Asterix v1 Asterix the Gaul cover by Abert Uderzo

Asterix v1: “Asterix the Gaul”

Writer: Rene Goscinny
Artist: Albert Uderzo
Colorist: None Credited, possibly Marcel 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 Romans sneak a spy into Asterix’s village to find out why they always kick the Romans’ butts.  Hilarity ensues.

The Set-Up

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 and Asterix make their debut in Asterix v1

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?

Magic potion!

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.

Getafix tells us the secret origins of Obelix

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.

Sigh

Thank goodness Asterix lives in a simpler times where we can still have fun…

 

Asterix 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.

 

In "Asterix the Gaul", a Roman spy guilt trips Asterix and Obelix into some Magic Potion

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.

The Roman spy brings his stomach back to the Romans, complete with Magic Potion already in it

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:

Asterix tries to surrender, but the Romans run away anyway

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 16 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.

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:

 

Fulliautomatix makes weapons for Asterix's village

 

The second best name in the book is the Roman centurion behind this whole madcap spy adventure:

The Roman Centurion, Crismus Bonus

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.

In the 1967 animated movie based on this book, his name is changed to Phonus Balonus.  I’m guessing it wasn’t a Christmas movie.

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.

The Druid Getafix from volume 1 versus a later book. The difference is stark.

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:

fulliautomatix from the first book to much later

 

Recommended?

Asterix Project v1: Asterix the Gaul

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

I’m going to have to retire this section for these Asterix reviews.  There is no digital version of Asterix in English available on Izneo or Comixology. Izneo has the French editions, at least, but that’s out of scope for this website.  The link to Amazon still works, though.  You can buy this single volume in either hardcover or softcover here:

Buy this book on Amazon

They’ve also released Omnibus editions of the series. Each volume contains three books in order.  So Omnibus v1 here will give you “Asterix the Gaul” plus the next two books:

 

Next Week

Asterix and Obelix enjoy their favorite food, boar

“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 —

16 Comments

  • JC Lebourdais January 15, 2018 at 11:34 am

    True classic here.
    There were a few great series before this one, but 1959 is the beginning of the Silver Age of French BD.
    The only thing I don’t like much about these books is that when Uderzo switched publishers after Goscinny’s death and went from Dargaud to Hachette, he had the early albums recolored; the consequence being the flashy computerized tones we can see in some of the panels you reproduce here. Before that, the original colors were flatter (more sepia-like if you will) and a few of of the panels were mostly monochrome, I guess because they were produced as part of the weekly PILOTE output.

    You can find some examples of that here:
    http://www.asterix.com/la-collection/la-grande-collection/etapes-restauration.html
    and here:
    http://www.dinosoria.com/tragedie/bd_asterix.jpg

    These early books are what set the gold standard of graphic storytelling for us and moved the general perception from “kid stuff” to “worthy of philosopher’s essays”.
    This is why I always liked Asterix more than Tintin, his direct competitor, which I found a bit bland by comparison. Truth is, Belgians are nicer people than we are 😉 Reading this as kids made us smarter and gave us a craving for higher literature (real books with no pictures) but we never forget where we come from.

    Reply
    • dancondonjones January 16, 2018 at 8:10 am

      I’m guessing this was your comment which went missing – which is about exactly the same topic as mine which also went missing (and I’ve just rewrittten and reposted)

      Reply
    • Augie January 16, 2018 at 2:48 pm

      Thanks for the link to the Asterix.com page that explains the upgrades. They really did spend the time and money to do it as well as you could. Too many American comics have been reprinted recently with awful restorations. The linework is often the first part to go. So much of the original film for those books has been lost, though, so they can only do so much.

      I’ve never been able to get into Tintin. I need to try again, but it just bores me every time.

      That page you showed there isn’t bad, as far as the coloring goes. With the ability to look back on it, take a little more time, and keep things more consistent, it’s easily fixed. The gradients in the colors are a mixed bag. I don’t mind them so much until they start off too dark or they get used everywhere, whether it makes sense or not…

      Reply
  • Dan Condon-Jones January 15, 2018 at 1:26 pm

    I love this book. As you said, Uderzo had some work to do, but Goscinny really hit the ground running. Asterix and Getafix playing with the Romans is a delight to read.

    Reply
    • Augie January 16, 2018 at 2:43 pm

      I just giggled the whole way through with Asterix knowing he holds all the cards. The best part, though, is Getafix making soup…

      Reply
      • dancondonjones January 16, 2018 at 6:04 pm

        it’s the strawberries that gets me.

