Mohan is a family physician, film and TV aficionado, a keen bibliophile and an eclectic scribbler.
These Romans are Crazy!
The year is 50 BC and the Roman Empire is at its strongest. Gaius Julius Caesar has conquered most of Europe. All of Gaul (Modern France) is under the Roman rule. All except a tiny village in the Armorica province, populated by some irksome, indefatigable and irreverent Gauls. Roman Garrisons surround the village, in the hope they may weaken. This village is a blot in Caesar’s glorious landscape. It is an embarrassment that sends him into furious apoplexy. But the Gauls prevail; armed with a magic potion brewed by their Druid Getafix they give those Roman legionnaires hell.
But it isn’t just the magic potion that makes them so powerful, it is those two mighty heroes – one brave, wise and small – the other large, dumb but with a heart of Gold and natural strength ( he fell into the magic potion as a child) who are the stars of the show.
Intrigued that this is some kind of alternate history lesson? Fear not, as these are the hilarious adventures of those French heroes, Asterix and Obelix.
For it is not just the anarchic history lessons that delighted me as a child (and still does in my adulthood), It is all the delightful drawings, the crazy plots, the visual gags, slapstick, the word play and all those fantastic puns.
For just like how I learnt my geography lessons and a sense of adventure from Tintin, I learnt the European history from 50 BC and humorous possibilities of the language from the Asterix Comics. The crafty puns in the names, the literary allusions, hilarious alternate explanations for historical incidents, Cameos and caricatures from famous figures and celebrities all were the cherries on an already sumptuous cake of fantastic art and exquisite writing.
The Adventures of Asterix are the best selling Franco- Belgian comic series created by two Frenchmen René Goscinny and Alberto Uderzo. The comic book series have been translated in over hundred languages and have sold over 330 million copies all over the world. Goscinny & Uderzo are France’s bestselling authors of all time worldwide, just from these humble comic ‘albums’ that transcend culture and language. They have been made into eight animated films and also three live action films in French. There is also an Asterix theme park in France.
The stories alternate between adventures within the village and those where the heroes visit another European nation leading to much hilarity, stereotyping and puns galore. I haven’t read the French originals much but the English translations work very well . Translators of the English editions , Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge do a fantastic job without losing the original scripting but also adding nice touches of their own.
Asterix Albums 1- 8
Rene Goscinny Creations with other Artists
René Goscinny as born in 1926 in Paris and moved to Buenos Aires when he was a child as his father got a job there as a chemical engineer. A wildly imaginative boy he was into writing and drawing from a very young age. Though painfully shy, he made up for this by being the class clown. His humorous outlook and sense of humour influenced his writing – full of sight gags and puns.
After losing his father when he was a teenager, he travelled back to France to join the French army and then moved to New York in his twenties. He went through very troubled times with no job and no money. In 1948 he met fellow illustrators and humorists will elder, Jack Davis and Harry Kurtzman ( the trio would go on to create the famous Mad Magazine later.) After a short time writing and illustrating some childrens books he joined the World Press Agency and got transferred to the Paris Desk. Her he was to meet his lifelong friend and fellow creator Alberto Uderzo.
Goscinny is also responsible for other popular comic creations such as Lucky Luke and Iznogoud with artists such as Morris and Tabary respectively. He has also penned stories such as Le Petit Nicholas ( recently made into a film), Modeste et Pompon with Andre Franquin, Prudence Petitpas with Maurice Marechal, Signor Spaghetti with Dino Attanasio, Strapontin with Berck and Les Dingdossiers with Berck.
Albert Uderzo was also born in Paris in 1927. His parents were Italian Immigrants who moved to France and eventually to Brittany. The teenage Uderzo spent much time in a small village by the sea in Brittany- a significant inspiration for his future creation. In 1951 he met René Goscinny at the Paris offices of World press agency where they both worked close to each other. The pair hit it off straight away. They first collaborated on characters such as Oumpah-pah, Jean Pistolet and Luc Junior. The series Oumpah-pah was serialised in Tintin magazine. In 1959 they become editor and artistic director of a new magazine called Pilote where Asterix was first born.
Although initially serialised, the stories were published in a standalone comic book ( album) with the publication of Asterix the Gaul in 1961. The books became so popular that the pair went on to create their own publishing house to publish the series, Editions Albert René.
After a successful 24 books, Goscinny sadly died of cardiac arrest while undergoing a stress test, at the age of only 51. After an initial shock, Uderzo eventually decided to continue the series on his own, taking on both writing and drawing duties. To date there have been nearly 34 books ( including some film tie –ins) and to the delight of the fans Uderzo has still got the same touch showing how much collaboratively the pair must have worked. It lost none of the sense of humour and has goen from strength to strength although the frequency of publication reduced considerably. While the pair still worked together they used to produce nearly 1-2 a year.
