Half a century on, Asterix is still holding out
Beloved across the world, the heroic Gauls Asterix and Obelix celebrate their 50th birthday this month.
After 50 years, Asterix and his village of indomitable Gauls are still gamely holding out against the Romans, while in the meantime they have become a global publishing phenomenon.
Despite their defiantly French character, the comic book adventures of the first century BC warrior have sold 325 million copies -- 200 million of them abroad -- and been translated into 107 languages and dialects.
The 20-year-old Asterix theme park outside Paris rivals even the same city's Disneyland as a tourist draw and a series of hit movies, including both live action and animated capers, have been worldwide hits.
This month's anniversary will be a huge event in France, with the launch of the 34th book -- a celebratory retrospective -- and major events in the capital and in Brittany, where several villages claim to be the hero's home.
A search for home
Asterix's creators, the late writer Rene Goscinny and illustrator Albert Uderzo, have never identified a single site as the inspiration for the village, a Gaullish hamlet in a forest by the sea besieged by Caesar's legions.
The map on the first page of every Asterix book shows the village in close up under a magnifying glass, thus obscuring its exact location, but in Erquy, on the Breton peninsula's rocky northern coast, they have no doubts.
"You see these three rocks? They're the same as those you see under the magnifying glass!" declared Jean-Pierre Allain, the picturesque fishing port's retired bookseller and passionate amateur archaeologist.
There are other clues. Hiking maps record a nearby site called "Caesar's camp," and locals insist a lighthouse on the jetty looks remarkably like the one on page four of Asterix's 1971 adventure The Mansions of the Gods.
"Asterix's village is here," said Manuel Mendes, a stonemason whose girth resembles that of Obelix, Asterix's huge comrade. Obelix is so strong he can carry Brittany's menhirs -- prehistoric standing stones.
A granite statue of Mendes' hero stands outside his business, celebrating the village's pride but also pointing to the massive commercial potential for any resort that becomes recognised as Asterix's home.
Accordingly, several other villages have also claimed the title, including one in nearby Normandy and one hundreds of 460 kilometres (285 miles) away in the Calais region.
"That's not very likely," snorted Allain.
Since the first story in 1959, Uderzo has drawn the village -- with its stone huts, Fulliautomatix the blacksmith's forge, Unhygenix the fishmonger's stall and Cacophonix the bard's treehouse -- hundreds of times.
He took a helicopter flight over Erquy in 1996 and afterwards admitted that he might have "unconsciously" modelled his vision on the area's rocky cape and sandy bay, before later insisting the village was purely imaginary.
Erquy will therefore have to content itself with being an unofficial draw for the Gaul's fanatic devotees, unlike Parc Asterix outside Paris, which drew 1.8 million visitors last year despite the economic crisis.
A close escape
Meanwhile, the moustachioed hero's adventures continue next week with his 34th edition, Asterix and Obelix's Birthday: The Gold Book.
The series almost came to an end in 1977 with the death of Goscinny, the author of the books' famous catchphrases -- such as "These Romans are crazy" -- and a man with distinctive verbal wit. Asterix's puns have proved a headache for translators worldwide.
The illustrator Uderzo, however, decided to carry on alone and, now 82, has chosen two men to succeed him after he retires.
The Mebarki brothers, Frederic the draughtsman and Thierry the colourist, already draw Asterix for merchandising spinoffs for Uderzo's publishing house and, if they can find a writer, will continue the series.
"No one would ever guess it wasn't me drawing these characters,” said Uderzo in Paris. “It seems my style isn't very difficult, I hope it won't be hard to take over. Time will tell."
The handover won't come yet, however, as Uderzo is already working on the next adventure.
"I have a vague idea, it's not a given that it will come to a conclusion,” he said. “If I can still amuse myself by working, it'll be for my own pleasure and I hope for that of the readers.”
So why has Asterix proved such a hit for young and old for so long?
Some say the stories touched a particular political cord in a France that was recovering from the humiliation of Nazi occupation and rediscovering national pride under General de Gaulle.
Asterix and his friends preserve Gaullish honour and celebrate a very French way of life, refusing to bow to Roman rule even when many of their neighbours are collaborating.
Uderzo is dismissive of the idea that the series had a broad political theme but admits to seeking to celebrate and gently mock certain aspects of the French national character in the attitudes of his ancient Gauls.
There must also be some more universal appeal, given the books massive export success.
More than half of international sales are in Germany, despite the somewhat unsympathetic portrayal of the Gauls' Germanic opponents in Asterix and the Goths. The books have been translated into 29 regional German dialects.
Belgium, home of Tintin and its own rich comic book tradition, has adopted Asterix as almost one of its own, and the books have been a great success in Scandinavia and in Poland, birthplace of Goscinny's family.
China has yet to meet the Gaul and Japan prefers its homegrown "manga" comic book characters but Indonesia -- where translator Rahartati Bambang is known as "Mrs. Asterix" -- has fallen for his charms.
In Britain, just across the Channel from Asterix's village, translations by Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge have proved enduringly popular, capturing the spirit of Goscinny's puns where a literal rendering would be impossible.
But despite Asterix beating Columbus to North America by 1,500 years, if the story of Asterix and the Great Crossing is to be believed, the plucky Gaul has yet to find his place alongside America's leotard-clad superheroes.
Uderzo said, however, that each new Asterix book published revives interest in its predecessors, so the plucky Gaul may still have new worlds to discover.
Celine Agniel and Dominique Chabrol / AFP / Expatica
Photo credit: Hans Peters (drawing Asterix).
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