From inside his comic strip rectangle, one of Cleopatra’s lackeys makes a face as he tastes her snack for poison. “Yuck,” he thinks. “I hate too much pearl in my vinegar.” I loved this page of Asterix and Cleopatra as a kid, even though I didn’t really get the joke (it’s a riff on an old story in which Cleopatra drank her own earrings at dinner). But that’s precisely the appeal of the Asterix comics to the children who have loved it since its first publication in 1959. The jokes are all a little bit too adult to understand and rich with the promise of unknown, grown-up information.
Asterix is one of the great postwar Franco-Belgian comics (or bandes dessinées in French, meaning “drawn strips”). Like its contemporary Tintin, it has led a lucrative and long commercial life. Generations of readers have grown up with Asterix, especially in France, where he is a sort of national icon (there is a Parc Astérix outside Paris). Writer René Goscinny died in 1977, marking a drop-off in the quality of the franchise’s text, but illustrator Albert Uderzo lived until March of this year and administered the Asterix empire himself until 2013, when he sold it to Hachette.
Now America is getting its own edition. Last fall, children’s press Papercutz bought the U.S. rights to the Asterix books, which it is newly publishing in omnibus form. There will also be new stories, starting with The Chieftain’s Daughter, which stars a new teen girl character named Adrenaline. Comics translator Joe Johnson has redone the text, according to Papercutz, “with a focus on making the French puns work for a U.S. audience, and making the Ancient European and Latin references more understandable to U.S. readers.”
Asterix first came to life in the magazine Pilote, before appearing in his first full-length comic “album,” Asterix the Gaul, in 1961. All the books are set in the year 50 B.C. and star the tiny Asterix and gigantic Obelix, his superstrong sidekick, as they resist Julius Caesar’s attempts to finish his conquest of Gaul by beating these holdouts. Asterix is indomitable, however, because his druid friend Getafix gives him a special potion to drink. Obelix gets none as he fell entirely in the cauldron as a baby and was permanently affected—an allusion to Achilles and his babyhood dunk in the Styx. Everybody’s name explains who they are, from Unhygienix, the fishmonger, to Cacofonix, the atrocious bard.
The original name-puns are facetious and wonderful. Our hero is so named because he is the “star,” hence the play on asterisk and the old Gaulish suffix -ix, which indicated a king (as in the real historical Gaulish leaders Vercingetorix, who sometimes pops up in Asterix, and Orgetorix). Obelix is a professional mover of menhirs, meaning big hunks of stone of the kind that comprise Stonehenge, also known as obelisks. (An obelisk is also the grammatical mark ✝ that comes after an asterisk * in one style of formal referencing.) Johnson’s new translation is cleaner than the classic English version by Anthea Bell and Hockridge, with Getafix renamed Panoramix. The Chieftain’s Daughter contains a few downright belabored puns, as in the new character of Selfipix.
Asterix and Cleopatra, which contains the pearls-in-vinegar scene, is an Orientalist fantasy from 1965 set in Egypt and one of the series’ most popular installments (it was also turned into an animated movie in 1968). Asterix and Obelix travel to Egypt to help Getafix’s old architect friend, Edifis, build a palace so beautiful that Cleopatra will win a bet against Julius Caesar. The queen is slinky and beige, often portrayed bathing in milk and seducing or hectoring Caesar, who comments, “She’s a nice girl, but her nose is easily put out of joint.” Asterix and Obelix have a ball, beating up crocodiles and mercenaries left and right. Keen to explore, Obelix breaks the Sphinx’s nose off under his weight when he tries to climb her—yet another nose joke.
Such are the many revisions of history in these stories, which descend into a combination of satire, farce, and bloodless violence (people never die in Asterix), making the self-important bigwigs (the Romans) and lunkheaded warriors (the Gauls) alike look silly.
You can see why this combination of levity and undauntedness appealed to French readers, who in the decades after World War II were keen to forget the oppressions of the Vichy regime and to embrace a nationalist myth of the Gauls as unbroken survivors, all while having a long-awaited laugh. Gaulish warriors, as Paul Smith has pointed out, appear in war memorial statuary all over France and on every pack of Gauloise cigarettes. Although the real Gauls ended up massacred brutally by the Romans, and Hitler hammered the French (and Belgians) during World War II, the Asterix comics reconfigure French history into a tale about the unconquerable spirit of the underdog.
The significant number of sexist and racist jokes in the original Asterix comics means that the new edition was overdue. In the original Asterix and Cleopatra, for example, black people (who are supposed to be Numidians) appear with stereotyped and exaggerated features. One pirate character is black with big red lips and a bone through his hair; when terrified by Asterix, he turns white. Although that pirate has gone and these racist depictions have been toned down in the new books, the remaining black men still appear drawn in Uderzo’s “style,” which dictates they be hulking and large-mouthed. Nobody is demonized according to race, but the pale Gaulish faces always come out on top.
Asterix is a highly political comic, in many directions. In 2007, after Uderzo offered the United Nations free use of his characters in educational leaflets about human rights, the French activist Jean-Pierre Rozenczveig and others told Le Monde that the books’ obsession with “invaders” made it too “monocultural” for modern readers and that the comics ignored the “revolutionary aspect” of the U.N.’s project. Such protests were met with mockery in The Guardian, where Nicholas Lezard wrote that the “books promote international harmony by showing that each nationality can be as foolish as the next, or as great.” This is true on the one hand, in that everybody is silly in Asterix, but it is also untrue, since the Gauls spend their time beating up Sephardic Jews or Egyptian mercenaries with big hooked noses.
The new edition of the Asterix albums asks us a question, one that has felt more urgent since HBO pulled Gone With the Wind from its streaming services last month: What’s worth keeping from popular entertainment’s checkered past, and what should simply be discarded?
The problem with Asterix is that there are very few equivalent children’s books that demand as much from the young reader’s brain, and so there is something worth saving there. And the books’ very sophistication also functions as an exculpation for its racism: Unlike Victor Fleming’s 1939 schmaltz-fest, the Asterix comics are raucous satires on history-writing itself, partly redeeming their racist themes by mocking the whole idea of a glorious past in the first place. Whether in the old or new editions, our heroes are not exactly Gaulish warriors who resist Roman tyranny through God-given strength, but boisterous villagers dosed to the eyeballs on Getafix’s drugs. Whether you buy that theory enough to give Asterix to the children in your life is a different moral proposition, and one each adult reader must meet on their own conscience’s terms.
As Cleopatra’s taster might put it, you cannot un-dissolve a pearl from vinegar, and you cannot take the anachronistic racism out of twentieth-century fantasies about the classical past. Pick your poison wisely.