Do you know who is the best-selling French author?
Little bears know this is a trick question! So far as we know, the best-selling French author of all time probably isn’t one person, but two. And these two people were never in the business of writing novels, but of making comics. They are writer René Goscinny and cartoonist Albert Uderzo. They created Asterix.
The Asterix comic first appeared on October 29, 1959. The series presents the adventures of the inhabitants of the famous little village in Armorique, on the Brittany coast — the only part of ancient Gaul never conquered by the Romans. After 37 world-famous adventures, the main hero is getting ready to celebrate his 60th birthday. With a 38th adventure, more than likely…
Asterix is, as the Parisian publishing houses put it, un phénomène. More than 350 million copies of the books have been sold since the story first began in the comic magazine Pilote in 1959. There have been thousands of licensing deals signed, hundreds of translations produced, more than a dozen films released (Asterix at the Olympic Games was one of the top-grossing movies of 2008), and even a theme park constructed on the peripheries of the French capital. The country’s very first satellite, launched in 1965, bore the name Asterix.
In 1991, for France’s bicentennial celebration, Asterix made the cover of a TIME magazine special edition on “the new France”.
Many people in France talk of the “Asterix syndrome” and the “village gaulois” (Gallic village), the idea that tiny, embattled France needs to defend itself against the encroaching cultural influences of the US, or the English language, or both. Usually used pejoratively, the terms indicate an inward, backward-looking way of seeing the world. The sentiment is also tied up with the French obsession with its cultural exception, the various rules and regulations designed to protect the French way of life from outside forces: French singers must sing in French, English words are banned from advertising, half of all TV shows on air must be European, and so on. It’s no surprise that France’s colourful anti-globalisation activist José Bové, who happens to sport a Gallic handlebar mustache, has been dubbed a modern-day Asterix for his campaigns against McDonald’s and genetically modified foods.
In 2010, a McDonald’s advert featuring Asterix enjoying a hamburger and fries sparked outrage among French comic purists who claimed the Gallic hero had surrendered to the American fast food chain. Quelle horreur!
The scene was a send-up of the comic book’s normal village banquet. Instead of feasting on ale and wild boar, they tuck into Coca Cola and a Big Mac. “Come as you are”, read the slogan on the bottom of the billboard, which was designed by Euro RSCG, the advertising agency.
For years McDonald’s had been dogged by anti-American feeling in France. In August 1999, José Bové dismantled a McDonald’s restaurant under construction in Millau, southern France. In 2009, there was uproar from French cultural and gastronomic purists when the fast food chain announced it would open an outlet just outside the Louvre museum in Paris. But despite such attacks, McDonald’s has pulled off a remarkably successful rebranding exercise in France. It has Frenchified its menu, takes 80 per cent of its beef from national farmers and has a stand in Paris’ annual agricultural fair. Top French food critics have admitted it is far from the worst fast food chain. And despite the country’s reputation as the birthplace of haute cuisine, the French have shown their love for the American chain with their stomachs: France is the company’s second-most profitable market after the US. It is also the country where customers spend most money per visit. Ahem…
What accounts for the appeal of Asterix and Obelix, the indefatigable Gauls who hold out against the far more powerful Roman legionnaires? How is it that the two unlikely warriors “conquered”, as one commentator put it, more territory than Napoleon? Central to it, in the opinion of illustrator Albert Uderzo, is the triumph of the underdog in the eternal David-versus-Goliath battle. Asterix and Obelix also represent the union of ingenuity and brute force, of restrained wisdom and untamed raw energy, of yin and yang.
The Asterix comics provide chuckle-inducing amusement for discerning readers who have a rudimentary understanding of Latin turns of phrases (so that’s why we studied Latin in school!) and the word plays on names (of characters and places), and the clever puns that Goscinny wove in — which have translated remarkably well across 111 languages and dialects thanks to careful translators.
Illustratively, in the original French version, Obelix’s dog is called Idéfix (which is a play on idée fixe – ‘fixed idea’); and the name in the English-language comic is Dogmatix, which retains the idea of an obsession, and additionally introduces the play on the word ‘dog’.
The situational humour in the Asterix series comes in large part from the stereotyping of cultures, in Europe and elsewhere, and in the exaggerated caricature of traits that are portrayed as typifying communities. Asterix’s adventures have taken him to Egypt and India and Rome itself. He has fought pirates, space aliens and, in Asterix and the Missing Scroll, the redactions and obfuscations of a censorship state. He is fun for kids and clever for adults, as well as the other way around. In some ways, the Asterix books pre-empted Pixar: they are Disney, especially in look, but with a sharper edge.
Generally, its punches are delicate enough to be counted as playful. The Brits boil all their food and drink warm beer. The Spanish take any opportunity to dance and writhe. And the Gauls, for all their heroism, can be pig-headed and prone to bickering. This is Goscinny and Uderzo’s version of the United Nations, and it has only one membership condition: laugh at yourself as you laugh at others. Even Germany has signed up. No other country, outside of France, buys Asterix books in greater quantity.
