We celebrate the Fourth of July 2018 with a look at the time Asterix and Obelix visited our fine land, without ever knowing it. The Vikings followed hot on their heels, coincidentally, and also had no clue where they were.
Artist: Albert Uderzo
Translators: Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge
Published by: Orion (Hachette)
Number of Pages: 48
Original Publication: 1975
Original Title: “La Grande Traversée”
The Story of This Book
Supply lines for fresh fish from Paris are blocked, so Asterix and Obelix volunteer to go fishing to bring back some fresh fish.
Their boat hits some rough waves, gets lost in some fog, and winds up washing ashore in the New World. Only Asterix and Obelix don’t realize it. They assume they’re in some strange Roman stronghold — one with turkeys!
They run into some Native Americans there, are welcomed into their tribe, and can’t figure out for themselves who these crazy Romans are the entire time. How fast can they get home with some fish?
They get out with the help of the equally lost Vikings from Denmark, who bring the two Gauls back with them to prove they’ve been to the New World.
This is the story of the time Asterix and Obelix came to America and had no idea. It’s that profound lack of knowledge throughout the course of this book that provides all the laughs.
Nobody Understands Anybody
The real humor of this book comes from the culture clashes of people speaking different languages not being able to communicate with each other. It leads them to crazy conclusions, and ridiculously funny situations.
The best part of the book, for my money is near the end. Asterix and Obelix flag a ship down to come save them. The Vikings from Denmark want to “capture” Asterix and Obelix to bring them back to their home to prove they’ve discovered a new land.
Ultimately, both sides want the same thing — to get on the boat and go home. But they can’t communicate it. They wave their hands and talk slowly and simply, but nothing gets through.
Then their dogs talk and realize what’s going on, and they have a big laugh.
That’s still not enough. It’s the impending threat of the Native Americans coming for them that scares them all into the boat and away they go.
Bonus points: The lettering for the Danes includes the slash through the letter “O” and the dots above certain vowels to make it look more Scandinavian, even though all of the words are just the English spellings. Obelix even points this out in one panel.
The reason why this book succeeds is just the way Goscinny structures the story. It’s not the deepest or most philosophical story. It doesn’t have the most cultural references or the best characterization or the most wonderful scenic vistas, but it works from the way the three groups of people — the Danes, the Gauls, and the Native Americans — parallel each other in different ways.
It works from the structure of the story. This book is really closer to being three different books, and could easily be titled “Asterix Goes to America and Denmark.” It’s a survival tale at first, but the whole thing becomes the best kind of farce very quickly.
It’s almost like a Seinfeld episode, where everyone has their own story, but they all converge into one by the end somehow.
Details, All the Details
Now, it wasn’t just because the fishmonger, Unhygeinix, was doing bad business that Asterix and Obelix shipped off to sea. No, all of a sudden and for the first time in 22 volumes, fish is now an important ingredient for Getafix’s Magic Potion recipe. At one point in “Asterix the Gaul“, he mentions lobster being added for taste, but never has the Magic Potion recipe required any kind of fish.
This is the biggest cheat of the book. But, as we’ve said a million times before, so long as it leads to The Funny, who am I to complain?
One deep cut in the book is what Obelix, having been welcomed into the tribe, does a tribal dance and adds his own flourish:
Looks like he remembered his lessons from “Asterix in Spain“. Later in the book, the natives repeat “Ole” back to him along with their all-too-ubiquitous “How”s.
The Prerequisite Modern Sensitivities Section
I worried going into this book. It was published in 1975. We still used the term “Indians” back then, and the images we had came from television and movie westerns, usually of savages who cut off scalps and speak funny.
Here I am, in 2018, about to review a book that’s a ticking time bomb of cultural sensitivities. I expected lots of “Hows” and stilted dialogue and cliches that made the native looks really bad.
What we get is a relatively generic representation of Native Americans that hits just about every stereotype you could ask for and represents no single tribe. They sleep in teepees. They build totems. War paint decorates their faces and bodies. They climb through trees and hunt for local animals. They regard people from the new world with suspicion, but eventually try to marry off one of their daughters to Obelix.
And they do say “How” an awful lot. OK, I’ll give you that one.
