweeps flagstones one half at a time. He and Crapulus, another drunk, get their just (sort of) rewards when Caesar promotes them far above their station. (I would have liked to see how that panned out…). One sour note: when you couple Uderzo's big lipped black characters (he was never one to shy from an outright racist caricature-but that was the times I suppose) with a story idea of little natives scuttling about delivering messages like little more than machines, you've got yourself a definitively racist joke. These little guys are dressed in grass skirts and look identical! In many ways it's a reflection, through parody of modern offices, of attitudes of the past, but Asterix should be turning those on its head to make its points in my opinion. 

12. Asterix at the Olympic Games 8/10

The magic potion is used perfectly in this book and makes sense throughout. It's a great twist to have the Romans take the potion and still lose. The first half contains lots of comedic vignettes which also serve the plot. The repeated jokes (the broom, pots) are not quite as good as in previous books, but the page about mushroom soup is fantastic. The biggest problem is that the actual games do not play a bigger part-they come right at the end and there is little drama. One panel for a race? Also there is only one really well-drawn athlete character (Gluteus Maximus) A (slightly) missed opportunity. Geriatrix gets his first small role.

13. Asterix and the Cauldron 7/10

This one begins in a darker tone and despite a few jokes, it feels markedly different to the previous book. Dramatically this book really works and it's well plotted, but it does seem to be at the expense of a degree of the humour-in fact the humorous scenes (selling boars, fighting gladiators) are a little bit sad. This use of pathos marks the start of Goscinny's more mature take on Asterix. With the acting sequence (Orgies, orgies!) Goscinny's satire becomes more biting. It's a more rounded, better written book than previous ones in many ways, but just not as exuberantly funny. This is also the book where Uderzo's characters are noticeably taller and more realistically proportioned. There’s also a little role for Chanticleerix the rooster.

14. Asterix in Spain 9/10

This is a great book. The character of the Spanish is wonderful, and once Pepe is given to Obelix to look after the humour ramps up superbly. The plot is slick and the drawing beautiful. As previously noted, over the last three books the characters are being drawn a little taller and less extreme in their caricature; Asterix is reaching full maturity. It's a lesson in pacing for the later writer Ferri- for any comic writer! - our heroes don't even leave the village till half way through, once the story has turned naturally to returning Pepe. 

15. Asterix and the Roman Agent 9/10

This book marks the first time Caesar attempts to sew discontent in the Gaulish village. It's a very funny book (although there are funnier earlier books.) Vitalstatistix is getting regularly dropped by his shield bearers, and Impedimenta (the best name of all the characters by my reckoning) is haranguing him, Unhygienix smells of fish-classic elements coming together. The supporting characters such as Magnumopus work very well and it's not as dark as Asterix and the Cauldron, which helps. Missus Geriatrix gets a role, and the rest of the women are fleshed out much more, as is the relationship between Fulliautomatix and Unhygienix. Goscinny has really hit his stride with the more mature Asterix by this point. 

16. Asterix in Switzerland 7/10

This book has some of the creepiest and darkest scenes and characters of all the books, with its frequent references to orgies (which appear to be sexless parties where the Romans gorge themselves and indulge in a friendly bit of torture) and its plot involving the poisoning of a Roman Quaestor. There's also Obelix's drunkenness which is not that funny, but is used very well during the denouement. The book settles down into a good chase romp and is very enjoyable, but once again the magic potion must be all but forgotten for long passages to facilitate the chase. A curiosity is that I've never seen this book in a clear print. The line is always rather murky, and even in the most recent reprints the pages have not been cleaned up and recoloured. Seems the fastidious Swiss lost out to the filthy Romans.

17. The Mansions of the Gods 9/10

A revisiting of the same structure as Roman Agent, with Caesar using his brain to try to trick the Gauls rather than the might of his armies. It has the classic frustration of the Roman commanders thing that Goscinny does so well, but whereas Roman Agent was slightly dark, this is pitched perfectly. Classic Asterix. The story is slightly shorter than normal with lots of big panels and an unnecessary tablet double spread.

