Asterix vs Superman in Action Comics #579

When Asterix Met Superman Just Before the John Byrne Reboot

Randy and Jean Marc Lofficier are the wife and husband team of writers responsible for “Action Comics” #579. Jean Marc is originally from France, which I have to think explains how this issue ever got made.

That, and an editor at DC losing a bar bet (probably in San Diego)….

This is an issue in which Superman time travels to Asterix’s village. The Lofficiers and artist Keith Giffen pack the issue full of Asterix references and riffs. It’s a funny read, though some of the internal logic fails, and it might go a bit too far trying to be cutesie once or twice.

Oh, and Asterix is missing completely, aside from his Cerebus-looking appearance on the cover. And we never see Obelix’s face. Or his head, for that matter. I have to wonder how much the DC lawyers of 1986 influenced this issue, or how much of it was just the Lofficiers and Giffen having fun.

The world may never know.

These Credits Are Crazy!

Asterix vs Superman in Action Comics #579 cover
Writer: R.J.M. Lofficier
Artist:Keith Giffen and Bob Oksner
Colorist:Gene D’Angelo
Letterer:Milt Snapinn
Published by: DC Comics
Number of Pages: 32
Original Publication: 1986


The Story Set-Up

Jimmy Olsen’s date takes him to the Museum of Art, where a special display carries artifacts from ancient Gaul. That includes this precious item:

Jimmy Olsen is introduced to Vercingetorix's shield in the Museum of Art in Metropolis

Vercingetorix’s shield! Discerning readers of Asterix, of course, know that Chief Vitalstatistix held onto that as late as the 40s BC. We’ll come back to that later.

As you might have noticed above, a gang of toughs is invading the museum to steal the shield, which is just hanging there on the wall, unprotected. There’s a scuffle, Superman saves the day, and Jimmy Olsen accidentally breaks the shield into a thousand pieces.

Superman refuses to go back in time to save the shield, because it would change history.

The story steps back to the year 253, where a soothsayer by the name of Prolifix (well named, Lofficiers) is searching for Asterix’s village, having learned about it from an ancestor’s recently discovered memoirs. (That seems like a stretch, but just go with it…)

The Soothsayer wants to get his hands on the magic potion to become the new emperor.

Roman soldiers don't want to fight Asterix
Roman soldiers never change…

Instead, he runs into the Romans surrounding the Village. They’re easy enough to fool. And so Prolifix now has his people to help him find the Gauls and steal the secret of the Magic Potion. And when they run into Obelix Columnix (carrying a small unnamed white dog in his hand) and Getafix Pictorix the Druid in the forest, the plan kicks into gear.

Unfortunately for them, the Romans are still easily defeated. So Prolifix conjures up a spell to look into the future. He sees Superman as the key to fighting the Village’s strength with strength of his own.

Prolifix magically transports Superman and Jimmy Olsen back in time to 253 to help him backstab the Romans and become Emperor via the Magic Potion.

As if we haven’t heard stories like that before… (Wait, isn’t that also the plot of the latest “Star Wars” movie?!?)

The Druid explains to Jimmy Olsen how his magic keeps the Village alive

So, yes, this story is set nearly 300 years after Asterix’s known adventures. The high concept here is that the Druid Pictorix is keeping time still for the Gauls in the Village because he has a soft spot for them. The Age of the Druids may be over, but he stick around to help his friends.

This allows Superman the chance to meet and interact with the same Villagers we know so well from the Asterix books.

Or, at least, he can meet very similar looking and sounding characters within the reasoning of the DC Legal department. Just to be safe, though, there will be no Asterix. Weird, eh?

Superman Arrives in Gaul

Jimmy and Superman are separated in the process of their time travels. Jimmy is fished out of the water by the Unhygienix stand-in, Rockix, and brought back to the Village. To keep Jimmy calm, they knock him out the only way a Villager knows how: A fish slap!

Jimmy Olsen gets a fish slap to the face in Action Comics a la Asterix

Superman ends up in the hands of the Romans, where the Soothsayer casts a spell on him to control him. Suddenly, Superman is on the Romans’ side. It’s “Superman: Red Son” a decade before Mark Millar wrote the story!

Olsen joins Calumnix and Pictorix and friends to ride out to the Romans to see where Superman might be. Along the way, it’s hinted at that Asterix is not there. Calumnix seems super excited for a panel to see Asterix before realizing the error of his way. Is there a tragedy in the background to this story somewhere? That potential plot point is dropped and never followed up on.

Jimmy Olsen wears Asterix's clothes

On the way to meet with the Romans, Olsen is given a change of clothes to better blend in. The new clothes comes straight from Asterix’s wardrobe.

The Romans eventually capture Olsen and the Druid, and we’re immediately transported back to the plot of “Asterix the Gaul.” The Romans demand the Druid makes a vat of the Magic Potion, so they do just that.

A la Asterix the Gaul, the Druid begins a cunning Magic Potion-making plan to fool the Romans.

Of course, the druid planned for this, and has a workaround to keep everyone safe and turn the tables.

Spoiler: The potion he brews does not grow facial hair at an accelerated pace.

Oh, and lest I forget: We get the titanic tussle of Superman versus Obelix Columnix!

Columnix misses the physical violence with the Romans.  Superman is a great challenge.

Perhaps scarier, it even gives Jimmy Olsen a chance to drink some Magic Potion with very familiar results:

Jimmy Olsen drinks Asterix's Magic Potion with predictable results

For a full plot synopsis that never mentions Asterix until the footnotes at the end, I’d suggest looking up the DC Database Fandom Wiki page for the issue.

Other Random Asterix References

The Lofficiers did a great job in sprinkling lots of Asterix moments throughout the book. They knew the material they were spoofing with this.

Some of the references were fairly direct, like Olsen taking the potion, or this map explaining the Village’s location and situation:

The Action Comics map of Gaul versus Rome

Here’s some familiar catch phrases:

Asterix and the Sky is Falling a la Action Comics
Jimmy Olsen makes a splash.
You say Teutates, I saw Toutatis
I looked it up: Teutates is another spelling for Toutatis. Still the Celtic God of War
These Romans are crazy, Action Comics style

Some references were less literal and more inspirational. This panel, for example, felt like a list of a dozen different panels Goscinny wrote. Those Roman leaders outside of the Village were a dime a dozen. And this pun literally made me laugh out loud:

Mikimus is animated for the Roman general

“Don’t be so animated, Mikimus!” I think we just found our punny name of the book.

It’s even funnier when you consider it was written at least 15 years before Albert Uderzo wrote “Asterix and the Falling Sky” with its Disney references and Mickey Mouse-inspired character.

The Art of Keith Giffen

Giffen is a great storyteller, and this style of his from this era is instantly recognizable. He does a great job in skirting the line this story forces on him: to create a duplicate set of Asterix characters that look like the originals without getting DC into any copyright issues.

He dresses them up similarly enough, but takes liberties where he needs to. He even gets away without ever showing the Obelix stand-in’s head. That works in another way, in that all the other characters are small by comparison, and showing him headless like this helps show the difference in size. He’s so big that he doesn’t fit into a panel. (Not that I’m calling him fat, mind you…)

That said, and still having the original Asterix books relatively fresh in my mind, the art bothered me in one way: It’s too close up. There are a lot of extreme close-ups in this issue. It’s production art, meant to be completed in less than a month. I can understand taking those shortcuts, but it does hurt the storytelling. Characters are often represented on the page by a close-up of their eye or their nose in profile in the extreme foreground.

Even when Giffen gets to those well known Asterix moments, he pushes the camera in closer. The best example of this is the grand feast at the end: Low angle, silhouetted trees blocking most of the view, rim lighting for the few characters on the panel, etc.

Superman attends an Asterix banquet at the end of the story in Action Comics #579

It gets the job done, but if you’re used to the more wide angle view of Asterix or European comics in general, this change in styles is very jarring. It feels very claustrophobic.

The Messed Up Real World History Timeline

The book is set in the year 257 which is, we’re told, after the fall of the Roman Empire and after the Gallic Empire had already been established.

Except the Gallic Empire didn’t show up until 260, three years later. And the Roman Empire didn’t die officially until the middle of the fifth century. In 257, they were still taking on new lands, although they were nearly 150 years past their largest moment.

At one point, the Soothsayer fesses up and tells the local Romans that “Rome fell a century ago.” They might have been at their largest size a century before 257, but they certainly hadn’t fallen. The events that led to the Gallic Empire didn’t even happen until the third century.

I’m obviously over-thinking this, but it did kind of bother me that the most basic historical facts got messed up this badly in ways that make no sense inside the story if you stop to think about them.

DC Editorial 1986 didn’t have Wikipedia to so easily and quickly check the timeline with, though. I suppose I should go easy on them..

Time Travel Stories. Ugh

Superman lays out the case early on that he can’t just go back in time and make changes. If he did so, the shield would never have been in the Museum in the first place.

The ancient Romans don’t know enough about the rules of time travel or “Back to the Future” and pull Superman and Jimmy Olsen back anyway.

At the end, Jimmy takes the Vitalstatistix stand-in’s shield home with him, anyway, not even realizing that the shield doesn’t just look a little like his broken one, but is, in fact, the same shield. He didn’t read “The Chieftain’s Shield,” I guess.

So Olsen breaks time to impress a girl he never had another date with in the comic series again, anyway. Nobody blinks.

Sigh, these Metropolis residents are crazy….

The Letters Column Couldn’t React

I was curious to see what the readers of the day had to say about this comic. Would they be as mad as some Romans?

I was sure I’d find an editor answering some questions from people who had no idea what the gag was in the book.

At that point in time, DC published letters in reaction to the issue four months prior. I jumped ahead to “Action Comics” #583.

It was Alan Moore’s legendary “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” story. There was not a letters column in that comic.

Famously enough, the John Byrne Superman reboot followed that.

That’s when it clicked — did they publish this issue when they did because it didn’t matter anymore? Any of those issues between #579 and #582 weren’t going to really “count,” so why not throw in this weird Asterix story? I wonder if this was even an inventory story they were burning, or a planned Annual that the Byrne reboot necessitated scrapping?

Recommended?

Asterix vs Superman in Action Comics #579 cover

This issue is a quaint oddity. It’s a bit forced at times, and the main story premise is a set-up just to go through the paces of introducing Asterix’s elements to a Superman set of characters.

On that level, I enjoyed it. I also enjoyed the sheer chutzpah of doing a full-fledged Asterix riff in an issue of a Superman comic in 1986. I’m sure even fewer people in North American knew who Asterix was back then than today. This must have seemed like a very odd issue to a great many people.

It’s fun to see how much they had to dance around, likely due to trademark issues, and how much they could riff off of. I highly doubt the lawyers at DC or Marvel would allow anything this close to other source material to ever see the light of day.

I’m glad I got to read it and show off some of the funnier panels with this review, if nothing else.

That all said, I’ve love to see Matt Fraction and Steve Lieber pull this story off today…

Buy It Now (on eBay)

It’s not an easy book to find. It’s not available digitally, and it’s not like you’re going to find it in a trade paperback collection anywhere.

Multiple copies of it are easily available on eBay as I write this, for about five bucks. That would be the way to go.

Bonus Images

Jimmy Olsen is no Rene Goscinny.

Jimmy wants Rene Goscinny's job.  HA!

This might also be a good panel making the case that they went a step or two too far with the wink wink/nudge nudge Asterix references…

One last thing to fit in here:

SPQR stands for "The Roman Senate and Its People," basically

S.P.Q.R. is something that you’d often see in the front of the Roman army as they rolled out to battle. It stood for what, in Latin, translates out to “The Roman Senate and Its People.”

Naturally, that Superman “S” shield fits right into the sign at the beginning of this story.

What do YOU think? (First time commenters' posts may be held for moderation.)

6 Comments

  1. When I found this book by accident many many moons ago, I just could not believe my eyes. I’d been an Asterix lover for most of my childhood and by pre-puberty pivoted to testosterone-filled super-heroes. Seeing both together was mind-blowing. Superman books from that era were really hard to find as back issues and you’re probably right, this being a transitional period between pre and post-crisis DC, they were certainly aware that these stories were inconsequential, so Giffen introduced a handful of wacky concepts (remember Ambush Bug?) just before that version of superman died a sad death. If you consider that corporate DC suits have always been chicken when it comes to insert outside references into their books (Johnny Nevada! Captain Strong!) I’m amazed that this even got published, but at the time, if I remember well, Michel Greg was in the US using his american connections (presumably from the Love Boat) doing the rounds to get Dargaud a foot in the door of north American publishing, pushing their most popular european characters. It didn’t really work for Asterix at the time (we’ll see how Papercutz goes) but it got Jean Giraud somewhat recognized by the US intelligentsia with Blueberry and some of his Moebius stuff from Metal Hurlant, enough to give us Silver Surfer: Parable down the line. Jean-Marc Lofficier being Giraud’s gopher at the time, the connection is there, and gave us this oddity of a book. You’re right the story makes no sense, historically or otherwise, but the simple concept of a showdown between Obelix and Superman is so brilliant that I give props to Lofficier for being the first to even think about it, let alone make it happen.
    For this weird breed of Asterix/Superman fan, this will remain a delicious little nugget, that makes me grin like an idiot every time I reread it.
    Fun fact, this is the first book that ever prompted me to write a comic/BD related fanzine article, which I continued doing on an off for the most part of a decade way back when. Probably not much compared to your own body of work, but still, I’m proud of myself for doing it. Good times 🙂

    1. Oh, yeah, I remember Ambush Bug. I picked those up in back issue bins in the mid- to late-90s when I also discovered Giffen’s Justice League stuff. I loved those issues so much I picked up as much of his other humorous stuff as possible. And Ambush Bug was a special kind of crazy. =)

      I didn’t make the connections through the Lofficier, but that makes a lot of sense. The only people I’ve heard talk about Blueberry here were those that read it at Marvel in the 80s, but almost all of the Moebius discussion comes back to that Silver Surfer book and the posters he did in the late 80s. I saw those in Comics Scene magazine, but they were available as posters in stores, first.

      And, yeah, I’m OK with it making no sense because I was still entertained. Again, that reminds me so much of the new Star Wars movie that it’s scary.

      Congrats on your article. Every body of writing is special, no matter its size. =)

  2. There is no evidence that he did care one bit about the innumerable ‘homages’ or parodies there have been to Asterix over the years.

    1. I had never heard of this, until now, but I definitely fancy getting a copy for myself. I’m not hugely into Superman but I love Asterix enough for this to be quite interesting.

  3. Re: the SPQR thing – Sonatus Populusque Romanus is still used to this day on official letterheads etc. of the municipality of Rome, but Italians today use SPQR in a different way. “Sono Pazzi, Questi Romani” meaning “They’re crazy, these Romans!” and this is where Obelix’s catchphrase “These Romans are crazy!” comes from!