Saturday, October 31, 2009

Asterix turns 50! More than a Comic.

As a child aged 11 or 12 years I can recall looking curiously at a new series of cartoon books. The name itself was intriguing - Astérix. As a typical boy of the age, I loved comics - Phantom, Donald Duck, Superman, Mickey Mouse and many others were devoured. I bought comics, collected them and swapped them with my friends. To be honest, comics were just about all I that read outside school. This was the 1960s and some schools had banned comics. So it was with surprise that I found the books in my small school library, and it was an even greater surprise when I tried to read them. The illustrations immediately captured my attention; their wonderful colour and minute detail set them apart from most of the mass-produced comics of the day. The characters also seemed to be different and amusing, and of course they were set in Roman times with battles and ancient weapons of war abounding. The French language (the only option at my school at the time) was impossible for a monolingual working class boy; but I returned many times to the books, creating my own story, while studying intently the many vibrant and gripping scenes in each book.

As the French celebrate the 50th anniversary of this remarkable success story in children’s publishing, they continue to fascinate and amuse children and adults. As an adult, the books are just as interesting a read, particularly using the lenses of contemporary political, ideological and cultural analysis.

Background, setting and characters

The Adventures of Asterix (in the French Astérix or Astérix le Gaulois) is a series of French comic books written by René Goscinny and illustrated by Albert Uderzo. When Goscinny died in 1977, Uderzo (now 82) took over writing the series as well and is responsible for the 34th book that has been released to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the publication. The first edition of Asterix appeared in French in the magazine Pilote (29 October 1959).

The books tell of the lives of a village of ancient Gauls living in the 1st century BC who resist the Roman Empire that had occupied most of the known world. They manage to do what no other people had been able to do, using a magic Druid potion that gives superhuman strength. The key characters are Asterix and his friend Obelix who have many adventures. Sometimes these stories are set in the village while at other times they need to travel to other countries around the world. Asterix may be small but he is a cunning warrior who is ably supported by his faithful stonemason mate Obelix. Together they battle the armies of Caesar in their remote village on the Brittany coast; this is the last independent town in ancient Gaul that cannot be tamed.

Today Asterix is a well-known global brand with more than 325 million comic books sold in 107 different languages. The books have been adapted into 11 films, eight of which are animated, and three with actors. There are also a number of games based on the characters, a theme park near Paris (Parc Astérix).

The ideology missed by children

Uderzo attributes the appeal of Asterix to people's love of stories about underdogs conquering. He commented recently to TIME magazine:
"It's David against Goliath…..Everyone can identify with the image of retribution against things that are bigger than us."
Others have suggested that the Asterix stories have a deeper significance and symbolize French fears over globalisation and the struggle of all independent-minded people against colonising forces at work in our world. As a child I had no idea that the Asterix books could reflect an ideological view of a French people of the need to resist the world.

Leo Cendrowicz writing in TIME magazine (21st October 2009) suggested that many in France recognise that this ‘innocent’ children’s comic mirrors a France constantly fighting against the encroaching cultural influences of the rest of the world. It suggests that this inward and even backward-looking way of seeing the world is not relevant in modern day France or Europe which are both thriving. It is suggested that this seeming French obsession is seen in the rules and regulations that seek to protect the French life and culture way of life from outside forces is pointed to as evidence. For example, French singers only singing in French; English words being banned from advertising; 50% of all TV shows needing to be European; Asterix merchandise pitted against Disneyland Paris and so on. Cendrowicz concludes that it is time for France to grow up and leave this insecurity being.

Back to basics: The fun of the books for all kids

In spite of the deeper levels to this book it remains a timeless series of warm and amusing stories about a friendship between Asterix and Obelix as they fight against the might of Rome. The illustrations alone will keep children (especially boys) busy for hours. But the language has richness in English as well as French. The use of puns to name the Roman characters is a large part of the fun of these books. The names that usually end in ‘ix’, ‘us’ or ‘a’ must take up a lot of the author’s time. The village chief is "Abraracoucix" in the French. In English it becomes, "Vitalstastix" (UK) and "Macroeconomix" (US). His wife is called "Bonemine" in French, "Impedimenta" in Britain and "Belladonna" in the US. The chief Druid responsible for the magic potion is called "Panoramix" in the French. But in Britain he becomes "Getafix" and in America, "Readymix"or "Magicmix".

The books are highly recommended for boys, especially bright ones who love language. But any boy will be swept along by these stories simply due to the illustrations and the simple narratives where Asterix and Obelix conquer all.

The Full List of Titles

The latest book was released on Thursday (29th October) to coincide with the 50th anniversary. The title is ‘The Birthday of Asterix and Obelix: The Golden Book’ and is the 34th in a series.

Asterix the Gaul (1959)
Asterix and the Golden Sickle (1960)
Asterix and the Goths (1961-62)
Asterix the Gladiator (1962)
Asterix and the Banquet (1963)
Asterix and Cleopatra (1963)
Asterix and the Big Fight (1964)
Asterix in Britain (1965)
Asterix and the Normans (1966)
Asterix the Legionary (1966)
Asterix and the Chieftain's Shield (1967)
Asterix at the Olympic Games (1968)
Asterix and the Cauldron (1968)
Asterix in Spain (1969)
Asterix and the Roman Agent (1970)
Asterix in Switzerland (1970)
The Mansions of the Gods (1971)
Asterix and the Laurel Wreath (1971)
Asterix and the Soothsayer (1972)
Asterix in Corsica (1973)
Asterix and Caesar's Gift (1974)
Asterix and the Great Crossing (1975)
Asterix Conquers Rome (1976) (Non-canonical)
Obelix and Co. (1976)
Asterix in Belgium (1979)
Asterix and the Great Divide (1980)
Asterix and the Black Gold (1981)
Asterix and Son (1983)
Asterix and the Magic Carpet (1987)
How Obelix Fell into the Magic Potion When he was a Little Boy (1989) (Non-canonical)
Asterix and the Secret Weapon (1991)
Asterix and Obelix All at Sea (1996)
Asterix and the Actress (2001)
Asterix and the Class Act (2003)
Asterix and the Falling Sky (2005)
Asterix and Obelix's Birthday: The Golden Book (2009)

Related Posts and Links

Previous posts on Graphic Novels and comics (here, here and here)

An article on the Asterix series in ‘Time’ (here)

Complete an Asterix quiz in the Independent’s report on the anniversary (here)

'Can Asterix Conquer Europe?' (here)


Patrick Chan said...

Thanks for this post, Trevor! I'm an Asterix fan too (along with Tintin). So I appreciated your post very much! :-)


Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks Patrick. I may do a post on Tintin another time.