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Asterix and the Black Gold is the twenty-sixth book in the famous series and was first published in 1981. This is the second volume to be written and illustrated by Uderzo alone after the death of Asterix writer René Goscinny and the best of his solo works. The book begins with Asterix and Obelix hunting a couple of boars in the forest and accidently running into some Romans. The boars have learnt to lead the Gauls to Roman patrols so they can escape ending up as someone's dinner (the Gauls can't resist fighting the Romans and the boars can therefore escape in the resulting carnage) but the Romans assume the Gauls have trained the boars to do this. 'That Amorican village is still holding up the might of Rome to ridicule me,' grumbles Julius Caesar when he is told. 'And I hear that my legions now have to face hordes of wild beasts!' Devius Surreptitious, the head of the Roman Secret Service, tells Caesar they must get hold of the secret of the Gaul magic potion which makes them invincible and explains that a druid would have the best chance of doing this. It just so happens he has a brilliant secret agent druid known as Dubbelosix and Dubbelosix is promptly sent off to infiltrate the Gaul village where Asterix lives.
Meanwhile, the Gaul druid Getafix is looking very worried and preoccupied and some of the villagers are starting to become concerned about him. It turns out Getafix is desperately awaiting the arrival of the ship belonging to Ekonomikrisis the Phoenician merchant because he has run out of rock oil. Rock oil is a vital ingredient in his magic potion but when Ekonomikrisis finally turns up he confesses he forgot all about the rock oil and doesn't have any. Getafix collapses in shock and when he recovers tells Vitalstatstix, Asterix, Obelix and Dubbelosix (who met Asterix and Obelix in the forest in his druid garb and was asked to treat Getafix) that with no magic potion they will now be defenceless against the Romans. There is only one solution. Asterix and Obelix must go to Mesopotamia and bring back some rock oil and Dubbelosix offers to go with them to help. Will our heroes work out that Dubbelosix is a Roman agent out to sabotage their vital mission?
As far as the post-Goscinny books go, Asterix and the Black Gold is certainly the finest hour of Uderzo and a solid and entertaining entry in the series with some highly enjoyable art. One thing I liked about the story in particular was the abundance of James Bond related jokes. Dubbelosix is drawn to look like a caricature of Sean Connery and has a spiffy chariot that assembles itself and is packed with gadgets. There's a great bit where he's with Asterix and Obelix and deploying some of these while Romans chase after them. He rides off a cliff into the sea looking very nonchalant and unworried but the chariot and its three occupants just crash into the water with a big splash. 'Something should have happened when I pressed that button!' he tells an annoyed and wet looking Asterix and Obelix. The Roman secret service run by Devius Surreptitious is called M.I.VI. (a pun on MI6) and Dubbelosix treats (a soon to be very merry) Getafix with a 'grain spirit called Caledonian' which he muses might be better diluted with a spot of soda!
There are some nice touches in the story here, like the way that Dubbelosix keeps in touch with Surreptitious via a trained female carrier fly that just happens to be love with him. There are even a few nods to Mission Impossible in amongst all the spy related jokes and references. Asterix and the Black Gold works because it has a good story and Uderzo has clearly put an awful lot of effort into the art. This really feels like a big old-fashioned epic Asterix adventure in the vein of the ones he produced in partnership with the late Goscinny. Uderzo went to Israel to do some research for the book and there are many lovely panels as a result. There is a wonderful illustration of Jerusalem from above that catches the eye and some of the night panels are excellent. Asterix and the Black Gold is full of Biblical references in these later sections. 'Bethlehem, I think,' replies Dubbelosix when Asterix asks them the name of the village where they are currently having a nap in a stable under the moonlight.
The standard is set early here with the mystery of why Getafix is so gloomy and the wonderful panels of him looking out to sea, anxiously awaiting the arrival of Ekonomikrisis the Phoenician merchant as the sun rises and sets. There is a great drawing of Asterix hiding on the rocks behind him trying to see what the problem is and some wonderful art generally in Asterix and the Black Gold with the walls of ancient cities, silhouettes of ships beneath a red sky and Uderzo's Roman interiors, which are always a delight. There are some enjoyable capers at sea here too with Asterix and Obelix taking on the comically rubbish pirates who feature in most of the books in a recurring joke and also smashing up a Roman galley or two, which they are equally delighted to run into. There's an amusing side panel by Uderzo as a prelude to all of this carnage. 'We now have a chance to observe the superbly efficient boarding tactics practiced by the Roman Navy. First ballistae throw out the grappling hooks...'
As a later solo Uderzo effort I had expected Asterix and the Black Gold to be one of the lesser entries but it is a surprisingly good adventure on the whole with an excellent story, some lovely art and a great deal of invention. The James Bond jokes and the presence of Dubbelosix drawn to look like Sean Connery adds to the fun. This a great read for Asterix fans of all ages.