But, overall, Goscinny and Uderzo treat the Native Americans no worse than they treat the Corsicans. Or the Germans. The Swiss. The Vikings. Or even the Italians. It’s a collection of traits and funny stylized looks. That’s all grist for the Asterix mill, and to suddenly cry foul when it hits closer to home would be to deny the very thing that makes this series so funny and memorable. It’s Goscinny picking at culture and referencing as many of their well-known things as possible.
He doesn’t treat the Native Americans negatively, like some lesser class of people who need to be conquered or who are inherently bad. In fact, they become quite friendly with Asterix and Obelix and welcome them into their tribe.
Goscinny even avoids the funny speech patterns entirely. The locals never even talk in front of Asterix and Obelix. It’s all gestures and pantomime. The argument against Goscinny here is that he’s portraying the Native Americans as being not developed enough yet to have a language, but that seems an assumption too far.
If anything, it feels like they’re smart enough to know the language barrier isn’t going to be fixed, so they don’t even bother trying to talk to them. This book is entirely from the Gauls’ point of view. We don’t see the natives except when the Gauls are around. When we do see them, it’s under a pretty limited scope — there’s a short dinner (with two lines of dialogue), there’s a celebration with dance, and there’s a hunt.
I also read somewhere that this characterization is racist because it portrays the Native Americans as a violent people. But that writer had no problem with the Vikings later in the book planning on killing Asterix and Obelix after dinner? Even better, the plan is to “sacrifice them to the gods.” The Vikings also threaten to chop their Gallic slave in half for telling the truth they don’t want to hear. Nope, nothing stereotypical or violent about that…
There is one criticism that says Goscinny portrays the Native Americans a a primitive war-like people because there’s an early panel where they’re watching Asterix and Obelix from the shadows. If anything, I’d give them credit for doing research on the new people before engaging with them.
If anything, the Native Americans in this book are one of the rare group of people smart enough to attack Asterix from afar and from behind to beat him. (They hit him over the head with a thrown weapon.) Everyone else tries, at best, to go at him with a sword or shield. They stand no chance against the magic potion in close quarters.
Goscinny and Uderzo’s portrayal of Native Americans in this book is far from nuanced or subtle. It trades in stereotypes, some harsher than others. If you’re reading this book with your kid, it’s worth having a conversation with them about it, but it won’t be as bad as the talk you have to have with them over the pirates or the African slaves in Egypt.
Most importantly, this is far from “Tintin in the Congo.”
Part of me wonders what “Oumpah-Pah” was like. I’ve never read it. It’s the series Uderzo and Goscinny set aside to focus on Asterix, starring a Native American man. Would that shed more light on their understanding of Native Americans in a positive or negative direction? I don’t know. Maybe that’s the research I need to do to better judge this situation…
I read a lot of “Is Asterix Racist?” articles, slide shows, and opinion pieces for this. It’s very possible that they’re all just weak bits of writing that do a poor job explaining why this book is bad. Some clearly don’t understand Asterix or humor at all. One even complained about anachronisms in the stories. Those are features, not bugs.
I’ll be listening in the comments, if anyone wants to make a better case.
Yes, Native Americans were there in 50 BC. In fact, they probably had been on the land for at least 10,0000 years already at that point.
Yes, some had dogs.
And, yes, some ate dogs. (In the context of this book, though, it’s more likely they’re serving hot dogs, a true American cuisine.)
Arranged marriages were not unheard of in Native American tribes.
They did use tomahawks a lot, for more than just weapons of war or hunt, though. In this book, a trade of spears/swords represents the welcoming of the Gauls into the tribe. They used their tomahawks for that purpose, too.
If you see a gag in this book and instantly think Goscinny or Uderzo was propagating horrid cliches and nonsense, I don’t think they were. They picked and chose their gags without worrying about balance. We see that in every book with every people.
Did the Art Get Better?
I had some issues with the art in the last volume. It looked different. It felt simpler in some ways. While still better than 95% of all comic books ever, it felt a little lighter than usual.
The question must be asked then: Is “Asterix and the Great Crossing” a return to Uderzo’s usual form?
I’m trying to figure out if I’ve become used to the lesser style of art, or if, yeah, it’s better. It does feel like characters are a little larger in the panels than they used to be, but I don’t see anything sticking out to me as being stylistic shortcuts or oversimplifications. There are a couple cases where an extreme closeup is so tight that the character’s head doesn’t fit inside the panel. And some random bits break panel borders for no decent reason. But those are both nit-picks.