18. Asterix and the Laurel Wreath 6/10

Goscinny employs a non-linear structure at the beginning of this book for the only time in any of the Asterix books. It might be to cover up that this book is not particularly exciting. It ticks a lot of boxes but fails to really take flight. Once again, to suit the plot, Asterix and Obelix abandon the potion. 

19. Asterix and the Soothsayer 7/10

A solid if unspectacular book. It contains all the classic elements but fails to really soar. One saving grace is the character of the Optione who's sometimes like a London Bobby and sometimes like a Sergeant Major. He's beautifully realised in long-necked, puff chested glory by Uderzo. It's a pity that the centurion is rather generic (although still drawn wonderfully) and the Soothsayer is the sort of character we've seen before. 

20. Asterix in Corsica 8/10

With this book we find Uderzo's art take on a slightly loser and more expressive feel- more exaggerated poses, with a little less smoothness to the line. For my money it's better in many ways although that is maybe just a matter of taste. There's some really painful wordplay at the beginning and Asterix and Obelix go to Corsica on the thinnest of pretexts, but the depiction of the island and the Corsicans is really superb. It's nice to see old faces return at the beginning. It makes the world a bit more rounded- characters are not entirely forgotten about from book to book. 

21. Asterix and Caesar's Gift 7/10

Finally Vitalstatistix gets his permanent shield bearers who remain with him in every subsequent book. It's curious it took this long to establish them, but their part has been growing every time they drop the chief. This book is a curiosity because the Gauls come as close to destruction as they ever have as a result of Caesar playing a trick on a drunk old soldier- it's not directly a plot against them. The resultant effect on the village is completely unintentional, it's caused simply by their own stupidity and fighting spirit, so it's a sort of an original way of using an old idea. Asterix gets a nice action sequence with a bit of jeopardy, but Obelix has the best lines.

22. Asterix and the Great Crossing 8/10

The second book in a row where the adventure begins accidentally. You sense Goscinny was pushing Asterix in different directions, but keeping to his firmly established rules-something that Uderzo plainly fails to do in his later solo books. There's not a Roman in sight and it feels fresh because of it. Not the funniest book, but pretty strong. For me Uderzo reaches his artistic peak here. The way Obelix weighs down one end of the boat resting on beautifully realised water is fantastic, as is their nighttime escape. 

23. Obelix and Co 9/10

This story is a culmination of the ideas begun in Roman Agent and The Mansions of the Gods- to weaken the Gauls by means other than force-and it's brilliant. It's a satire on capitalism centred around creating a market for the totally useless menhir. Goscinny simply uses an established feature of Asterix as the centre of his story which makes it all the better. It doesn't feel forced and the 'heap big' talk becomes funnier and funnier as the story develops. 

24. Asterix in Belgium 6/10

Goscinny's last book is fittingly a tribute the country that's given so much to French language comic books. It's rather self-indulgent, featuring a breaking of the fourth wall, numerous classical allusions and an extended parody of the battle of Waterloo, complete with altered lines (in the English translation) of Byron's 'The Eve of Waterloo'. It's got some good moments, but it's rather thin plot wise and relies heavily on references to Belgium (manikin pis, Thomson and Thompson, mussels and frites etc). Also notable is that Uderzo starts to draw it raining two thirds of the way through to mark his friend and colleague's tragic early death. Artistically it's even more expressively drawn than the previous few books and there is a greater absence of backgrounds, but then Belgium doesn't have a lot of geographical features. Perhaps Uderzo didn't want to dwell on this book for understandable reasons. Despite its exuberance it always makes me feel slightly melancholy. With Goscinny's death the series would never reach the same heights again. 

25. Asterix and the Great Divide 6/10

Uderzo's first book is one of his best. It's a different sort of story and breathes a bit of new life into the series. His more magical imagination makes itself apparent with the strange effects the potions have on the Romans and he breaks the fourth wall briefly just as Goscinny did in the previous volume. There are a few illogical moments that require some explanation by the characters- something Goscinny would probably not have needed to do. The divide itself is milked for humour and is pretty funny, although Histrionix is an odd character. He's rather bland and homoerotic with his big moustache and short tunic, and he often seems to be drawn in a different style to everyone else. 

