Thursday, 5 October 2017

Asterix and Cleopatra by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo - volume 6

It's not hard to spot the influence for this album, with the original serialisation having come in the same year as the film Cleopatra, with the title character even drawn to resemble Elizabeth Taylor. This album used to have a non-traditional cover that resembled a movie poster, calling it "The Greatest Story Ever Drawn" and even listing what had gone into it in terms of writing & drawing materials and beer. However, the modern editions have dropped this in favour of the overall standardisation of the series and perhaps also because the passage of time has diminished the parody. Still it's a sign of the series riding the cultural zeitgeist of the day and presenting its own take on the relationship between the Queen of Egypt (who has a very pretty nose) and the Roman Dictator.

Featuring two of the best known historical characters in the series, there's inevitably a lot of historic licence taken with this story. But the series has never set out to be historically accurate and so we can simply ignore the fact that in 50 BC Julius Caesar and Cleopatra (who has a very pretty nose) hadn't even met yet. The story also has absurd vessel speeds, with Edifis given three months to build a palace in Alexandria and yet somehow finding the time to travel by sea all the way to Armorica (Brittany) and back. The Sphinx also appears to lose its nose rather earlier than in reality. Again, this is a sign of how the series takes elements of popular history and distils them to tell adventures without regard for the known historical facts. In a story parodying a Hollywood film this approach could almost be seen as deliberate.

The story sees the series and our heroes continue their visits to the best-known locations in the ancient world, but this time there's a strong plot to the tale as Cleopatra (who has a very pretty nose) commissions the architect Edifis to build a great palace in order to win an argument with Caesar. Both Caesar and the rival architect Artifis seek to stop the construction, each for their own reasons. Edifis turns to Getafix for help and Asterix, Obelix and Dogmatix accompany the druid to Egypt where they aim to get the palace built in time and stop the various machinations in time. It's a well thought through scenario that still allows for some travel within Egypt to see great sites such as the pyramids and the Sphinx yet also retaining a narrative cohesion that has been lacking at times in some of the earlier albums as they jump from one location to another.

Here we finally get a name for the little dog who followed Asterix and Obelix all around Gaul in Asterix and the Banquet. Now named "Dogmatix", a pun that works well in taking the original French name ("Idéfix") and translating it directly yet in a way that adds as well. He's also now clearly established as Obelix's pet whereas before he had shown no clear preference between Asterix and Obelix. At first Asterix is angry about the dog coming, but later Dogmatix proves his worth in rescuing them from a pyramid, although he's unable to a message to Cleopatra (who has a very pretty nose) on his own. The series shows a continued awareness of its own conventions, with the pirates by now seeking to avoid conflict with the Gauls to the point that when they discover them they opt to save on a battle and sink their own ship immediately rather that get beaten anyway. Caesar is also now fully aware of the Gauls, instantly describing all three of them when his spy reports back. There's also a drawn-out pun about Obelix trying his hardest to taste the magic potion, although there's a rather odd scene when the three Gauls are trapped inside a pyramid and Getafix decides to give him a few drops. It's not clear if this is actually the real potion, and thus represents the series breaking one of its established rules, or merely a psychological trick to give the menhir deliveryman the determination to break down the doors.

The story is unambiguously on the side of the Egyptians in Cleopatra's bet, portraying them as a proud and sophisticated society, though their modern architecture leaves something to be desired. The Gauls mainly supply physical support in the form of Getafix's magic potion that soon gets the workers moving and also in outwitting first Artifis and then Caesar in their machinations. Artifis in particular is depicted as one of the most despicable yet cowardly villains seen so far, plotting to have both Edifis and the three Gauls executed but seeking to do so by manipulating Cleopatra (who has a very pretty nose) rather than directly. Even more cowardly is his henchman Krukhut who crumbles at the first threat. It is a real surprise when at the end of the story the two architects announce that they have reconciled and gone into business together.

Death is ever near in the story, with Krukhut at one point trapping the Gauls inside a pyramid to die amidst the pharaohs. Later Artifis sends a heavily poisoned cake to Cleopatra (who has a very pretty nose) to frame the Gauls, with the royal taster nearly killed. Cleopatra lives in fear of assassination. The threat to be fed to crocodiles is ever present. Caesar launches an assault on the palace that is much more brutal than previous attacks, including an artillery bombardment. It's a much strong and darker tale than we've seen before in the series, thus upping the stakes and making for a tenser finale.

There are some jokes that are a little repetitive, such as the near constant mentioning of Cleopatra's nose, but otherwise this is easily the best story in the series so far, delivering a strong coherent narrative in a tense setting.

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