When René Goscinny, the creator of Astérix, died in 1977, it was, in the words of one French obituary, ‘as if the Eiffel Tower had fallen down’. The cartoon adventures of the plucky little Gaul holding out against Roman conquest (with the help of a magic potion that could confer a few minutes’ irresistible strength at a single gulp) were as much a defining part of French cultural identity as the most distinctive monument on the Paris skyline. A national survey in 1969 suggested that two-thirds of the population had read at least one of the Astérix books; and by the time of Goscinny’s death total sales in France are said to have amounted to more than 55 million copies, putting Astérix substantially ahead of his main (Belgian) rival, Tintin. The first French space satellite, launched in 1965, was named in his honour (the US later matched this with spaceships called Charlie Brown and Snoopy). There was also, predictably, a more mundane range of Astérix spin-offs, from mustard to washing powder, that flooded the French market in the 1960s and 1970s. The story goes that Goscinny’s partner, Albert Uderzo, once saw three advertisements side by side on a Métro station, for three completely different products each endorsed with equal enthusiasm by Astérix and his cartoon comrades. From then on, they put much tighter limits on the products they would allow their hero to advertise.
Goscinny was born in Paris in 1926, divided his childhood between France and Argentina, and learned the cartoon trade in New York, with the group of artists who went on to found Mad magazine. Returning to France in 1951, he teamed up with Uderzo – Goscinny wrote the words, Uderzo did the drawings. They had a dry run for Astérix with a short-lived cartoon called Oumpah-pah, featuring a Flatfoot Indian living in a remote village in the Wild West that was bravely holding out against the palefaces, but struck lucky when they launched their ancient Gaulish version of Oumpah-pah in 1959 in the first issue of the comic Pilote (which, like Mad, was aimed at adults rather than children). Pilote had the financial backing of Radio Luxembourg; and the instant success of the magazine and its cast of characters can hardly have been unconnected with the barrage of publicity provided by the radio station.
Their first fully-fledged book, Astérix le Gaulois, appeared in 1961; and at the time of his death, 16 years later, Goscinny had just completed the script of the 24th, Astérix chez les Belges – a swashbuckling adventure with some remarkably stereotypical Belgians, large quantities of beer and Brussels sprouts, plus the inevitable walk-on part for a pair of Tintin characters. This was almost the end of Astérix. Goscinny died before the book had been illustrated, and Uderzo was extremely reluctant to finish the job. But the publishers could not afford such sentiment and took him to court to try to force him to produce the drawings. They won the first round of the legal battle and Uderzo grudgingly turned his hand to the work. Ironically, the book had already been published when he got the judgment overturned on appeal. The last 25 years have seen Uderzo (now well into his seventies) repeatedly retire, declaring the series over, only to come back a few years later with a new, solo-authored adventure. Meanwhile, he has been cashing in on the phénomène Astérix with an unusually tasteful theme-park, Parc Astérix, just outside Paris, and a run of movies. The latest, Astérix et Obélix: Mission Cléopatre opened in Paris last month and stars, for the second time, Gérard Depardieu as an appropriately portly Gaul.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 24 No. 5 · 7 March 2002
Mary Beard notes in her analysis of the Astérix phenomenon (LRB, 21 February) that ‘the English can read him as a version of Boudicaa or Caratacus’ but seems not to know that it was in this form that the diminutive Gaul was introduced to many British children. In 1965, Ranger, a very ambitious and glossy children’s magazine, was launched, and included a comic strip entitled Britons Never Shall Be Slaves. Although four of the original Astérix books had already been published in English translation, this strip transferred the entire cast to Roman Britain, complete with new names (none ending in the Gallic ‘ix’). Ranger, a bold attempt to revive the old Eagle format, lasted only nine months, and so the anglicised Astérix soon disappeared.
