By James Lovegrove
Asterix the Gaul was nearly Reynard the Fox. Writer René Goscinny, born 1926, and illustrator Albert Uderzo, a year younger, were reasonably well-established French comics creators when, in 1959, they set up a new weekly bandes dessinées anthology, Pilote, at their Parisian publishing house Edifrance. It was intended to appeal to older children – even adults – and for their own contribution Goscinny and Uderzo devised a strip that would have plenty of laughs and action, and a very French theme. The main character was the fox trickster hero of many a French folk tale, Reynard.
However, just two months before publication of Pilote’s debut issue, they discovered that Reynard the Fox was already being used by another cartoonist, Jen Trubert. A rapid, radical rethink was required. Goscinny hit on the Gaulish era as a subject ripe for exploitation. Every French schoolchild is familiar with the image of Vercingetorix, defeated king of the Arvernian tribe, laying down his arms at Julius Caesar’s feet. Goscinny imagined him dropping them on Caesar’s feet instead, much to the conquering Roman emperor’s distress.
From this initial seed, the two men together dreamed up Gaulish warrior Asterix, whose exploits would allow them to poke fun at cultural stereotypes and modern life. Uderzo originally envisaged Asterix as a muscular champion like the protagonist of his earlier strip with Goscinny, Oumpah-Pah, which is set in late-18th-century America and centres on a naïve Native American hero and his wilier partner, a French military officer. Goscinny preferred the idea of someone smaller and shrewder.
It was Uderzo who, mirroring the dynamic of Oumpah-Pah’s lead pair, then gave Asterix a bulkier, slower-witted companion, Obelix. Around these two – polar opposites but inseparable friends – the creators conjured up a village situated somewhere in Armorica (modern-day Brittany) and full of combative eccentrics who, thanks to a magic potion that temporarily lends them superhuman strength, hold out against the invading army.
When Pilote launched in October 1959 it was a great success, and the Asterix strip, despite being an 11th- hour addition, was the readers’ favourite. A first album collection, Asterix the Gaul, appeared in 1961, but surprisingly it sold just a few thousand copies to begin with. The follow-up, Asterix and the Golden Sickle, fared only a little better. It wasn’t until 1965 and the sixth volume, Asterix and Cleopatra, that the series really took off.
"The 36 (official) Asterix albums have sold 350 million copies worldwide."
To date there have (officially) been 36 Asterix albums, which have racked up sales totalling 350 million copies worldwide. The series has received literary awards and earned Uderzo his homeland’s highest recognition of achievement when he was made a Knight of the Légion d’Honneur in 1985. There have been numerous movies, both animated and live-action, with no less a star than Gérard Depardieu filling out the role of Obelix in the latter. There have been boardgames, videogames and game books. There is even a Parc Astérix theme park rivalling Disneyland Paris for popularity. The indomitable Gaul continues to captivate readers even after the untimely death of Goscinny, aged just 51, in 1977. As Goscinny himself once said, “Faire rire, quel métier!” – “Making people laugh, what a job!” – and that is what he and the now-retired Uderzo did, masterfully, throughout their creative partnership and beyond.
Asterix’s charm derives from its perfect balance of sophistication, satire and slapstick. Goscinny adored puns and laced his text with them, a tradition Uderzo did his best to continue in the strips he wrote as well as drew after his collaborator’s death. Character names are invariably wordplay. Take the chief of Asterix’s village, who is known as Abraracourcix in French (riffing on a phrase meaning “with arms up ready to fight”) and as Vitalstatistix in the English-language version, which nods amusingly at his girth. Obelix’s tiny but devoted mutt is Idéfix in French or Dogmatix in English. The village’s resident druid is Panoramix, whom the strip’s English translators have given the slightly more pointed, drug-referencing name of Getafix.
The names of the Gauls’ perennial sparring partners, the Romans, offer a plethora of Latin-derived witticisms: Magnumopus, Infirmofpurpus, Gluteus Maximus and, best of all, drunken war veteran Tremensdelirius. On top of that, Goscinny garnished the strip with Latin quotations and allusions to literary classics such as Don Quixote, Hamlet and Caesar’s own writings.
