Thursday, March 03, 2016

 

Obscurity of the Day: Asterix and Obelix








The Asterix comic albums by RenĂ© Goscinny and Albert Uderzo, published in France starting in 1959, are wildly popular in that country, and many other countries throughout the world. In the Canada of my childhood,Asterix was a familiar character to both French and English children, and many English kids learned French with the assistance of the wacky little Gaul and his oafish companion, Obelix.

However, Asterix has never really garnered wide interest in the U.S. That's a shame, because the characters are delightful, the stories are droll and full of terrific wordplay (most of which, miraculously, has been successfully translated to English), and the art is superb. My assumption is that Americans, who are, generally speaking, almost entirely innocent of knowledge of European history, just don't get the basic premise, and the various locales may as well be in Middle Earth for all they know. While that knowledge isn't absolutely necessary to understanding the Asterix tales, it certainly helps.

In 1977, Field Enterprises chose to take on the daunting, and ultimately thankless, task of adapting Asterix albums to American newspaper comic form. Adapting the albums to daily and Sunday strip form required a great deal of editing and reworking. The easiest way to see how much the material was changed is to compare with the (English translated) albums. Compare the strips above to the album pages below:



Not only does the art suffer terribly from the postage-stamp size reproduction of daily comic strips, but the storyline gets chopped up so much that the comedic pacing is completed defeated. It's a mess in other words, though I must admit that some editor really put a lot of effort into remolding the material. The Sundays weren't quite so bad, but of course the muddy newspaper coloring of the 1970s did those strips no favors.

According to the Wikipedia page for Asterix, a total of five albums were adapted in the newspaper strip:


Asterix the Gladiator 11/27/1977 2/26/1978
Asterix and Cleopatra 2/26/1978 5/28/1978
Asterix and the Great Crossing 5/28/1978 8/27/1978
Asterix and the Big Fight 8/27/1978 11/26/1978
Asterix in Spain 11/26/1978 2/25/1979*

* I can't vouch for when each story began and ended but the wiki page definitely has the start date wrong -- it is 11/14/1977, with the Sunday debuting on the 20th. As for the end date read on... 

Not many newspaper clients signed up for the strip originally, so by the end of the run, the clientele was tiny. In fact, I've been searching for a definitive end date of the strip for years. Just recently, Jeffrey Lindenblatt discovered a newspaper, the New Castle News, that ran it the longest so far found -- the daily ending on March 10 1979. I've seen the last strip from that run, and it ends seven pages into the Asterix in Britain album. That makes me wonder if Asterix in Spain ended earlier than reported on the Wikipedia page, or if the editors lopped off an awful lot of the Britain storyline, perhaps even dropping the first five or so pages, which don't feature Asterix.

If Asterix intrigues you, I'm surprised to report than you can read all the albums, in English, at Asterix Online, for free.

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Comments:
Asterix ran also in the Worcester, Mass., Telegram & Gazette. It did suffer from reduction there, also!
 
I have used this great, addictive epic when teaching Ancient History - both the comics themselves, and clips from the English-dubbed versions of the Asterix films. The students loved it. One became so enthused that he downloaded the entire Asterix corpus from that website and started digging in.

People tend to think that high school students today can't "get into" material that isn't culturally sanctioned for their age group and for the contemporary moment, but that simply isn't true. I have gotten students interested in all kinds of things simply by introducing them shrewdly.
 
I have Asterix Sunday pages starting from Nov. 27, 1977 (which I think is the first Sunday?) - so did the color pages begin before the daily strips, or is the Wiki page wrong?
 
Patrick -- three cheers for you! I can't agree more that kids are very open to learning, if only it can be made interesting and fun.

Cliff -- Sorry, I made a typo and forgot to put in the footnote. All cleared up now.

 
"If Asterix intrigues you, I'm surprised to report than you can read all the albums, in English, at Asterix Online, for free."

And if you're STILL into hardcopies, Amazon does feature the books for sale domestically, including the recent ones penned by Ferri and Conrad!
http://www.amazon.com/Asterix-Picts-Jean-Yves-Ferri/dp/1444011693/

Speaking of Asterix, Tintin also had an interesting brush with the daily section of my hometown newspaper it the 1960's (Toledo Blade), I blogged about it here!
http://sobieniakcomics.blogspot.com/2011/12/tintin-en-francais-part-1.html
 
For English readers, they've completed the Asterix Omnibus series with three albums per volume. It's available in paperback, making a nice and comparatively cheap way to own them all.

In reading them now, the puzzle isn't so much history as it is the contemporary jokes and satire. There's a lot of playing with national stereotypes (Favorite crack in "Asterix in Britain": "Drink your beer before it gets cold!") and celebrity references. "Mansions of the Gods", while it stands very well on its own, feels like they were satirizing something very specific. Even the hapless pirates were originally a parody of a serious adventure comic; they've outlasted their models by many years.

A little annoyed that, aside from a few ancient VHS releases, none of the Asterix films -- animated or live action -- are available here.
 
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