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Taking Funny more seriously – Lessons from Asterix

Here is a copy of the article I wrote for The Sunday Guardian on Asterix and the need to take its humor a lot more seriously.

llow me to tell you a story. Julius Caesar sits contemplatively. Pax Romana has been established. Almost. There’s still one village which defiantly holds out – a village of intrepid Gauls led by the fierce Vitalstatistix, a tribe rendered invincible by the magic potion brewed by their druid Getafix.

The counsel of Caesar’s council has proven ineffective so far – troops, troops and more troops! He does not want to repeat these mistakes (although centuries later they will be, in Iraq, Afghanistan…Iraq and er.. Afghanistan, but that’s another story). A flash of inspiration. He summons a young upstart Caius Preposterus for advice. Caius had been angling for a summer internship while a student at the Latin School of Economics (the concept of an MBA hadn’t been invented yet because war and invasion were noble pursuits, not business, as they’re considered today) and this seems like the perfect opportunity to try some of his novel ideas.

They decide to introduce the savages to civilisation through the happiness of money. Caius agrees to visit the natives and convince them to upgrade their thatched roofs and rustic lifestyles to the joys of high-living. However, this task won’t be cheap. Caesar, flush with loot from his relentless invasions, allows Caius to spend at will.

Soon Caius has the Gaulish village eating out of his hand. Having shown them the opulence that money can bring he proceeds to lend it cheaply and encourages the natives to spend away. The inhabitants of the village, too poor to care a while ago, now indulge in hedonistic pursuits with reckless abandon. At last, they’re too busy to fight. Pax Romana prevails.

Meanwhile, the coffers of Rome have been steadily depleting and Caesar hasn’t invaded anyone in months! Keeping a bunch of illiterate savages happy could bankrupt Rome! It’s Caius to the rescue again. The Gaulish village has been spurred by easy money and the traditional love of land with the result they’ve purchased land indiscriminately and are building homes. For a while it looks as if the Gauls have a plan to start paying back some of this money by renting these homes or running shops. It’s not clear how but Caius dreams big.

He suggests Caesar market these homes as retreats away from Rome, famous for their peace and tranquility. They sell these homes far and wide. They also sell the idea that the real-estate will turn a handsome profit for investors and get people in the furthest reaches of their empire to pony up some dough. Romans move into these homes, but soon the Utopia turns into a nightmare as they realise the Gauls, used to agrarian sustenance, know nothing about running insulae and domus. The projects are abandoned. Huge amounts of money are lost. Rome is outraged and in revolt, their currency on the verge of collapse and Caesar bullied by angry senators. Even Brutus is looking daggers at him. (Meanwhile Caius, spoiled by the excess cash and zero accountability, quietly escapes and establishes himself as a management consultant.)

Familiar? I don’t know about you but thousands of Americans staring at yet another credit rejection letter will find it familiar. Or maybe the ones losing their homes.

The premise is a combination of two books from the eternally famous Asterix series; Obelix & Co. and Mansions of the Gods. Didn’t anyone involved in the credit crisis ever read these books? Of course they did. Then didn’t they know the pitfalls of throwing cheap money around? Who knows? They probably read them as kids, laughed heartily (those comics sure make you laugh a lot!) and dismissed the whole thing as two Frenchmen being rather clever.

sterix is one of those rare comic series that combines gold standard humour with outrageous plots to satirise political events of its era, highlights cultural quirks or simply entertains you with hilarious caricatures. Tintin is another series strong on political themes. It has tackled world wars, colonialism, communism, banana republics and fascism. Asterix, while less overtly political, was always etched against a backdrop of occupation and a freedom struggle.

There is no question these books chronicle important moments in our history, sometimes expressing a point of view or letting the reader ponder over the consequences. I’m ashamed to admit I spent most of my time laughing at the humor and missed the message entirely.

I’m going back to my bookshelf to re-read every Asterix and Tintin, but this time with an open mind and an open browser pointing to its Wikipedia page.

I’ll also read them with my son when he’s old enough to understand. I’ll be sure to explain the historical significance of those panels full of hilarity and how they pertain to what’s happening today.

And when he asks me “Didn’t they know?”, I’ll tell him history repeats itself. Because we’re too busy laughing at it.

In his spare time, blogger Daddy_San is a marketing consultant.

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