“By Toutatis!” If this invocation of an obscure Celtic God means anything to you, then you’ll also be familiar with the peevish canine Dogmatix, a chieftan called Vitalstatistix and Cacofonix, the bard who can’t hold a tune. If it doesn’t, you could do worse than to acquaint yourself with them and their better-known friend Asterix, the Gaulish warrior and national treasure of French bandes dessinées, who turned 50 this year.
Asterix appeared for the first time in a cartoon magazine called Pilote on 29 October 1959. Goscinny and Uderzo thought up most of the main characters in a 30-minute brain-storming session in a council flat in Paris. Goscinny, also the joint parent of Petit Nicolas and other successful cartoon characters, set out originally to mock, rather than to glorify, French insularity. Charles de Gaulle had just become president of the Republic. France versus the Rest of the World rapidly became one of the themes of the 1960s. Asterix took off.
The world of Asterix and his improbably large sidekick Obelix (dropped in a cauldron of magic potion when he was a baby, and hence invincible) is one of druids, menhirs and endless feasting on the juiciest of wild boars. It is also a visual and verbal feast, with fantastic and often fantastically detailed illustrations by Albert Uderzo and words by René Goscinny. The English versions required all the creative powers of their translators, Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge, to put across the punning spirit of the originals, and the results are rightly acclaimed.
Part of Asterix’s appeal lies in the gentle prodding of European national stereotypes: the fondue-and-cuckoo-clock-obsessed Swiss, the milky-tea-drinking British and the beer-swilling Belgians. But while the parodies are occasionally mischievous, they are also humane. If Goscinny and Uderzo had a message to convey in amongst all the fun, it was that inflated egos deserve to be punctured – hence the hilarious monikers. You may be a Roman centurion, but no one can take you seriously when your name is Crismus Bonus.