Asterix has been comic book royalty for six long decades. Luke Rix-Standing , takes a look back at the laconic wit and wisdom that turned him into a cultural icon.
There are some very special Frenchmen who have truly endeared themselves to the great British public. Victor Hugo has managed it (we all love Les Mis), Claude Monet generally goes down all right, and those of a certain persuasion may have fond memories of Thierry Henry. But for the true adoration of the nation, one name stands tall above the rest. I’m referring, of course, to Asterix the Gaul.
After six decades of boar-hunting, Roman-bashing, magic potion-swilling and menhir-delivering, the mischievous, mustachioed warrior has barely aged a day. At the centre of the Asterix’s success lies a subtle brand of sophisticated silliness written into the fabric of the stories.
Just look at the names. Bard Cacofonix, pensioner Geriatrix and blacksmith Fulliautomatix are all classics of the genre, but even minor characters were rendered with loving care. Perhaps the forgotten genius of Asterix, at least in the UK, lies with the translation. It was translator Anthea Bell who turned French druid Panoramix into Getafix, and, in an historic moment of genius, renamed Obelix’s determined terrier Idefix Dogmatix.
If the names are lightly humorous, the national stereotypes are rather more overt. The Spanish are led by the flamboyant, swarthy, and fiercely proud Huevos Y Bacon, who dances the flamenco with a rose between his teeth to a loud chorus of “Ole”.
And then there’s the British: Warm beer, Wodehousian dialogue, stiff upper lips, games of rugger, double-decker buses, appalling food, and stopping halfway through a fight to have “a cup of hot water with milk”. You probably wouldn’t get away with it in 2019.
At its heart, the Asterix storytelling style occupies that early-Simpsons niche, of being amusing to children and parents alike. Jokes range from simple puns and light-hearted slapstick, to classical allusions you’d need a GCSE in Latin to understand. The art style is kid-friendly, with more than enough artistic clout to ensure it’s not overly so, while the storylines bound along with vigour and vim.
Asterix himself is a classic underdog - an intensely likeable character facing down the might of history’s greatest empire. His reliance on magic potion means that he can stand up for the little guy, and be the little guy all at once.
Creators Rene Goscinny and Albert Uderzo met in Paris in the 1950s and collaborated to found Pilote, a magazine meant to showcase the finest in French and Belgian cartoons. Their first hero was Reynard the Fox - a staple of French folklore - but another cartoonist beat them to the punch, so Asterix was drafted in from the bench.
By 1960, he had his first full album, Asterix The Gaul, and by the mid-Sixties Goscinny and Uderzo were both very wealthy men. Uderzo would scout out Asterix’s new destinations, taking reels of photos to inform his subsequent drawings, while Goscinny planned his plot-lines so promptly that the pair released a couple of new albums a year.
On the silver screen, Asterix has now fronted 10 animated features - the most recent released last year - and four live-action blockbusters. Book to screen is hardly a rare transition, but no one could have predicted that Asterix’s greatest crossover would involve a roller-coaster. Parc Asterix opened outside Paris in 1989, and has now grown into the second most-visited theme park in France.
One final nugget of Gaulish trivia: In 2011, an academic study assessed the head injuries sustained in the then-34 albums. It did so with no apparent irony - “a detailed analysis had not been hitherto performed” - and found precisely 704 cases of suspected trauma. Thankfully for the Gauls, they won’t be joining the list yet. It doesn’t look like the sky will be falling on their heads anytime soon.