The Romans sneak a spy into Asterix’s village to find out why they always kick the Romans’ butts. Hilarity ensues.
This is the beginning of one of the most classic and popular comic book series of all time, and it’s a very good start.
(If you want some more background on the series and its characters, check out “The Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Asterix” before reading on…)
Credits, By Toutatis!
Artist: Albert Uderzo
Lettering: Bryony Newhouse
Translator: Anthea Bell, Derek Hockridge
Published by: Orion Books (a division of Hachette)
Number of Pages: 48
Original Publication: 1961
The back cover copy sets the stage perfectly, so I’ll just steal it:
“The year is 50 B.C. and all Gaul is occupied. Only one small village of indomitable Gauls still holds out against the invaders. But how much longer can Asterix, Obelix, and their friends resist the mighty Roman legions of Julius Caesar? Anything is possible, with a little cunning plus the druid Getafix’s potions!”
The Pilot Episode
“Asterix the Gaul” is, in many ways, the perfect pilot episode.
It is NOT an origin story. Everything about the world of Asterix is already set up before the reader hits page one.
First, here are your heroes introduced on the first page, by name:
Obelix is the big guy who carries large menhirs (big rocks) around a lot. Asterix is the little guy who’s very wiley, and smiles much more than you see in this panel.
Asterix also wears a hat with wings that puts Captain America’s old head gear to shame.
In the story, you’ll get explanations for the current set-up, but you’re not getting a drawn-out tale of “normal people” wandering into “super things” to kick things off. Asterix isn’t “The Chosen One” discovering his fate. Everything is already there. It’s normalized. With very little explanation and exposition, you’re up and running in day to day life.
The conflict is very simple: Asterix’s village is well known by the Romans for fighting back and winning every time. The rank and file of Roman soldiers don’t want to bother them anymore, but their fearless leaders and Julius Caesar don’t often see things that way. Leadership finds it frustrating that this one village remains outside of their grasp. They want it under their control. They will stop at nothing to conquer them.
On Asterix’s side, they eagerly await the Romans, because it brings them joy to beat their enemies up.
From those simple seeds comes the glory of “Asterix,” a humorous book about a group of rebels living their day to day lives and having fantastic adventures, often at the expense of the Romans who control most of Europe.
The Secret Sauce
But how does this small ragtag group of people continue to hold out against their much better armored enemies?
Made by the resident Druid Getafix, the potion, when drunk, allows a person to have super strength for a short time. It’s just enough to beat up any number of Roman soldiers and escape unharmed. Asterix usually carries a flask on his belt filled with the stuff.
Obelix, we find out early on, doesn’t need it.
The closest we get to an origin story is the way Obelix’s backstory is laid out in this (second) panel: he was dropped into the magic potion as a baby, and that’s why he’s always strong and doesn’t need to drink it. In fact, he can’t drink it, for reasons that aren’t exactly specified. (He’d Hulk out?)
The Sin City-esque lighting in the panels above, by the way, is not the norm. Uderzo is experimenting here, given the strong light source of the fire just behind the characters. He doesn’t often do silhouetted figures with rim lighting like that.
In today’s day and age, there’d be snarky comments about how Getafix is a drug dealer and Asterix is an addict. We’d be dealing with storylines like we had in “Captain America” once, where Steve Rogers rejected the Super Soldier serum because it was too much like using drugs to get strong.
Thank goodness Asterix lives in a simpler times where we can still have fun…
I will, however, point out that Getafix is a Bus Factor of 1.
Asterix the Gaul Is Likeable
Perhaps the smartest thing Goscinny did in this first book is to make the title character completely likable, if not lovable. He has a bit of Groucho Marx in him. He’s cunning, playful, and always having a fun time. He’s the little guy who can beat Goliath just as easily with his mind as his right hook, though the punch is usually more fun.
When he’s “captured” by the Romans in this book, he doesn’t seek an immediate way out. He looks for ways to have fun with them. He teases them mercilessly. It doesn’t come across as overconfidence, either. When things spin out of control, he’s the first to notice it and to scramble to make them right again.
He reminds me of Bugs Bunny.
Goscinny’s script for this volume works for several reasons. First, there is some danger in the book. When the Roman spy first enters his village, Asterix and most of the village are quick to welcome him and make him one of their own. When the spy presses for information beyond what he really needs to know, the desire to be nice and share gives the village’s secret away. But the Romans still don’t know how to make the magic potion, and that drives the second half of the book.
When Asterix takes the fight back to the Romans, Goscinny’s script leaves enough out to keep the reader curious as to what the plans are. Then, the joy of the book is in how far Goscinny drags the comedy out. At every step of the way, he milks more comedy gold out of what would be a relatively simple plot. Uderzo delivers those scenes with the perfect acting on every page, too. It’s never boring to look at a page of “Asterix” art. Never.
