Asterix: Filtered Antiquity, But Never Antiquated

If Tintin is first among the bandes dessinées, Asterix is a close second, and because it has so much humor working on different levels, it's the kind of series adults take pleasure in rediscovering, finding jokes and references they never got first, second or third time around, a bit like Bugs Bunny cartoons.

And new books are being published even today, even though its creators Goscinny & Uderzo published their first pages way back in 1959. Like Tintin, I expect English readers to know who Asterix is; there have been 36 volumes to date, all of which have been expertly translated, several of which were adapted into animation, plus several theatrical releases in live action (only one is good) and animation. But let's say you're not all that familiar, here's the premise:
In 50 B.C., the Roman Empire has spread as wide as it's going to spread. Gaul (today's France) is under complete Roman control EXCEPT for one village that has yet to fall because its druid holds the secret to a magic potion that gives its inhabitants super-strength. It's a good thing too, because the villagers are for the most part pretty dumb - this is an adventure-comedy series, after all - but aside from the druid, Asterix is the exception, a clever little warrior, and our hero. As of the second book, his best friend Obelix, who fell into the potion when he was a baby and has retained super-strength permanently, completes this double act. Together they defend the village from outside threats, and travel the Ancient world on various quests and missions.

Though there's plenty of action, Asterix is mostly a comedy. Recurring gags, funny flawed characters, political satire, and lots and lots of puns. The latter is why the translations are so brilliant. In Asterix's world, all the names have particular terminations that allow every name to be a pun (Gauls in -ix, Romans in -us, and so on). The translators have gone out of their way to rewrite every joke in the books, creating a different experience from version to version for polyglotal readers. But Asterix is based on quite another branch of comedy, and it's one I can scarcely believe it gets away with: National stereotyping.
This was Goscinny & Uderzo's original premise: To create a strip that traded on national stereotypes to create its humor. Remember when Tintin in the Congo was pulled off the shelves for its African caricatures? Well, Asterix's few black characters have the big red lips associated with "black face" as well. Romans have Roman noses. And so on. Perhaps because even the heroes, with their big honking noses, have distorted features, it works. But what about the writing? Gauls are, for the most part, obnoxious, argumentative sympathizers (the strip definitely originated in the shadow of the Nazi occupation), but the indomitable village is, of course, in today's Brittany, inhabited by the most egregiously recalcitrant of all French peoples (in fact, they don't consider themselves French, they are Celts). Spaniards sleep all day. Corsicans are egotists. The Swiss are obsessed with cheese. Britons are too polite and drink hot water at 4 on the dot. Asterix trades on as many clichés as possible, even if they're anachronisms.

If you don't notice it, it's that, for one thing, these caricatures are lovingly presented. They were always meant as a celebration of the national "type". There are good and not-so-good people in each "tribe", and memorable characters abound. For another, there's just so much thrown into the mix, from wordplay to action to running gags to references to today, and a lot of the later are, like regional stereotyping (how do *I* know what the "Gauls" of South-western France are like?), caricatures of some popular French singer or actor, or satirical criticism of some French policy. There are so many layers that when one stops working as designed, there's still a lot to focus on. The series is about a comedy version of the Ancient world, more Sword&Sandals epic than true History (though 50 BC does give the creative team access to Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, etc.), but itself does not become ancient history. Readers find ways to keep it relevant.

But reader beware, all Asterix stories weren't created equal...
Only the first 24 albums were crafted by the original team, the last of these published after scripter Goscinny's death. This is the golden and most memorable age of the series, in which Asterix and Obelix travel the Ancient World - helping an architect build a palace for Cleopatra, becoming gladiators or legionnaires, reaching their cousins across the Channel, even reaching America on a Viking longboat - and deal with Roman schemes to destroy their village - a sinister soothsayer, the gentrification of the surrounding area, attempts to steal the potion or pit Gaul against Gaul. Most of these 24 books are of amazing quality.

After Goscinny's passing, Uderzo wrote the stories himself, but while the art remained as good as it ever was, his tales felt much more gimmicky, finally jumping the shark (if he hadn't already) with 2005's Asterix and the Falling Sky, which has UFOs and aliens in it. There are some minor classics in Uderzo's 8 solo outings, but they're mostly early on. I'd say The Great Divide and Asterix and Son, and maybe La Rose et le Glaive AKA The Secret Weapon (which is a terrible English title, why wasn't it The Rose and the Sword?). As of 2013, Uderzo gave up the reigns to a new creative team, Ferri & Conrad, who have put out two books already, which I'm told are a return to form. Maybe it's time I went back to Ancient Gaul to see what's been going on...

Recommendation: If you can only read one, make it Asterix and Cleopatra. Not only will American readers enjoy the riff on the Elizabeth Taylor epic, but it's just a damn good story, filled with memorable and hilarious characters and incidents. It also made for the best animated AND live action films, but the book is still the superior experience.


Toby'c said...

I believe I was first introduced to Asterix through one of a series of game books, kind of a choose-your-own-adventure/RPG thing focused on Justforkix.

I've read all of the actual books by Goscinny and/or Uderzo at some point, the first (and still probably my favourite) being Asterix in Britain, also the first of the animated movies I've seen. My favourite of those would be Asterix vs Caesar, though Twelve Tasks of Asterix comes close. Haven't seen the animated Cleopatra movie, but I have seen the live-action one and its predecessor (which I remember enjoying).

Siskoid said...

Britons would have been my second go-to, though I think it might lose a little something in translation.

Siskoid said...

As for The Twelve Tasks, a completely original animated film not based on any of the books, but still written by G&U, it has one of THE most iconic sequences in all French-language cinema, namely "La maison des fous" (madhouse), the bureaucratic hell Asterix must navigate where they keep sending him from one clerk to another to get some piece of paper.

Whenever a French speaker is likewise treated, he or she will often say it's "La maison des fous d'Asterix".

Anonymous said...

I've read the first few Asterix in French (mainly for French isn't great), but I've never actually read the English translations. I know a lot of the wordplay probably doesn't translate well, but your description makes me think I should do a side-by-side read, just to see the differences/similarities.

Mike W.

Siskoid said...

That's something I've done!

MichaelT said...

My favourite bande dessine by far. Started them in French when I was 8, and have re-read them in both English and French year after year with pleasure for almost 5 decades. My one regret is that we have not seen "Asterix en Canada" yet. Imagine the stereotypical pleasures to be found in Quebec, Alberta and...Newfoundland! (To say nothing of PEI)

Which of the movies did you like? You said only one of them was worth it.

Brendoon said...

Ah! Tintin and Asterix were always complete perfection. Still selling strong, even here on the reverse side of the world.

Siskoid said...

Mike: I guess La Grande Traversée will have to do. As for the film I meant & Cleopatra, and I'm not really a big fan, I'm just going by the public's reaction there.

LiamKav said...

From what I understand, the English versions are less "translations" than "adaptions", which is something of a necessity with something so pun-based.
I've been informed that in some cases, the English language ones are actually a bit funnier (although obviously I'll bow to people who have read both). The example that comes to mind is the dog's name. In French, it's Idéfix, which is a pun based on the expression "idée fixe", or "fixed idea". The English version of Dogmatix not only keeps the original pun, but actually improves it by getting "dog" in there.

Translation verses adaption is something a lot of fans of Japanese RPGs have heated debates over. And anime fans. Asterisk seems to get away with it, for some reason.

Toby'c said...

I watched or re-watched the first eight animated movies over the last week, all in French and most again in English if I hadn't already. Asterix and the Vikings is my favourite right now, though possibly out of nostalgic loyalty to Justforkix.


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