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The year is 50 B.C. and Gaul is now entirely occupied by the invincible and mighty Roman Empire. Well, not quite entirely. One small village of indomitable (and completely mad) Gauls still defiantly - even nonchalantly - holds out against the bemused invaders and life is certainly never easy or dull for the unfortunate Roman legionaries who garrison the surrounding fortified military camps of Totorum, Aquarium, Laudanum and Compendium. Asterix and the Secret Weapon is the twenty-ninth volume in the famous French comic book series for young and old alike. Children will love the art and slapstick humour and adults will love the art too but get more of the sly jokes and cultural references. This was published in 1991 and written and illustrated by Albert Uderzo. Uderzo had always done the art for the Asterix books but only started writing them too after 1977 when his Asterix colleague René Goscinny died. While the art (of course) was still up to scratch, the actual stories themselves were definitely not as strong without the clever writing of Goscinny and so the later series was very much a mixed bag with three or four outright duds. Asterix and the Secret Weapon is not bad at all though and an enjoyable later entry that supplies some good comic situations and plenty of strife for the little village we know so well. Not a classic but a solid middle ranking entry in the series. I think the fact the story is relatively self-contained and takes place mostly in the Gaul village and surrounding forest is a plus here for me anyway because I always enjoy these types of Asterix stories (in the way that I love Tintin books when the characters are simply at home in Marlinspike Hall). Asterix often works really well when we focus on the village and internal bickering and it's always nice to see the Romans come up with some new masterplan - as they do in this story.
Feminist politics descend on our favourite dysfunctional Gaul village here when Cacofonix the Bard has his students taken away from class after the wives decide he isn't teaching the children correctly and that his school has a bad reputation. Cacofonix is rather piqued by this as he has been led to believe that only druids and bards are qualified to teach children in the village. The women though take umbrage at this and - especially - his suggestion that women can't be bards. They decide they will find a female bard to replace him. "Not only do they thump me at the drop of a lyre, they're bringing in a foreign female to replace me!" The crestfallen bard leaves the village in a strop and is replaced by a woman bard from Lutetia named Bravura (possibly drawn to look like Edith Cresson). "Is this the village of loonies?" asks Bravura when she arrives. Bravura's singing or music isn't much better than his though and after general ridicule from the sexist men in the village she decides to shake things up and implore the wives to stand up to their husbands and assert their rights. They need to wear the breeches for once. The men are horrified of course and before long Impedimenta is the new chief and the men have all gone to live in the forest in protest. It's not so bad there though with roast boar all round. Meanwhile, Julius Caesar is presented with yet another plan to take over the village of indomitable magic potion enhanced Gauls. His special agent for the task - Manlius Claphamomnibus (a pun on the expression "the man on the Clapham omnibus") - proposes a new secret weapon. The weapon? A crack troop of curvy statuesque female legionaries. The noble and gallant Gauls could not possibly fight women could they? Will the Roman plan work? It's up to Asterix and Bravura to save the day.
This is a decent later entry that is well structured and contains some clever ideas. It is though unavoidably derivative of several previous Asterix volumes and seems to pilfer several ideas from the short stories in Asterix and the Class Act in particular and a few other books. Obelix goes back to school (Bravura orders him to because she thinks he's a sexist oaf!) just as he did in Class Act. The female legionaries are very Amazonian and striking in some of the panels but they do remind you very much of a chapter from Class Act called "Asterix As You've Never Seen Him Before". The panel in particular by Uderzo of the female legionaries moving through the forest in silhouette is fantastic. Once again too here the dreadful musical ability of Cacofonix summons rain and scares animals into a stampede - just as it did in Land of Black Gold. I did love the sight of him in his forest tree hut (he always has a wonderful home high in the trees) trying to sing and drawing only an angry bolt of lightning that crackles and dazzles in the night for his trouble. One can though perhaps forgive Uderzo by this stage for the lack of originality as the Asterix well had been visited many, many times now 1991 and there is only so much sparkling water to drink. Asterix and the Secret Weapon could never be top table Asterix as the best days of the comic strips were clearly in the past but it offers sufficient fun and invention I think to be a must have for any Asterix fan worth his salt.
Even the venerable druid Getafix proves himself to be less than enlightened to funny effect. After a stirring speech in which he opines that we are entering a new age where women must be regarded as equals, Asterix asks him if this means there could be female druids now. "Oh, come Asterix. Be serious!" Humour is gleaned from Bravura being just as terrible at Cacofonix when it comes to music. She has a skin covered drum to accompany herself on a vocal performance and the drum only makes one sound. Bong! I love the moonlit panels here where her odes wake everyone up. As ever Uderzo's depiction of the Gaul village with the little huts and cosy fire lit interiors with shadows on walls are superb. The action does move away from the village and nearby Roman camps on occasion though. Great panels of the female legionaries arriving by ship and also another encounter with the comically inept pirates on the highs seas. It's the Romans this time who do the sinking though rather than Asterix and Obelix. The pirates are actually caricatures of the pirates in a French comic series called "Barbe Rouge" (Redbeard) and in terms of fame quickly surpassed their inspiration. Despite the recycling of jokes and situations from previous volumes and a general sense of deja vu, Asterix and the Secret Weapon is good on the whole and definitely one of the later books in the series that isn't a waste of time. This runs to about 50 pages overall and at the time of writing is available to buy for around £6.