The Observer

Asterix and the French

How can a cartoon character help us decipher a nation? The latest album in the series is an opportunity to reexamine le phénomème Astérix and see how it holds up a mirror to France and the French.
© Hachette Livres/Goscinny-Uderzo

Last year’s cultural highlights in France ran the gamut from a blockbuster Picasso exhibition to a musical about Al Capone. But the most popular event was surely the publication of yet another installment in the adventures of Asterix, the comic-book character who has become a global phenomenon. Regular readers of this column – and just about anyone interested in France – will be familiar with the feisty first-century B.C.E. Gaul and his portly sidekick, Obelix, who make life miserable for the Roman legions occupying their homeland. Dreamed up in 1959 by writer René Goscinny and illustrator Albert Uderzo, the books have become a runaway success over the past six decades. They are a monument of French popular culture and, arguably, a mirror to the foibles, quirks, and strengths of a diverse and often inward-looking nation. Each new volume, published biennially, is avidly dissected and its entrails are read in order to divine the social and political mood of the moment. It’s almost as if the books’ original purpose – to entertain – has become less important than what they say about contemporary France.

Take the latest adventure, L’Iris blanc, published in the U.S. as Asterix and the White Iris. Though set, as always, two millennia ago during the Gallic Wars, the theme is very 21st-century. An alternative title might be The Gauls Go New Age, because the book satirizes wellness culture, mindfulness gurus, lifestyle fads, and other Me Me Me Generation self-indulgences. It also takes a sideswipe at big-city life and the townies who just adoooore the “authenticity” of the provinces. Illustrated by Didier Conrad, who took over from Uderzo in 2013, The White Iris has a new author, Fabrice Caro, aka Fabcaro, well-known to French comic-book readers for his blend of absurdist humor and social commentary. Briefly, the story centers on yet another failed attempt to tame the pesky Gauls, not by deploying military might but by smothering them with fuzzy feel-goodness. This time, the “villain” is Julius Caesar’s sycophantic head physician Viceversus, whom the book’s translator, Joe Johnson, describes as a platitude-spouting, self-help guru wanting to assimilate the indomitable Gauls of Asterix’s village rather than conquering them by force. As always, much of the fun lies in the parodies and references to contemporary French life, from the characters (Viceversus is a mash-up of two well-known intellectuals) and institutions (the national rail company SNCF gets its comeuppance) to art-world luminaries (Banksy, Warhol, and Malevich are parodied) and popular music. And faithful to René Goscinny’s love of wordplay, Fabcaro comes up with some delightful puns and outrageous misquotes from the likes of Shakespeare, Baudelaire, and, predictably, Emmanuel Macron.

Published simultaneously in 20 languages and a five million-plus print run, The White Iris has been hailed by critics and readers as a return to the verve and wit of the earlier, classic albums. It sold more than one million copies in France in its first month and topped the best seller lists in the runup to the 2023 holiday season. It is easy to see how the Asterix franchise, which includes movies, merchandising, and a theme park near Paris, has become a phenomenon. In all, the 40-volume collection has sold 385 million copies worldwide in 111 languages and dialects, making it the world’s most translated comic book series. That’s a remarkable achievement for a fictional universe which is quintessentially French and was originally intended to combat the dominance of American comics in France in the 1950s and 1960s.

And yet a closer look at what Goscinny called le phénomène Astérix reveals a more universal and – dare we say – serious side. To begin with, that “quintessentially French” tag is not totally accurate. The series’ progenitors considered themselves outsiders: Albert Uderzo was the son of Italian immigrants, while René Goscinny, born to Polish Jewish immigrant parents, grew up in Argentina and worked in the United States before returning to France. Both men were influenced by American comics: Uderzo was a great admirer of Walt Disney’s artwork and Floyd “Mickey Mouse” Gottfredson, while Goscinny worked in New York City with the team behind Mad magazine. (Ironic, then, that the U.S. is one of the few countries where the Asterix books have so far failed to make a mark.) Some observers have suggested that it is precisely because of their “foreignness” that Goscinny and Uderzo were able to create the Asterix myth, allowing French readers to see themselves in a flattering light as a nation of squabbling, irascible individualists who nevertheless unite to repel anyone seeking to dominate or enslave them. That same myth has prompted the theory – and, sometimes the criticism – that the authors were seeking to reframe the Nazi occupation of France in World War II, with the Romans as the thuggish, stupid invaders and the Gauls as the plucky and ultimately victorious freedom fighters – an interpretation that the philosopher Michel Serres called “a cartoon of revenge and resentment.” Needless to say, Goscinny and Uderzo dismissed that and many other interpretations of their work. They always said their aim was “to have a good laugh, and make others laugh too.”

