Comic Book Wars!

by Douglas Wolk

A tiny little comic-book hero with a great big embonpoint recently became the wild card in a baffling civil war over French identity. Last year, the French government held celebrations for the 1500th anniversary of the baptism of Clovis—the King of the Franks who popularized Christianity in France, and the symbol of France itself as far as the French political Right was concerned. The Left was annoyed: their idea of a national icon is Vercingétorix, the Gaulish chieftain who resisted Julius Caesar, (a struggle that predates Christ, and therefore suggests that Catholicism is not inextricably tied to French identity). While the debate may seem trivial to us, the French feel that symbols are a big deal: President Chirac joined the Pope in a Clovis commemoration, while Pierre Bergé, the head of Yves Saint-Laurent, wrote a book decrying the government's actions as a church-sponsored attack on France's laicité. And smack in the middle of the debate was Astérix, the country's most beloved comic book.

You see, it all goes back to around 50 B.C., when Caesar conquered the lands that eventually became France, defeating Vercingétorix, and dividing all Gaul into three parts. Or four parts, if you're refering to the premise of the wickedly satirical Astérix, far and away France's most popular series of bandes dessinnees (hardcover comics). In the series, one tiny Gaulish village is still carrying on Vercingétorix's struggle, holding out against the Romans with the aid of a magic potion that gives its imbibers superhuman strength. Our heroes are Astérix, a little warrior with a big yellow mustache, and his best friend Obélix, an enormous menhir-carver who fell into the vat of magic potion when he was a baby.

Bandes dessinees are big business in France—popular ones stay in print for decades and people of all ages are considered potential readers. Astérix, for example, is nominally for children, but it's mainly devoured by adults who appreciate its ingenious wordplay and sly, political wit. Created in 1959 by writer Rene Goscinny and artist Albert Uderzo, and carried on by Uderzo alone after Goscinny's death in 1977, Astérix has become a huge international franchise.

The Astérix books have been translated into dozens of languages, (unfortunately, no American editions are currently available), spawning children's magazines, an amusement park, an official web site, dozens of fan-made web sites, parodies, and things too horrible to name here. There are even sites devoted to Obélix's little dog (Idéfix in most European languages, Dogmatix in English). The 30th Astérix volume, La Galére d'Obélix was published in mid-1996, and it's rumored to be the last. (The title, an untranslatable pun, is changed to Astérix And Obélix All At Sea for the British translation.) It arrived just in time for France's latest ideological conflict.

Asterix Panel

Astérix would seem to be a pretty firm statement for the pro-Vercingétorix side. But it's not that simple. Both the Left and the Right reject Astérix as a symbol. The Left has criticized the series for its blatant sexism, racism, and xenophobia—they even interpreted the Gauls' rejection of international community, and Obélix's catchphrase "Ils sont fous ces Romans" ("These Romans are crazy"), as a covert endorsement of the Front Nationale. (Oddly enough, when Astérix first appeared, it was generally assumed that the Gauls' resistance to the Roman invaders was an allegory for the French Resistance against the Nazis.) But Goscinny and Uderzo's merciless parodies of politicians have pissed off the Right as well. (Giscard d'Estaing got it with both barrels in Astérix et le Chaudron, and in La Galére d'Obélix, a hapless Roman admiral quotes an official involved in a recent public-health scandal). It's as if Dr. Seuss was denounced both by Republicans for the coded criticism of Nixon in Marvin K. Mooney, Will You Please Go Now! and by Democrats for the undertones of domestic violence in Hop On Pop.

While Astérix is as French as Superman is American, and many of the series' jokes are linguistically or conceptually French, most of its humor is universal enough that it's been able to find fans all over the world. Nonetheless, the French see themselves in the heroes' courageous and improbable resistance against the destruction of their culture; everywhere else, the books are read simply as rollicking adventure stories with lots of funny stuff. The French public put aside questions of ideological purity or impurity, and made the publication of La Galére d'Obélix a major national event on their own terms. As far as they're concerned, the little yellow-mustached character isn't a symbol of partisan politics, but a symbol of what France itself means—as much or more so than the real people that the almost-unreal debate was about.   </end>

Douglas Wolk is the managing editor of CMJ Music Monthly and a frequent contributor to STIM. His last article, "Canary in a Gold Mine", appeared in issue 7.2. He lives in Queens, NY.