Asterix the Gaul Review

Reviewer: Iain Burnside
Story Title: N/A

Written by: Rene Goscinny
Penciled by: Albert Uderzo
Inked by: Albert Uderzo
Colored by: N/A
Lettered by: Byrony Newhouse
Editor: N/A
Publisher: Orion Books

Ah, Asterix”¦ I have many a fond childhood memory of my mother taking me up to the local library every week. I’d get three books, which was the limit on my child pass, and then we’d head back home, stop off at the sweet shop and read our books in front of the fire while stuffing our faces with sugary goodness. Trust me; if you’ve ever lived through the great depression that is an Edinburgh winter then you’ll know how important it was to indoor activities to keep you going. The library books were always a favourite with me. I guess that’s why I’m still writing nowadays. Anyway, eventually I stumbled onto the wonder that is the series of Asterix adventures by Goscinny & Uderzo. Along with the similarly packaged Tintin books, the ubiquitous weekly copies of the Beano and the Dandy, and the occasional hijinks of uniquely Scottish titles Oor Wullie and The Broons, they were the first comic books that I read. Hell, at the time I don’t think I even realised that they were comic books. Each installment is more like a self-contained graphic novel, with this 48-page story being the first in the series.

It would be remiss of me not to underline the sheer importance of the Asterix character. I have absolutely no idea how well known he is outside of Europe. If any of you do recognize the name then it is probably from the vastly inferior films – both live-action and animated – that fail to capture the unique Goscinny & Uderzo humour despite valiant efforts. He remains popular in Britain, with Orion Books taking it upon themselves to reprint these earlier adventures, which have been out-of-print in the country for far too long as a result of some complicated lawsuit over the character rights. In France, he remains an insanely popular culture icon and even has his own theme park just outside of Paris, which beats the pants off of Disneyland Paris by the way. Sadly Goscinny died in 1977 of a heart attack after 24 books were completed, but Uderzo has managed to create 7 more on his own since then as the franchise was opened up to new outlets such as the aforementioned movies and theme park, the video games, game books, Dogmatix spin-offs (more on him later), stationary, T-shirts, accessories, stickers, cards and most everything else you could think of. Children in Europe have been lapping this stuff up for decades, so I hope that those of you across the Atlantic and further afield have not been missing out. Hell, he’s sold an estimated 307 million copies of his books alone and has been translated into 103 languages worldwide. Not too shabby, really.

The basic premise is this – in 50 BC, all of Gaul (France) is occupied by the Roman Empire under the command of Julius Caesar. There is only one tiny village that has managed to hold out against the Roman legionaries, even though they are surrounded by the four fortified camps of Totorum, Aquarium, Laudanum and Compendium. Their secret is a magical potion concocted by Getafix the Druid that bestows superhuman strength onto the drinker on a temporary basis. Despite the Romans best efforts, the “indomitable Gauls” always manage to stay one step ahead of them even in the most trying of circumstances.

Now, as you may have gathered, one of Goscinny’s trademarks was the way he played with names. Asterix is the main hero of the village despite his small stature due to his cunning, and he is aided in his adventures by his best friend Obelix, a menhir delivery man who fell into a cauldron of magic potion as a baby and now has permanent super strength, yet always goes into a sulk as everyone else gets to take it except for him. Obelix has a pet dog, Dogmatix, who doesn’t appear until the later stories but is highly memorable for crying inconsolably whenever a tree is cut down. We also have the chief of the village, Vitalstatistix, who is carried everywhere on a big shield by two struggling servants. He lives in fear of only two things – the sky falling on his head, and his wife Impedimenta. Other memorable characters include Cacofonix the Bard, who cannot sing (or speak!) without making people run away, Fulliautomatix the Blacksmith, and Geriatrix the village elder.

The plot of this first book is rather basic, as it is more concerned with introducing us to this strange little world concocted by Goscinny & Uderzo way back in 1959. Basically, after yet another legionary patrol comes back assaulted by the Gauls, the Centurion of Compendium, Crismus Bonus, finally snaps and tries to learn what the big secret of the Gauls actually is. After a quick consultation with his associate, Marcus Ginantonicus, they pick a reluctant volunteer by using the “ancient Roman game” of musical chairs, after which the legionary Caligula Minus is put into disguise as a Gaul and sent into their village. After a while, he miraculously manages to both learn about the potion and get a taste from Getafix, before reporting back to camp. Crismus Bonus then sets out to successfully kidnap the druid, which he does, and so Asterix is forced to rely on his cunning and his intellect to rescue him from Compendium before the Romans can learn the secrets of the magic potion and finally over-run the little village. Hell, ol’ Crismus is even daydreaming about heading to Rome itself to confront Caesar and potentially overthrow him”¦

It’s a bit of a basic adventure, really, especially in comparison to what was to follow as Asterix and Obelix were sent off to foreign countries like Britain, to compete in the Olympics, to join the Roman army, to save Caesa’s relationship with Cleopatra, and even to find the mysterious woman who left a baby on Asterix’ doorstep and claimed it was his son”¦ You can basically jump in and read these stories in any order, so you may want to start off with some of the more adventurous tales before taking in this one. Then again, you may wish to read them in order. It’s not as though this is a bad book, after all, it’s simply not quite as lively as what was to come.

Oh, and mere words cannot describe the true greatness of Uderzo’s illustrations, so take a peek at this and let the pictures speak a thousand words!