Ampton Reads Asterix: Part One, or The Beginning

WELL, HELLO THERE

One of the first things you will notice if you mention Asterix is that people like it. This is probably not a shocking statement, but aside from the occasional outlier like Tintin and maybe Lucky Luke, Spirou, Gaston Lagaffe, and aside from The Smurfs, which I don’t think most people know is originally French, it’s not an easy feat for bande dessinee to become recognised outside of Francophone circles. Asterix has aced this, and I can’t help but feel curiosity as to what has set this series apart from so many others.

When I finished up my Ampton Reads Tintin series, now a book!, people asked me where I was going next, and indicated they would like me to go after Asterix. Well, here I am. While this series will be significantly shorter than that one, split into only four parts, I’m hoping to deliver a comprehensive history of the books, skim through them, and deliver my piping hot takes on the series. This is not, however, going to be a comprehensive readthrough; Pipeline Comics have already done just that, and I’m not one to retread old ground. I’ll be linking their readthrough of each book as we go along, although I shan’t claim their views represent mine or vice versa. That would be doing them a disservice. I’ll mark the link to the Pipeline review next to the title of the book, using an asterisk to bring the universe full circle.

The beginning of the beginning.

Although my grandmother only owned a single Asterix book (the first one), it was on family trips to our bach that I would get as many volumes out of the local library as I could, and read them all, much to the despair of my parents, who had to carry this massive stack of books to and from the car. I loved them, and as I grew older and studied comics and Classical Studies at school, I gained a new appreciation for them. It feels to me like every time I get a little older and reread one of the classic books, I find one more joke that I missed when I was younger. And that’s just in the English versions! The translations for the series are famously good, and I can only imagine what I’m missing from both alternative translations and the original French.

I’ll overview the history of the series by saying that the first Asterix book, Asterix the Gaul, was serialised and published as a book in 1961, and was followed by another 23 books written by both Rene Goscinny and Alberto Uderzo. After Goscinny died young, Uderzo went on to write another ten books before retiring, and very recently passing away. In recent years more books have been produced with Uderzo’s blessing by Jean-Yves Ferri and Didier Conrad, and this revival of the series is ongoing. But, of course, the first book is never the start of the story, and today we will be focusing on the events in the creators’ lives that led up to the creation of the first few Asterix books, and what these first few ones were like.

GOSCINNY AND UDERZO

Rene Goscinny was born in Paris in 1926, the son of Jewish Poles who had recently immigrated. His family was frequently on this move and he spent the majority of his childhood in Argentina at a French-language school. He was always an artist and a writer as well as the class clown. When his father died in 1943, the rest of his family uplifted their lives from Argentina and headed to New York to live with an uncle. He finished up high school there, and worked as an accountant and an illustrator, but was forced to put this on hold when he became eligible for conscription. He served his military service in his home country of France during the aftermath of World War 2 and produced significant volumes of art for the military, becoming the artist for his regiment.

Goscinny, looking smug.

Leaving the army was rough. Goscinny returned to New York with no money and no job prospects, and once he got there he was alone. His creative prowess was his saving grace, securing him a position in a small studio. This moment was to prove hugely influential, as it introduced him to a group of other creatives who would go on to found MAD Magazine. Founded in 1952, MAD features comic art, articles, and other pieces poking fun at whatever would stand still long enough, and I think the fact that Goscinny spent time with the founders explains a lot about the specific tone that Asterix’s satire would take on, years later. My brother had a substantial collection of MAD magazines, so my memories of them are quite fond, even though I definitely didn’t understand most of the jokes in them.

Goscinny produced a lot of work of his own during this time, including editing, art, and a couple of children’s books. In 1951, he was offered a job as the head of the Paris office of the World Press Agency, prompting a return to France. It was here that he met Uderzo, and the two would collaborate on many works before starting Asterix. On his own, he wrote for the series Lucky Luke for a well-received period of ten years starting in 1955, and also had a popular run on the comic Iznogoud. He wrote many children’s books, and would start publishing a comic in the very popular Tintin magazine in 1956. We’ll get to that in a minute, because he couldn’t do it without Uderzo.

Uderzo, pictured with two horrifying effigies of his creations.

Alberto Uderzo was born in 1927 to Italian immigrants who were frequently on the move. He was named after an older sibling who had died in his first year, and curiously, he was born with six fingers on each hand, although the bonus ones got removed. He was also colourblind. An auspicious birth. Uderzo was a naturally talented artist, helped along by his parents encouraging him and his siblings to doodle whenever they had nothing else to do. On the other six-fingered hand, he suffered significant bigotry for his Italian heritage, as despite being a French citizen, he was sufficiently Italian that those who despised Mussolini’s regime despised him too. He was strongly influenced by the American comics and cartoons that came his way as he grew up. His other academics were weak, and he devoted his hours at school to drawing. He graduated school at age 13, aiming to become an aircraft engineer or a clown, but he instead travelled and worked as an illustrator until he was also roped into the Paris office of the World Press Agency with Goscinny. 

