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Asterix and the Class Act was published in 2003 and is the thirty-second album in the famous French comic book series - although this is a compilation of different short stories (mostly deriving from the sixties) and not a conventional new Asterix album. Asterix of course is a diminutive but cunning and brave yellow pig-tailed Gaulish warrior created by artist Albert Uderzo and writer René Goscinny after they met in the early fifties. The French comic industry was starting to become irritated by the increasing cultural domination of America at the time and expressed a desire for some patriotic homegrown heroes of their own and so Asterix filled the void and eventually became an iconic character. Asterix lives in a little picturesque village by the sea that defies Roman rule in the year 50 B.C. The secret to this defiance is the mysterious magic potion brewed by their venerable druid Getafix that gives them super strength and enables them to bash Roman soldiers by the hundreds in absurd violent comic fashion. Like Tintin, Asterix was surrounded with memorable supporting characters from his portly boar munching menhir obsessed best friend Obelix to the long suffering Chief Vitalstatistix (who always insisted on being carried around on a shield and frequently got dropped) to Getafix (Panoramix in the French version) the wise druid. Getafix is one of the greatest characters in the world of Asterix and like a cross between Gandalf and a hippy with his huge beard, white robes and golden sickle. Not forgetting of course Unhygienix the fishmonger (instigator of many fish related comic mass brawls in the village) and Cacofonix the Bard. Cacofonix is the truly awful singer who thinks he's a genius and - in a funny recurring joke - is always shown tied up and gagged at the big celebration banquet under star strewn skies coda. I love too the Barbe Rouge inspired pirates who are always being hopelessly sunk and shipwrecked and in terms of fame quickly surpassed their Redbeard inspiration.
Asterix and the Class Act is not a traditional Asterix volume with a single feature length adventure for our flawed heroes but rather a collection of short stories (all but one of which was originally published in Pilote magazine). It doesn't amount to much but is quite enjoyable and interesting all the same. The introduction explains that these were little amusements or experiments that Uderzo would do when he had some spare time (which wasn't very often) and he thought it was high time they were collected together. One of the nice things about this book is that Goscinny (who died in 1977) is involved in most of the stories as he was still alive at the time they were created. It's fair to say that Asterix produced without Goscinny was never quite the same. The introduction has Chief Vitalstatistix holding a press conference for the upcoming stories. This is a parody of the pompous Charles de Gaulle and was originally an announcement page for Asterix and the Big Fight. Lovely panel here of all the characters in the village sitting in their chairs waiting for the arrival of Vitalstatistix. I should mention too that each vignette in Asterix and the Class Act has an introductory page of text with some background to what we are about to see. The title story Asterix and the Class Act begins with Asterix and Obelix helping Getafix to round up the children for school. They are all hiding in trees and bushes to avoid school although Getafix's open air classroom looks great to me! I'd rather be taught by Getafix in a village by a forest than go back to my old school. Love the riff on the familar Asterix intro ("The year is 50 B.C. and Gaul is entirely occupied by Romans. Well, not entirely. One small village of indomitable Gauls still holds out against the invaders...") here too. When one of the children asks why Asterix and Obelix don't have to go to school, Getafix explains that they went to school when they were younger so don't have to.
However, when Obelix proves hopeless at answering any of the questions Getafix has for the children he is enrolled in school himself. Many of these stories are only a few pages long and end before you've barely started reading them but Uderzo's art is always nice and the stories are always cosy and pleasant in that usual Asterix way. The Birth of Asterix is self-explanatory and rather sweet. This is a few pages longer than many of the other stories and takes us back to a time when the characters were all children and Asterix and Obelix were about to be born. Amusing to see Vitalstatistix as a child being carried around on his shield (his dad is the chief of course and he's already practicing for when he takes over) and it's also funny to see a fish related brawl involving the parents of the famous characters. I notice Geriatrix still looks the same though! In 50 BC is a mildly enjoyable Julius Caesar themed story that runs for several pages and includes some amusing history panels about the Roman Empire and Gaul. There is a great illustration too of modern day Paris (the Gauls are of course the ancestors of the French) and always I love the slightly ahistorical flourishes the series provides. This drawing seems to be a not so sly barb at French stereotypes. There is a joke here about dog biscuits involving Dogmatix (that's Obelix's dog in case you didn't know) that I didn't really understand but I suppose that's the nature of translations. It probably makes sense in French. The next story, Chanticleerix, takes a comic look at the village rooster, here tackling an eagle that is proving a nuisance. This was not really my favourite story here to be honest.
For Gaul Lang Syne is a comic tale of Obelix trying to get a seasonal kiss from the beautiful Panacea in some beautiful snow bound panels while Mini Midi Maxi has a fashion show turning into a village punch up. Asterix as you've never seen him is fun and presents the strip in a range of different styles that were apparently suggested by readers. One is vaguely Charles Crumb and I love the Asterix Flash Gordon pastiche. The Lutetia Olympics has Asterix and Obelix helping Lutetia (ancient Paris) win the chance to host the ancient Olympic Games (apparently based on France bidding for the Olympics at the time) while Springtime In Gaul has Asterix helping a tiny anthropomorphic personification of Spring overcome Winter. The Mascot has the unfortunate Romans taking on Asterix as their "lucky" mascot. Latinamania is a dig at the changes to the French language while Obelix's Family Tree has Goscinny and Albert Uderzo finding an uncanny modern descendant of Obelix. Finally there is Birth of an Idea, the authors barnstorming outside a cafe and sowing the seeds of Asterix. This is a nice way to end the book and it's fun to see the authors themselves in cartoon form. Asterix and the Class Act is not the place to start if you are new to Asterix and the other more traditional volumes have to be read first so you can get the most out of the in-jokes and surprise cameos but this is a relatively interesting collection for fans and completists. These stories are very short and not terribly substantial but this is decent fun nonetheless and one that Asterix fans will certainly want to own.