What if Tyrion Lannister had Popeye’s super powers? What if Thor had the appetite and I.Q. of Cookie Monster? What if the Spartacus universe was cross-pollinated with the Smurfs? Well, then you’d get Asterix, Obelix, and the French comic book and movie universe of Asterix the Gaul.
In the year 50 B.C., the small, sly Asterix and his gigantic, invincible friend Obelix defend their forest village from the invading armies of Julius Caesar. They and their fellow French peasants can hold out against the Romans by drinking a “performance enhancing” magic potion made by the Druid Getafix. The potion’s temporary effect grants them the strength and invincibility of the Hulk, allowing them to plow through the Roman troops, punching their enemies across continents. The graphic novels alternate between those that take place in the village – in which the Romans try to destroy the small community through espionage, economic warfare, and flaming arrows – and quest narratives – in which Asterix and Obelix travel to occupied territories and aid in insurrections against the Romans or defend as-yet-unconquered nations from attack.
Much of the humor arises from the culture shock the rustic Asterix and Obelix experience when they encounter the world beyond their village. There’s some problematic racial stereotyping in the art and dialogue, but most of the jokes are pretty harmless. Also, the French characters are mocked as well as the “foreigners.” Obelix is the butt of jokes for being too arrogant about being French. He has no tolerance for any culture that isn’t “Gaulish” and invariably says, “These British/Romans/[Insert Ethnicity Here] are crazy,” while Asterix tries to explain the importance of tolerating other cultures. Some of the darker elements of the humor derive from unsubtle parallels between the Romans and the Nazis, who had occupied France in the years before the comic book was created. (René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo created Asterix in 1959.) Other all-powerful, imperial nations with Eagle emblems (*cough*) sometimes share in the anti-Roman satire as well.
If that doesn’t sound awesome to you, then I can’t help you.
If you are an Asterix newbie, and I’ve piqued your interest, I’d suggest reading at least the first two Omnibuses (1 and 2), if not all the comics by both Goscinny and Uderzo. After Goscinny died, Uderzo continued producing Asterix comics solo, but Asterix without Goscinny is worse than Pink Floyd without Roger Waters – with the notable exception of the excellent Asterix and Son, which acts as a strong ending to the series. So, your homework assignment is to go off and read all the Goscinny stuff, plus Asterix and Son, and then come back here to finish my blog post.
Hey! You’re back! Cool. I’m so glad you are a newly converted Asterix fan!
I’ve been a fan of the Asterix stories since I rented the Disney-distributed VHS Asterix animated movies from my local video store in 1984. (It was a brand new mall outlet store, and stocked 400 copies of The Terminator, 400 copies of First Blood, and 1 copy each of Places in the Heart, The Twelve Tasks of Asterix (1976), and Asterix and Cleopatra (1968). There may have been other films available to rent. I don’t remember. You may ask why I’d rent a movie with a weird name like Asterix and Cleopatra. Well, I’d already rented Terminator and First Blood, so I needed something to do, and Places in the Heart looked like a drama.)
I loved the two animated movies right away, but no one else I knew had discovered them on their own, or had any interest in watching the video rental store VHS copies I’d eventually paid $50 each for. Mom was nice enough to humor me and watch the movies, but she never quite managed to learn to pronounce the titular character’s name. “What is it? Asterisk? Aster- Aster- Asterisk?” she has asked me repeatedly over the decades. Occasionally, I bump into Americans who say, “Oh, Asterix! I know him. He was in my French textbook in college. He taught me how to conjugate verbs.” I showed my college roommate The Twelve Tasks of Asterix, confident he’d love it since I had seen it 30 times and it still made me laugh – especially the spoof of bureaucratic red tape in the Place that Sends You Mad Segment. His reaction was, “That was very, um, French.”
So? So’s Amelie! So’s Freedom Fries and Freedom Toast and Julia Child, the Freedom Chef! Don’t we all just love the French?
Now, not all Asterix comics and movies are good. I’ll be the first to admit it. Whatever you do, don’t bother reading the latest graphic novel, Asterix and the Picts (2013), by the new creative team of Jean-Yves Ferri and Didier Conrad. It is derivative, watered-down Asterix that isn’t the slightest bit funny, creative, or exciting. The live-action movies are pretty lame, too, but – if you’re feeling like checking them out, the one with Monica Bellucci is better than the one with Laetitia Casta, and that one is better than the one with Catherine Deneuve. (I’m identifying the movies in this way because they have confusingly similar titles to the cartoon films, and because the actresses are the movies’ main appeal, really.) In addition to the two animated films I’ve already named, Asterix vs. Caesar is fantastic. Some of the others, like Asterix Conquers America, and Asterix in Britain, are a little boring or silly. Since the comics and movies I’ve vouched for are really quite awesome-sauce, I hope that one day Americans might cotton on to the greatness that is Asterix.