This Asterix is a character I want to read more stories about. He’s friendly, can protect you and yours, has confidence, and is a quick wit. What’s not to like?
The Roman rank and file fear him so much, they run away when he tries to surrender:
The surprising thing about this book, for me, is that it’s a story starring Asterix and the Druid Getafix more than the Asterix and Obelix combination we come to expect as the series goes on. Obelix has very little to do in this book. In the first half of the book, about all he does is hang out with Asterix and walk near him. That’s all there is. We learn that he delivers menhirs by hand and that he likes to eat boar.
For as well put together and figured out as this book was at the very start, Goscinny still had some things to work out. Getting Obelix in there more was one of them. It’s a quick correction, as you’ll see in future albums.
The Early Art of Uderzo
Asterix and friends look in this book like more human versions of the characters we’ve known and loved for the last 50 years. The shapes and the forms of Asterix, Obelix, Getafix, etc. debuted in this book looking like costume drama versions of themselves.
It’s most evident in Obelix, who looks like someone Andre the Giant might have played. He’s slightly hunched over, with long arms and otherwise human proportions. It’s only a slight difference from his final form, but compare the two and you’ll see where Uderzo continues to push those shapes into the recognizable forms we have today.
Otherwise, there’s nothing to complain about in this book. It’s stellar work. Four tiers of panels happen on every page, with backgrounds in every panel, and characters who act and gesture broadly on every panel. These people are all active and alive. They’re never boring to look at.
Uderzo’s comedic timing is superb. He knows how to break a funny moment down into the right number of panels to sell the gag. He can sell the story as a whole, too. And he’s great at all the little things along the way, too, from background details to clothing designs to prop designs. Everything that sells this little village works well. Uderzo draws it all. The body of work contained in the first 24 volumes, alone, is unmatched in the history of humorous comics. Nobody packs it in with more purpose than Uderzo.
Best Names of the Book
One of the great joys of Asterix is the naming conventions. Everyone’s name ends in “-ix”, basically, and they’re all puns. In Rome, the names tend to end is “-us”, like the great Caesar, Julius.
Asterix is so named after the star character — the asterisk — because he’s the star of the book. (Just don’t confuse the many things that sound like “Asterix.”)
Obelix is named after an obelisk, which his body shape resembles, as well as the menhirs he’s always carrying around. As a special bonus, the “obelus” is a cross character that’s used to mark a footnote, for example, and is often seen next to or near an asterisk, which is used for the same reason. Clever, eh?
We’ll get to the rest of the village as time goes on, but one character in this book deserves a special call out. That’s the blacksmith, Fulliautomatix, who does all the metal working with his bare hands:
The second best name in the book is the Roman centurion behind this whole madcap spy adventure:
His name is Crismus Bonus. It’s OK to groan. It’s Asterix. I think it’s encouraged. I know that I love every minute of it.
Either way, you can start to see what fun these names can be. And we’re only just getting started. The lunacy shines brighter as the books go on…
Things That Will Change
As with many “pilot episodes”, some details change over time, not just in this book, but also in the course of the series.
Getafix cleaned up well after this book, where he lived in a cave. In later iterations, he was more the wise man living in the village, with less tired eyes.
Julius Caesar has a completely different look in this book, alone, between page one and his appearance close to the end of the book. Remember, this series started out as a serial. It ran for something like 38 weeks, one or two pages at a time. While lots of things stuck from the first go-around, there’s a certain amount of “making it up as you go along” here, too.
Fullliautomatix, for example, has aged particularly well, changing from a doughy Dad bod into a barrel-chested, pony-tail sporting tough guy with some extra hair on his chest:
There’s no better example of this than the cover. At some point, Uderzo — or someone in his studio — redrew it to put it in a more “modern” style. There’s no year written on the updated cover, but I’d bet its from the 1990s, at the earliest.
To sum it up in an internet meme:
Yes! It’s “Asterix,” so of course. It’s the perfect first book to read in the series, as far as the wit and the storyline. Everything you need to know is right there, and it’s funny.
The art is still evolving, and Uderzo wouldn’t get to something closer to the final designs for a couple albums yet. If you’ve never read Asterix before, though, you wouldn’t see that. It wouldn’t bother you. You could enjoy watching the series get better and better looking for a few volumes.
I’d be jealous of you.
Buy It Now
In 2019, Papercutz started publishing the series in English in North America for the first time in decades. They include three albums per book. “Asterix the Gaul” is, natually, included in the first collection:
“Asterix And the Golden Sickle” sends Asterix and Obelix out to the big city of Lutetia to get a new sickle for Getafix. Along the way, they come up against wolves, bandits, organized crime, and a corrupt ruling Roman force!
And, yes, Asterix and Obelix enjoy a good boar.
— 2018.003 —