Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Iznogoud the Grand Vizier

Iznogoud is one of the second-string francophone comics, not quite as popular or famous as Asterix or Tintin but one which still has been published for decades, translated to several languages, got an animation series and even gave a catchphrase to the common language ("become caliph in caliph's place" is in use to describe strong ambitions to replace higher-ups, usually with backstabbing or other questionable methods and usually failing spectacularly).

The setting is high-fantasy Baghdad of 1001 Nights fame, where the titular Grand Vizier Iznogoud pursues to become Caliph as soon as he can get rid of the current one, Haroun El Poussah. The first years, when the comic was written by René Goscinny of Asterix fame, the stories were about 10-20 pages long but after his death when the artist Jean Tabary started also to write the comic there has been also album-long stories.
The comic sticks to status quo: no matter what happened in the last one, the situation is restored in the beginning of the next one. Caliph Haroun remains completely unaware of the evil machination of his Grand Vizier, and Iznogoud is always there, plotting, even if in the end of the last story he was disintegrated, or frozen, or turned into a worm, or ended up on the other side of the world or outer space...though I have heard Tabary has actually made an album showing how Iznogoud has recovered from all these conditions, unfortunately I have not read that one though.

Iznogoud is definitely one of the most evil and ruthless protagonists in comicdom, one who is not even an anti-hero. He is a pure cartoon villain with no redeeming qualities (unless one considers ineptness to be one). Meanwhile Caliph Haroun El Poussah is commonly considered to be a good ruler, mainly because he does so little of it, preferring sleeping a lot and other simple pleasures of life. As far as antagonists go, he is lazy, slow and passive one and it is typically Iznogoud himself who is his own worst enemy.
The voice of reason in the series is the loyal henchman of Iznogoud, Dilat Larath (Iznogoud does not return the loyalty). He has something of a Sancho Panza role in the stories, as well as the one who either ends up being a test subject for whatever dangerous magic Iznogoud has found or the one who is left picking the pieces in the end.

While some of the stories use pretty regular elements commonly acceptable in 1001 Nights milieu, there are quite a lot of openly anachronistic elements too, though of course wearing "it's magic" tag. There's a magical wall calendar from which you rip pages off and can glue them back on, there's a mail order catalog from which you can order any three things from future (Iznogoud jumps over assault rifles and hand grenades and orders stuff like exercise bicycles and Camembert cheese...) and so forth.
The comics also don't shy away from metacomic elements, and beside occasional cameo roles Tabary has also been an active participant in the story more than once (it works both ways though, couple of stories end up in whatever dangerous magic has been the subject of the story hitting Tabary as he is drawing the last page...). And since many of the more regular stories end in disasters due to ridiculously improbable events, it is good and proper that the writers every now and then show up and remind the reader that writing a status quo comedy is all about cheating.
But even when it comes to regular stories, it is a pleasure to see magic which feels like magic. After several years of playing RPGs and reading run-of-the-mill fantasy books I have become somewhat desentisized to magic items, all those magic swords and rings of protection+1, so jigsaw puzzle which disintegrates whoever you are thinking of when you complete it and things like that are a bit of fresh air (and yes, I have swiped an element or two into my RPGs).

As far as age groups go, Iznogoud is a bit of a puzzler. It is a comedy series wit cartoonish four-color art, and for the most part steers away from overt sex and violence (some later albums written by Tabary have started to throw in some a bit more questionable on-panel material), but there is that whole concept of highly evil protagonist, and generic threat of violence in the series...one could argue that it is a series children would enjoy but their parents might have problems with (and as is common with francophone comics, part of comedy is derived from stereotyping which many Americans tend to find offensive...)

Makes one wonder though if there are other comics having a villain of this purity as a main character (I know likes of Joker and Beagle Boys have starred in their own comics but as protagonists their villainity is always downplayed). Or why 1001 Nights is dragging so much behind, say, pseudomedieval Europe when it comes to sources for fantasy writers to stripmine.


  1. Actually, Iznogoud's been translated into English by Cinebook. There's already five volumes out.

    Dilat Larath's been renamed Wa’at Alahf, which is pretty much par for someone who's well known for doing Asterix stories. Whether there's any audience for the writer is still speculation at this point. The latest Asterix books by the artist Uderzo have been terrible. The only good ones were done before Goscinny died, and the two tribute books done by other European artists (neither of which have been translated)

  2. Cool, so they are available at least in UK...and looking at the titles they are not quite in original album series publication order but with this series it doesn't really matter, there's little continuity. All are Goscinny era books though.
    Cinebooks seem to have a good selection of other good francophone books too, some of which I will probably write more about in the future...

    The last Asterix book done by Goscinny (Asterix in Belgium) was already quite bad and apparently he and Uderzo wanted to scrap it but were forced by the publisher to finish it. I quite liked couple of the albums Uderzo made alone, Great Divide, Magic Carpet, Son of Asterix...but the last three or four have indeed been rubbish.