Ampton Reads Asterix: Part Two, or The Golden Years

Well, here we go. The second part in this grand fable. Last time we covered the events leading up to the creation of Asterix and what we can read into the first three issues; this time we’ll be going through the time period before Goscinny’s death, in which Asterix was released regularly, to massive sales and widespread acclaim. It was, in short, a golden age. This period covers twenty books and more than a decade, so I did have a little difficulty splitting everything up into convenient, bite-sized, and tasty sections. It’s up to you to determine whether I succeeded in doing so.

My favourite source while writing was Pipeline Comics, who read through every Asterix book with great diligence, so rather than retread old ground, I’ve linked his reviews with an asterisk (*) next to the name of the album. How fitting. Another source for those looking for a more in depth examination of the series is The Asterix Annotations, which goes into enormous detail when archiving the translations and references from each book.

The first part of this saga can be found here. I’d also like to say that I’ve recently launched a Patreon, which is very new but will have plenty of content soon! I’ve also started weekly streams of the Tintin games (which have so far been comically awful) on my Twitch on Tuesdays at 6pm EST, so come along if you wish to enjoy a little schadenfreude at my expense. I’ll also be starting Pixel Sundays soon where I stream other retro games, so keep an eye out for that.

PRODUCING THE SERIES, TO GROWING ACCLAIM

The Asterix series was never a sleeper hit; it was, in fact, popular right from the start. Within only a few short years the series had launched Pilote into stability, if not success, which was no small deal considering that the magazine had been built from scratch by Goscinny and co. In fact, it pushed the magazine into selling more copies than the competitor Tintin for a time, which was no insignificant feat, although Tintin books were only sporadically produced by this time. One thing that I think was a prime contributor to the rapid growth in Asterix’s popularity was the release schedule. Goscinny and Uderzo released a new page every single week with only a few weeks’ break between each story. As successful content creators will tell you, regular and frequent content updates are the best way to build a following, which is why I’ve started streaming weekly. Look at that segue. What a pro I am. 

You do also have to be producing good content, too, which was an important part of the success of Asterix’s stories. In my opinion, Asterix is much more consistently good from the start than Tintin ever was, and their fourth book, Asterix the Gladiator (*), is a good example of this. It was serialised in 1964, and it moves along quickly, drawing the reader into the heart of the Roman Empire for the first time and staying punchy and animated throughout the book. Many of the conflicts in the series between Caesar and the Gauls are resolved by Caesar honouring his agreements or being respectful to the Gauls, which adds an additional dimensionality to him. If he were just a cackling evil guy, then the range of potential stories that he could feature in would be limited.  The change in setting was a good move in my opinion, as the pastoral nature of the previous three books needed a little contrast. The series alternates between adventures set at home, playing off Gaulish and Roman relationships, and adventures abroad that explored and developed the world. I actually never noticed this as a kid, since I never read the books in order, but it’s a good way to keep the experience of writing and reading the books nice and fresh.

Although slaves are ubiquitous in these books, their role is at least explored and satirised.

The series would also get more comfortable in mixing modern with ancient. After the gaffs of Asterix and the Goths, where the story was a little too invested in taking stabs at the Germany of recent history, I feel that they manage to reach a healthy balance between depicting the ancient world with streaks of modern references in the next book Asterix the Banquet (*), serialised in 1965. This book neatly showcases how the Asterix books simultaneously take place in the past and present, since all the cities are heavily informed by their modern counterparts and this book is an excuse to poke fun at greater France. The whole thing is a play on the Tour de France, and as we cover Gaul we get to see many jokes and references that are almost entirely lost to me as a 21st century New Zealander. This book also introduces Dogmatix, who (among other purposes) serves the role of grounding the series’ appeal for children. 

