Published in 1997, Peter Kessler’s “The Complete Guide to Asterix” is like a modern Asterix fan website, but in print. It makes for a great resource that I wish I had at the beginning of the Asterix Agenda.
Running 105 pages long, there’s a four page color section just past the halfway mark, but is otherwise completely black and white.
It includes interviews with Albert Uderzo, historical explanations, plenty of sidebars, and a complete overview of the first 29 volumes that were done at the time.
While it’s not going to give you a complete, detailed cultural reference guide the way the Open Scroll site will, this will give you a well-rounded understanding of the books in the series and a good look behind the scenes at the making of it.
Let’s break down just what is in this book.
The History of Asterix
The opening section covers how Goscinny and Uderzo got into comics, eventually met, and became comic partners. If you’ve read up on this story before (though likely you haven’t), you won’t see too much new here.
It’s laid out well, though, if you didn’t know it already. There’s some nice illustrations to go along with the narrative. You can go into deeper detail on individual sections through the write-ups on Lambiek or Wikipedia, if you’re curious for more information. This book gives you plenty, though.
That’s the thing with most of this book. Much of the information in it is available on websites these days, but it’s nice to have it packaged together and laid out in clear ways in this book. It’s not an assembly of bullet points, but a story Kessler is telling.
The Ages of Asterix
In this section, Kessler breaks down all of the books. Kessler’s quick takes on each book provide a two sentence plot summary and then most of a page of commentary. That part is opinionated, fair, and well-reasoned. He doesn’t say anything too inflammatory, but he’s also not afraid to call a book weak. I don’t always agree with him, but I respect his opinions.
For example, this is his breakdown of the seventh book, “Asterix and The Big Fight”. Click through to see it at full size.
Kessler breaks down the first 29 books. The last is “Asterix and the Secret Weapon,” published in 1991. Though Kessler’s book came out in 1997, Uderzo didn’t have “Asterix and Obelix All At Sea” done until 1996, by which point it would have been too late to squeeze it in.
He divides the series into five phases. That’s a difficult task to attempt, but I think he explains his reasons well. They’re mostly art-based, going through the different phases of production and how Uderzo’s art shifted over the years, multiple times. Being able to interview Uderzo for the book helped inform that.
Let’s run through the phases briefly here to give you an idea of how he thought this process through:
Phase One: 1959-1964, “The Rough-Hewn Menhir”
Covering the first four books, Kessler describes this as Goscinny and Uderzo’s training ground. The character designs were still a very rough work in progress. The stories had all the elements but Goscinny was still working on balancing them.
Phase Two: 1965-1967, “The Burnished Cauldron”
Kessler calls this the Golden Age of the book, encompassing volumes 5 (“Asterix and the Banquet“) – 10 (“Asterix the Legionary“). It’s not that it’s the best books of the series, he argues, but that Uderzo settles into his designs for the characters. They’ve emerged from the earlier rougher figures into their true forms.
Phase Three: 1967-1972, “The Teeming Village”
This is when Uderzo devotes all his working hours to Asterix, and the supporting cast of characters start to get their moments in the spotlight, as well. It includes books 11 (“Asterix and the Chieftain’s Shield“) through 17 (“The Mansions of the Gods“).
Phase Four: 1972-1979: “Characteristix and Sophistix”
With Marcel Uderzo leaving the series as its inker, Uderzo is drawing the book entirely by himself now, and Kessler argues that the art is inarguably looser/sketchier and more lifelike. At the same time, Goscinny started writing books with more serious real world implications like alcoholism, politics, etc.
This takes us up through “Asterix in Belgium.”
Phase Five: 1980-1991: “The Real and the Cartoon”
This is the most obvious split. With Goscinny gone, Uderzo eventually agrees to continue the series by himself. His art and stories become more cartoonish, in many ways, and the stories start to bring in more fantastical elements.
This period carries the series through to volume 29. I would guess Kessler would include the rest of Uderzo’s run in this phase, though the inclusion of two books that included old scraps (“Asterix and the Class Act”) and no coherent story (“Asterix and Obelix’s Birthday”) might be troublesome.
