Plucky Gaul keeps on winning fans
As a new exhibition celebrates Asterix’s co-creator Rene Goscinny, Toby Clements explains why the books appeal.
After Charles, Asterix is probably the world’s most famous Gaul. The diminutive, mustachioed thorn in Julius Caesar’s side has been making children aged 7 to 77 laugh since Rene Goscinny and Albert Uderzo published the first comic strip in 1959. With their famous wordplay (the druid Getafix, the village bard Cacofonix) and their stories about a ‘‘small village of indomitable Gauls’’ who gain superhuman strength when they drink a magic potion, the books have sold in their hundreds of millions.
So it might seem odd to find an exhibition dedicated to the life and work of Goscinny at the Jewish Museum in London, an institution with an unstated but tacitly acknowledged mission to celebrate the contribution to society of those at its margins: immigrants, emigres and displaced refugees.
In fact, though, the show – which features original artworks and scripts as well as Goscinny’s tools, sketchbooks and family photographs – is a fascinating insight into the origins of Asterix and proves why it makes sense to celebrate the comics there.
‘‘Characters such as Asterix humorously yet shrewdly tell the story of a marginalised people under threat, and how a small village use their wits to resist an occupying force,’’ says Abigail Morris, the director of the Jewish Museum. You might say that knocking back a gourd of magic potion and then smacking a Roman legionnaire out of his sandals is less a demonstration of wit than of force, but Asterix uses his brain just as often as his brawn to defeat the Romans. And this dauntless ingenuity in the face of apparently overwhelming odds is what made Asterix Le Gaulois so wildly popular when it first launched.
Memories of the German occupation were still reasonably fresh in French minds, so those opening words – ‘‘The year is 50BC. Gaul is entirely occupied by the Romans. Well, not entirely... one small village of indomitable Gauls still holds out against the invaders’’ – offered a glimpse of an escapist reality that must have been a salve for anyone who had suffered through the war.
The strip may also have provided some comfort to Jews, like Goscinny, who were still struggling to come to terms with the Holocaust. Goscinny was not in France during the German occupation, but in Argentina, where his parents, both of eastern European descent, had relocated (from Paris, where Goscinny was born) in 1928.
Goscinny spent his childhood in Buenos Aires and was keen on writing and drawing, with ambitions to be the next Walt Disney. But in 1943 Stanislas Goscinny died, leaving his family in a precarious financial position, and in 1945 Rene Goscinny and his mother left Argentina to join remnants of her family in New York, where he hoped for work as an illustrator.
In New York he forged the first friendships and collaborations that would lead him back to France and to illustrator Albert Uderzo. By the 50s, the French and Belgian comic-book scene –Bande Dessinee, or just BD, described as being the ‘‘ninth art’’, and highly respected – was booming.
Goscinny began working on numerous strips for magazines, including the seminal Spirou, where he collaborated with the Belgian cartoonist Morris on Lucky Luke and with the Frenchman Sempe, with whom he wrote Le Petit Nicolas. Both these strips are defined by the adventures of a little guy socking it to The Man, and this was never more true than of Goscinny’s most famous creation, Asterix, arrived at in collaboration with Uderzo, a child of recent immigrants from Italy.
The series, which ran in the first edition of Pilote magazine, was an instant success in France and Belgium. The first Asterix album was published in 1961 and, since then, there have been another 37 albums, 14 films, a theme park, and even a French satellite channel called Asterix-1.
The first translation into English came in 1963, in the pages of Valiant, in which Asterix was transformed into an ancient Briton, Little Fred. The translation was charmless and clunky, and remained so when the strip reappeared in the Ranger and Look and Learn a few years later, where Asterix was renamed as Beric the Bold. It was not until 1969 that the much lauded translators Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge started on more official versions, and mediated for English speakers the adventures we know today, complete with all the puns and clever wordplay.
In just a few years Asterix became a central pillar of French culture, a vital part of what it
The strip may also have provided some comfort to Jews, like Goscinny, who were still struggling to come to terms with the Holocaust.
meant to be French. This is partly because it continued to be about the indomitability of the little guy; partly because nothing awful ever happened (no one even bled, though all carried swords) and partly because, by the last title they colluded on, Asterix Chez Les Belges, in 1977, Goscinny and Uderzo had nodded at, alluded to, or sent up almost anything you care to mention, from Middle Eastern politics, property developers, and neoclassical art (‘‘We’ve been framed by Jericho!’’) to English tea-drinking habits, and the Olympic Games.
And despite being set nearly 2000 years previously, the strip was alive and vital and engaged with questioning current events.
By the time he died of a heart attack in 1977, Goscinny had become as symbolic of France as the Eiffel Tower. Uderzo wanted to stop illustrating the strip, but by then the Asterix juggernaut had become unstoppable, and the world’s second most famous Gaul has continued on through 13 more adventures (and counting). A fitting tribute to a Frenchman without a drop of French blood in him.
Gerard Depardieu, right, and Clovis Cornillac starred in 2008’s Asterix at the Olympic Games.