Thursday, 31 August 2017

Asterix the Gaul by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo - volume 1

One of the best known of all the French bandes dessinées is the Asterix series which first began in 1959 and is still going to this day. In recent years the series appears to have had a small makeover with updated translations, new & more consistent colouring, modified covers and the original publication order being used for listings & numberings, with the result that the albums currently on sale (which will be looked at in this and subsequent posts) differ somewhat from the editions I remember from childhood. However, Asterix the Gaul was the introductory album even then and shows a strip that was in development even when it began to be serialised. Significantly there doesn't appear to have been any major latter day rewriting or redrawing of the album in order to make it more closely match the rest of the series.

The setting of the series is Gaul (ancient France) in the year 50 BC, with the Romans having conquered the country but one small coastal village in Armorica (now Brittany) is resisting the occupation and thus lives under siege from four Roman camps. The Romans make various attempts to conquer the village but are unable to because of the villagers' use of a magic potion that gives them super strength. The location in Brittany was reportedly entirely the choice of artist Albert Uderzo, who had spent a year in his teens there during the Second World War. Given the period when the series began and the artist's history, it is hard not to see the series as rooted in a romanticisation of French resistance to occupation even though this album avoids specific parallels with the war (apart from one panel where the Goths from modern Germany vow to return). Asterix himself is the ultimate little man who relies as much on his wits as on strength in order to evade and defeat the Germans.

The development is clear early on with many characters including Asterix himself, Getafix and Julius Caesar all developing their looks between the start and end of the album, whilst others who are not used as much at this stage like Obelix, Cacofonix and, especially, Fulliautomatix have not yet settled into their most familiar looks. Even menhirs look different on their very first appearance compared to later on. There are also other details that would change over time, with Obelix initially content to share a boar with Asterix whereas later he would regularly consume a whole one (or even more) on his own. The villagers even all gather to dance to a song by Cacofonix, rather than flee in terror at the bard's awful singing. But more significantly for the plot, the villagers seem to regularly take the magic potion like a regular supplement rather than specifically consuming it immediately before battle. Thus, losing Getafix does not mean the village faces immediate conquest in the way that the druid's loss or incapacitation in later stories would threaten. It's also surprising just how long Asterix and Getafix appear to be held prisoners for, especially when they tie up the garrison in a search for strawberries at the wrong time of year.

The plot of this album is quite straightforward, introducing the basic set-up in the space of just a few pages and then following an attempt by a Roman centurion to discover the secret of the villagers' strength and then harness it for his own personal ambitions. However, he reckons without the cunning of Asterix and Getafix. There's humour aplenty in the story that even extends to some highly comic characters, ranging from Caligula Minus the reluctant spy to the oxen dealer whom Asterix repeatedly manipulates in order to infiltrate and fool the Romans. The album introduces the practice of giving most characters names that are puns, ranging from the functional like Fulliautomatix for the blacksmith through to the sheer comedic such as Crismus Bonus for the centurion. Even minor characters are given a degree of comedic realism with legionnaires regularly expressing their fears. The only place where the comedy falls down is through the use of Latin which can be confusing if a joke hinges on knowing what a phrase means, though at times it works well such as when Crismus Bonus explodes in anger at his troops for preferring to speak it to volunteering.

Of the main characters in the series, only Asterix and Getafix are really developed here, with Obelix primarily serving as plot exposition and not accompanying Asterix to the camp of Compendium whilst Chief Vitalstatistix, Cacofonix, Fulliautomatix and Julius Caesar all have only very brief appearances compared to their subsequent use. This is beneficial in not tying too many characters down immediately and instead allowing potential for organic growth. Nor does the adventure take place on a grand scale, with all scenes set either in the village, the Roman camp of Compendium or the forest between the two. Thus, the story is relatively low-key compared to some of the grander events to come, but for a first adventure this works well in establishing Asterix and his world.

As is so often the case with the very first strips from a series, this is a bit rough and ready with the development all too clearly on display. In setting up the basics of the series there's a restraint on the scope of the tale but it does ultimately serve its purpose to launch the series. However, the best is yet to come.

1 comment:

  1. Interestingly, Asterix's first (I think) UK appearance was in Valiant in 1963, under the name of 'Little Fred - The ancient Brit with loads of Grit'. He reappeared a year later in Ranger, this time called Beric the Bold, though the strip was called 'Britons never, never, never shall be slaves'. That new cover on the above book is an improvement, though I'd never have imagined it possible.