Plucky Gaul keeps on win­ning fans

As a new ex­hi­bi­tion cel­e­brates As­terix’s co-cre­ator Rene Goscinny, Toby Cle­ments ex­plains why the books ap­peal.

The Press - - News -

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.

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