26. Asterix and the Black Gold 7/10

A travel and spy story which works well, even if it lacks a bit of sparkle. One of Uderzo's strongest solo books, featuring a great scene where our heroes encounter lots of Semitic tribes at war with each other in the desert. The character of Dubbelosix is great to begin with, with his fold up chariot and James Bond attitude, but this isn't really carried through- in the end he's sort of pathetic which doesn't really ring true. The fly messenger in love with him is an odd comedic device, but it sort of works. What this book really lacks is some classic frustration- I'd like to see Dubbelosix crying by the end! Jerusalem is rendered beautifully and Saul Ben Ephishul is a great name. Ekonomikrisis from Gladiator returns. 

27. Asterix and Son 8/10

Uderzo outdoes himself with a really well plotted and funny book. The baby taking the magic potion and causing havoc is great, Asterix for once suffering the most. Brutus, who had hitherto been a bit of a background joke makes an excellent villain and the payoff with the baby being Caesar and Cleopatra's son is very satisfying. One of my favourite lines: Asterix: What would I do without you, Obelix? Obelix: All sorts of silly things. 

28. Asterix and the Magic Carpet 5/10

After the previous solo books, Uderzo rather lets himself down here. The book takes the form of a straightforward race against time, the baddies just smugly waiting for the time to run out- and it all hinges on a wholly unconvincing plot device- Cacofonix making it rain (which becomes a continuing characteristic of his). Apparently the Fakir has heard that the bard can make it rain even though he's never done it before. Perhaps a better idea would have been that the Fakir was looking for Getafix, but he's indisposed and Cacofonix saves the day by suddenly making it rain. Some jokes fall very flat ("The answer is a lemon"), the repetition is actually annoying and the story over-relies on Obelix's appetite to generate some incident and humour. The highlight is a beautiful few pages where Uderzo lets loose his talent depicting some Indian wildlife. 

29. Asterix and the Secret Weapon 7/10

This book is all about women's lib and is better plotted than some of Uderzo's solo books, in fact this is the most recent book that is really worth reading. An interesting new subject, and you can feel the author's confusion and frustration coming through. The ridiculously inappropriate ending is very amusing, but sort of undermines the message. Another book when Asterix becomes the most frustrated character, so much so that he hits Bravura. It's very out of character, but he is quickly forgiven. Was it really necessary? 

30. Asterix and Obelix All At Sea 5/10

This book has a peculiar uneven plot that feels a little desperate. The bit in Atlantis before the ending is hardly explored and actually pretty pointless. They don't get a cure for Obelix and why the slaves want to be kids I've no idea. The idea of Obelix being a kid is on the surface a good one, but taking the regular version away weakens the formula- it's just not as funny without Obelix, as shown with the spectacular scene of him destroying the Roman camp with a ship when back to normal. I also think Spartakis could have inspired a much better story. 

31. Asterix and the Actress 5/10

The plot of this one is a little all over the place and the fate of the actress is rather unsatisfying. In addition the sequence with Asterix bouncing out to sea and being rescued by a dolphin is just downright odd. It's fun to see Asterix and Obelix hounded by their mothers, but focusing on that might have made better book. There's also a bit about Romans looking for Roman traitors which feels like a wasted opportunity. A few old characters return which unfortunately serves to make sequences in this book feel like they've been done better before 

32. Asterix and the Class Act 4/10

A collection of shorts and curiosities from various publications along with some new pages. Unfortunately none of it is particularly funny or essential for Asterix lovers. One story introduces Asterix and Obelix's parents and establishes that they were born at the same time, which contradicts the events at the beginning of Obelix and Co. There's a story featuring Goscinny and Uderzo themselves, there's an oddity with a personification of spring that hints at Uderzo's more fantastic stories to come and some intriguing images of Asterix drawn in different styles. along with various other vignettes. There's a good one from Elle magazine featuring Mrs Geriatrix where the narrative stands ironically from the action, but the best is a one pager, superbly written by Goscinny about the use of Latin in modern language. Short, sharp, clever and with an excellent punchline, it makes me wish they'd done a few more single pagers. 