But the Walt Disney Corporation – which owns everything in the world except the movie rights to the X-Men, Fantastic Four, and Spider-Man – isn’t holding its breath. Every once in a while, Disney/Miramax would buy the rights to a new live-action or animated Asterix film, consider distributing it in America, and then chicken out at the last minute (just like they briefly considered releasing Godzilla vs. Biollante before chickening out). Miramax almost distributed the live action film Asterix and Obelix Take On Caesar (1999), which cast Gerard Depardieu as Obelix and featured Roberto Benigni as the crafty Lucius Detritus, who steals the magic potion from the Druid, hoping to use it to overthrow Caesar. It was never released stateside in theaters or on home video, but interested parties can find a Korean regionless DVD of it with English and Chinese and Korean subtitles! (Yes. I bought it. Only way I could see the film. Though it appears to be on YouTube in its entirety. Many of these movies are. Too bad every time I use YouTube all I ever see is … buffering…buffering…buffering…)
And have you heard of Asterix and the Vikings, a 2005 animated movie voiced by Sean Astin, Brad Garrett, Paul Giamatti, and Evan Rachel Wood? No? I bought the region 2 DVD from England but can’t watch it because I don’t have a regionless DVD player at the moment. It may be on YouTube, but I just can’t handle the buffering, I tell you. I e-mail the Criterion Collection and Shout! Factory once a year asking for an Asterix film boxed set, but I must be the only one making this request. Ah, the joys of being an Asterix fan. Second only to the joys of being a Doctor Who fan during the days in which American cable channels refused to broadcast the new series because it was “too British.” (Those days meaning 2005 to whenever Battlestar Galactica stopped sucking up all the science fiction oxygen.) Well, if American executives didn’t like Doctor Who for being too British, it is no surprise that they don’t like Asterix for being “too French.”
They probably also don’t like the drug content.
And there sure is drug content.
Government-manufactured performance enhancing drugs created Captain America as a weapon of war against the Axis Powers in World War II. His opposition to Hitler absolves him of much, if not all, of the negative associations of anabolic steroids. The Asterix stories have not been spared these negative associations and parents groups seem to fear them. I’ve noticed that English language translators can’t figure out what to name the Druid who makes the magic potion. I know him as Getafix (“Get a fix”), but some British parents groups objected, so the character has been renamed Vitamix, and his magic potion is now referred to as a “vitamin potion” to skirt the drug connotations. I think he has also been called Panoramix. I’m partial to Getafix, myself.
Popeye eats spinach to get strong. Fortunately, that encourages kids who watch Popeye cartoons to eat their vegetables. I guess American parents are worried that little kids who want to get strong like Asterix does will buy magic potions from the kid in the playground with the bags under his eyes, hoping to get strong enough to punch Romans into orbit.
While the drug themes in Asterix have often been an embarrassment to fans of the character, in at least two instances the drug humor is funny and intelligent, and acts as an effective satire of the issue of steroids in sports. In The Twelve Tasks of Asterix (1976), Asterix reveals that sports in his village are dull because egalitarian concerns dictate that all the participants in sports be granted free magic potion, which means that “it’s not very exciting … because we all get [to the finish line] at once and we have to draw lots for the winner. Heh-heh-heh.” In Asterix at the Olympic Games (2008), Asterix uses the potion to cheat at discus throwing and Obelix uses it to cheat at shot-put. Brutus protests, and Asterix and Obelix are forced to take “beetlyzer tests”—they breathe into giant beetles that inflate in the presence of drugs. They’re disqualified, but Brutus is also disqualified for doping in a wrestling match. In the final chariot race, Brutus cheats again by taking Getafix’s potion, but Getafix colors the potion blue and it dyes Brutus’s tongue, revealing to everyone that he cheated.
I have no ambition to keep my interests to myself. Way back in 1997, when I felt like the only one I knew who still liked Doctor Who, I hoped that it might one day become popular again, like it was in the late 1970s and early 1980s. (I got my wish, but I must have made that wish on the monkey’s paw, because I don’t like the revival series much, tragically.) So I could be one of those guys who walk around saying, “I like Asterix and it is not yet cool to like Asterix. So I’m ready for when it does become cool, so I can say, ‘I liked Asterix before it was cool.’” But I want to share my knowledge with you. I want Asterix to become popular. Until that time, I can do my bit for the little, temperamental Gaul by writing this blog and by raising my son to be an Asterix fan. He already loves the really absurd, free, iPhone Asterix Megaslap! game. A clear ripoff of Angry Birds, the game is about helping Asterix punch a Roman soldier as far across the world as possible. Every time my three-year-old son punches the Roman into Mt. Olympus and beans Zeus off the head, he laughs and shouts, “I got him!” It is adorable and worth the lengthy exposure to a pretty silly game.
And when Quentin goes to sleep, I play the Asterix Playstation 2 game, Asterix and Obelix Kick Buttix. I think that game is awesome, even though I can’t beat it. I suppose Playstation 2 and 3 enthusiasts could explain to me why the game isn’t that great, but I love playing Asterix and Obelix and using them to beat up Romans. They’re my childhood buddies. I’d love to introduce them to you.
My theory is that a combination of the drug themes, the anti-imperial message, the ethnic humor, and the Classical setting account for why executives think no American would like this stuff. Well, that may be so, but it is also why Asterix feels nothing like other commercial comic book properties or children’s entertainment, and why I always felt it was a breath of fresh air. The closest thing I can think of to its tone and setting is How to Train Your Dragon, but even that is very American, despite the Viking characters.
So, please consider giving Asterix a chance.
If you can’t afford buying the comics, consider getting them via Inter-library loan.
Because, you know, Amelie, Freedom Fries, and invincible French peasants rock!