        Reply
  • JC LEBOURDAIS January 16, 2018 at 12:25 am

    something wrong with my comment that didn’t make it past moderation?

    Reply
    • dancondonjones January 16, 2018 at 2:18 am

      I’ve had a comment go missing as well. Not sure why.

      Reply
      • Augie January 16, 2018 at 9:02 am

        Hey Dan — Sorry about that. I don’t see your comment in moderation, either. I’m not sure what happened in that case, but I’m glad you re-posted…

        Reply
        • dancondonjones January 16, 2018 at 9:10 am

          No problem. It slightly amuses me that both posts were about the same subject – and that the unblocked one and my replacement both eventually appeared within seconds of each other.

          Reply
    • Augie January 16, 2018 at 8:09 am

      I think the moderation flagged it for including two URLs. It allows one URL, but gets immediately suspicious at two. I approved it. =)

      Reply
      • JC LEBOURDAIS January 17, 2018 at 11:28 am

        Thanks, I’ll keep that in mind

        Reply
  • dancondonjones January 16, 2018 at 8:04 am

    My second comment went missing so I’ll try again…

    Your copy has updated colouring and lettering that mine doesn’t have. On my copy all of the colours are flat and they’re at times quite gaudy and don’t meet the lines properly. By comparison to the new colours, they’re quite primitive – but the new ones are a kind of historical snapshot, so I don’t really know which I’d prefer. One thing I don’t like in the updated colouring is that they’ve coloured Crismus Bonus as if he’s wearing armour, when looking at the lines it’s clearly just cloth. He’s all in white in the original colours. I’m guessing that in your copy, Cacofonix doesn’t have light blue hair either.

    Lettering wise, mine is all hand-lettered, and doesn’t have the lower case i’s that they’ve started with the more recent volumes. It’s also quite sloppy with the text blocks apparently randomly placed within the balloons, rather than nicely centred.

    I just found a link which compares versions: http://whiggles.landofwhimsy.com/archives/2006/12/the_many_faces_of_asterix_the.html

    The lettering on that German edition is a crime.

    Reply
    • Augie January 16, 2018 at 2:41 pm

      Yes, that German 1991 edition is not so great. I have to admit that I generally like the idea of modern recoloring, to a degree. It can be overdone, so they have to be careful, but a lot of the flat coloring is just plain ugly to modern eyes. If you want to get new readers into the book, you’re going to fail with a lot of 1960s newsprint coloring. You probably shouldn’t do the full modelled/sculpted 3D coloring techniques, though it would be interesting to see somebody try that for a page just for kicks.

      And, yes, my library is made up of the 2004 Orion editions. Though I have to admit that what I’ve seen of the more recent editions looks really good. There are a lot of bad-looking pages in the 2004 editions, most of which I’ve just chalked up to being from 50 year old elements. Off-register, bad linework, etc. is often the fault of what the state of the art was in the 1960s as opposed to today. It’s reality and I can deal with it.

      I’m just glad they didn’t scan in the original art and tweak a setting or add a filter and call it a day. Looks like they did some serious work to get it looking good. You can do that with books that sell like Asterix does…

      Oh, and I’m not a huge fan of the lettering, though I’ve gotten used to it so I can’t complain anymore. (The lowercase “i” thing is just weird. I’d rather have something closer to hand-written.)

      And, yes, Cacofonix has yellow hair in my edition.

      I need to do an article on comic book recoloring now. Just one more thing to add to the pile. 😉

      Reply
      • dancondonjones January 16, 2018 at 6:15 pm

        Yeah, I think they were right to recolour it. These are intended for kids (much as adults can enjoy them), and the updated colouring is much more accessible. The fuss over the Miracleman recolouring was really silly, considering it was originally black and white, so even the first time it was coloured wasn’t authentic.

        That said, a part of me is glad I’ve got the old colouring.

        As for the lettering, the i is a bit odd, but it’s competently done and it has character, so I can forgive that.

        Reply
        • JC LEBOURDAIS January 17, 2018 at 11:38 am

          I agree with both points. Recoloring for modern audiences makes sense but I like to old colors better on all those old series, chalk it up to nostalgia maybe, but the original colors are part of the charm. Sadly, tracking the first printing for those early albums is getting out of my budget.

          Reply

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