In turn, Uderzo brought both a beautiful, broad-brushstroke style and a wealth of research to the artwork. Whenever Asterix’s adventures took him abroad, Uderzo often visited the country concerned and took countless reference photos. This and plenty of historical research resulted in gorgeous, detailed images such as the sweeping splash shot of Rome and the contrasting, equally lively shot of Gaulish capital Lutetia that open Asterix and the Laurel Wreath, and the lush views of the forested valleys of Corsica’s interior in Asterix in Corsica.
There are also clever sight gags, whether it’s the double-decker public transport cart in Asterix in Britain or the parody of Géricault’s famous painting “The Raft of the Medusa” in the panel showing shipwrecked pirates in Asterix the Legionary. Not to mention frequent appearances by chickens. Uderzo has been inordinately fond of the birds ever since, as a boy, he got into the habit of dropping a neighbour’s chickens out of a first- storey window and watching them flap – safely – to the ground.
Another of Uderzo’s artistic flourishes is guest appearances by famous faces from the silver screen and public life. Some of these are characters who play a significant role in the tales, such as the distinctly Churchillian English chief Mykingdomforanos in Asterix in Britain and the Roman spy Dubbelosix in Asterix and the Black Gold, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Sean Connery. Others are background cameos, like Charlton “Ben-Hur” Heston driving a chariot in Asterix and the Golden Sickle, one-time French president Jacques Chirac buying a menhir in Obelix and Co., and Laurel and Hardy as Roman legionaries in the same album.
"In some cases the English names of characters improve on the originals."
The satirical elements of the stories are also an integral part of the mix. One cannot help but see the essential conceit of a Gaulish village holding out against the invaders who otherwise control the entire country as a commentary on the Nazi occupation of France during World War II, which would have been painfully fresh in everyone’s memories when the strip was created.
Individual albums also have points to make about contemporary issues. The Mansions of the Gods sees our heroes battling against the forces of modernisation, as a Roman housing development near the village threatens to destroy the local ecology and the Gauls’ way of life. Both Asterix and the Cauldron and Obelix and Co. mock rampant capitalism and cupidity. Asterix and the Olympic Games, with its subtext about fair play in sport and athletes cheating, seems more pertinent than ever in our era of corruption, bribery and doping scandals, while Asterix and Caesar’s Gift slyly critiques politicians and electioneering.
In addition, slapstick, bouts of drunken misbehaviour and pratfalls are par for the course, and Asterix and friends are never far away from the next punch-up. When the Gaulish villagers aren’t giving the Romans a good bashing, they’re laying into one another. The main culprit here is temperamental blacksmith Fulliautomatix, who bickers and brawls constantly with his commercial rival, fishmonger Unhygienix, and will not hesitate to hammer tone-deaf bard Cacophonix into submission rather than tolerate his dreadful music and unendurable singing.
The violence, though, is genial, knockabout stuff. Nobody is ever seriously hurt, and quite often the Romans have relieved, delirious smiles on their faces as they hurtle through the air or lie insensible on the ground. It’s as if they would rather be injured, and therefore removed from the fray, than fight.
Although Asterix has been published in almost every major language, there’s no question that much of the series’ huge appeal in the UK and other Anglophone territories is down to the justly-renowned English translations by Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge.
Bell is a linguist of some repute, with the remarkable ability to learn a new language in just a few weeks, and ascribes her gift for wordplay – an essential part of the job when rendering Goscinny’s text into English – to being the daughter of pioneering Times cryptic crossword compiler Adrian Bell. Hockridge, who died in 2013, was a lecturer in modern languages and a regular visitor to France, which gave him a broad, up-to-date knowledge of that nation’s topical humour and cultural references.
