‘The Adventures of Asterix’ is a series of French comics published from 1959 onwards. Created by Goscinny (the writer) and Uderzo (the artist), they relate the adventures of a warrior called Asterix and his friends, at a time when France was still Gaul and the Roman empire ruled. The setting, as well as historical character and place references, are the only concessions to actual history. It is essentially a vehicle for hilarious stories full of national stereotypes played for laughs, puns, caricatures, and even classical references. The series has been translated into 111 languages and is one of the most popular comics in the world.
Every edition starts as follows:
The year is 50 BC. Gaul is entirely occupied by the Romans. Well, not entirely … One small village of indomitable Gauls still holds out against the invaders. And life is not easy for the Roman legionaries who garrison the fortified camps of Totorum, Aquarium, Laudanum and Compendium …
So why are the Gauls indomitable? Well, their druid has a secret magic potion that gives then superhuman strength. Their druid’s name (in the English translation) is Getafix. (Get it?) This is one of many examples of apt or just ridiculous name jokes. For example, the chief of the Gaulish village is called Vitalstatistix (who is very fat), the Gaulish bard is Cacofonix (who sings and plays terribly), and the blacksmith is Fulliautomatix. There is also an Egyptian called Edifis (an architect), Exlibris (a scribe), Anticlimax (a very laid back Briton), Dipsomaniax (runs an inn), and various Romans gping by names such as Hallelujahchorus, Brontosaurus, Gastroenteritis, and so on.
Asterix’ best friend is Obelix, who is not very bright. However he is extremely strong, due to having fallen into a cauldron of magic potion as a baby. This has given him permanent superhuman strength. It is a running joke during the stories that Getafix will not allow Obelix to have any magic potion as he does not need it, and Obelix thinks this is very unfair and keeps on trying to get some.
Speech bubbles vary depending on who is talking – Goths have Gothic script and the Gauls don’t understand, Egyptians speak in hieroglyphs, Spanish have inverted punctuation etc. Essentially a different script implies a foreign language. Swearing is depicted by various signs such as skull and crossbones, exclamation marks and other random symbols. This is never translated.
‘Asterix in Britain’
This story is a classic example of national stereotypes and cliches used to great effect. All the ‘Britons’ speak in a very early twentieth century upper-class way. Think Wooster from ‘Jeeves and Wooster’. Some examples:
‘Tally-ho, and all that sort of thing’. (when leading a charge).
‘There isn’t any garlic in this magic potion, is there?’
‘Oh I say, the cads.’
Other topical references include an apparent riot that turned out to be fans of a group that were ‘top of the Bardic charts’ and which bears a suspicious resemblance to the Beatles (see above); British football, the only place where the staid Britons go completely bonkers (football hooligans); and constant references to terrible British food (everything boiled in mint sauce, and accompanied by warm beer). At one point the Roman governor (Encyclopedus Brittanicus) threatens to serve his centurions to the lions boiled in mint sauce, leading them to sympathise with the lions, and on another occasion he threatens to have the entire garrison drowned in warm beer. The Britons annoy the Romans when fighting as they would stop fighting to have a break at 5pm, and refuse to fight on the weekends. There is a hilarious sequence involving the ‘Tower of Londinium’ and a breakout, followed by a break-in, then a break-out. Priceless.
‘Asterix in Spain’
Here we have multiple jokes about tourism. Asterix and Obelix have freed a Spanish hostage in Gaul, and while returning him home run into a string of caravans on the road to the Spanish border (Hispania, as it’s called in the story.) They get told about the exchange rate for sestertii being favourable and how sunny it is, though prices are going up, and so on. There’s a joke about Don Quixote and Asterix invents bullfighting (though without the animal torture, thankfully.) There are jokes with classical references and old sayings:
Well, well! My old laurels, all crumpled up! I must have rested on them one night by mistake!’ – Julius Caesar
About half of this story takes place in Gaul, with the transport of the child hostage (who is a complete brat), and the havoc he wreaks in the village, including him actually liking Cacofonix’ music, thus encouraging Cacofonix to sing all night. This, understandably, is the point where the rest of the village decide he needs to be returned home. There is also a fist fight involving everyone in the village which started with a fish. The story also includes liberal use of the Spanish ‘ole!’ which is used in modern day Spain at sporting events, but in the story is used by the boy constantly, the nomads they meet while they’re dancing, and by spectators at the arena.
‘Asterix and Cleopatra’
The front cover proclaims this as ‘the greatest story ever drawn’, and tells us:
14 litres of Indian ink, 30 brushes, 62 soft pencils, 1 hard pencil, 27 erasers, 1984 sheets of paper, 16 typewriter ribbons, 2 typewriters, 366 pints of beer went into its creation!
Caesar and Cleopatra have a bet that she can’t have a palace built in three months. The architect she hires knows he won’t succeed, and goes to Gaul to ask for his old friend Getafix’s help, which is how Asterix, Obelix and Getafix end up in Egypt.There is a running gag all the way through this story about Cleopatra’s nose, which is supposed to be a fine specimen of a nose, leaving Getafix the druid to gaze in awe and get flustered. I contains another gag that runss through many of the books – an encounter with the same set of pirates that inevitably ends with the pirate ship sinking. There are some more awesome names – a ship’s captain called Sethisbackup, a spy called Mintjulep, and a Roman commander called Operachorus. There are puns:
Commander: Hmm … that didn’t work! Right. We’ll attack from all sides at once. Advance!
Legionary 1: But we’ve only just retreated!
Legionary 2: If we advance, we’ll be driven into the Nile!
Legionary 3: We’ll be annilated!
Legionary 4: One more pun like that and I desert!!!
We discover how the Sphinx lost its nose (Obelix broke it), that Julius Caesar is a sore loser, deciding to attack the construction site when he finds out Asterix and the others are there and realises he might lose his bet, and that Cleopatra has no sense of subtlety. It’s another very funny story.
Many Asterix adventures take place in and around their village, but they also do a great deal of travelling, visiting many lands including Rome, Africa (they joined the army!), Belgium, America (blown off course), Germany (the Ostrogoths, the Visigoths, and every other kind of Goth), and Switzerland (including a local version of a Roman orgy that involved interesting uses of cheese fondue). The Asterix books are endlessly entertaining. I loved them as a child and still love them so many years later. If you’ve never read any of these I recommend you give it a try. They are truly excellent, in any language.