As I pointed out in my last essay, Asterix doesn’t display (or aim to display) a strictly accurate version of history. Rather, they throw a lot of apparent understanding of history in with modern concepts of a setting or concept, creating a version of the world that’s really unique to Asterix. I honestly think that this fusion is a masterstroke, because if it strictly stuck to ancient history it would be less relevant to modern audiences. There’s another level to this, too, where the ancient history they portray is a fusion of factual evidence and stereotypes that also provide a sense of familiarity. This is best demonstrated in Asterix and Cleopatra (*), completed in 1995, which uses a blend of historical and ahistorical elements in order to convey a sense of Egyptian-ness to the story while maintaining nuance. Indeed, it features some excellent jokes about the Egyptian labour system and their relationship with their leaders and own history. It ends up being one of the most timeless early books, in my opinion, because it almost sets itself free from the constraints of chronology. It’s an excellent story that Pipeline Comics says is the beginning of the status quo of quality for the series, and I can’t help but agree. It also has a significant legacy in that it’s been adapted twice for film; one of the productions was the most expensive French film ever made at the time of production. 

EXPONENTIAL GROWTH IN POPULARITY AND A MESS OF ADAPTATIONS

By this time, Goscinny and Uderzo were a well-oiled machine, and Asterix had achieved a comfortable status quo. With at least one new book coming out a year and the series achieving popularity with adults as well as kids, it was easy for the series to establish itself as a part of French culture, and a slew of adaptations followed. Decades later and from an Anglophone perspective, it’s a little difficult to track this explosion of popularity. According to Google’s Ngram viewer, which is not a perfect source, Asterix took off in 1963 and saw exponential growth until Goscinny’s death, at which point things get more complicated. I also managed to find a Master’s thesis on the popularity of Asterix, which is worth a read if you have time. A survey in 1969 indicated that around ⅔ of the population of France had read some Asterix, which is an often-cited statistic, and they had reached record-breaking numbers by the time the 9th album came out, which was Asterix and the Normans.

I really can’t be the only person who finds this to be visually repellent.

The characters of Asterix have always been very good at slipping into other mediums and adorning things completely unrelated to the source material. If Bill Watterson’s famous protectiveness over Calvin and Hobbes indicates anything, it takes willingness on the parts of the creators for such a thing to occur. The authors weren’t idiots, and in the face of popularity snapped up a whole lot of offers to use their characters in advertisements, so the nation of France was speckled with images of Asterix and Obelix selling anything that could be sold. Six movies were produced during this golden age, the latter five of which were all animated. The first satellite launched by the French was named Asterix, and a couple of board games were also created while Goscinny was alive.The Guardian actually put together an article eighteen years ago here in which they discuss what might have contributed to the success of Asterix, and I’d recommend giving it a read. I’ll be drawing some information from there.

Instrumental to their success was their continued integration of modern references. It helped that the comics were produced so quickly, because it allowed the authors to stay on top of modern trends, exemplified in Asterix and the Big Fight (*), released in 1966. This book is basically just making references to the career of Muhammed Ali, since he was world heavyweight champion at the time. Vitalstatistix is challenged to a fight and they decide to rise to the challenge. As a child, I assumed the book was a reference to Rocky, which came out ten years later, but to be honest I’ve never seen Rocky so I just assume anytime someone boxes that it’s a reference to the film. The book is otherwise good and is one of the few stories that shows how the Gaulish tribe is structured and how they choose their leaders, which is an interesting thing to delve into.

The other thing I feel was essential in increasing the popularity of the books, especially to a foreign audience, was how every other book took place in a foreign location. This allowed them to rope in a new set of references and potentially new readers, best exemplified by the next book, Asterix in Britain (*), published in 1966 also. The story was preceded by an author’s note that made it clear that all mockery was being carried out lovingly, and the story itself creates a mirror image of the Gaulish village in Britain, where a small group of resistance fighters are preserving the last free village, and they need a barrel of magic potion in order to keep up the good fight. The story romps through a wide variety of British cultural references, such as rugby, the Beatles (who were very popular at this time), and Winston Churchill. It has received both an animated and then a live-action adaptation like Asterix and Cleopatra. Most but not all film adaptations were on the ‘away’ books, presumably because they contain more accessible and relatable gags than the local ones that focus on France and the character dynamics.

The importance of the European setting of the books cannot be overstated as a contributor to their success. The Roman empire is one of the largest to ever have existed, and it left its traces all across the Mediterranean and Europe. European countries have, in turn, done the same, violently writing themselves into the cultures of the world, which is why I, despite living in New Zealand, have read so much Asterix. They became a part of my upbringing due to our British origins, and they became a part of my British origins due to the cultural community created by Europe’s shared legacy of Roman rule. Why do I bother stating this? Because one question I see asked all the time is, ‘why isn’t Asterix popular in America?’ and all I can think is, ‘why would Asterix, a quintessentially European story, be popular there?’. Tintin never made it big there either and I don’t doubt it’s for the same reason.