Let’s put it this way: The art in this book is an improvement from the last one, and that’s the opposite of what I wrote about last week.
In fact, there are a lot of group scenes in this book that look well drawn and well staged. The groups of Native Americans that welcome Asterix and Obelix to their camp and run around with them are all shown on panel. Some silhouette shots of the background are included on purpose to draw your attention to the foreground during near-silent scenes.
I can’t complain. I probably wouldn’t even be mentioning anything here if it hadn’t been for that last book. Uderzo’s back to form in “Asterix and the Great Crossing,” and that’s a good thing.
Having said all that, I do have to recognize two things in this book that are the ultimately “cheats,” but that make sense in the context of the book.
The first is that Goscinny/Uderzo have a couple pages in this book of blank panels. All of the action takes place under heavy fog where visibility is zero. All the panels are white with word balloons popping out.
In other words, Uderzo beat John Byrne to that “Snowblind” issue of “Alpha Flight” by a decade. I wonder if Uderzo was any inspiration for Byrne…
There’s another page that takes place at night that’s all black panels. Again, it’s used as part of the joke that they can’t see anything, so it’s not completely cheating. It’s definitely a deadline helper, though.
The second “cheat” is that one entire page-long gag gets repeated. Asterix and Obelix attempt to explain who they are to the Native Americans through pantomime. Later, those exact panels are reprinted, sans the word balloons, for when they explain themselves to the Danes. It’s funny to see it all over again, so it worked for me.
Random Facts Gleaned from the Web
From the Wikipedia entry for this book:
In the original French version, on page 32, Obelix claims he learned a thing or two while he was at the prairie and uses the word “yep!”. This is a reference to westerns, and incidentally to Franco-Belgian comics series Lucky Luke, also written by René Goscinny at the time, set in the American Old West, and whose titular character frequently used the expression.
Instead, we get a “home of the range” gag, which is still funny. It’s no Lucky Luke reference, though.
TV Tropes points this out:
In the Icelandic translation of this album, rather than merely being an expy of him, Herendethelessen is Leif Eiriksson while Odiuscomparissen is his father, Eirik the Red. The other viking crew members are also given the names of notable Norse/Viking figures…
That translation also seems to move events from Denmark to Iceland, a land unsettled by any people at that time. But, hey, it’s their translation. Let them have their fun with it, too. We never worry about anachronisms in Asterix. Rather, that’s a feature of Asterix.
OpenScroll.org references a new set of names and dialogue bits under a second “American adaptation.” My copy doesn’t have all of those, so I must have the English translation. The American one adds a bunch of references to make it obvious that the island this book is set on is Manhattan.
Best Name in the Book
The Vikings from Denmark get all the best names in this book. They’re all great. Two stand out.
First is Herendethelessen, who leads the ships into the foggy waters and winds up in the New World. He wins this book for me.
A close second is that character’s boss, Odiuscomparissen.
Yes. Maybe because I’m publishing this on July 4th and having Asterix arrive on America today seems to make everything right in the world. But the book is better drawn than the last one. The gags are as good as ever, and I like the way Goscinny and Uderzo incorporated everything from the 50 stars in the flag to the Statue of Liberty.
There’s nothing mean-spirited in this book. If you did this book today, I’m sure all the “natives” (meaning modern Americans) would be overweight and loud-mouthed or something. (I’m sorry for our tourists, France. I wish I could do something about them because it’s ruining it for me, too.)
The book plays things for laughs and doesn’t go in for sociopolitical commentary. This really is mostly a book about a clash of three cultures and the language barriers that separate them. There’s no good chance for Goscinny to fit in any messages about imperialistic American culture running roughshod over Gaul or anything like that. Heck, they only spend about half of the book in America, anyway.
There’s a ton more in the book than I’ve mentioned in this review, like the now universal hand gesture for “These [name of people here] are crazy!” Please fill in the blanks with your favorite bits in the comments below.
— 2018.063 —
Goscinny takes on the advertising and marketing industries as Obelix becomes a big shot in the highly competitive and lucrative world of menhirs. Also, he wears really loud striped pants.
“Obelix and Co” is next, and it’s a fun, wild ride!