Working as a team, Bell and Hockridge applied a set of six basic principles to the task of making the strip intelligible to an English- speaking audience. Among these was the aim of reproducing as faithfully as possible the feel of the original but, where necessary, finding jokes which are different but along the same lines as the French jokes. Just as important was keeping the same ratio of types of joke as the original, and the same quantity of jokes. When it comes to naming the characters, in some cases Bell and Hockridge improve on Goscinny’s original efforts. Cacophonix, for instance, is a much funnier and more apposite name for the bard than Assurancetourix, which plays on the French for “comprehensive insurance”.
The earliest Asterix albums all have much to recommend them, but both creators’ styles were still evolving. With the arrival of the fourth book, Asterix the Gladiator, everything came together and gelled. The art became smoother and slicker, the facial expression meticulous, while the plots got cleverer and more complex and the jokes more polished. The inevitable final-panel coda, in which the villagers sit down to a firelit feast of wild boar and everyone is reconciled, was already a fixture from the start, but running gags now began to be established. Foremost among these is the recurring appearance of the hapless pirate crew whom our heroes habitually meet on their travels and just as habitually leave bobbing in the sea surrounded by wreckage and flotsam. Vitalstatistix’s inept shield bearers have proved another source of repeat-use comedy gold, as has his doughty, nagging wife Impedimenta, whose name is another word for “baggage”.
1965’s Asterix and Cleopatra is widely regarded as the series’ zenith. Not only is the book ravishingly beautiful to behold, every page a treat for the eyes, but it has a compelling storyline – our heroes decamp to Alexandria to help architect Edifis build a palace for the Egyptian queen to prove to Caesar that hers is not a backward nation – and some tremendous jokes, from the hieroglyph-filled speech bubbles denoting Egyptian dialogue to the scene where Obelix accidentally snaps the nose off the Sphinx at Giza.
Equally cherishable is 1966’s Asterix in Britain, where Goscinny gave full rein to his tendency to lampoon national stereotypes, but affectionately. British readers, with a national taste for self-deprecating humour, have themselves warmly embraced being gently caricatured as tweedy, stiff-upper-lip types with an abiding love of tea, angling and gardening. Asterix the Legionary, which offsets its send-up of militarism with a story of young star-crossed lovers, is also a gem, as is Asterix in Spain, which does for the Spanish what Asterix in Britain did for the British.
Unfortunately the solo offerings from Uderzo, in the wake of Goscinny’s death, lack the same spark. There are glimmers of the old greatness in Asterix and Son, where our hero is unwillingly lumbered with the care of an abandoned baby, and Asterix and the Secret Weapon, which brings feminism to the hitherto male- dominated village. Uderzo, however, began introducing jarring fantasy touches into his plots, such as a flying carpet in Asterix and the Magic Carpet and, worse, extraterrestrials in Asterix and the Falling Sky. Granted, Getafix’s strength-imbuing potion is itself a fantastical plot device, but even the most devoted readers found spell- casting Indian wizards and hovering alien spaceships too incongruous, an imaginary stretch too far.
Once Uderzo stepped away from his drawing board for good after 2009’s 50th anniversary celebration Asterix and Obelix’s Birthday: The Golden Book, it seemed as though Asterix would never sally forth on another adventure. That was until two new creators were appointed to carry on the series, with Uderzo’s blessing. First with Asterix and the Picts in 2013 and lately Asterix and the Missing Scroll, writer Jean-Yves Ferri and artist Didier Conrad have produced pitch-perfect pastiches.
Both men were born in 1959, the same year as Asterix, and grew up reading and loving the strip, and their affinity for the material is clear. Their version of Asterix, with Bell still providing sterling English translation, is arguably the equal of anything Goscinny and Uderzo managed in their heyday. It looks like the series is in safe hands and Goscinny and Uderzo’s warm- hearted, scrappy, petulant but above all lovable characters will be with us for many years to come.
This article first appeared in Comic Heroes, the world's best magazine for all your comic book needs. From Marvel and DC to indies and graphic novel classics, pick up the latest issue and back issues here, from MyFavouriteMagazines.co.uk, and follow the mag on Facebook.