A belated happy birthday to Asterix...

…the most celebrated creation of Albert Uderzo and the late René Goscinny. Asterix turned 50 yesterday, the first page of his first adventure, Asterix the Gaul, having appeared in the first issue of the magazine Pilote on October 29, 1959, and I thought I should say something about this landmark event.

Asterix and I go back a long way. I first discovered him when I was in primary school, when by chance I came across one of his books while perusing the local library. It was the “book of the film” of Asterix and the Big Fight, published under the title of Operation Getafix so as not to confuse the film book with the graphic novel of the same name (the film is an amalgamation of Asterix and the Big Fight and Asterix and the Soothsayer). I suspect what attracted me to it in the first place was the artwork: this was the early 90s, and outside of The Ren & Stimpy Show and a small handful of exceptions that were unknown to me at the time, animation was a stagnant medium in which ugly or even downright inept production values had become the rule rather than the exception. (Yes, even at the tender age of nine or ten I thought this. I still vividly remember the first time I saw clips from The Simpsons, at around the same time or shortly before I discovered Asterix: for someone raised on the Looney Tunes and MGM classics of the 40s and 50s, I couldn’t believe that something so cheap-looking could exist, let alone be the recipient of so much praise.) The still frame reproductions in Operation Getafix may not have reached the heights of golden age Disney, but they were slick and polished, and the rich, detailed backgrounds were a far cry from the flat celluloid drawings that had become the norm for the sort of animation I usually saw on TV at the time.

I enjoyed Operation Getafix, although it gave me a slightly bizarre introduction to the world of the little Gaul, as it surprised me to discover in retrospect that most of the books in the series were graphic novels rather than “photonovels”, for want of a better word. Over the next couple of years, I ploughed my way through the 29 books that had been published up to that point. For a while, Uderzo’s artwork continued to be the series’ main draw for me, although in time I came to appreciate Goscinny’s witty and often highly inventive wordplay… or rather Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge’s witty and often highly inventive wordplay, given that the books were originally written in French. By the time I had made my way through the entire run in English, I was in secondary school and was learning rudimentary French, and so embarked on a quest to track down the books in their original language and see how they differed from their English translations. Living in the UK at a time when Internet shopping was still in its infancy, this was a rather tall order, so I suppose you could say I was very fortunate in that, at the time, we generally went on family holidays to France every summer.

First edition of Astérix et Cléopatre (1965), picked up in a second hand book shop for 50p.

First edition of Astérix et Cléopatre (1965), picked up in a second hand book shop for 50p.

Over the course of several summers, I picked up the entire run in French, and discovered two things: first, that the sort of French taught in the classroom was hopelessly inadequate for understanding even a fraction of the books’ jokes, and second, that the series had been published out of sequence in English. I actually had an inkling about this beforehand, given the manner in which the visual style shifted all over the map from book to book (unlike many artists, Uderzo refused to be tied down to fixed character designs, and has continued to refine them, rapidly at first and more subtly in recent years, over the past half-century), but didn’t realise just how out of sequence the English versions were until confronted with the original French ordering.

There seems to be little doubt that Asterix’s glory years are long since past. Goscinny died in 1977, and while Uderzo has gamely carried on the series himself, producing some genuinely entertaining adventures in the 80s (Asterix and the Black Gold and Asterix and Son being his finest achievements), the law of diminishing returns has meant that, in recent years, the stories have become increasingly far-fetched and juvenile, culminating in 2005’s deplorable Asterix and the Falling Sky, which saw the little Gaulish village circa 50 B.C. invaded by beings from outer space. Although the artwork is as polished as ever (if not more so), the series has stagnated creatively to the extent that I actually greeted with cautious optimism a recent announcement that Uderzo had signed a deal to allow other artists to continue to create Asterix adventures after his death. Indeed, I’ve long been of the opinion that Uderzo would be well served by teaming up with a fresh writer.

Asterix & Obelix's Birthday: The Golden Book

October 22 saw the publication of the thirty-fourth instalment in the series, Asterix & Obelix’s Birthday: The Golden Book. Initially advertised as a collection of short stories, I suspected something along the lines of 2003’s Asterix and the Class Act, which collected material from throughout the series’ 50-year run, much of it written by Goscinny. In reality, The Golden Book is a heavy-handed celebration of the series half-century of success, bringing back past characters for a collection of skits that are both obvious and over-explained. The worst is a run of full-page reproductions of famous paintings, with Asterix and his cohorts inserted into them and footnotes explaining the inspiration, as if it wasn’t obvious enough. The joy of Goscinny’s cultural references was that he left you to discover them for yourself: an obscure reference to Hamlet in Asterix and Caesar’s Gift (Cyrano de Bergerac in the original French) is no distraction if you don’t get the reference. Uderzo, however, feels it necessary to subtitle an obvious replica of The Scream with “after Munch”. It’s perhaps not as bad as Asterix and the Falling Sky, if for no other reason than that it doesn’t pretend to be even remotely canonical, but it’s still creatively bankrupt and yet further ammunition for those who believe the series should have died with Goscinny.

And yet part of me is just pleased to see another Asterix book on store shelves. When I happened to wander through the children’s section of Borders a few weekends back, I was delighted to see that the store had broken the book’s release date and put it out early, and clutching it in my hands as I sped towards the checkout I felt the same sense of unbridled glee that I got whenever I picked up a new Asterix book in the early 90s. So join me in raising a gourd of magic potion to the plucky little Gaul who continues to hold out against the Roman invaders fifty years after they first surrounded his village with their fortified camps.

Oh, and Google marked the special event yesterday in their own inimitable way:

Asterix on Google