EARLY COLLABORATIONS AND THE DEVELOPMENT OF ASTERIX

Throughout the 1950s, Goscinny and Uderzo collaborated on a number of different projects, mostly for children, and also worked together to found Edifrance, an syndication company that still exists today. Goscinny got out some more writing, particularly for children, and in 1956 the two of them had a collaboration with Tintin magazine to publish a children’s comic: a satire, about a little old local standing up to a big bad empire. This was Oumpah-pah, which would run for two years. Through Edifrance, they would found Pilote in 1959, a highly influential comics magazine that gave many other series their start, and it was here that they would polish their ideas about satires and standing up to the big guys, beginning Asterix in the very first issue.

Oumpah-pah is, in all truth, less sweet to the taste than Asterix, despite the similarities in premise. The story follows a Native American warrior during the French colonisation of their land, and much like Asterix, depicts a bunch of comical encounters between enemies, although the difference between the series lies in the nature of these enemies. Asterix hits a comfortable place for the common French person, given the cultural importance of the Roman-Gallic wars and the surrender of Vercingetorix to the modern cultural identity of the French. In contrast, the French takeover of parts of North America was both far more brutal and far less culturally cherished.

Asterix hits a comfortable place for the common French person; it is simultaneously a satire dryly commenting on a number of modern occurrences and phenomenon, and a piece of historical fiction set in a time much mythologised by the French people. While I don’t know the exact thought process that led to them deciding to set Asterix where they did, I suspect that the fact I’m from Aotearoa New Zealand and not France will affect my perception of things. The rebellion of Vercingetorix against Caesar’s rule was an important cultural moment for the French, and became cited especially often in the first half of the 20th century, where the French were repeatedly rocked by war and encouraged to either rebel, like Vercingetorix, or give in, like Vercingetorix. Both their Gaulish origins and the Roman elements they later took up are important in the formation of the modern French identity, and this is reflected in their language, which is Romantic with its own Gaulish flair.

However, this takeover took place almost two millennia ago, which means that the wounds are no longer anything like fresh. It is difficult to feel any pain over the actions of the Romans when it is all mostly lost to history. I suspect this is a point of difference from Oumpah-pah, since the French colonisation of America was recent enough to still leave lasting scars on the indigenous population that sting sharply today. In addition to this, while the Romans took over Gaul without too much interest in massacring the locals unless necessary, the people depicted in Oumpah-pah had lost as much as 90% of their population from disease and deliberate culturate genocide. So, you know, it hits different.

Asterix was not ahistorical, at the time, although the particular brand of Classical history portrayed in this series is no longer believed to be particularly accurate. In fact, Asterix has generated a kind of cultural lag, where the books are so ubiquitous that attempts by more modern authors to portray an accurate modern interpretation of the Roman occupation of Gaul experience reduced traction. It is clear from the series that Goscinny and Uderzo were at least familiar with a broad range of Classical history, and were skilled at integrating facts about these time periods with modern stereotypes and knowledge of the areas portrayed; for example, blending ancient Germany with modern. I also feel that when the series gets a long way away from Europe, such as when they hit the Middle East or America, they increasingly rely on stereotypes and knowledge of modern concepts rather than historical ones. This makes sense, because Europe is what they know, but it does not mesh well with accusations of racism and other sensitivity shortsightedness. More on that in a future essay. You all know I love breaking things down on their relationship to colonialism. You can blame my country of origin for that.

ASTERIX THE GAUL*

Of course, although I just wrote a thousand words about the intricate balance that the setting of Asterix strikes, the first book was very much humble. Goscinny and Uderzo had no way of knowing how popular this series would be, and were simply producing a good comic for the first issue of their big magazine debut. Asterix the Gaul is a simple book in which Asterix and Getafix get one over on their Roman conquerors. Since this is the first story, this book spends much time establishing the canon of the series, and even rewriting it as the serialisation went on; for example, Caesar’s appearance changes drastically from his first appearance in the book to his last. Uderzo’s art style has not yet settled into the style he will use in most later books, and other details consistent in later books such as the magic potion, the social dynamics of the village, and the status of Obelix as a character have yet to solidify.

The plot of the story is simplistic. Getafix and Asterix are captured by the Romans and held captive in order to force them to produce magic potion and bring the Romans to victory over the world. Getafix and Asterix are both wiley people and mess the Romans around, tricking them into drinking a hair-growth potion while they escape. They are intercepted by Julius Caesar, but buy their safety by ratting out the Roman centurion who planned to use the magic potion to overthrow Caesar. Balance restored, the Gauls have a big old banquet. It’s worth noting that this story throws the reader directly into the universe, making it clear that we are jumping into a tale that’s already been playing out instead of one that’s just starting.