Few do more to keep these nations together than the translators who ensure that Asterix is published in languages other than its original French. It’s a tricky task. Much of the humour is based on puns, which don’t travel well across foreign borders. The only solution is to tailor each book for different countries. The druid who is called “Panoramix” in France, in allusion to the expansive effects of his potions, becomes “Getafix” in Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge’s English translation. Over three dozen volumes, Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge, were credited with producing translations that not only maintained the series’ high concentration of puns per panel, but in some cases improved on the original.
Asterix and Obelix are completely uninhibited about celebrating the slapstick and over-the-top tomfoolery — and even the occasional gratuitous violence. With Asterix and Obelix, even the biff-bang fight sequences evoke laughter rather more than anxiety. And they know how to party. Just like little bears 🙂
The first comic, Asterix the Gaul, introduces all the basic concepts of the series – the Gauls’ magic potion, the Romans’ perpetual frustration with them, and the core cast. Most notably, Asterix himself, his best friend, Obelix, and the druid Panoramix.
The year is 50 B.C. Gaul is entirely occupied by the Romans. Well, not entirely… One small village of indomitable Gauls still holds out against the invaders. And life is not easy for the Roman legionaries who garrison the fortified camps of Totorum, Aquarium, Laudanum and Compendium…
The premise of the comic is just what the blurb above encapsulates – every book begins with it. Gaul had been conquered by Rome, but one village still resists. The brave Gauls can fight off the might of the Roman Republic (not yet empire at this point, at least technically) with the aid of a magic potion. The drink that their druid Panoramix prepares grants superhuman strength. With it, the Gauls easily outmatch the long-suffering Roman legionnaires stationed in the surrounding camps.
This was the setup that Goscinny, the writer, and Uderzo, the illustrator, came up with in 1959. It’s a setup that withstood Goscinny’s death in 1977, when Uderzo took over the typing duties, and it has since survived Uderzo’s retirement in 2009, when the all-new team of writer Jean-Yves Ferri and illustrator Didier Conrad took over. When it was released in 2013, their first book, Asterix and the Picts, was the first Asterix comic book to be released in eight years.
The 35th instalment in the French comic series, which took Asterix and Obelix on a new adventure to ancient Scotland for the first time, was released in 15 countries and 23 languages and dialects, including Scots and Gaelic.
The second book by the new team of Ferri and Conrad, and the 36th instalment in the series, Asterix and the Missing Scroll, brought a new twist – the first direct satirical take on a specific real-life incident with a journalist named Confoundtheirpolitix, inspired by Julian Assange. Confoundtheirpolitix plays a major role in the story when a whistle-blower named Bigdatha (an allusion to Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning) passes secret info that could “make the Roman Empire tremble”. So, it’s propaganda and data leaks, Asterix-style. The postscript features a nice tip of the hat to the original creators, Goscinny and Uderzo.
For some, continuing Asterix after Goscinny’s death and Uderzo’s retirement is looked on with the same horror as a wax-faced Axl Rose fronting AC/DC. For others, it’s given the series the kick start to the heart it desperately needed, especially after the ridiculous flying carpet in Asterix and the Magic Carpet (1987) and, worse, extra-terrestrials in Asterix and the Falling Sky (2005).
After the death of René Goscinny in 1977, Albert Uderzo continued the adventures alone for more than 35 years, taking care of both the drawing and the writing, with increasingly mixed results. His best effort was Asterix and Son (the 27th book in the series), which sees Asterix and Obelix having a deal with a baby who imbibes the Gauls’ magic potion and creates seven levels of chaos. It turns out the baby is Cleopatra and Caesar’s son (Ptolemy XV Caesarion), sent by Cleopatra to the Gauls village for protection from Brutus.
The last book that Uderzo wrote and illustrated, Asterix and the Falling Sky, was done in tribute to his artistic inspiration, Walt Disney. Yet it also featured a race of superclones, patterned on Superman, whose leader is called “Hubs,” an anagram of “Bush”. It’s hard to know whether this was meant as a love letter or a hatchet job.
In 2013, after more than 70 years of drawing, he decided to stop and transmit the creation of Asterix albums to Jean-Yves Ferri and Didier Conrad.
In 2017, a signed original illustration for an early Asterix comic book cover sold for more than €1.4 million. The record sum was more than seven times the expected price.
The drawing for the 1964 comic Asterix and the Banquet (Le Tour de Gaule in French) was signed by the creators of the series, Albert Uderzo and Rene Goscinny, with a dedication to Pierre Tchernia, a prominent French cinema and TV producer nicknamed “Monsieur Cinéma”, who died in 2016. Parts of his collection of art and drawings are now being sold. Another cover illustration for Asterix and the Chieftain’s Shield went for €1.2 million, also far higher than predicted.
Asterix and the Banquet recounts the travels of Asterix and Obelix as they travel around France sampling local delicacies and wines. Hmm…
Time to watch Asterix at the Olympic Games. Alain Delon plays Caesar!