Asterix turns 50: France's popular cultural hero born under influence of friendship, desperation & a great deal of alcohol
A little-reported ceremony took place a few days ago outside a nondescript apartment block in the Paris suburb of Bobigny. An old man unveiled a plaque to mark the birthplace of one of France's greatest cultural heroes: Asterix.
On 29 October 1959, the first adventure of the diminutive warrior Asterix appeared in the comic magazine Pilote. It was the work of the Italian-born artist Albert Uderzo and his script-writer friend René Goscinny.
According to one of their creators, the small, wily Gaul Asterix and his oversized, clumsy friend Obelix were born under the influence of friendship, desperation and a great deal of alcohol. They met at Uderzo's apartment in the Paris suburb of Pantin to dream up a story and some characters for a comic strip to be published in the first edition of the weekly magazine Pilote. At the time, aside from the Belgian strips Tintin and Spirou, French newspapers carried primarily American comics. The founder of Pilote wanted French children to be able to read stories in which their own culture dominated. 'The Gauls,' they thought, 'liked to have a good laugh, to talk big and were bon vivants. I think we've got something there.'
That something - the continuing story of a small village of Gauls who resist the mighty Roman legions of Julius Caesar that have occupied the rest of the country - was an immediate hit and soon became an international phenomenon.
Uderzo's first sketches of Asterix were of a big Gallic warrior, but Goscinny saw him differently. They finally came up with a hero who would be small but wily and tough. 'As perceptible as a punctuation mark,' Uderzo said. The strength would be provided by his best friend Obelix, a roly-poly red-haired giant prone to pratfalls, falling in love and drinking too much. The obese Obelix has become the reader's favourite, according to opinion polls. It has also not hurt his allure that he was portrayed in two films by French megastar Gerard Depardieu.
The stalwart duo and their friends quickly became a major component of French culture, so much so that during a meeting of his cabinet in the early 1960s, then president Charles de Gaulle resorted to calling his ministers by names taken from the strip. In addition, the first French satellite sent into space, on November 26, 1965, bore the name Asterix. 'When I heard that, I prayed that it wouldn't break down,' Uderzo said. In commemorating the 50th anniversary of the first Asterix comic strip, the daily Le Figaro wrote, 'They embody the French spirit as few heroes before them have and none after them!'
Asterix first appeared in serial form in Pilote on October 29, 1959. Fifty years later, 34 comic albums have been published in 107 languages, including Urdu, Arabic and Latin. The series has spawned 11 films, eight of them animated, a number of games and a popular theme park outside the French capital.
Uderzo, who has been both writer and illustrator of the series since Goscinny's death in 1977, attributes Asterix's enduring appeal to people's love of stories about underdogs sticking it to the Man. "It's David against Goliath," he tells TIME. "Everyone can identify with the image of retribution against things that are bigger than us." More than 325 million of the comic hero's books have been sold in 107 different languages around the world, proving without a doubt the lasting and universal appeal of the plucky French characters.
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