Asterix Albums 9 -16
The multitude of characters that populate the Asterix universe are a delight. While the crazy Gauls and the even crazier Romans for the bulk of the canon, the adventures in each different country serve up some fascinating local colour.
Goscinny wanted our hero to be diminutive (Hence the name Asterix- after ‘Asterisk’- a little star!) and a user of more brawn rather than brain. His bravery is further enhanced by sips of the magic potion. Throughout his adventures Asterix has consistently outwitted Caesar and his minions, won an Olympic medal ( without the magic potion, I must add) and completed many tasks to aid his village. His closeness to his dim witted but larger than life friend Obelix is heartwarming even though the later drives him mad at times. He is a bachelor but has fallen for many a lass on his adventures.
When Goscinny opted for a small scale hero UDerzo felt a dimwitted but brawny companion would be an ideal pairing. Obelix ( named after the large stone Obelisk) is in fact a Menhir maker and fell into the magic cauldron as a baby. He is blessed with superior strength naturally and gargantuan appetite. He is always thinking of food and has a particular fondness for wild boar. He is very sensitive about his #weight’ issues so don’t dare call his fat. He is also a romantic at heart, prone to tears at happy endings. He is constantly referring to others as crazy whether it is the Romans that he constantly thrashes to kingdom come or any other races they meet along the way. He is very fond of his friend Asterix and even fonder about little dogmatix, his pet dog.
Only making his appearance in the 5th adventure- Asterix and the Banquet as a minor character. Dogmatix soon became a series regular delighting many pet lovers. A constant companion ot Obelix, this tiny mutt is drawn with such expression and ingenuity. He later developed a ‘green’ sensibility and hated when trees were cut down.
The venerabelk village Druid is the calm authority over the crazy residents. He is often the dispenser of wisdom and the maker of the secret magic potion that helps the village have an upper hand over the authoritarian Romans. He is considered ‘cool’ among his fellow druids where he is often the star of the show for his secret recipes. He is very ethical, refusing to dole out the magic potion for inter-gaulic feuds and only using it wisely when fighting the enemy.
The village chief, always rousing up the troops with the aid of his two heroes. He is constantly dropped by his shield carriers and worries about the sky falling on his head. His woes are worsened by constant henpecking by his social climbing wife Impedimenta, who is reminding his always of his more successful brother, Homeopathix.
The chief’s big chief- she is the rod that rules Vitalstatistix. He cowers under stern gaze an is constantly henpecked about his lack of ambition. She calls him ‘piggywiggy’ much ot his embarrassment. Impedimenta comes from Lutetia ( Modern Paris) where her more successful merchant bother Homeopathix lives. Chief vitalstyatix dislikes this oleaginous brother in law who digs at the formers small town status.
The village blacksmith who could forge metal with his bare hands. He is an expert at throwing his hammer and hates the fishmonger who has set up shop across from his forge. He is also a stern music critic and shuts up the village bard, Cacofonix, using any means ( usually gagging him and tying him to a tree!)
The fishmonger, who takes pride in his imported seafood all the way from lutetia. Is the ane of Fulliautomatix who bemoans the smell and warns others of these dubious fish. They both end up having fisticuffs and usually results in the whole village having a bust-up!
She is one of inner circle of the village ‘desperate housewives’! Wife of unhygienix, she helps him run his shop and has borne him two sons.
The village elder- over 90 years old and still full of vigor thanks to the lasting effects of the magic potion a good living. Gets a devoted young blonde wife who fawns over him and proves he has still ‘got it’.
He considers himself a genius and a masterly poet and lyricist. His lack of self awareness is stunning – for hsi albums are horrible and his singing vile. IT is so bad it can start thudnerstorns and cast fear in the enemis. The villagers loathe his singing . He also plays the lyre, the flute and the drums. He is the village teacher also. Ends up spending most of his singing career tied to a tree and gagged especially during the village banquets
Ambitious, proud and the dictator of the Vast Roman Empire, he is the main villain of the stories although he deploys various villainous henchmen to conquer the tiny village that is a constant thorn in his flesh. Despite the animosity he is a man of honour – whenever Asterix and Obelix end up helping him he always grants them their wishes and even helps rebuild the village. Asterix rescues Caesar’s son Caesarion in one episode much to the Emperor’s gratitude.
Queen Cleo seeks helps from the Guls to build a palace for Caesar’s visit. She has a lot of respect for Asterix and Obelix and even sends her son to them for protection, unbeknownst to them. She appears in Asterix and Cleopatra and several other tales.
