Success fell on their heads
October 29th 1959 saw the birth of a character that would lay its mark on comic books forever: Asterix the Gaul. With French tongue-in-cheek humour and caricature of modern day quirks, his adventures please readers from every countries.
The story starts in the year 50 BC. Nearly all of Gaul has been conquered by the Romans, except for a small village of indomitable Gauls. They resist thanks to a magic potion prepared by the village druid: the drink gives superhuman strength to whomever drinks it. This is the story of one of the most well-known French comic books.
In 1959, writer Renée Goscinny and artist Albert Uderzo are looking for a concept for a series with historical satire. The Gallic period is an obvious choice. Goscinny uses the name of Gallic chieftain Vercingetorix to name all his main characters with suffix "ix". Asterix (as an echo to an asterisk) is small, but shrewd. Uderzo knows that to make a good pair, you need contrast: Obelix is Asterix's sidekick and likes to call himself "well covered" and never misses an opportunity to beat up Romans. Both characters, and even every character in the village, represent stereotypical French, both complaining all the time, but also bon vivant.
The Asterix trend
Asterix first appeared in the magazine Pilote. Readers immediately liked him: "Asterix the Gaul", the first album he's featured in, was published in 1961 and sold 6,000 copies. As early as 1965, every new release of the series sold over a million copies. The pair of Gaul also experimented success in many other countries: in Germany, for instance, as many copies as in France are sold.
After the passing away of Goscinny in 1977, Uderzo continued the adventure alone. Some 35 books and about 365 million copies later, Asterix is the biggest comic book sale on the planet. It has been translated in 111 languages, from Mandarin to... the Picardy dialect.
Uderzo is now retired, and he trusted a new team made of Jean-Yves Ferri and Didier Conrad to take care of the series. Both are the authors of the last book "Asterix and the Missing Scroll": it was released on October 24th, and only two weeks were enough to sell over a million copies.
Quality-made comic book
The image of the village resisting occupation is mainly due to the memory of WWII, and has much helped popularising the series. But the true key to success is the quality of the series.
Since the creation of the series, Goscinny defined the traits of the series: running gags and situation comedy, stereotypes, satire and rewriting of history. In the course of the books, the reader witnesses many diversions: in "Asterix the Legionary", we can see a reinterpretation of the famous painting of Géricault, "Raft of the Medusa". In "Asterix and the Banquet", there is a parody of Marcel Pagnol's film "Marius and Fanny". Graphically, the series is marked by the Uderzo's sense of movement, sound effect and caricature.
With different layers of readings, the books are both for children and adults. It is also full of French trademarks. Many French expressions come from Asterix's adventures: "être tombé dedans étant petit" ("to have fallen in as a baby", as a reference to Obelix having fallen in the druid's cauldron), "trouver la potion magique" (finding the magic potion) or even the best Obelix comment when confronted to foreign habits: "Ils sont fous ces Romains!" (Those Romans are crazy!) "Ils sont fous ces Bretons!" (Those British are crazy!)
Asterix's adventures are also a mean to make fun of the clichés the French have towards other people. The books often mock the cult of secrecy in Swiss banks, the problem of quality in British cuisine or the Spanish stubbornness.
These stereotypes always serve ludicrous humour, but imply participation from the reader (who needs to identify humour) and are marked by French chauvinism. But Uderzo and Goscinny are most of all a geniuses is the fact that this scheme is also universal.
As the Nicolas Rouvière, a comic books specialist, says: "the French like to look at themselves in the mirror that reflects their qualities and defaults in a caricatured and indulgent way". Served with a spoonful of humour, the potion is never bittersweet: despite the years, it seems that, given the sales figures of "Asterix and the Missing Scroll", its magic power has never faded.