Astérix: the freedom fighter who conquered the world

Scourge of the Romans: Astérix and Obelix
Scourge of the Romans: Astérix and Obelix
As a new show celebrates the plucky Gaul’s co-creator René Goscinny, Toby Clements explains why the books appeal to us all

After Charles, Astérix is probably the world’s most famous Gaul. The diminutive, mustachioed thorn in Julius Caesar’s side has been making children aged seven to 77 laugh since René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo published the first comic strip in 1959. With their famous wordplay (the druid Getafix, the village bard Cacofonix) and their stories about a “small village of indomitable Gauls” who gain superhuman strength when they drink a magic potion, the books have sold in their hundreds of millions and been translated into more than 150 languages. 

So it might seem odd to find an exhibition dedicated to the life and work of Goscinny at the Jewish Museum in London, an institution with an unstated but tacitly acknowledged mission to celebrate the contribution to society of those at its margins: immigrants, émigrés and displaced refugees.

In fact, though, the show – which features original artworks and scripts as well as Goscinny’s own tools, sketchbooks and family photographs – is a fascinating insight into the origins of Astérix and proves why it makes sense to celebrate the comics here.

“Characters such as Astérix humorously yet shrewdly tell the story of a marginalised people under threat, and how a small village use their wits to resist an occupying force,” says Abigail Morris, the director of the Jewish Museum. You might say that knocking back a gourd of magic potion and then smacking a Roman legionnaire out of his sandals is less a demonstration of wit than of force, but Astérix uses his brain just as often as his brawn to defeat the Romans. And this dauntless ingenuity in the face of apparently overwhelming odds is what made Astérix Le Gaulois so wildly popular when it first launched. 

The story reimagined as Little Fred and Big Ed

Memories of the German occupation were still reasonably fresh in French minds, so those opening words – “The year is 50BC. Gaul is entirely occupied by the Romans. Well, not entirely … one small village of indomitable Gauls still holds out against the invaders” – offered a glimpse of an alternative, escapist reality that must have been a salve for anyone who had suffered through the war. The strip may also have provided some comfort to Jews, like Goscinny himself, who were still struggling to come to terms with the Holocaust. Other Jewish comic book artists, like Stan Lee, the former editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics, and Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of Superman, Goscinny, says Morris, “may have been attracted to the idea of a magic potion that would give you the power to hold out against your enemy”.   

Goscinny himself was not in France during the German occupation, but in Argentina, where his parents, both of eastern European descent, had relocated (from Paris, where René was born) in 1928. René spent his childhood in Buenos Aires, attending the French Lycée, and was keen on writing and drawing, with ambitions to be the next Walt Disney. But in 1943 Stanislas Goscinny died, leaving his family in a precarious financial position, and in 1945 René and his mother left Argentina to join remnants of her family in New York, where René hoped for work as an illustrator. 

These were lean years, but it was in New York that he forged the first friendships and collaborations that would lead him back to France and to illustrator Albert Uderzo. By the Fifties, the French and Belgian comic-book scene – Bande Dessinée, or just BD, described as being the “ninth art”, and highly respected – was booming as never before. 

Goscinny began working on numerous strips for magazines including the seminal Spirou, where he collaborated with the Belgian cartoonist Morris on Lucky Luke – he who could shoot faster than his own shadow – and with the Frenchman Sempé, with whom he wrote Le Petit Nicolas. Both these strips are defined by the adventures of a little guy socking it to The Man, and this was never more true than of Goscinny’s most famous creation, Astérix, arrived at in collaboration with Uderzo, a child of recent immigrants from Italy.

René Goscinny as a toddler

The series, which ran in the first edition of Pilote magazine, was an instant success in France and Belgium. The first Astérix album was published in 1961 and, since then, there have been another 37 albums, 14 films, a theme park, and even a French satellite channel called Astérix-1.

The first translation into English came in 1963, in the pages of Valiant, in which Astérix was transformed into an ancient Briton, Little Fred. The translation was charmless and clunky, and remained so when the strip reappeared in the Ranger and Look and Learn a few years later, where Astérix was renamed as Beric the Bold. It was not until 1969 that the much lauded translators Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge started on more official versions, and mediated for English speakers the adventures we know today, complete with all the puns and clever wordplay.

In just a few years Astérix became a central pillar of French culture, a vital part of what it meant to be French. This is partly because it continued to be about the indomitability of the little guy; partly because nothing awful ever happened (no one even bled, though all carried swords) and partly because, by the last title they colluded on, Astérix Chez Les Belges, in 1977, Goscinny and Uderzo had nodded at, alluded to, or sent up almost anything you care to mention, from Middle Eastern politics, property developers, and neoclassical art (“We’ve been framed by Jericho!”) to English tea-drinking habits, and the Olympic Games. And despite being set nearly 2,000 years previously, the strip was always alive, and vital, and inventively engaged with questioning current events.

By the time he died of a heart attack in 1977, Goscinny had become, one obituary suggested, as symbolic of France as the Eiffel Tower. Uderzo wanted to stop illustrating the strip, but by then the Astérix juggernaut had become unstoppable, and the world’s second most famous Gaul has continued on through 13 more adventures (and counting). A fitting tribute to a Frenchman without a drop of French blood in him. 

Astérix in Britain is at Jewish Museum London, NW1, until Sept 30. Tickets: 020 7284 7384; jewishmuseum.org.uk