The beautiful blonde Panacea is Obelix’ secret crush. She lives in Condatum and eventually marries a tall handsome hunk called Tragicomix much to Obelix heartbreak.
Red beard ( the captain) Erix ( his son) Pegleg ( the latin quoting crew member) and Baba the African pirate who mans the crow’s nest all form the rambunctious Pirates who always get scuttled by the Gauls at sea. They have lost ship after ship at every encounter and have become quite philosophical about it- sometimes even scuttling their own ship when they spot the Gauls to avoid any unnecessary battles!
The Roman Legionnaires
Getting posted around the Armorican village in one of the Roman camps is not desirable. Merely serving as stooges for the villagers frequent attacks these poor soldiers bemoan their plight. Which is usually not any better than that of the wild boar that live in the forest. They both get hunted!
Asterix Albums 17- 24
Cameos and Caricatures
The Humour of Asterix - Regional Humour
The authors provide plenty of humour and slapstick throughout the series and this is essentially sly French humour, making fun of other European nations in a good natured way. Be it the British, the Germans , The Spanish or Portuguese they are all spoofed by stereotyping their behaviour. Even the inhabitants of various regions of France are teased in a nudge,nudge, wink, wink fashion and never malicious.
The Goths ( Germans) are regimental, curt and militaristic ; The British are too polite, slightly pompous, boil all their meat ( with mint sauce) and drink hot water with a ‘drop’ of milk ( Asterix brings them the magic of tea leaves). They also drink their beer warm!
The Corsicans always angry and bear vendetta; The Normans with their blond pigtails are big and hulking; The Spanish proud and hot blooded ( Asterix single handedly invents Bull-fighting after a woman’s red cape falls onto the arena and he uses it to evade the bull).
For the more discerning readers there are classical references and literary allusions littered throughout. Most Roman legionnaires drop epithets at every instance, like ‘cogito ergo sum’ being used a password and Caesar telling Brutus ‘ et tu Brute’ when asking him to join him in applause in Asterix and the Gladiator. Obelix’ catch phrase ‘ These Romans are Crazy’ translates in Italian as ‘Sono Pazzi Questi Romani’ that abbreviates to the classic Roman Banner S.P.Q.R ( Senatus Populusque Romanus)!
There are classical paintings that are riffed in many albums such as Gericaults ‘The Raft of Medusa’ in and the Breugel’s ‘ Peasant Wedding’.
Cameos and Caricatures
Often major historical figures, other famous fictional characters and celebrities drop in unannounced in minor and major roles, much to the reader’s delight. Cleopatra is drawn like Elizabeth Taylor.
Winston Churchill turns up as an English chieftain ‘ Mykingdomforanos’ ( spoofing the Henry V line ‘ My kingdom for an horse’ in Asterix in Britain!, Kirk Douglas comes as a roman slave Spartakis in ; Laurel and Hardy appear in one book as Roman legionnaires; Don Quixote and Sancho Panza themselves turn up in Asterix in Spain. Two theatre Directors in Asterix and the Cauldron are Laurenceolivus and Alecguinius! In a memorable role of a Roman secret service agent Dubbleosix Sean Conney himself appears in Asterix and the Black Gold.
Other famous cameos include Belgian Actress Annie Cordy in Asterix in Belgium, Jacques Chirac as a corrupt roman Economist in Obelix and Co., Arnold Schwarzenegger as a superclone in Asterix and the falling sky, The Beatles in Asterix in Britain, Sigmund Freud as Psychoanalytix inAsterix and the Big Fight and veteran actor Charles Laughton as Roman Surplus Dairiprodus
Puns on names
The most delightful aspect of Asterix series is the pun on the names. Asterix himself is a double pun as the Asterisk represents a footnote ( perhaps of Roman history) and a ‘little star’ referring to the hero’s diminutive stature. Obelix is a giant of man much like the Obelisk. The crazy Roman names all end in –us giving rise to several punny possibilities such Crismus Bonus, Nefarius Purpus, Dubius Status and Noxius Vapus. British names all end in –ax giving rise to Hiphiphurrax, Valueaddedtax and Dipsomaniax. The German (goth) names end in –ic such as Choleric, Rhetoric and Metric.
Sample Character Names and Puns
Caesar ( Roman)
Crismus Bonus ( Roman)
Dubius Status ( Roman)
Edifis ( Egyptian)
Economikrisis ( Phoenician)
Olaf Timandahaf ( Viking)
Petitsuix ( Swiss)
Huevos y Bacon ( Spanish)
Tremendusdelirius ( Roman)
Cleopatra ( Egyptian)
Bonniewasawarriorawayayix ( Corsican)
Redbeard ( Pirate)