33. Asterix and the Falling Sky 3/10

Pretty poor- the weakest regular book in the series. An unsophisticated alien plot with truly dreadful allusions to Disney and Manga. There's some strange bits in the plot, such as when the alien enemies come to an agreement out of the blue, and Toon growing large and then black is neither funny nor serves much purpose. The shading on the characters under the spaceship light is one redeeming feature, they look especially beautiful during this sequence. You feel that Uderzo has lost interest in the characters and has stopped having fun. How long since Asterix has been his mischievous self? Here he's again rather anxious and put-upon. Also there's an abundance of large panels. Perhaps it's now only the drawing he is inspired by, or perhaps he just wanted to get the book done quickly, but you have to forgive him, he was 78 by this point. 

34. Asterix and Obelix's Birthday, The Golden Book 2/10

Clunky title for a clunky book. This is designed as a celebration of Asterix's 50th anniversary (surely Asterix and Obelix's Golden Anniversary would be a better title). It's like one of those terrible TV specials they used to have or an episode of This Is Your Life. There are famous painting pastiches and a guidebook and tons of characters reappear to pay their unique tributes, but if that sounds like fun, it isn't. The biggest problem with this book is that it's so boring! It's such a chore to read I couldn't wait till it was over. The best bit by far is seeing the villagers aged by 50 years at the beginning and possibly when the centurions get the runs. Otherwise, don't bother. 

35. Asterix and the Picts 6/10

So a new creative team for Asterix. By now the series carries a lot of baggage, mostly from the recent Uderzo solo books but also Goscinny's later 'dark' period. Asterix and Obelix just don't feel as young and as carefree as once they did, so a return to basics here seems somewhat incongruous. It might have been a very interesting development if Ferri had been given a free hand to reinvent the series- get rid of Caesar, say, and introduce a young Emperor Augustus, but I guess they were commissioned to not mess with the formula. So then, this book is a good effort but much of the comedy falls flat and there are some peculiar decisions (Dogmatix interacting with Nessie could have worked well. Why leave him in the village for no reason?) It often feels like it's all been done before, but better. Some non sequiturs have snuck in with the translation-perhaps due to the death of co-translator Derek Hockridge. A word for Conrad, who does a spectacular job of aping Uderzo. Where do they find such brilliant cartoonists in France? See my full review on this blog for more. 

Monday, September 28, 2015

Could anyone inform me as to where, what, and why I am?

More Burp! These are the last strips from the pages of the regular Oink! When it went weekly Banx reverted to single pagers (with one exception and a two-parter). With that change the stories became less epic, and more like the straight humour strips (does that work 'straight humour'?) they used to be. There are still some great moments like the return of poor Alvin the animate teddy bear and I love it when Burp attempts sculpture.

Still to come, the stories from the specials and annuals!

Saturday, July 4, 2015

You gotta speculate

I'd love to have a regular strip in Private Eye, but it's not easy to get one. They've got a lot of regulars in there taking up that vital space. They're a mixed bag-some are still spot on, some seem to have outstayed their welcome by years.

Here was my most recent attempt from last year when floods, independent Scotland and Prince George were in the news. It's about a time travelling Buck Rogers type which I thought gave it a good angle for commentary on modern life. It's available for commission magazine editors!

Some more Burp

Whoops, I forgot to blog this year and it's already July. Here are some more of Banx' mighty Burp strip.

First up, a beautiful strip featuring the Ramjet Angel. Has anyone ever played with the themes of the cruelty of capitalism and loss like this in a kids comic strip?

Next a short one-pager before the final two page Burp strip. This might have made the greatest Tharg's Future Shock ever. Seriously, the writing is that good. If you've read the latest 2000AD sci-fi special like I have you might have been disappointed in the Future Shocks story where the punchline was screamingly obvious from the first panel. Try guessing what happens at the end of this!

Then, sadly, Oink! went weekly and Banx reverted to one-page strips, which I shall be posting next.  The strips still burnt bright, but had reached their pinnacle with the Sand Planet, the Ramjet Angel and others...