I do like this book and Panacea as a character, but her design sticks out like a sore thumb amongst all the other stylised characters.

The next two books are Asterix and the Normans (*) published in 1967, and Asterix the Legionary (*), published the same year. In the former, the Gauls are subjected to the arrival of Vikings (not Normans, who settled in Normandy a thousand years after this book, and who are referenced in the body of the story), and comedy ensues. In the latter story, Asterix and Obelix sign up to the army in order to white knight for Panacea, whose fiance has been drafted. They willingly join the Roman army in order to get deployed to North Africa and retrieve this guy. This is indeed a practice carried out by the Romans, taking legionaries from one part of the world and having them serve in a totally different place in order to reduce local loyalty, and it also includes many references to the French Foreign Legion as well as to Tintin, who is alluded to with the Belgian conscript. Both stories are excellent comedies, particularly Asterix the Legionary, which has some fantastic slapstick as discussed by Pipeline Comics.

TRANSLATIONS, WOOLSEYISM, AND INTERNATIONAL POPULARITY

The challenge that faced and still faces many bandes dessinées is leaving the Francophone realm, and this leaves them entirely at the mercy of translations. The translations for Tintin are good, or at least adequate, but the comics are quite visual, so Herge’s elegant art could keep the series afloat in other languages. Asterix is a humour and satire comic, and in order to make the jump into other languages, the translation would have to be really, really good. 

The two translators who have worked on almost every single Asterix story are Anthea Bell, a career translator, and Derek Hockridge, a teacher and lecturer, and I am immensely grateful for all that they did to shift the humour of the series into English, which was quite the undertaking. I’ve heard it said that puns are one of the hardest features of learning and translating languages, so approaching the translation of these wordplay-laden books took great expertise. I would highly recommend reading this interview with Anthea Bell in order to understand her process a little better.

The most successful bandes dessinées are often those which have jumped into other languages successfully. Of course, France can sustain their own comic industries, but considering how many more speakers of English there are and how much more of a universal language it is across Europe, it was a good move. Asterix is a peak example of what’s called Woolseyism, where the translations are not direct or literal but instead capture the essence and meaning of the original. While Woolseyism can be controversial due to how information and context is conveyed differently in this style of translation, causing the translation to be less than exact. The translators of the books took liberties, and it’s important that they did, because the creative decisions they made reshaped the books into ones that worked for an Anglophone audience. If you want some good comparisons between the French and English versions, there’s a great little article here.

As the article explains, this joke required a lot of tweaking to shift it into English while still working with the flow of the panel.

The books that came out over the period between 1968 and 1969 delve deeper into the possibilities of setting and plot that the world of Asterix provides, and contains multiple mystery plots, which I think work well with the series. First up is Asterix and the Chieftains Shield (*) released in 1968, which discusses the legacy of the Battle of Alesia and really digs into the history that the main characters live in the shadow of. It’s formatted like a detective novel as the main characters follow the trail of Vercingetorix’s shield, threading in a plot about Vitalstatistix’s health, and looping back to the start when the party realises that they had the shield in their possession all along. Structure-wise, it reminds me of a Tintin story, and I mean that in a good way, because this story takes the reader on an adventure. I would also like to say that the constant claims by the cast that they don’t know where Alesia is to cover their loss is because at the time the location of the battle was lost to history, although in recent years historians have reached a shaky consensus on the whereabouts of the site.

Following this, and influenced by the upcoming 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, the next book was Asterix at the Olympic Games (*), published in 1968 and relaunched for the 1972 Olympic Games, which were held in Europe. Obviously, the real-life Olympic Games represent a link between ancient history and tradition and the modern day, so it’s very fitting that Asterix, which also joyfully bridges that gap, would do a story about it. It makes a lot of references to the discussion around performance enhancing drugs, as well as riffing on all the different locales that the competitors hail from.

I actually adore how Greece looks in Uderzo’s style. So crisp.

