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Updated: October 29, 2009 03:38 IST

Asterix, France’s most popular cultural hero, turns 50

DPA
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An October 22, 2009 picture in
Paris shows the cover of the last Asterix comic book by writer Rene Goscinny and illustrator Albert
Uderzo ‘L’anniversaire d’Astérix et Obélix, le livre d’or’ (Asterix and Obelix birthday, the golden book).
The album, marking the 50th anniversary of the character’s first appearance in 1959, was released
on Wednesday in 15 countries, with three million exemplaire, including 1.1 million for France. PHOTO: AFP
AFP An October 22, 2009 picture in Paris shows the cover of the last Asterix comic book by writer Rene Goscinny and illustrator Albert Uderzo ‘L’anniversaire d’Astérix et Obélix, le livre d’or’ (Asterix and Obelix birthday, the golden book). The album, marking the 50th anniversary of the character’s first appearance in 1959, was released on Wednesday in 15 countries, with three million exemplaire, including 1.1 million for France. PHOTO: AFP

The small, wily Asterix the Gaul and his oversized, clumsy friend Obelix were born under the influence of friendship, desperation and a great deal of alcohol, according to one of their creators.

In August 1959, writer René Goscinny and illustrator Albert Uderzo met at the latter’s apartment in the Paris suburb of Pantin, to dream up a story and some characters for a comic strip to be published in the first edition of the weekly magazine Pilote.

The launch was only two months away and the two close friends had no idea what they would do. At the time, aside from the Belgian strips Tintin and Spirou, French newspapers carried primarily American comics. The founder of Pilote wanted French children to be able to read stories in which their own culture dominated.

Mr. Goscinny and Mr. Uderzo, both in their early 30s, had been successfully working together for seven years. On that sunny August afternoon, they “drank a great deal” of Pastis and “smoked enormously,” Mr. Uderzo said.

After considering and eliminating stories set in the prehistoric and Cro-Magnon eras, they hit upon the Gauls. “The Gauls,” they thought, “liked to have a good laugh, to talk big and were bon vivants. I think we’ve got something there.”

That something — the continuing story of a small village of Gauls who resist the mighty Roman legions of Julius Caesar that have occupied the rest of the country — became an immediate hit, and soon, an international phenomenon.

Asterix first appeared in serial form in Pilote on October 29, 1959. Fifty years later, 34 comic albums have been published in 107 languages, including Urdu, Arabic and Latin. More than 325 million copies of the albums have been sold, making Mr. Goscinny and Mr. Uderzo France’s best-selling authors abroad. In addition, the series has spawned 11 films, eight of them animated, a number of games and a popular theme park outside the French capital.

Many fans say that the series lost its heart when Mr. Goscinny died in 1977 and Mr. Uderzo took over the script-writing. But the popularity of the cartoon has not fallen off at all. Eighty-two-year-old Uderzo has ensured that Asterix and Obelix outlive him by selling rights to the publishing giant Hachette and appointing three young artists to take over upon his death.

Mr. Uderzo’s first sketches of Asterix, were of a big Gallic warrior, but Mr. Goscinny saw him differently. They finally came up with a hero who would be small, but wily and tough. “As perceptible as a punctuation mark,” Mr. Uderzo said. The strength would be provided by his best friend Obelix, a roly-poly, red-haired giant prone to pratfalls, falling in love and drinking too much. The obese Obelix has become the reader’s favourite, according to opinion polls. It has also not hurt his allure to be portrayed in two films by French megastar Gérard Depardieu.

The stalwart duo and their friends quickly became a major component of the French culture, so much so that during a meeting of his cabinet in the early 1960s, the then President Charles de Gaulle resorted to calling his Ministers by names taken from the strip. In addition, the first French satellite sent into space, on November 26, 1965, was named Astérix. “When I heard that, I prayed that it wouldn’t break down,” Mr. Uderzo said.

In commemorating the 50th anniversary of the first Asterix comic strip, the daily Le Figaro wrote, “They embody the French spirit as few heroes before them have and none after them!” But that doesn’t explain their worldwide appeal. Mr. Uderzo once told the BBC that their popularity was down to “the revenge of the small against the strong, which the audience can relate to.” The broad popularity of the cartoons can also be attributed to their many jokes, puns, and send-ups of popular figures, such as Sean Connery as Agent Dubbelosix in Asterisk and the Black Gold, and the Rolling Menhirs and Elvis Preslix in Asterix and the Normans. But perhaps, people simply love them because they have a lot of Gaul.

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