Asterix And The Picts: The First Book In 8 Years And Set In Scotland

14/08/2014 16:55 | Updated 22 May 2015

Parenting, as we know, offers many rewards. Amongst the most underrated is the joyful excuse to rediscover many of the things we loved best in our own childhoods. To name but a few: Lego, jammy dodgers, hula hoops, new felt tips and of course, wonderful children's books.

So it was that the arrival on our doormat of the first new Asterix book (if you are an Asterix pro you call them albums) for eight years was greeted with great excitement not only by my nine-year-old son, Charlie, but also by his 39-year-old father.

Asterix and the Picts, the 35th in the series, was published last week to huge fanfare. The stories of the plucky little Gaul and incredibly strong but not particularly bright companion Obelix have been delighting, amusing and even sneakily teaching a smattering of history to their readers since 1959, when they made their debut in a French comic.

Since the first book, Asterix the Gaul was published in 1961, Asterix has sold over 350,000,000 copies in 110 different languages. The characters have inspired a theme park, eight films, and new 3D feature length movie which will come out next year.

This latest adventure is of particular interest to fans as it is the first to be written and illustrated by someone other than the original creators Rene Goscinny and Albert Uderzo.

When Goscinny died in 1977 the writing was taken on by the illustrator Uderzo. The resulting books, though still hugely successful, are widely considered never to have quite hit the heights of the original collaborations. When Uderzo retired in 2011 the decision was taken to look for a new team to carry on the Asterix adventures.

The path to publication has – rather like an Asterix adventure – been far from smooth. There was a court case seeking to block the book brought by Uderzo's daughter, a family feud and the resignation of one overwhelmed illustrator. Now the carefully selected new team – writer Jean-Yves Ferri and illustrator Didier Conrad - hope that their creation will please existing fans and win over a new generation of readers.

As with all the Asterix stories we start with some scene setting. The year is 50 B.C and Gaul (as France then was) is occupied by the Romans – apart, that is from one small village which is home to our heroes.

Fans will be delighted to spot immediately many of the books' best-loved characters. Getafix, the village druid and preparer of a special super-human strength giving potion; Vitalstatistix, the chief of the tribe; Cacofonix, the dreaded bard and singer; Geriatrix and Unhygenix the fish vendor are all present.

The story centres on the discovery by Asterix and Obelix of a Pict "from distant Caledonia" who has been frozen in ice and washed up on the shores of Gaul. They set about returning their new friend Macaroon to his native Scotland, reuniting him with his beloved fiancée Cammomila and ousting the wicked chieftain Maccabeus.

En route they meet the Loch Ness monster, try tossing the caber, eat as often as possible and take the opportunity to beat up as many Romans as they can. Amongst these is the hapless Limitednumbus, trying desperately to take a census.

The story line is, it must be said, less tight than that of the classic Asterix adventures. There are several loose ends and unexplained twists and turns, but the gags are nonetheless very enjoyable (the women folk fawning over Macaroon and trying to dress their Gaulish husbands in tartan for instance).

The drawings meanwhile are gloriously detailed, mad cap and up to the standard of the originals. Perhaps unsurprisingly as Uderzo kept a watchful eye on the proceedings and also supplied the lovely cover image of Obelix tossing the caber.

The translation too is as impressive as ever. Asterix always reads as well in English as it does in French with the character names and local jokes a real joy.

That picking up the Asterix baton was a daunting task is something its new team – both of whom were born the year Asterix first appeared - have made no secret about. "We're honoured we've been chosen to do this but, at the same time, we're also intimidated because it's a huge responsibility to live up to the memory we had as young readers," said writer Didier Conrad recently.

Illustrator Jean-Yves Ferri probably felt even greater pressure, with the original illustrator so closely involved.

"It's a bit like when you're used to driving a small car and all of a sudden you're told to drive a massive train – the proportion is very different to what we're used to..... So we're working on it and we're learning ... we're still learning now which is why we're a bit shaky!"

Certainly it seems that many readers are prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt. The new book sold over two million copies in one week in France alone and is now selling fast on its second print run.

Nine- year –old Charlie was engrossed, declaring the book "very good". His favourites remain the early titles, Asterix and the Goths and Asterix and the Gladiator, but there was plenty to make him chuckle and he is "looking forward to the next one".

His father, something of an Asterix purist, was less convinced, enjoying the pictures more than the story line. Reader reviews of the title suggest a similar spilt in opinion.

Whether you deem Asterix and the Picts a classic or not though, it is a useful reminder of just what a timeless, funny, readable and visually rewarding character Asterix is – whatever your age.

Asterix and the Picts (Orion books, £10.99).


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