The next mystery story was Asterix and the Cauldron (*) published in 1969, the same year that the English translations of Asterix began. There had been earlier translations, as I mentioned in my last essay, but none that were successful or long-running, and it wasn’t until Bell and Hockridge turned their hand to it that the whole thing took off. In this story, Asterix and Obelix have to raise enough money to fill a cauldron in order to repay a debt created by the theft of a chief’s riches. Much like Asterix and the Chieftain’s Shield, it utilises a looping mystery plotline where the party goes on an adventure to solve a mystery but end up finding the answer to their problem where they began. This structure is popular for a reason, and it’s because it’s both satisfying and tidy when executed correctly, just like it is here. The series gets more self-referential also, with Goscinny and Uderzo putting themselves in this book, and the two main characters joking about how they would sell their stories, but no one would buy them.

In the final story in this section, Asterix in Spain (*), the main characters are thrust into the resolution of a hostage situation when they end up with a child hostage and need to return him to his Spanish father. The story is predictably thick with references to both ancient and modern Spain’s culture and history, and like Asterix in Britain, the story features a stubborn hold-out village in another country that needs help from Asterix and Obelix. Although I’m not European, I do feel like the Roman role in Britain and France is talked about a lot more than their similarly long-running and complex occupational period in Spain, and I really enjoy how Goscinny and Uderzo dig into a fresh and original-feeling setting. 

MATURATION OF THE SERIES AND INCREASED LEVELS OF COMMENTARY

Throughout the 1970s, the Asterix series adopted greater levels of complexity and even crossed a line into being more for adults than for children at times. The references got more obscure, the jabs more biting, and the plots more convoluted. Some of my least favourite books as a child, and my most beloved books as an adult, come from this time, and I have no doubt that the tonal shift is responsible for this duality.

A prime example is Asterix and the Roman Agent (*), a story published in 1970 about a Roman attempt to use a really, really annoying guy to turn the Gauls against each other. He does this by giving a respectable gift to the “Most important man in the village”, which is likely a reference to Eris’s golden apple for the fairest. It might also be a callback to Asterix the Gaul, which also featured an attempt to infiltrate the Gaulish village, albeit an unsuccessful one. This is still one of my favourite stories, because rather than being a straightforward conflict, it ends up twisted and convoluted, playing off the pre-established interpersonal conflicts within the villages, until it turns into outright combat at the end. And, to put the cherry right on top, it ends with Asterix playing his own mind games in response, getting one over on the Romans. Compared to the stories from a decade prior, it’s surprisingly ambitious, and it’s only 48 pages long.

I can only assume this increased level of complexity is the result of skill and stability. By this point, Goscinny and Uderzo knew that whatever they produced for the Asterix series would be good, thanks to their years of practice, and successful, because the series was beloved. The deceptively complex nature of Goscinny and Uderzo’s stories and the increasing amount of references and jabs they were incorporating into their work naturally led people, correctly or incorrectly, to read politically into the Asterix books as the series progressed. For all it’s worth, the authors themselves refused to ascribe any deeper meaning to the series or publicly analyse their own success, often responding to such questions glibly and keeping their internal lives internal.

Continuing to keep moving, the next book from 1970, Asterix in Switzerland (*), is also a good example of this. You can read this book as a surface-level story about Asterix and Obelix going to Switzerland for a quests, or you can read a little deeper and see references to Fellini Satyricon (1969) which was based on Petronius’s Satyricon and which criticises the corrupt and slovenly nature of many Roman leaders, or you can go even deeper than that and draw parallels with the 1968 student protests that brought the nation of France to a standstill. Goscinny and Uderzo would, of course, tell you to stick with the first approach. Pipeline is critical about how well the adult aspects of this story were blended with the story’s comedy setting, and I do agree, because the story ends up being a little strange without context, or from a child’s perspective.

People were really mad in May 1968, and for good reason.

The following book, The Mansions of the Gods (*), from 1971, also heavily references the 1968 protests, but does so much more smoothly, covering issues around unionising, labour, and real estate. In this story, a luxury colony is being built by slaves near the Gaulish village and the Gauls attempt to sabotage it in true French style by unionising the workers. It’s happening because it’s Caesar’s latest bold attempt to force the Gauls out, this time by ruining their forest and annoying them into leaving. It ends up surprisingly complex due to multiple different parties (the Gauls, the slaves, the Romans, the colonists) having totally different goals and being smart about achieving them.  It’s an artistically ambitious story as well, with maps, brochures, architectural plans, and everything else that could force Uderzo to work his tail off.

