Wednesday, 1 October 2014

J'Adore Asterix x

Most people have heard of Asterix but not everyone has read Asterix, and I’d like to remedy that.

Confirmed bachelors
A quick primer: Asterix is a small Gaulish (read: French) warrior from a little village that is under siege from the Romans. The village has managed to hold out against occupation because of a magic potion brewed by the village druid, Getafix, which grants superhuman strength. Obelix, the best friend of Asterix, fell into the cauldron of magic potion when he was a baby and failed to drown. Instead, he became perma-strong.

But...strength alone is not enough. The truth is that the village survives because of the ingenuity, nay CUNNING of the titular warrior. Also bashing Romans, yes, but mostly the brains thing. So far so standard superhero fodder. Extreme strength plus superior planning plus being on the side of justice, liberty and roast boar for all equals success.

I had to wait for Google to be invented to get this
Where Asterix differs is the humour. Latin puns, history jokes, everyone’s name some amusing ancient variation of a familiar word or phrase. I used to write my name on the flyleaf, Tracyix Kingix. Asterix books felt smarter than other comics. Any kid could get the basics, but beyond that were references to plebiscites (get that pleb a seat), triumvirates (I’ll be one on my own!) and a boxer called Cassius Ceramix.

What’s even more extraordinary is that the wordplay works so well in English. The books were originally written by Rene Goscinny in French, and translated by the amazing Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge, whose challenge was to replace French wordplay with something that worked in English on several levels: as a word ending in –ix if a male Gaul, and –a if a female Gaul; as a reflection of the role or personality of the character; and as a joke. Vitalstatistix is overweight. Getafix the druid is...uh...well he makes magic potions. Cacofonix is a terrible musician. Geratrix is very old, his young and beautiful wife Myopia seems not to see his flaws. In Asterix the Legionary, spy H2So4’s real name is Vitriolix.

Today, the books are written by Jean Yves-Ferri and illustrated by Didier Conrad but still translated by Anthea Bell, as profiled in thislovely Guardian article.

I started reading Asterix aged twelve, and still have my original copies. I even spent a few years searching ebay to replace my non-matching editions with the right ones.

Those editions are long over and I now have to be content with non-matching covers, but I still grab every new volume. If you’re going to start an Asterix collection, begin at the beginning, with Asterix the Gaul, and read them in order if you can. Watching the art style and characters develop from 1961 to present day gives as much pleasure (and a few raised eyebrows) as the stories themselves.
Early Asterix

My own comic – well, illustrated book – Storm is out soon, written by Tim Minchin, illustrated by DC Turner, and published by Orion. Asterix is also published by Orion. You can imagine my joy at this coincidence. During a recent meeting I straight up demanded they allow me to steal the large cutout Asterix adorning the windowsill (they did). Here it is.

Sorry mate, I have a boyfriend

Although I say begin at the beginning, you can pick up any volume as a standalone story. If you’re considering testing the waters, here are some of my favourites in order of volume number:

Asterix and the Banquet, #5 – look at the pictures carefully and you’ll see the heroes followed by a small dog who in the final panel is noticed by Obelix. This is the origin of canine sidekick Dogmatix.

Asterix in Switzerland #16 – a darker story than usual and hilariously cheese-oriented. If you find “a packed orgy for one” funny, you’re a shoe-in for enjoying this.

"Mom, what's an orgy?"

Asterix and the Soothsayer #19 – Asterix is a sceptic! This is basically the plot of Storm. A stranger arrives and spouts some ridiculous mysticism, the hairy protagonist objects, the stranger gets captured by Romans. Wait, that’s not the plot of Storm. Close, though. So close.

Sometimes the sceptic and the mystic find common ground...

And the latest is Asterix and the Picts, #35 – If you liked Brave then you’ll like this. A welcome return to form after a few years of post-Goscinny feet-finding, Asterix and Picts is evidence that there’s life in the Gaulish village yet and hopefully for  a long time to come.