The Grand Vizier Iznogoud

By Goscinny and Tabary, translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-131-0

For the greater part of his far-too-short lifetime (1926-1977), René Goscinny was one of the most prolific and most-read writers of comic strips the world has ever seen. He still is.

Amongst his most popular and enduring comic collaborations are Lucky Luke, Le Petit Nicolas, Signor Spaghetti and, of course, Asterix the Gaul, but there were so many others, such as the despicably dark deeds of a dastardly usurper whose dreams of diabolical skulduggery perpetually proved to be ultimately no more than castles in the sand…

In the wake of the Suez crisis, the French returned – at least in cartoon form – to the hotly contested deserts when Goscinny teamed with sublimely gifted Swedish émigré Jean Tabary (1930-2011) – who numbered Richard et Charlie, Grabadu et Gabaliouchtou, Totoche, Corinne et Jeannot and Valentin le Vagabond amongst his other hit strips – to detail the innocuous history of imbecilic Arabian (im)potentate Haroun el-Poussah.

However as is so often the case, it was the strip’s villainous foil, power-hungry vizier Iznogoud who stole the show… possibly the conniving little blackguard’s only successful insurrection.

Les Aventures du Calife Haroun el Poussah was created for Record; the first episode appearing in the January 15th issue of 1962. A minor hit, the feature subsequently jumped ship to Pilote – a new comics magazine created and edited by Goscinny – where it was artfully refashioned into a starring vehicle for the devious little Tuareg toe-rag who had increasingly been hogging all the laughs and limelight.

Like all great storytelling, Iznogoud works on two levels: for the youngsters it’s a comedic romp with adorably wicked baddies invariably hoisted on their own petards and coming a-cropper, whilst older, wiser heads can revel in pun-filled, witty satires and marvellously surreal antics.

This same magic formula made its more famous cousin Asterix a monolithic global phenomenon and, just like the saga of that indomitable Gaul, the appallingly addictive Arabian Nit was first adapted into English by master translators Anthea Bell & Derek Hockridge who made those Franco-Roman Follies so very palatable to British tastes.

In 1977 after Goscinny’s death, Tabary began scripting his own superbly stylish tales, switching to book-length complete adventures, rather than compilations of short, punchy vignettes which typified his collaborations.

As always the deliciously malicious whimsy is heavily dosed with manic absurdity, cleverly contemporary cultural critiques and brilliantly delivered creative anachronisms which serve to keep the assorted escapades bizarrely fresh and hilariously inventive.

Insidious anti-hero Iznogoud is Grand Vizier to affable, easy-going Caliph of Ancient Baghdad Haroun Al Plassid, but the sneaky little second-in-command has loftier ambitions, or as he is always declaiming “I want to be Caliph instead of the Caliph!”…

The retooled rapscallion re-debuted in Pilote in 1968, quickly becoming a massive European hit, with 29 albums to date (carried on by Tabary’s children Stéphane, Muriel and Nicolas), his own solo comic, a computer game, animated film, TV cartoon show and even a live-action movie.

Les grand Vizier Iznogoud was originally released in 1966, the very first of Dargaud’s album compilations, but here it’s the ninth exotically outrageous Cinebook tome, offering a fistful of trend-setting tales as the ambitious autocrat schemes to seize power from his gentle – but far from wise – sublimely oblivious Lord and Master.

Following the traditional introductory page introducing the regulars the devious deceptions resume with the Caliph planning a party, inspiring Iznogoud to visit a Magical Item Merchant in search of mystic booby-traps to get rid of the roadblock to his domination of Baghdad. What he finds is ‘The Genie’ inhabiting a pair of slippers and, convinced his mundane life as a minion is finally ended, the putrid plotter brings the fantastic footwear back to the palace.

Unfortunately the Genie is brutally literal and extremely quick off the mark, so when the slippers are lost amidst the hundreds of pairs already in situ, chaos and calamity ensue…

The next opportunity to overthrow his rightful master occurs when an invitation arrives from a neighbouring nabob: the incredible short-tempered and excessively violent Sultan Pullmankar

That terrifying tyrant wants the Caliph to come visit on an ‘Official Trip’ and Iznogoud sneakily senses how little it would take to make the petrifying Pullmankar blow his top and topple Haroun.

