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Asterix and Obelix's Birthday: The Golden Book is the thirty-fourth book in the famous French comic book Asterix series and was published in 2009. This is not a traditional Asterix volume but a collection of twelve short stories that are presented here to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the character. The book is constructed around Asterix and Obelix about to celebrate their birthday and the Gaul village planning a big banquet of honour for them at which there will be many special guests from previous Asterix volumes. Will Cleopatra and Julius Caesar turn up in the end? You'll have to read the book to find out. The guests come with a multitude of special gifts and around this impending party we get many diversions and tangents by Uderzo - rather in the same fashion as the other short story collection Asterix and the Class Act. Despite the usual lovely art and the invention (the classical parodies by Uderzo are wonderful) one can't help but feel that there is a faint whiff of quick commercial opportunism about the book and that a more traditional Asterix adventure (had it been possible) would have been more a satisfying way to celebrate the special anniversary. Given how terrible the previous book Asterix and the Falling Sky was (and Uderzo even addresses this in the preface) it might have nice to have got at least one classic Asterix adventure instead rather than a retrospective that juxtaposes the old with some hastily cobbled together new linking material. Still, if you are an Asterix fan and love the cosy clear line art of Uderzo you'll certainly want to buy this for completist purposes and it's almost worth buying alone for the wonderful splash panel of countless of the characters all seated together at the banquet. It's fun to see how many you can spot and recognise and reminded me of a great Asterix frieze I used to have growing up which could be unfolded and pinned on the wall.
The story starts in the year 1 AD, fifty years on from the usual date Asterix books are set in. We see the characters as older people which is sort of fun although we've already had an inverse of this with Asterix and the Class Act. Uderzo makes a cameo in the story here and gets a biff from Obelix for his trouble as Obelix doesn't appreciate being made to look fifty years older! I suppose it's a decent piece of postmodernism and quite good fun to see Uderzo horsing around a bit with his formula and famous characters. You can see here what the characters would look like if they had remained perpetually young too and you also get to see Asterix in a baseball cap. I enjoyed the way Uderzo presented Asterix in different art styles in Asterix and the Class Act and this is the same sort of thing again I suppose although not as clever. Then we go back to 50 BC where the village and characters we know so well are all their usual ages again (or at least the ones we are used to). The further diversions here include birthday greetings from Edifis, Panacea and the Barbe Rouge inspired pirates who are always having their ship sunk or scuttled, and a comical fashion show where Obelix somehow finds himself becoming involved. The humour is never really that sharp though and the book comes off as pleasant and mildly novel rather than terribly funny or inspired. Sadly, writer Rene Goscinny died in the late seventies and while the (sometimes terrible) books produced by Uderzo alone had their amusing moments it was clear that the golden age of Asterix was over. Uderzo's art was still great but he was not quite Goscinny when it came to conjuring up Asterix plots and jokes.
I always feel like Goscinny could come up with clever plots from which humour flowed as a natural consequence whereas Uderzo always seems to be straining somewhat to insert his puns. His solo efforts are amusing but just not as often as in the vintage years and one always gets the impression that it's much harder work for him to be funny. Other bits and pieces include the pirates in the Titanix, and Edifis presenting the works of Leaningtowerofpisis. Edifis was the architect in Asterix and Cleopatra - the "best architect in Alexandria." Asterix and Obelix's Birthday: The Golden Book riffs a lot on our knowledge of the series and the numerous characters who have inhabited the world of Asterix and so knowledge and a love of the books is probably a prerequisite here. The pièce de résistance of this uneven bauble is Uderzo's version of Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People - the latest in a long line of clever and striking classical art pastiches in the series. Here, Impedimenta, the Gaul village chief's wife, is depicted as Marianne leading the revolution with a rolling pin! It's a wonderful piece of art by Uderzo with great depictions of Asterix and Obelix too within the portrait. I also liked the reality television style music show where Cacophonix is looking for aspiring bards. 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 that ends each volume so that he can't possibly sing.
The many cameos and appearances by recurring and one-off characters in the book are enjoyable and there are far too many to mention. Anticlimax, Bicarbonatofsoda, Boneywasawarriorwayayix, Clovogarlix, Dogmatix, Edifis, Ekonomikrisis, Felix Platypus, Fulliautomatix, Gluteus Maximus, Huevos y Bacon, Justforkix, Metric, Obelix, Olaf Timandahaf, Pegleg, Pirate Lookout, Psychoanalytix, Redbeard, Squareonthehypothenus, Valueaddedtax, etc. Asterix and Obelix's Birthday: The Golden Book is certainly enjoyable to flip through and has some wonderful illustrations and moments but I never really feel that the short story format serves these books very well (although mercifully it's only been done a couple of times). Asterix books are only about fifty-five pages in duration anyway so you've barely started on some of these individual vignettes when they abruptly come to a close. The end result is always a mild dissatisfaction that you haven't been given a bona fide Asterix book to read and enjoy. This is definitely not the book to start with if you are new to Asterix and only really recommended for those that have many of the books already and can therefore pick up the numerous references and riffs aimed at previous volumes and the attention we've been paying to the series as a whole. This is a nice addition to the Asterix library but ultimately not much more than that and definitely one for completists much more than anyone else. Asterix and Obelix's Birthday: The Golden Book runs to 56 pages and at the time of writing is available to buy for under five pounds.