The very first page of Asterix the Gaul was published in the promotional #0 issue of Pilote, and was consistently published page by page in the weekly magazine releases from October 1959 until July 1960. In 1963, the book received its first English translation in Valiant Comics, and it was completely changed to be a British setting instead of a French one. It was called Little Fred and Big Ed, and it sank without leaving much of a trace, until the 1969 translation by Bell and Hockridge that stayed true to the original. It was translated across Europe in the 1960s, and is still popular, voted the 23rd greatest book of the 20th century by readers of Le Monde. Indeed, while it’s not a fantastic story, it’s still lots of fun, and the energy of the characters and setting are conveyed right from this very first story, which is not an easy thing to do.

For me, this book smacks of being an early installation, which of course it is. There’s no crime in that, and it’s an important work for historians to see the development of the series (much like Tintin in America) but that doesn’t mean I like it or that it’s amazing. For me, the primary appeal of this book is its role in the later success of the comic. It ultimately lacks a lot of the bite of the later books, and the lack of Obelix causes the book to flounder a little in its primary dynamic. While Getafix is an important character, he’s more of a side man to both Asterix and Obelix from here on out, aside from the few stories where he’s more important. While this story establishes that Asterix is a wiley man who creates humour, and Obelix, being the target of humour and the wielder of brute force, provide a valuable contrast that wouldn’t have been present had Getafix stayed as part of the main duo.

They made a movie of this book without consulting the authors. It was reportedly not good.

One last thing to mention is that the art style is slightly different on the 35th page, as the original plate for this page was lost and needed to be replaced for publication 1970. It was drawn by Uderzo’s brother Marcel, who was an artistic understudy and also worked to colour Uderzo’s art, due to his colourblindness. The rest of the book is exactly how it looked when it was first published.

ASTERIX AND THE GOLDEN SICKLE*, AND ASTERIX AND THE GOTHS*

Three weeks after the end of Asterix the Gaul, Asterix and the Golden Sickle began, giving only a short time period. Even with the skill and history of the creators of Pilote, there was no time for delaying in the early days of the magazine, and since Asterix did well, it was essential they kept moving. This books expands its horizons, plotwise, and also aims for greater breadth of references and caricatures, such as basing the Prefect of Lutetia off an actor who played a lot of film roles as Romans, Charles Laughton. The story discusses an underground sickle ring that’s controlling supply and demand to create a sickle monopoly, a plotline I didn’t remotely understand as a child. Olivier Todd said “Parents read Tintin after their children: they read Astérix before the children can get their hands on the books.”, and this book is the first one to let this aspect of Goscinny and Uderzo’s work shine, and I earnestly enjoy this story. Asterix and the Golden Sickle was published between August 1960 and March 1961.

After the completion of Asterix and the Golden Sickle, there was a break of seven weeks, and then the authors dove directly into Asterix and the Goths, published between May 1961 and February 1962. All about Germans, who were known to the Romans as the Goths, this book is notable for the anti-German tone that clearly dates it to within a few decades of the war. Both Uderzo and Goscinny had been young during the war and experienced horrors, although they later regretted being so harsh to the German people in this book.

One thing I find profoundly interesting about the Asterix books is that while they are ostensibly set in Caesar’s era, they actually aren’t. The main characters reference songs, artworks, and people from the modern era, and the stories play off modern ideas of people – the Goths portrayed in this book are based on perceptions of the modern German people, not off perceptions of historical Goths. They occupy a unique position of being set firmly in the year they were written, and yet the events play out on a stage that’s two millennia old. It’s worth remembering this when reading the books, otherwise the anachronisms that pile up and up might start to drive you insane. It’s intentional, and in my opinion, totally necessary in order to keep the stories relevant in their satire, and approachable for the common man. After all, it’s hard to imagine what it was really like to live in the day-in, day-out world of Gaul back then.

Probably wouldn’t be able to get away with the swastika today.

Asterix and the Goths isn’t great, in my opinion, simply because it spends a little too much time flipping off Germany and not enough time being funny. The gag of Gauls breaking in and out of the Gaulish border is probably my favourite part. It’s settling into the character beats that will become entrenched in the series, which I appreciate, but overall this book could probably be best described as embryonic. It’s the next book, Asterix and the Gladiator, that really starts off the Golden Age of Asterix, in my opinion, which is why I’m ending this review here and saving that for the next part.

In said next part, I’ll run through the books in what I consider to be the Golden Age, right up until Goscinny’s untimely death, which unsurprisingly marked a sudden and noticeable change in the production and quality of the series. I’ll also be touching on the international translation and how this affected the popularity of the series. Please consider subscribing to this blog to keep up with my new posts, or dropping a few dollars in my tip jar. Until then, thank you for your patronage, and I hope you are in the best of health.

– Aмртоп

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