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Since their introduction in the weekly magazine Pilote in 1959, the two Gallic heroes, Asterix and Obelix, have become perhaps the two most popular characters in European literature, selling 30 million comic books in 107 languages..    The comics were written by René Goscinny until his death in 1977 and drawn by Albert Uderzo, who also writes the stories now.  They concern the plucky Asterix the Gaul, who though diminutive can gain great strength by quaffing a magic potion whipped up by the village druid Magicimix, and his faithful side-kick, Obelix, a behemoth made abnormally strong when he was dunked in the potion as a child.  The year is 50 B.C., the time of Vercingetorix, the great rebel leader of the Gauls, who eventually lost to the Romans at the Battle of Alesia.  Asterix and Obelix though live in a small corner of Gaul that continues to hold out against Caesar and Rome.

The various adventures have a reassuring sameness, with our heroes outwitting the Romans as they travel throughout Europe (seemingly a sales tactic--with the duo even being sent to what would later be the New World at one point in an attempt to foster their abysmal U. S. sales).  The main source of humor in the books comes in the form of puns, mostly characters' names : Malacoustix the Bard; Macroeconomix, chief of the tribe; etc.  The original stories apparently contain somewhat barbed commentary about French politics, but the translations don't even bother trying to replicate it.  The comic is also famed for visual jokes such as the one that appears in this issue, when the pirates who are being sunk (a continuing in-joke) are posed to resemble Géricault's Raft of the Medusa.

But the adventures aren't exciting enough, the artwork good enough, nor the humor witty enough to explain what a phenomenon the series became.  And apparently many folks have tried figuring out exactly why it is so popular; it's even a serious topic in French academia (to the extent that there is such a thing).  I've no better explanation than anyone else, but suspect two things are at work : first, the paucity of heroes in French literature; second, that the idea of valiant Frenchmen holding out against an evil empire appeals to folk who failed to do so against the Nazis and imagine themselves to be making up for it against America.  As to the first point, it seems significant that there aren't really other French comic book heroes and that when it came time to make French movies about crime fighters, whether private detectives or cops, filmmakers relied heavily on the conventions of American movies.  As for the latter, one would merely note that McDonald's doesn't use Ronald as its mascot in France, but Asterix instead.

One kid in our neighborhood used to love these things when we were growing up, and we'd all read them.  Looking at one now, as an adult, I'm genuinely unimpressed.  It's interesting as a curiosity more than anything else, but, like the French love of Jerry Lewis, its hard to see what all the fuss is about.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (C)

  

Websites:

Book-related and General Links:
    -Asterix (Official Site)
    -Les Editions Albert RenÈ / Goscinny-Uderzo
    -ESSAY : Going for Gaul : 40 Years of Asterix (Mary Beard, London Review of Books)
    -ESSAY : A Celtic Gaul named Asterix (Finn Bjørklid, 4/94, Tegn)
    -ESSAY : Portrayal of the British in Asterix Books (BBC)
    -Biography : René Goscinny : Cartoonist and scriptwriter, 1926-1977
    -Biography : Albert Uderzo : Cartoonist and scriptwriter, 1927
    -Asterix the Gaul
    -The International Asterix Page
    -THE ASTERIX ANNOTATIONS VERSION 3.0 (Sudhakar "Thaths" Chandrasekharan and Ron Dippold)
    -Asterix : The Scandal
    -Asterix the Gaul (roman-empire.net)
    -LINKS : Asterix (DMOZ Open Directory)
    -ANNOTATIONS : for Asterix the Legionary (THE ASTERIX ANNOTATIONS VERSION 3.0)
    -ARCHIVES : asterix (Find Articles)
    -ARCHIVES : asterix (Mag Portal)
    -REVIEW : of Asterix and the Actress (Helen Laville, New Statesman)
    -REVIEW : of Asterix and the Actress (Bruce Crumley, TIME Europe)

FILMS :
    -INFO : Astérix et Obélix contre César (1999) (imdb)
    -REVIEW : of Asterix & Obelix Take On Caesar (Neil Norman, This is London)

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