The fourteenth Asterix adventure is quite a curious tale. It sees our heroes visit another of France's neighbouring countries but it's surprising that it's taken the series this long to look towards such a significant neighbour. Equally curious is the length of time it takes the story to get Asterix and Obelix to Hispania (Spain) despite a journey that takes barely six pages to reach the border. It all suggests an adventure thrown together in a hurry or to meet some external requirement.
Appropriately for the day after Budget Day we come to a story with a bit to say about taxation. The thirteenth of the Asterix adventures resorts to the well-worn trope of the hero being wrongly convicted for a crime he didn't convict and sent into exile to redeem his honour. In the process he's forced to turn his hand to making money, resulting in a mild satire on commerce and finance.
It should come as little surprise that Asterix's participation in the Olympic Games was originally printed to coincide with the real-world games, in this case the 1968 games held in Mexico City. The English translation followed four years later, coinciding with the 1972 games at Munich. (And the live action film adaptation's release coincided with the 2008 games in Beijing.) Once again, the series taps into contemporary culture and projects it back onto the ancient world, albeit with invariable anachronisms. In the real world there were no games in 50 BC - the nearest were in 52 BC and 48 BC - and it seems that the Gauls never took part in the ancient Olympics. But Asterix discovers a vital technicality...
The Asterix adventures as a whole have a tinge of French nationalism, celebrating heroes who have resisted the invasion of their country and triumphing against the odds just a generation after the Second World War. But to date none of the stories has been so directly rooted in national myth history as Asterix and the Chieftain's Shield, the eleventh adventure in the series. It shows how both the Romans and Gauls seek to harness the history of past battles for present day propaganda advantages, with the added complication of a quest to find the titular shield.
Once again the Asterix adventures are parodying a cultural wave of the time and adapting their world in order to do so. This story was originally serialised in 1966, the year of a big budget adaptation of Beau Geste, beating the Carry On film Follow That Camel to satirise the French Foreign Legion by a year. But in order to translate this to a military adventure in ancient North Africa, the series once again takes some liberties with history in order to present a version of the Civil War, and specifically the Battle of Thapsus, slightly earlier than they actually happened.
Asterix and the Normans was the ninth adventure in the original run but is another that had its first English translation relatively late, being the twentieth of the original twenty-four stories to appear in this language. It's easy to see why (although the current editions restore the original French order). For much of this story's humour and background rests upon knowing something that may be common classroom knowledge in France, but which is less well-known here. Indeed that's probably why the translators didn't go down the obvious route, as the later film did, and change the title to Asterix and the Vikings.
And so we come to Asterix and Obelix's visit to Britain. The British have many, many, many (x infinity) clichés and stereotypes of the French so it's always interesting to see how they view us. Thus we get a straightforward tale of Asterix and Obelix crossing the channel to help the former's first cousin once removed, Anticlimax, and his village which is holding out against the Roman occupation. All they have to do is get a barrel of magic potion to the village but the Romans are onto them...
There's a pattern emerging of the Asterix series alternating between volumes set in Gaul and those set in other countries. And the Gaul based adventures are starting to say a few things about occupation. This comes to the fore in the seventh volume, Asterix and the Big Fight, which parodies various aspects of colonialism.
It's not hard to spot the influence for this album, with the original serialisation having come in the same year as the film Cleopatra, with the title character even drawn to resemble Elizabeth Taylor. This album used to have a non-traditional cover that resembled a movie poster, calling it "The Greatest Story Ever Drawn" and even listing what had gone into it in terms of writing & drawing materials and beer. However, the modern editions have dropped this in favour of the overall standardisation of the series and perhaps also because the passage of time has diminished the parody. Still it's a sign of the series riding the cultural zeitgeist of the day and presenting its own take on the relationship between the Queen of Egypt (who has a very pretty nose) and the Roman Dictator.
Even before opening the fifth Asterix album this loses some of the joke in both translation and colouring. The original French title is Le Tour de Gaule d'Astérix and the German translation makes the joke even more specific "Tour de France". However, the English translation shifts the emphasis away from the journey to the end goal. Also undermining the joke is the colour of the shopping bag. Originally this was yellow with a patch, to mimic the lead cyclist's jersey, but the cover and now the modern interior colour have instead rendered it green. Although the colouring may be an error that was "corrected" in the wrong direction, the overall result is that the title and cover of this album now downplays somewhat fact that this is an exploration of France in all its glory. Perhaps this is also why it was one of the last of the original twenty-four Asterix albums to be translated into English. This placing, along with some of the cover croppings used over the years, has also disguised the introduction of one of the most beloved of all the characters in the series.