I challenge anyone to read the adventures of the two indomitable Gauls, Asterix and Obelix, and not bust out into a belly laugh at least once. Much like Herge’s Tintin, there’s a peculiar flavour to these illustrated graphic novels (for this is indeed what they are – it would be incorrect to deem them mere “comics”) which American illustrators of humour have, for the most part, lost or abandoned – the ability to write and draw a story that is more than just a four strip daily funny, and make it long, absorbing, hilarious and riveting, stocked with a pantheon of characters that not only act funny, talk funny, but are named funny.
As with Tintin, there are many favourites of the series, held by many people – I’ve always preferred the first ten or so myself, and for the purposes of this essay, I don’t think I’ll touch on any in particular, though Asterix in Britain is a perennial goodie and I always enjoyed Asterix and the Goths, Asterix in Switzerland, Asterix and the Great Crossing, Asterix the Gladiator and Asterix at the Olympic Games.
A short review of the situation is as follows. It is 50BC. Ceasar has conquered Gaul. All? No…one small village of (you got it) indomitable Gauls holds out against the roman legions by virtue of their druid’s ability to brew a potion that grants them superhuman strength. So the Romans surround the village with four fortified camps named (and here we start with the naming) Torturum, Aquarium, Laudanum and Compendium. There are various Romans throughout the series with awesome names like Chrismus Bonus, Marcus Ginantonicus, Gluteus Maximus, Arteriosclerosis, Gastroenteritus…I could go on but you get the picture.
The Gauls in this village all have names ending in “-ix” (a nod to Vercingetorix, a real Gaulish chieftain who surrendered to Caesar), and are a smorgasbord of rib ticklers: Vitalstatistix, the chief; Fulliautomatix the blacksmith (son of Semiautomatix); Geriatrix, the oldest guy in the village who somewhat improbably has a young and lusciously drawn, never-named wife; Unhygienix the fishmonger (son of Unhealthix) with a wife named Bacteria…and of course the titular hero Asterix, Getafix the druid and Dogmatix, the tree-loving little dog Asterix’s best friend Obelix loves.
These laughing, fighting Frenchmen go on to have some of the most unusual adventures in comic books, and in the ancient world – they go (variously) to Switzerland, Britain, America, Spain, Germany, Corsica, Paris, Rome, the Olympic Games, Egypt, even the Middle East – and in each case they meet a colourful cast of supporting characters who are uniquely drawn and have quirky characteristics of their own that reflect something of their national cliches. Take, for example the Brits and their stiff upper lip and love for having a cuppa in the middle of a battle; the Egyptians and their predilection for obscure (and ginormous) architectural monuments. I’ll grant you that stereotyping is rife throughout the series – but I see it more as a gentle nudge and wink from the authors than anything malicious or demeaning.
Part of what gives these adventures their charm is the ongoing gags throughout the various iterations: Obelix’s continual efforts to be allowed to drink some magic potion (since he fell into the cauldron as a baby he is permanently super-strong and Getafix won’t allow him to have any more); the inevitable thrashing, bashing or stringing-up which Cacofonix the bard gets any time he wants to sing; the rivalry between Unhygienix and Fulliautomatix; Obelix’s love of collecting legionary helmets (with or without Romans still attached) and eating boars; the pirates on the high seas whose father-son team (never named) have these hilarious conversations (the crippled son always speaks in pig latin), occasionally interspersed with gloomy commentary from the black lookout in the crow’s nest who keeps getting a “sinking feeling.”
Whether you accept and love the series depends on your sense of humour, I think, and whether you feel comics or colourful graphic novels of this kind are a suitable vehicle for slapstick and gags and puns and laughs. My recommendation would be to get them, and keep them and reread them every so often, and share generously. For my money, they are among the funniest, best examples of comic book humour ever drawn, and every time I read one, I feel myself shedding a few years, and becoming a kid again, and laughing just as hard as the first time.