The scheme is wickedly simple: by taking charge of the visit, the vile Vizier can easily orchestrate an unforgivable gaffe for which the Sultan will destroy Al Plassid, leaving his deputy to take over.

Typically however each carefully organised act of sabotage goes awry and before long Iznogoud’s short temper and quick mouth makes him the Sultan’s preferred object of retribution…

Throughout all his Machiavellian machinations the Vizier is assisted (let’s be charitable and call it that…) by his bumbling, brutish flunky crony Wa’at Alahf, but when that hulking worthy takes his annual vacation the contemptible Caliph-in-waiting finds himself in need of truly thuggish assistance and hires ‘The Strong-Arm Men’ to kidnap Haroun Al Plassid.

Sadly the nature of basic skulduggery doesn’t attract too many smart men – just single-minded, greedy ones – and a frustrating comedy of errors soon devolves into life or death for the wily weasel who thought he was in charge…

Broad slapstick gives way to pun-filled pandemonium when ‘The Horde’ of fearsome, all-conquering Genghis Khan fetches up at the border and triggers a wave of panic. Intrigued by the urban unrest that results the Vizier, through nefarious means, raises the greatest army in Baghdad’s history – with the intention of instantly surrendering rather than fighting – and letting the conqueror take the Caliph away in chains…

This plan would certainly have succeeded if only his opposite number Blujin (who wanted to be Khan instead of the Khan) hadn’t had the same idea…

Another normal day with Iznogoud petulantly plotting suddenly perks up when long-suffering Wa’at Alahf ushers in ‘A Lookalike’ of the despised Caliph. Merchant Aristides Kingsizos is the spitting image of Baghdad’s boss – except for a black eye – and food and money soon convince him to stick around until that heals and he can (albeit temporarily) replace the sublime ruler.

Cue a succession of appearance-altering manic mishaps which have the plotters playing frantic physiological catch-up whilst Haroun’s litany of ailments take their toll on the health and patience of the increasingly unhappy doppelganger…

These ancient antics conclude with a fantastic nautical voyage as the Vile Vizier meets mad mariner Cymbal the Sailor and learns of a terrifying destination that would truly be the answer to all his problems. It all seems perfect and just for once the Caliph is even eager to join him on a quiet fishing trip, utterly unaware that his faithful servants Iznogoud and Wa’at Alahf plan to maroon him on ‘The Giants’ Island’

Of course it ends badly with all of them stuck in the forbidding monsters’ paradise but the fabled colossi are not quite what one would expect and harbour very different intentions for the schemers and the Caliph…

Such witty, fast-paced hi-jinks and craftily crafted comedy set pieces have made this addictive series a household name in France where “Iznogoud” is common parlance for a certain kind of politician: over-ambitious, unscrupulous – and frequently insufficient in inches (or should that be centimetres?).

Desiring to become “Caliph in the Caliph’s place” is a popular condemnation in French, targeting those perceived as overly-ambitious, and since 1992 the Prix Iznogoud is awarded annually to “a personality who failed to take the Caliph’s place”.

Nominees are chosen from prominent French figures who have endured spectacular failures in any one year and been given to the likes of Édouard Balladur (1995) and Nicolas Sarkozy (1999). The jury panel is headed by politician André Santini, who gave himself one after failing to become president of Île-de-France in regional elections in 2004.

When first released in Britain during the late 1970s and 1980s (and again in 1996 as a periodical comicbook) these tales made little impression, but at last this wonderfully beguiling strip has deservedly found an appreciative audience among today’s more internationally aware, politically jaded comics-and-cartoon savvy connoisseurs…
Original edition © Dargaud Editeur Paris, 1966 by Goscinny & Tabary. All rights reserved. This edition published 2012 by Cinebook Ltd.