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Asterix and the Laurel Wreath is the eighteenth book in the famous series by Goscinny and Uderzo and first appeared in 1971. The story starts in Rome with Asterix and Obelix wandering the streets and Asterix in particular looking very disgruntled. 'Do you remember by any chance just how we came to be here?' says Asterix and we have a brief flashback set in Lutetia for the explanation. Chief Vitalstatistix visited the city with his wife Impedimenta and Asterix and Obelix were there too as his escort. The trip involved shopping and a visit to Chief Vitalstatistix's annoying brother-in-law Homeopathix. The evening did not go well as Homeopathix - a rich and vain businessman always boasting about how much money he has - wasted no time in irritating Vitalstatistix with pompous comments. 'Must have been a nice change from the stuff you get to eat at home,' said Homeopathix after laying on a grand and elaborate dinner.
An increasingly drunk Vitalstatistix became more and more annoyed by Homeopathix and declared that he could give him a meal in his village that even his money couldn't buy. 'And what exactly will this gourmet meal consist of?' snorted Homeopathix. Vitalstatistix, now completely blotto, announced that he would serve a him a stew seasoned with Caesar's Laurel Wreath! Asterix and Impedimenta naturally regarded this to be the ridiculous ramblings of someone who has had too much to drink but Obelix, who was also heavily inebriated from the wine, declared that he would go to Rome with Asterix and bring back Caesar's Laurel Wreath for Vitalstatistix. We cut back to the streets of Rome with Asterix complaining this is all Obelix's fault as they ponder how they can possibly get their hands on the Laurel Wreath of Caesar...
Asterix and the Laurel Wreath is one of the most adult of the Asterix books and has a slightly risque and dark quality at times that is only apparent in a few other entries - like Asterix in Switzerland for example. There are many jokes based around art and history and the story involves Asterix and Obelix deciding to become slaves in the hope it will get them inside Caesar's palace and into a position where they will be able to swipe the Laurel Wreath. Naturally, matters soon become much more complicated. There are panels at a slave auction early on where a scantily clad male slave is drawn to assume poses based on Auguste Rodin's The Thinker, Apollo of Olympia, and the Laocoon and the Discobolus and it appears as if you might be able to see the bare breast of a dancing girl in a very busy and colourful illustration in this section.
The opening scene of Chief Vitalstatistix having to endure dinner with Homeopathix is a great comic set-piece - especially when he and Obelix get hopelessly drunk. 'We don't often have beaver's tails in strawberry sauce at home,' says Impedimenta tucking into this lurid and opulent spread. Asterix and Obelix end up being taken in by the family of wealthy Osseus Humerus as house slaves like Frankie Howerd in Up Pompeii, the pair erroneously believing that Humerus is connected to Caesar. This section of the story is great fun when the duo discover he isn't going to get them close to Caesar and try to get themselves thrown out of the house and placed somewhere else. Their deliberately horrible stew ('Jam, peppercorns, salt, kidneys, carbolix soap, a chicken, honey, red peppers, black pudding, eggs, pomegranate seeds, red peppers!') turns out to be a big hit though with the family's drunken party loving son Metatarsus as it cures his hangover!
'Thanks to you two,' declares Metatarsus. 'I'll be able to spend the night drinking and making merry happy in the knowledge that next day you will cook up this excellent concoction to make a new man of me!' There is some funny stuff here like Asterix and Obelix banging saucepans at night to keep everyone awake so they are taken back to the slave auction - only for the fun loving Roman family to throw an impromptu party and keep Asterix and Obelix awake instead. We get an amusing panel of the aftermath of this revelry with broken vases on the floor and someone asleep in the bath. There is some fantastic art in Asterix and the Laurel Wreath. The opening panel of Rome from above is amazing with incredible detail and then, on the very next page, there is an equally good illustration of Lutetia from above with smoke rising from the chimneys and little boats sailing past. There are many wonderful panels set at night and as ever the Roman interiors are superb. What I found quite interesting about the book was the slightly different attitude of Asterix to the Romans at times which makes Asterix and the Laurel Wreath rather refreshing.
Usually the Romans are swatted away like flies by the magic potion enhanced Asterix and Obelix (and this happens on occasion in the story) and pose no threat whatsoever but here there seems to have been an attempt to alter this staple component to introduce a little more danger into the story and make the mission much more difficult to accomplish. Outside Caesar's palace, Asterix tells Obelix that they can't just storm the place and take the Laurel Wreath because the Legionaries are a tougher proposition than the ones they get at home and the magic potion doesn't make them invulnerable. Later, inside the palace, they are (in a lovely panel) surrounded by Romans with shields and spears and Asterix stops Obelix from wading into them, telling him the Romans could hack them to pieces with their weapons. It's rare to find an Asterix book where the Gauls suggest any concern about what Romans could do to them in a fight. Granted, it might have a ruse by Asterix to learn more about where Caesar might be but it was a welcome touch whatever the intention.
Asterix and the Laurel Wreath is a solid and interesting entry in the series with great art and some inspired moments. Good fun for readers of all ages.