Tripwire continues its 100 Graphic Novels You Should Read While Stuck Inside with its eighth choice, Asterix: The Mansions Of The Gods, by Goscinny and Uderzo, reviewed by senior editor Andrew Colman…
Asterix: The Mansions Of The Gods
Writer: Rene Goscinny
Artist: Albert Uderzo
France’s greatest comic book export reached its zenith in 1969, with Asterix in Spain, and continued with a run of peerless albums that ended in 1975’s Asterix and the Great Crossing. Picking a favourite entry out of the ten adventures that were published in those six years is nigh-on impossible – an equal would be Asterix and the Roman Agent, with Asterix in Switzerland, Soothsayer and Laurel Wreath very close contenders. In the end, Mansions of the Gods just shades it for me, as in this particular instance, the Gaulish ensemble are unwittingly battling for the very soul of the village against Julius Caesar’s most assiduous plan to defeat them – by co-opting them and forcing them to integrate through bringing the city of Rome and its trappings to their doorstep.
In its early period, Goscinny and Uderzo’s series mainly relied on light yet affectionate stereotypes (except with the Goths) and knockabout, slapstick humour. The pun-heavy dialogue was less sophisticated, and the supporting cast of villagers had yet to develop. Of course, there were some terrific episodes from that era, especially Asterix the Gladiator, Asterix and Cleopatra, Asterix and the Big Fight and of course Asterix in Britain, the latter a brilliantly plotted work which parodied all aspects of typical Brits, yet was never hostile (it was probably as genial a Gallic portrayal of us as there had been up until then). However the Paris riots of 1968 proved to be pivotal – a moment in history that forced many French comic artists and writers to reconsider their cultural position and subsequently to add a political or at least contemporary component to their oeuvre. Goscinny and Uderzo were certainly no exception to this sea change.
The story is somewhat more involved than usual – Julius Caesar hatches a cunning plan to undermine and disperse the rebellious Gauls by gentrifying the forest area next to their village. Caesar enlists an architect who is billeted at one of the garrisoned camps near the villagers to bring Roman civilisation to their area under the banner of “The Mansions of the Gods”. The nonplussed Gauls, baffled by the architect’s behaviour, initially play cat and mouse with this new interloper – they regrow all the trees uprooted by his slave workers, thereby destroying his morale. Eventually however Asterix and Obelix relent in order for the slaves, bolstered by Getafix’s magic potion, to be freed on completion of the first block of flats. This inevitably backfires on the villagers as the newly-arrived Roman expats visit the village, colonising it with their couture, values and of course wealth. Before long, the villagers are fighting bitterly amongst themselves for trade, and all unity and common interest evaporates.
As always it is Asterix, using his intelligence rather than his fists, who, with Obelix’s help, rescues the village from disintegration by frightening one of the Mansions residents into leaving before replacing him with Cacofonix and his unbearable racket. In the end, what could’ve been the last gasp for the village turns once again into triumph. Goscinny and Uderzo added further weight with a wonderful coda at the end – when asked by Asterix whether they would always manage to stop the course of events as they had just done, druid Getafix responds that that would be impossible, despite having time on their side. The book closes with the beguiling words – “a victory over the Romans and over the inexorable passage of time”. A rare existential moment for the strip, and one which stays with you.
Asterix and the Laurel Wreath and Switzerland satirised Roman decadence, pampered mores and hierarchies and did so with immense aplomb (one could not imagine such adult content in their earlier Asterix efforts!), while Roman Agent and Soothsayer were equally masterful in a similar manner to Mansions, on both these occasions the warfare being one of gaslighting and misinformation. Yet thematically Mansions of the Gods is the pinnacle, with Goscinny and Uderzo sending up marketing, advertising and the clash between the Luddite villagers and their unwitting nemeses – the idealised brochure for the housing project being a particularly witty effort.
Also by this point the characterization was first rate, with bitter enemies Fulliautomatix and Unhygienix, not to mention Vitalstatistix and the rest of the villagers, all present, correct and fully-formed. Obelix is no longer the childlike sidekick prone to acts of sulking (there probably wasn’t time for that on this occasion) while Uderzo’s art by this stage had reached virtuoso level, and a match for any Gallic artist, including Moebius and Druillet. His storytelling (a lot was crammed into those 44 pages) is also a model of brevity and focus. As European comic books go, this is about as good as it gets, and every bit as brilliant as when I first read it over forty years ago.
Asterix: The Mansion Of The Gods is out now from Hodder.
Here’s a link to the first seven of our 100 GNs too