Asterix and the Chariot Race
Asterix and the Chariot Race - Jean-Yves Ferri & Didier Conrad ***
It was clear that the Asterix series was never going to be the same without its original creators René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo involved, although the series managed very well with Uderzo taking on both writing and drawing duties after Goscinny's death in 1977. Since Uderzo retired in 2009, the series has continued with the new creative team of Jean-Yves Ferri and Didier Conrad, and to be honest, on a surface glance at Asterix and the Chariot Race (their third post-Uderzo title and the 37th title in the series) you'd scarcely notice the difference. Uderzo's drawing style is replicated well, the characters retain their familiar characteristics, poses and mannerisms, and the plot is classic Asterix. There is nonetheless a nagging feeling that something is missing.
The Roman-bashing Gauls are back in action then, but in Asterix and the Chariot Race, it's not so much a one-sided magic potion-fuelled punch-up as a competitive race in the manner of Asterix and the Olympic Games - obviously knocking about a few Romans along the way, of course. The race comes at the behest of Senator Lactus Bifidus, who has been challenged about the lamentable state of the once proud Roman roads. Bifidus announces that he will arrange a great chariot race across the 'Italic Peninsula', inviting competitors from all the great ancient nations to show that a true marvel the Roman roads really are. Obelix has recently just purchased a racing chariot from a used chariot salesman, and Chief Vitalstatistix approves of Asterix and Obelix entering as a team. "Why not?"
So, if you've read Asterix and the Olympic Games (a much better book, way ahead of the game relating to the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sport), you'll know what to expect here. Asterix and Obelix get to mix with competitors of every nation, providing the writers with the opportunity to indulge in the familiar funny racial stereotypes. The pirates make an obligatory cameo appearance (and inevitably have their chariot 'sunk' along the way, with a pun or Latin quotation thrown in) as does their old adversary Julius Caesar. The Romans cheat of course, and yes, a few legions unfortunate to cross paths with the Gauls are the recipients of a few PAFs! BIFFs! and BOFFs! Magic potions, roast wild boars... and hey presto (or By Toutatis!) another Asterix book.
Andrea Bell no longer provides the English translation for Asterix, but the familiar sense of humour with puns remain with the ludicrously funny names of the characters. In addition to my favourite Outinthastix, we have Bitovamess and Undaduress as the rather never-in-a-hurry easy-going Lusitanians (Portuguese), the Briton chariot team consists of Madmax and Ecotax, while the cheating Roman chariot is steered by Coronavirus with his co-pilot Bacillus. There are a few clever twists on historical places and events, but some of the visual jokes don't really 'translate'. Coronavirus, for example, races wearing a Stig-like mask, but when his identity is later revealed it's presumably that of a popular celebrity, but who it is was lost on me until I did a Google search and found that it's apparently Alain Prost (who would I think be more recognisable to the book's native French readership).
So that's possibly as much my fault as the creators then, since I didn't recognise Silvio Berlusconi as Garus Lupus either (I don't think the likeness or context makes it clear), but the failings of Asterix and the Chariot Race go a little bit deeper than that. To state the obvious, what is missing is Albert Uderzo, or to be precise, his vastly underrated art. You can mimic the style, but Didier Conrad doesn't have Uderzo's eye for compositions, the layouts consequently look rather messy and I also thought that the colouration is quite garish. The pacing of Ferri's plot is also nowhere near as strong as the older books, with no sense of urgency or of anything really being at stake, either by the Gauls or the Romans.
But, if it's this or no new Asterix at all, I think many would be happy that the tradition continues, and Asterix and the Chariot Race does certainly have its moments, even if it's only to remind you of earlier greater ones.
Asterix and the Chariot Race by Jean-Yves Ferri and Didier Conrad was published by Orion on 2nd November 2017