Also, I’m convinced Uderzo’s studio drew a lot more of those last few volumes than anyone’s ever let on, so maybe that deserves one final phase for Uderzo’s run. I’d argue that volumes 30 – 34 would be some kind of “Miscellaneous Asterix” phase.
The Translation Explanation
This book is the single best resource I’ve ever seen for explaining how Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge handled translating Asterix. It runs for ten whole pages.
It’s not fair to evenly split the jobs they did, because they so often worked together and took on each other’s roles, but the gist of it is this:
Hockridge came in as the professor with experience in French culture. He could help explain the jokes and provide the social angle on them.
With that information, Anthea Bell, the wunderkind of words, could take over. She was fluent in multiple languages and knew how to push words around. She could rename characters in ways that even would impress Rene Goscinny.
The pair had a set of rules for translating the series. Here’s the short guide for it:
1. Maintain the feel of the original.
2. Translations must follow the spirit rather than the letter of the original.
3. The translation must match Uderzo’s art.
4. The translation must technically be about the same length as the original so as to fit into the original balloons properly.
5. The translation must have the same mix of joke types as the original: puns, physical, historical, personal, etc.
6. The translation must have the same number of jokes. If you lose a joke in one place, you must add it in another.
There are wonderful examples given in the book, as well as a couple of stories from Bell about her work with Goscinny and how he reacted (memorably and positively) to some of her changes.
Odds and Sods
The rest of the book is a grab bag of bonus features and sidebars. Drawn from conversations with Uderzo, himself, or by dipping into the history books, Kessler writes segments about Uderzo’s love of drawing chickens, why Uderzo draws characters with big noses, the process of making an album, and the ingredients of the Magic Potion.
It explains (for the most part) about how the pirates were created and who they were parodying. It talks about how “Asterix” uses word balloons for humor and emphasis. It show examples of panels and pages drawn to resemble classic works of art.
It’s a grab bag of things that you’d expect to each have their own web page on some kind of Asterix encyclopedia.
The Encyclopedia Asterix
There was, as it turns out, an attempt at an Asterix encyclopedia once. And it directly impacted this site. Time for a meta tangent!
The Asterix Agenda was originally named “The Asterix Project.” It’s the name I even ran with for the first two or three reviews, as I recall. But then I discovered a website with that name that was compiling an encyclopedia of Asterix information, so I changed the name.
In retrospect, I’m not so sure that that resource is still actively being developed, or that it has much more in it than a cut-and-paste of Wikipedia’s pages. Maybe I should I have stood my ground.
Nah, I like controlling my own destiny. Though I do admit I like the concept of compiling all of the internet’s knowledge about Asterix into one mega site. If I could combine all the resources I’ve used in the past year into one big site, that would have made my job easier.
Time for an Update
If the book was updated today, the Ferri/Conrad books would obviously be the most recent age. I’d be curious how Kessler would handle the remainder of the Uderzo books. Would he just lump them in with the last category, or do they justify their own era, like “Crash and Burn”?
The book also ignores everything outside of the books, aside from a couple pages about Asterix’s explosion into French culture in the first section of the book. That section talks about Goscinny and Uderzo’s animation studio and how it all impacted their work on the books. Maybe a small chapter could be devoted to Asterix’s modern cinematic adventures in the age of superhero movie blockbusters.
At least they get English language releases of Asterix movies in Great Britain! I’m still jealous of that…
Oh, and a new edition of the book would be full color and include panels from the most recent remastering of the series.
The first pre-order for that update of the book would be mine.
Yes, if only for that translation chapter. In this day and age of websites explaining every little thing, the rest of the book isn’t strictly necessary. You can find most of it online these days, but it wouldn’t be packaged up into one book like this and it wouldn’t include quotes from Uderzo. There’s still value there.
The division of eras of the book is interesting and perhaps useful for something else I’m working on at the moment…
The book is long out of print, though you can find used copies available on Amazon. They’re not cheap — they start at $40 or so as I write this.