The year is 50 BC, and all Gaul is occupied. All, except for one indomitable village, and by Toutatis, its inmates have maintained their grip on our hearts and minds even though we’re awash in a sea of neo-Disney comic book characters.
Fifty years after the team of Uderzo and Goscinny created their version of the Odd Couple—Asterix the Gaul and his large friend Obelix the menhir-delivery man, with Dogmatix tagging along—the appeal of that little Gaulish village is a curious one. The Western comic book world is overrun with spin-offs from the TV and film worlds, and the most successful series seem to depend, like the mind-numbingly tedious adventures of Scooby-Doo, on the endless repetition of a familiar theme. For groups as diverse as Pixar, Disney, Marvel and DC, comics are an efficient merchandise-delivery system; and Uderzo, who survived Goscinny, appears to be phlegmatic at the idea that the Asterix franchise will go the same way.
For almost five decades, though, as all comic book territory was steadily occupied, the Asterix series offered a tiny pocket of resistance, a dollop of magic potion in the weak broth of mediocrity that threatened to drown comic books worldwide. From the very first issue of Asterix the Gaul, which appeared in Pilote magazine, Uderzo & Goscinny had intended Asterix to stand bravely against the “I came, I saw, I conquered” wave of sameness that rolled out across the world of comic books. The first Asterix introduced some of the characters who would become staples—Getafix, the druid, whose name had to be changed to Magimix in the US because (quelle horreur!) there might otherwise be the suspicion that Uderzo and Goscinny were in favour of drug use. (What, exactly, went into that cauldron of magic potion anyway?)
As Unhygienix the fishmonger and his wife Bacteria, Geriatrix the ancient warrior, Vitalstatistix, the village chief who feared nothing except for the falling of the sky on his head and his wife Impedimenta, and Cacofonix, the village bard with the dulcet voice of a cat in heat, made themselves part of our lives, they carried a little bit of the cultural resistance of France with them.
The thumping of Romans, from Magnumopus to Tremensdelirius and Infirmofpurpus, that accompanied Obelix’s joyous forays into the wider world, the celebration of wild boar against le hamburger, the gentle fun had at the expense of the amusing tribe of Englishmen—these were all part of an attempt to pretend that there might, just, be intelligent life outside the Disney universe. Where else could one find an entire comics book series in the 21st century that ignores the existence of America? Except in Asterix and the Great Crossing, where the Gaulish reaction to North America is to attempt to leave it as soon as possible.
The Indian fondness for Asterix remained a mystery to me for years, until Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge revealed in an interview that they had chosen to weave a certain kind of public school English into their translations of Asterix from French to English. This generation of English-speaking Indians prefers a more robust, home-grown flavour to the language, but a previous generation had different and distinct preferences—we liked our English birthed by the BBC, consecrated by Kipling and baptized with a sprinkling of P G Wodehouse and Frank Richards. The richness of the puns in Asterix—especially with the names of characters, from Tragicomix—the dashing, handsome, ever-so-slightly ridiculous husband of Panacea; the Latin-English quips and the catchphrases (“These Romans are crazy”) draws from this tradition, and it’s a dying one.
Over the years, Asterix has had its share of controversy. Uderzo & Goscinny were gleeful in their perpetuation of racist stereotypes—the English had bad teeth and liked their food boiled with mint sauce, the Spanish are hot-blooded and tempestuous, the Germans are humourless and martial. As the series wore on, the exuberance of some of the best comics gave way to a more formulaic approach, especially after the death of Goscinny.
Like Tintin, Asterix came close to being claimed by gay rights groups as one of their own: his closest friendship is with Obelix, he’s a lifelong bachelor. But their relationship is closer to the literary friendship between Holmes and Watson, manly, even misogynistic, but not quite gay enough, then to the more ambiguous Haddock-Tintin friendship. Asterix does fall in love, and Obelix has a crush on Mrs Geriatrix, making them a less obviously gay couple.
But it is impossible to be too critical, or too cynical, of the exuberant and nostalgic world of the Gauls, where Romans tiptoe through the forests, a druid ladles out magic potion to the villagers, Dogmatix cries when a tree is uprooted, Mrs Geriatrix undulates so expressively, and a thin Gaul and a fat Gaul go tramping off in search of adventure. The sky would have to fall on my head before I stopped reading these books, however old-fashioned they may become as the decades pass.