...But there was time for one last hurrah before Oink! went monthly and Banx no longer graced its pages. Stay tuned for the stories from the specials and the annuals and the eight page spectacular which reveals how Burp became a man.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Character evolution

One of the main concerns that make drawing comics a rather different skill to gag cartooning or illustration is having to draw the same character over and over again. Lots of different poses and expressions are required, so an ability to render your central character convincingly over a series of strips really adds concincing depth. The strange thing about doing multiple stories is the way characters evolve. As a writer of strips, I can tell you that the personalities of characters definitely alter as time goes on. Different scenarios require different responses that might have not been built into the character at the time of conception, and as this process of organic world building continues, then characters definitely deepen and become more rounded, if not real.

However, this post is more concerned with a strange process that goes along with that-that of the evolution of the design of characters. Often this is a combination of conscious changes and subconscious or unconscious changes, and when you look back at the pages it can genuinely be a surprise at how much a design has evolved. Take a look at the evolution of my silent space gladiator, Pow.

I can tell you that the changes with his chin were part conscious and part unconscious. It was firstly a matter of necessity to alter the shape of it because as the strip developed from a half page to a multiple page story he needed to be capable of a far greater range of expression (mostly happy ones-he was a bit nasty when he started). The final changes where the jaw became more squared off just sort of happened. You'll notice in the final image that the shape of his feet have changed-I decided to do this a few strips ago as a general move towards softening him into a friendlier character. The strangest change is that in the first strips he is very heavy set and it surprised me greatly when I looked back and saw the transition to a more streamlined and slender design. I rather like his brutal appearance at the beginning, but his current incarnation is much more versatile to work with and actually helps him cope better with the situations I throw him into. He no longer punches his way to success, but has become more of a lateral thinker. 

When designing a character I use three simple rules: 

1. Make them instantly recognisable. There's a lot of characters out there, so a unique appearance is important. Matt Groening designed each of the Simpsons with a strikingly different silhouette. A well designed character should be recognised by their outline.

2. Plasticity. Cartoon characters need to stretch so they have to be designed in such a way that you can mush them up and they retain their recognisability. I use blue skin, pink hair and a robot arm as reference points that mean my character can be transformed into almost anything and as long as he keeps those three characteristics the reader can follow-very important in a silent strip where there is no speech or narration to help.

3. Make them easy to draw. If you bog your character down with loads and loads of detail and have to draw them 100 times a week you are going to get extremely annoyed with work you should be enjoying. This doesn't seem to apply to the more figurative end of cartooning-the sort of thing you find in 2000AD and Marvel. The more attachments to a character's outfit the better apparently. I've no idea how they do it, but for the kind of humour cartooning I do less is definitely the way to go.

Here's a great example from the other strip I produce for The Phoenix, Useleus. The artist Wilbur Dawbarn recently noted how huge Minotaur had become, and it was a surprise to him to compare old episodes with what he is doing now. Because Minotaur is really well conceived as a design, the evolution probably went completely unnoticed by the reader. Again, there have been conscious and unconscious alterations. His nose and jawline has changed to allow Wilbur greater freedom to give him expression. Take a look.

One of the most obvious and noted changes to occur to a character (probably because the books are so widely read and popular) is that of Obelix. I always liked the earlier Obelix, from roughly the 4th book to the 12th. After that, responding perhaps to Goscinny writing stories which dealt more with parody of modern existence and darker themes, Uderzo began to stretch out his characters. They became more realistically proportioned and less squat, although 'realistic' is pushing it with Obelix with his tiny legs and massive belly, but you get the idea. You can see from these images how Uderzo has modified Obelix over the 50 years he drew him. 

I'd say that this sort of change is universal with comic characters. Intriguingly, the biggest changes often seem to be from the first strip to the second. Perhaps because the designs are stretched to their limits over that story and found inadequate, and so have to be altered for the next.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Observer Prize entry-The Insider

Congratulations to Alexis Deacon who won the prize this year-a really fabulous artist. Here is my entry: