Commercial and bureaucratic hindrances collided with an uncontrollable reality: the faith of many players.
The final banquet that closes every Asterix book reflects humanity’s yearning for a happy ending.
While the United States has its superheroes and Japan has its manga, Europeans have spent half a century being fascinated by the ligne claire (clear line) of Franco-Belgian comics. “One small village of indomitable Gauls still holds out…” That is the first line of every Asterix book since 1961. His rebellion against the Roman Empire is not easy to understand for a North-American audience, where readers may identify themselves more with Rome than with the small village. The Japanese, for their part, don’t understand their individualism and lack of discipline. Not everyone gets Asterix…
While the Third French Republic reinvented their “Gallic ancestors” to promote left-wing secularism in the face of the Catholic legitimist right, Asterix rewrites history with the chaos and insubordination of these indomitable Gauls, who rip the sage planning of the Roman armies to shreds. Vercingetorix does not throw his weapons down at the feet of Caesar, but on them, which sends the General limping off to make his other conquests. The garrisons resign themselves to “Gallic peace” with unusual negligence for the habitual orderliness of the Romans.
When the authors of Asterix and Obelix – Uderzo (1927), a French cartoonist of Italian origins, and Goscinny (1926–1977), a Ukrainian-Polish Jewish scriptwriter brought up in Buenos Aires –, shut themselves up in Uderzo’s flat in Bobigny (France) in the summer of 1959, their project was to create a series for the new magazine Pilote. They looked at different periods of French history and, according to Goscinny, the village was born before the characters: “a village in which a handful of half-mad Gauls resist their enemies, the Romans”.
A LITTLE MAN
His antihero is a “little man” – as Goscinny describes him –, puny and weak, “as noticeable as a punctuation sign”, nothing like the tall and brawny blonde Gauls shown in the history books. The author of LuckyLuke, Iznogoud and Le Petit Nicolás, didn’t want to collaborate with anyone, but finally Uderzo convinced him by drawing an Obelix who is not herculean, but fat, although he doesn’t think that he is, describing himself as only “well covered”. His strength comes from falling into a cauldron of magic potion when he was a baby.
Obelix’s profession was actually unknown to the historians of the Gallic period, as he is a quarry worker and distributor of menhirs, a voluntary anachronism that shouldn’t be attributed to ignorance on Goscinny’s part. Although he had done his research well, he liked to make things up, to the great annoyance of many academics who today study his stories – there are university professors in France who specialize in Asterix–.
Likewise, Goscinny transfers to the Gauls the Merovingian practice of bearing chieftains on a flagstone, with the result that Chief Vitalstatistix is constantly falling off it. He also introduces the Goths, whose Prussian militarism is a clear nod to Nazi totalitarianism. The script itself says that they march like the armies of the Third Reich. The swastika on the standard is replaced by the black eagle, which also replaces expletives. And although they hack their opponents to bits in the circus arena, they think up a “pressure cooker” which “boils a man in two minutes and whistles when it’s ready!
AN ARGENTINIAN JEW
Although Goscinny is considered to be quintessentially French, his parents were Ukrainian-Polish Jews, who were not nationalised as French until a few months before René was born. Exile in Argentina spared the family from the Nazi occupation although three of his uncles died in Auschwitz.
When he was only two years old, his parents took him to Buenos Aires, where he studied at a French school. The teachers and children of Le Petit Nicolás are therefore not so much French as Argentinian. The characters of these books – which are not comic books but children’s literature, with illustrations by Sempé – depict the teachers and students at the school on Pampa street.
When his father – a chemical engineer from Warsaw – died of a brain haemorrhage in 1943, René had to start work at the age of 17. Two years later, he and his mother went to New York. The Goscinnys arrived at Ellis island along with all the other immigrants fleeing from the shadow of the Holocaust and drawn by the “American Dream”. His uncle lived in Manhattan, where Goscinny found work as a translator.
He left the United States to avoid doing the military service, returning to France, where he began his drawings, before returning to New York in 1947. He would ironically say that he went back to the United States to work with Walt Disney, but that Walt Disney knew nothing.
He was alone and depressed when he met Harvey Kurtzman, the Jewish cartoonist who would go on to found the satirical magazine “MAD”. He worked in his studio until he was introduced to the Belgian Morris. Together they created LuckyLuke, a parody western.
Goscinny understood that his strong point was writing stories, not drawing them. The job of a comic strip writer was not widely recognised at the time. In general, they were not even given a mention in the publications and their pay was not included in the editorial accounts.
It was the cartoonist who paid the script-writer. Morris moved from Brussels to Paris, to pay him, and there Goscinny started working with Charlier, the author of “Blueberry”, and did his first collaborations with Uderzo with the Indian “Umpa-pa” and the pirate “Jehan Pistolet”.
THE SKY IS FALLING ON OUR HEADS
Although the magazine Pilote was born in 1950, the first Asterix album was not published until 1961, achieving some success by 1964, with “Asterix de Gladiator”; becoming something exceptional by 1967, with “Asterix in Britain”; and a phenomenon in 1967, with “Asterix and the Normans”. It is a product of the 1960s. That is the decade in which its most popular titles were published.
Its fame extended into the beginning of the 1970s, later entering into a period of decadence prior to the death of Goscinny in 1977. He died during a routine medical check-up in a clinic in Paris, following a trip to Jerusalem. He had a heart attack in the cardiologist’s surgery.
Uderzo’s work since then has been a parody of current affairs, which has become increasingly clumsy. Uderzo is a great cartoonist, but a bad scriptwriter. The best decision that he took since the death of Goscinny, was to leave the series. “The sky is falling on our heads! (2005) was already a mixture of references to Disney, manga and superheroes, even in the cartoons. The new authors, Ferri and Conrad, have returned to Goscinny’s original style, but have continued the comments on the present.
A Spanish publishing house (Salvat) has published the complete “Asterix” collection this year, explaining the development of each album, together with anecdotes and details about the characters. The world of Asterix has also been the subject of an exhibition in the French National Library in Paris, and the exhibition’s catalogue, “Asterix from A to Z”, has been published. Its focus is rigorously academic. It brings together a large number of specialists on Goscinny and Uderzo’s work.
The comic strip has become the subject of university studies in a country where millions of copies are sold of the classical Franco-Belgian series of the “ligne claire” (bande dessinée).
THE SHORTEST PATH
In 1919, Count Keyserling said that, “the shortest path to finding yourself circles the world”. The question of identity is essential in order to understand the world of Asterix, but none of his stories can be understood without a journey. When Uderzo asked Goscinny where the village was, he answered “Somewhere close to the sea, that will make the trips easier”. He had loved the sea ever since he crossed the Atlantic as a child to go to live in Buenos Aires and from there to Ellis island to live in New York. Goscinny loved cruises and it was on such a cruise that he met his wife Gilberte in 1964. He even published a book about his trips.
Asterix and Obelix’s trips enable them to explore national stereotypes. Their adventures sometimes take them to nearby places, but they general cross some kind of border to find other friendly or unfriendly villages. Asterix and Obelix go to Egypt, Africa, Greece, America, India, the Middle East, and even to Atlantis. The interesting thing is that they neve
r lose their point of reference, the village in Armorica that is still holding out against the invader. Recurrent themes can be found throughout the books, with pirates sinking ships, Obelix being deprived of magic potion, meeting Roman patrols and searching for boars.
What we know is that the story will end with a banquet. Around the table, the inhabitants of the village will celebrate the end of the adventure. In the first albums it only occupies one strip, where the banquet can be seen from afar, through the half-open door of a hut or even with the bard still playing the fiddle and shouting his head off. The albums then started to give the banquet half a page, showing a round table surrounded by the village men, with the exception of the bard, who is left outside, bound and gagged.
While the journey takes us back to the epic model of the myths of antiquity, which accompany the hero in his odyssey, the ending reminds us the Story par excellence, the Bible. Jewish festivals included banquets, at which the “widow, the orphan and the foreigner are welcome” (Deuteronomy 16:11).
The sacrifices provided for by law included banquets (Exodus 34:15). The celebration was not only a show of hospitality, but also of generosity, given that part of the food was sent to the poor (Nehemiah 8:10).
THE FINAL BANQUET
The Gospel is full of celebrations. Jesus begins his ministry at a wedding, but he not only enjoys celebrations in the company of his friends, but also of people of doubtful morals, contrary to those of many of his followers. Jewish celebrations generally involved a dinner at the end of the day. The invitation was sent twice (Matthew 22:3; Luke 14:7), until the owner of the house closed the doors to the celebration with his own hands (Luke 13:25; Matthew 25:10).
The Jews had the hope of participating in an eternal banquet with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Jesus talks about this banquet over and over again. He gives a new meaning to the celebration of Passover and institutes a supper in remembrance of himself. We share bread and wine “until he returns”. That is when the real celebration will begin (Apocalypses 19:7).
For that celebration, he now sends out invitations through his servants, given that when that day comes, those who do not come prepared will be left outside. Once the door is closed, it will be no use knocking. It will be too late. Only the darkness outside will remain.
I remember watching the first Asterix film in a cinema in the Spanish city of Logroño. I think that it is the only time that I have accompanied my uncle and cousins on such an outing. I was very young, but I knew the stories from the cartoons that we had as children.
At that time of black and white TV, I was fascinated by the colours, but I only remember one scene: the final banquet. Bathed in the soft light reflected from the protective moon, it presented a picture of a loving family and the utopia of a happy community.
Although, as Panoramix explains in “The Mansions of the Gods” – the only book I was ever given for my birthday, after having read “Asterix at the Olympic Games” to bits–, it is not always possible to make time stand still, the banquets in the Asterix stories show humanity’s yearning for a happy ending.
The gospel invites us to such a celebration. It is true that the Church today isn’t a very festive place and is a far cry from Jesus, the friend of sinners, but the gospel is the only truth worth believing, telling us that the best is yet to come.