Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!
I didn’t come to Asterix on my own – someone at my school must have introduced me to the series when it was already 15 years old and several volumes long. Of course, I got hooked on it immediately: a period of history that wasn’t too hard to learn, and now it was even fun, with battles, quests, betrayals, and a great many fistfights and chases that almost always ended well for the little Gaul with the large moustache and his friends.
What I liked most about it is that the underdog, the small Gaul village, wins against the overwhelming Roman army. The magic potion is their secret weapon – and it’s cheating, of course it is, because the underdog is always allowed to cheat when necessary. Otherwise, they wouldn’t stand a chance against their invaders.
And the names, of course. There is no other series where the names of characters and places are clever puns. They are fun in any of the 100 plus languages that the series gets published in (I’ve got a Latin version of Asterix Gladiator somewhere) and the fun multiplies if you try to figure out what the puns are in the names in languages you haven’t mastered yet.
The first appearance of Asterix and Obelix was in 1959 in Tintin, then a comic journal and not yet its own comic, but their creators, writer René Goscinny and illustrator Albert Uderzo, got their own first volume published in 1961 with Asterix the Gaul. For the next 20 years, their comic was full of idiosyncratic characters and funny, fast stories. You will recognize Asterix at once, even if none of the main characters appears in a panel. Now that the series has lost its shine, and after we have seen numerous live-action and animated movies through the years, and with differing quality, the printed series might find its ending point without great loss. But the first volumes – boy, there are only few things I would like to encounter for the first time again. Asterix is one of them.
The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.
I’ve never seen the cartoons, only the original comic strips, my favorite quote is “the sky may fall on your head tomorrow, but tomorrow never comes.”
As you indicate, Uderzo is not a great writer and it was pretty clear when Goscinny was no longer around to script the stories. But as this is a retrospective we can forget the later Asterix books and revel in the joy not only of the early books but their superlative translations. I’m prepared to bet that where jokes in French didn’t really translate into English, the translators applied a Magic Roundabout approach and rewrote the gag. Dogmatix and Getafix are better gags than Idéfix and Panoramix, for example. But I also suspect most of the time, it wasn’t necessary as the humour was so universal.
On a more serious note, while much of the national stereotyping through the stories was clearly affectionate (and usually very funny), we must note the occasional egregious racial stereotype that simply would not be acceptable today. Being mindful of the flaws still allows us to enjoy what was in its prime one of the very greatest long-form print cartoons.