Probably the peak of this adult writing was in Asterix and the Laurel Wreath (*), also published in 1971. In this story, Vitalstatistix boasts that he can get Caesar’s laurel wreath as a garnish, so the main characters must go about stealing it, switching the wreath of bay leaves out for parsley instead. This story is very adult, with lots of crazy things happening including violence, drunkenness, and a whole pile of niche references wrapped up in a relatively complex plot. To make the story even less appealing for children, Dogmatix was omitted, and allegedly the lettering of the book pre-2004 was in cursive to prevent younger children from understanding it. It’s good, but it’s definitely not one of my favourites, probably because the plot is sometimes a little thin on the ground.

The plot might be thin, but the orgies ain’t.

Another favourite of mine, and the final book I’ll talk about in this section, is the 1972 book Asterix and the Soothsayer (*). I think the reason I love this story is because it was adapted into the inaccurately named Asterix and the Big Fight (1989), a surprisingly disturbing animated film that blends together a few different books to create a story in which Getafix goes insane after being hit with a menhir and the soothsayer turns up to take advantage of the village, almost destroying it in the process. The book is similar, although Getafix is fine and the story focuses more on the titular soothsayer taking advantage of both Romans and Gauls to highlight the humans flaws of superstition and gullibility. Either way, the story works perfectly well as a story for adults, showing that the series has truly shifted away from a child audience by this point.

THE FALL OF PILOTE

Through all of this, I haven’t much discussed the medium through which Asterix was published, the magazine Pilote. As I explained in the previous part, Goscinny and Uderzo were two key founders of the magazine, and Goscinny had been the editor in chief throughout its run. While they had influence over other magazines at the same time, Pilote and its headline comic Asterix were enormously meaningful to Goscinny and Uderzo. Back in 1960, financial issues forced the sale of the magazine to Dargaud, a publisher of bandes dessinées. This sale didn’t immediately have consequences for the magazine and it continued to be published in weekly form for another fourteen years. For a nice overview of Pilote’s impact and history, I’d highly recommend this article.

The last book before all this changed was Asterix in Corsica (*), published in 1973. In this story they are roped into an escort mission, returning a tribal leader to Corsica. Like Asterix in Britain, this story begins with a little note at the start to reassure the readers that they’re not seriously bullying the island nation. Unlike most other Asterix books, the book mentions a wide variety of previous characters and features many callbacks to earlier stories. Uderzo pushes himself to the limit with his depictions of Corsica, and the satire is laid thickly, with references to nasty cheese, laziness, and Napoleon in abundance. It’s a standard and straightforward adventure, well-executed.

Honestly, the fact I know almost nothing about the nation of Corsica almost makes this book funnier.

During this run, Pilote helped to launch off many artists and writers, creating a significant number of iconic French comics, but over the years creators left the magazine and it started to struggle to nail down its target audience. Like I’ve been saying, Asterix was taking on a more adult tone, although Pilote was ostensibly a comic aimed at adolescents. These issues were seemingly endemic, and as a result, in 1974 Pilote was shifted to a monthly publication scheme and Goscinny was removed as editor in chief. Since Asterix had merrily been released every week, a page at a time, this had to change, and it was eventually decided from this point on that each new Asterix book would be published as one complete volume rather than as a serial. As such, Asterix was no longer published in Pilote at all.

Asterix and Caesar’s Gift (*) was published in 1974 as a book, the first story to not be serialised. It’s based around the real-life practice of giving out plots of land as pension to retired Roman soldiers. When the land encompassing the Gaulish village is spitefully given to a particularly hated soldier, chaos ensues. The story is essentially about how stupid elections can be, as Vitalstatistix battles to maintain his long-held position of chief. It was published the same year as a presidential election in France, which may be the reason for its particular subject matter, and it ends with the village uniting to fight a common enemy. Pipeline’s review of the book touches on it being a little weaker than those that came out around the same time, and I’m inclined to agree, mostly because in my eyes it ends up lacking a feeling of freshness or originality compared to other stories.