© Hachette Livres/Goscinny-Uderzo

One vital aspect of the Asterix saga is its multi-layered approach, adopted at a time when comic books were considered fit only for teenagers. According to Céleste Surugue, CEO of the series’ publisher, Editions Albert René, the authors had greater ambitions: They wanted “to stop considering kids as naive minds, and treat them as adults. They drew and wrote complex stories with multiple layers of meanings, including elements of slapstick, and irreverent humor rich in puns and caricatures.” The books promoted values such as friendship, freedom, and environmentalism. More importantly, says Surugue, they created “a fairytale world to mock modern society.”

It is true that the Asterix books function on several levels. They can be read by children, who laugh at the slapstick and horseplay, but also by adults, who appreciate the verbal dexterity and literary references. And like all classics, each re-reading offers a sense of discovery and deeper insights into the subtext of the books. One recurring theme is resistance, a deeply sensitive issue in a country that lived through Nazi occupation and still sees itself as a hold-out against Atlanticism. That sentiment is a regular leitmotif, especially in Asterix and the Big Fight (1964), where the village chieftain duels with his counterpart in a nearby settlement that has capitulated to the Romans by adopting their dress and customs (think “We French will never surrender”). One big advantage of fiction is that it can rewrite history, particularly when real-life events are painful. In 52 B.C.E., the king of the Gauls, Vercingetorix, surrendered to Julius Caesar at Alesia and laid down his arms at the Roman’s feet. Despite that humiliating defeat, he became France’s first patriotic hero, not a vanquished chieftain but a triumphant résistant. Thus, in Asterix and the Chieftain’s Shield (1968), a resplendent Vercingetorix hurls his weapons defiantly, and painfully, at his captor. (In reality, he had to kneel at Caesar’s feet.) And in Asterix in Britain (1965), it’s the plucky Gauls who come to the rescue of the Britons, reversing the events of World War II. (Cheekily, they also brought tea to those benighted Brits who, until then, had drunk plain old hot water at five o’clock.)

Another of the books’ key themes is the identity of France. In Asterix and the Banquet (1963), for example, Asterix and Obelix break out of their Roman- besieged village and travel the country to collect culinary specialties from different regions as proof of their escapade. In doing so, they are also underscoring the importance of regionalism in a modern-day France renowned for centralization, while also vaunting the variety of the country’s cuisine. (That romantic image of an idyllic French lifestyle, much admired – if not invented – by outsiders, is captured in the old German expression “To live like God in France.”)

The renegade aspect of French identity, notably its uneasy relationship with so-called Anglo-Saxon economic liberalism (“The French have no word for entrepreneur,” said one U.S. president), is neatly framed in Obelix and Co. (1976). A hotshot business-school graduate tries to vanquish the Gauls from within by introducing them to naked capitalism and the laws of supply and demand. Of course, he fails, because the barter system by which his intended victims live and thrive is based on caring and sharing. (An adapted version of the book is used today to introduce French high-schoolers to the economic laws governing state intervention and mono-product economies.)

And so it goes on, book by book. The team that replaced the Goscinny-Uderzo tandem, Jean-Yves Ferri (and now Fabcaro) for the script and Didier Conrad for the illustrations, have continued to tackle serious issues, such as feminism and the role of women (Asterix and the Griffin), censorship and fake news (Asterix and the Missing Scroll), and the politics of distraction and sport (Asterix and the Chariot Race, which also featured a charioteer called Coronavirus…). These latest albums have carefully avoided the caricatures, both racial and gender-based, that might have been considered less obnoxious (or, at least, more common) back in the 1960s and 1970s, but that have led to accusations of insensitivity, prejudice, and misogyny.

In the end, of course, the Asterix books are neither sociological analysis nor political exegesis. They are, first and foremost, clever and entertaining comics that appeal in separate ways to different audiences, while still allowing for ironic social commentary. And, despite their international success, they are very French. That is why the authors’ choice of historical period – the Gallic Wars – is canny. As the American cultural critic Russel B. Nye observed, the average French person feels kinship with the Gauls – the equivalent of the American frontiersmen – because their personal qualities form the basis of the French character and their deeds provide a national folklore. They absorbed their conquerors and created their own unique, individualistic culture.

The question on everyone’s mind now is where Asterix’s next escapades will take him and his companions. What we do know for sure, though, is that the indomitable Gauls will continue to hold out against the invaders, the sky won’t fall on their heads – and their adventures will continue to sell in the millions.

Asterix and the White Iris by Fabcaro and Didier Conrad, translated from French by Joe Johnson, PaperCutz, 2023.

Article published in the January 2024 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.