Mary Beard seems to have missed an important and obvious point: the Astérix series is as much about the German occupation of France (and other countries) during the Second World War as it is about the Roman occupation. Consider the recurring vexed questions of loyalty and collaboration in the better Astérix books, the use of spies and agents provocateurs by the Romans, and the air of suspicion and paranoia that envelops the villagers when they are most under threat. The allegory isn't rammed home – that's one of the reasons the series is so successful.
Vol. 24 No. 6 · 21 March 2002
There are other important elements in the continuing popularity in France of the Gaulish village and its stand against the Roman Empire besides those Mary Beard suggests (LRB, 21 February). Astérix le Gaulois was published in 1961. The world of Astérix is that of an unchangingly homogeneous native culture rooted in the terrain of France: the antithesis of the disturbingly heterogeneous Roman world with its intrusive languages, food and customs. (All the Astérix books except one end with a banquet of appropriately Gaulish food, consumed by the villagers under the starry sky back home: what better way to depict the internalisation of a common culture?) In 1962 Algeria achieved Independence. In the years since then, France has had to face the usual post-colonial challenges, in particular how to accommodate the arrival of immigrants. French Government responses have included laws stipulating which forenames are suitably French, and forbidding Muslim girls from wearing the hejab in school. At the same time, it is impossible to pretend that French is still the world's second language, as it was in the 19th and early 20th century. A part of France that remains forever Gaulish? How reassuring.
Magdalen College, Oxford
Nicholas Lezard's point about the more contemporary resonances of Astérix, and Robert Livingston's remarks about Ranger (Letters, 7 March), remind me of the cartoon strip Union Jack Jackson, which ran in the UK comic Battle (rival to the more famous Warlord) in the mid-1970s. Jackson was a British soldier in American uniform in the Pacific, a resourceful tea-drinking hero too busy killing Japs and too loved by the Yanks to be returned to his unit. A North American version was published in the late 1970s in War! comic. There Jackson became a cowardly deserter sponging off the martial generosity of Uncle Sam, a man who betrayed his comrades and never paid his gambling debts. In the original his friendship with Dan O'Bannon, a black soldier, was a unique example of inter-racial mateyness in British war comics; in the American version, Jackson was a white supremacist who would have been more at home in SS uniform. Dan remained, almost to the end, dutifully long-suffering, shrugging off insults that shocked white GIs, yet regularly retrieving the incompetent Englishman from death or capture by the Japanese. It is easy to see this treatment as an extreme attempt to shift blame for the US treatment of black soldiers in the war; the final instalment, with Jackson garotted by O'Bannon on the shores of Iwo Jima, could be read as a back-dated paean to the more militant forms of Black Power. The comic, which ceased publication after three years, was written and illustrated by Luke Besant, a Québecois nationalist who lived nearly all his life in Chicago. His other experiments in Anglophobia included an extended pornographic cartoon of Queen Elizabeth II's coronation, an early (and banned) example of the graphic novel.
Vol. 24 No. 7 · 4 April 2002
In writing about Astérix (LRB, 21 February), Mary Beard makes a brief reference to René Goscinny's childhood in Argentina. I would like to advance the idea, which others here have also toyed with, that during Goscinny's childhood years he came across the cartoon character Patoruzu, a native Indian and Argentine superhero, the creation of Dante Quinterno, born in Buenos Aires in 1909. The character first appeared on 27 September 1930 (when Goscinny was four), in the evening newspaper Crítica. In 1935 the cartoon was moved to the morning newspaper El Mundo, and in 1936 became the subject of Dante Quinterno's own magazine, itself called Patoruzu. Patoruzu was a nationalist hero, something of a Fascist with a powerful punch which he used to defend the good and the honest, and the true interests of the nation etc.
Vol. 24 No. 9 · 9 May 2002
Yukio Ioki is incorrect in placing the comic strip Union Jack Jackson in Battle (Letters, 21 March). The story featured in Warlord. Indeed, the cover of the first issue of Warlord showed U.J.J. himself maniacally spraying hot lead at some unpictured assailants.