At least Caesar is having a good time.

I have no idea if this perceived lack of freshness has anything to do with the change in format to whole book publishing, or the changes that were taking place in Pilote, although I’m sure the pairing of Goscinny and Uderzo weren’t delighted about Goscinny’s demotion. Goscinny had sunk fifteen years of his life and a massive amount of creative energy into the magazine, and now the publication and financing of his venture were totally out of his hands. The direction of the magazine was stabilised to focus more on adult material (and by this I mean stories for adults, not pornography) and Asterix was now essentially divorced from it. 

Perhaps this is why the next book, Asterix and the Great Crossing (*) harks back to Oumpah-pah, their pre-Pilote story about Native Americans that had been published in Tintin magazine. This book was published in 1975 and features Asterix and Obelix going to America, trying to survive there, meeting local tribes, and then finally getting picked up by a group of Danes and dragged back home to Denmark. My issue here is that while Goscinny and Uderzo often satirise and gently mock other peoples, their work on other European countries comes from a place of familiarity and understanding. With little to no knowledge or understanding of any of the many native people of America, this book instead ends up depicting an offensive mishmash of cultures, missing the mark on gentle satire and instead heading straight into colonial waffle. I’ll discuss this more in the final part of this series, when I discuss the way Asterix deals with colonialism and race. Otherwise, this book is decent enough, but it lacks the kind of pacing and plotting that I would normally enjoy in an Asterix story.

I don’t think that even two decades later, Goscinny and Uderzo got any better at portraying Native Americans.

The final story published in this era is Obelix and Co (*), produced in 1976, which is about a valiant Roman attempt to collapse the Gaulish society by introducing capitalism. They do this by consulting an economist who tells them to create a market for menhirs, which introduces currency to the village and all the madness that comes with it. Asterix isn’t in the title of this story, which is fitting because he spends the majority of the story sitting back and watching everything play out. The story resolves itself because the capitalism injected by the Romans was inherently unstable. It is, in my opinion, a really great criticism of capitalism, and my favourite part is definitely how Obelix never really understands at any point why he wants money. In the end, when the market collapses, everyone who bought a menhir is left with a big rock and nothing to do with it.

What ended this era? Well, to be frank, Goscinny died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1977, age 51. He was in his doctor’s office having a stress test done. While we obviously don’t know exactly what happened, a fatal heart attack at that age was likely caused by significant emotional or physical strain, and it has long been theorised that being forced from leadership in Pilote contributed to his early death. He had been working on the script for Asterix in Belgium at the time of his death, which was completed posthumously by Uderzo, a topic which I will cover in the next piece. For now, the golden age of Asterix was over.

TO CONCLUDE

The twelve years that I covered in this essay were a period of enormous growth and change for French society, Pilote magazine, and Asterix, and we can only speculate where the comics might have gone had Goscinny not died at a relatively young age. Was the series in a decline after it shifted away from serialisation? Were we about to hit a new era of creativity now the creators were free to focus on it? We’ll never know. Instead, we get to untangle what actually happened after Goscinny’s passing, which is exactly what we’ll be doing next time.

If you’ve made it this far through this behemoth of an essay, thanks for reading!

– Aмртоп

2 thoughts on “Ampton Reads Asterix: Part Two, or The Golden Years

Add yours

  1. There’s a great Fantagraphics article which covers a few details about the changes in Pilote brought about by May 68 ( http://www.tcj.com/french-and-frisky-the-man-behind-asterix/ ), and there’s even a comic book about it that’s yet to be translated to English, and likely never will. The long and short of it is, the artists rebelled against Goscinny. Goscinny agreed to give the artists more free reign. Pilote become MUCH more political and experimental (i.e. not as funny, but weirder), which never seemed to me to be what Goscinny wanted to do. One by one, he lost his best artists to other magazines — most notably Charlie Hebdo and, even to a certain extent, Heavy Metal. So, yeah, when the magazine went monthly, it was a good time to get out and pursue other matters.

    Thanks for the shout outs — I enjoyed the article. Whereas I got lost in the book to book details, it’s good to be able to take a larger overview of the series like you’re doing here, and piece the bigger picture together.

    Like

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