By Hugh Schofield
BBC News, Paris
Asterix books are still being published, but should they be?
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, who, with his script-writer friend René Goscinny, had dreamed up the idea a few months previously on the terrace of his Bobigny flat.
Half a century later Asterix - and Uderzo - are still going strong. On 22 October, a new album comes out, the 34th in the series, entitled, "Asterix and Obelix's birthday - The Gold Book". And, over the following week a series of events will be held across Paris to mark the anniversary. They include a musical, a seminar at the Sorbonne and a costumed pageant on 29 October.
For the French, who take their Bandes Dessinées (BD, comic strip books) very seriously indeed, Asterix is part of the canon. Not only is he a prodigious (and rare) cultural export - 325 million books sold in 107 languages - he also exemplifies perfectly the national self-image.
If modern-day France tends to see itself as a beleaguered redoubt holding out against the imperial forces of global Americana, then who better to represent it than a cheeky Gaul with a habit of clobbering the cloddish forces of Rome.
Unlike most previous albums, The Gold Book comprises a series of short stories rather than a single tale. But the much-loved cast of characters is unchanged: Asterix, the canny hero, his corpulent sidekick Obelix, Dogmatix the dog, Panoramix the druid (known as Getafix in the English translations), Cacofonix the tone-deaf bard and so on.
But while The Gold Book will doubtless sell as well as ever, the continuing commercial success of the Asterix series masks a painful reality that many fans prefer to ignore: For the past 30 years - ever since Goscinny's death in 1977 - the books have been frankly second-rate.
That at least is the view of serious lovers of the Asterix books. For them, the last album of true merit was Asterix in Belgium, which was also the last book that Goscinny worked on. The subsequent 10 albums were not just drawn, but also written, by Uderzo, and the decline in quality has been drastic.
Albert Uderzo wants the Asterix series to carry on, even after his death
The most recent book before the new one - the 2005 Asterix and the Falling Sky - even featured a group of extra-terrestrials in a heavy-handed attempt to parody American cultural imperialism. It was panned by the critics, though it once again sold millions.
"Since the death of Goscinny, it has been the slow descent into hell," says Hugues Dayez, Belgian film critic and comic-strip expert. (In Belgium they take BD even more seriously than in France.)
"Uderzo is a great artist, but he is no script-writer. He has no confidence in himself. He has one idea, then another, then another, and in the end the whole thing is a mess. More importantly, all the humour - the wonderful irony - is no longer there. The genius has gone.
"But the paradox is that despite all this, the Asterix albums have never sold as many as they do now. This is entirely a result of the commercialisation of the brand. In Mr Goscinny's day there was no merchandising, but now it is like a war-machine," he says.
What saddens admirers of the essential Asterix even more is that it now looks as if the character will be allowed to continue his existence indefinitely into the future.
Earlier this year - after a painful family rift with his daughter - Mr Uderzo sold rights to the series to the publishing conglomerate Hachette, and he has appointed three young artists to take over when he dies.
"Asterix must live on after me," Mr Uderzo, who is 82, told the Journal du Dimanche newspaper earlier his week.
His decision is part of a bitter debate in BD circles about what to do with successful characters when their creators stop creating.
On the one hand there is the Tintin option - a complete ban on new adventures, following the desires of the artist Herge.
But on the other hand, several other historic Franco-Belgian cartoons have been kept going with new artists. Examples are Lucky Luke, Spirou and Boule et Bill. Such prolongations may continue to sell, but they are little loved compared to the originals.
"Some fans want to see their favourite characters go on for ever. Personally I do not," says Anne-Claire Norot, BD critic at Les Inrocks culture magazine in Paris. "Asterix is a case in point. Goscinny's death was a turning point. After that, the language, the jokes, the subtlety - it was all gone. Before it was art, now it is just for children."
For Hugues Dayez - who admits cheerfully to being Albert Uderzo's bete noire - the inevitable success of the new Asterix album has everything to do with the forces of mass marketing, and nothing to do with true artistic merit.
"People will buy the book out of a Pavlovian reaction because it's become part of our national heritage," he says. "But the truth is there is a huge amount of money at stake. Publishers want to keep the brand alive because it is an awful lot easier than creating something new."
Do you think Asterix has had his day? Here is a selection of your comments:
The question should be, "Should Asterix give up the bottle?". Asterix never used a sword, only his fists - that is after taking a good swig from his bottle of potion.
Asterix should never hang up his sword - It teaches children that it pays to stand up and be counted instead of following the rest of the herd and I can think a lot of us could learn alot from this beautiful art form of the 20th Century.
Jason Breed, Leighton Buzzard
A panel of Asterix fans must certify the standard of every aspect of a new creation before release to preserve quality for the new generations. None of us want Asterix to slip to being second-grade
Gopal, Sydney, Australia
Asterix got me into Roman archaeology, 35 years on I'm a professional archaeologist and profoundly grateful to the little Gaul and to the Belgian neighbour who introduced me to him. She also used them to improve my French, which also proved useful, but the key thing is that they were great fun and the wit grows with you as you reread them at different stages of life - from slapstick to ironic comment on popluar culture.
Unfortunately the article has a point in saying that Belgium was the last really good book, despite the excellent Englih translations. Nothing ot late has come close to Cleopatra, Legionary, Mansions of the Gods or Olympics, all of which are still fresh and funny.
BDs like Asterix, Tintin and Boule et Bill were worked on by one author (or one team of authors) for the whole lifespan of the series. Spirou, on the other hand, is a series characterised its "handing down" from one author to another (the creator of Spirou, Robert Velter, only worked on it for 5 years). In that way, the series has (debatably) kept up with the times. Readers are carried along by an anticipation of who'll work on Spirou next, and whether or not they'll be any good.
Asterix, however... where can you go after stacks of adventures, and even a theme park? Aren't there only a finite number of reasons to beat up the Romans? I'd rather look back on a short series of pure quality than try to keep up with an ever-increasing number of standard-issue escapades.
Sarah Joy, Coventry, UK
As head of a family of Asterix devotees, I feel the 'Everything went downhill after Belgium' lobby tend to overlook the fact that quality fluctuated up and down well before the loss of Goscinny - Asterix in Switzerland is a dud by anyone's standards. What Asterix needs is an injection of new writing talent to match the brilliance of Uderzo's drawing. If Sebastian Faulks can do 'Bond' and Eion Colfer can carry off a sequel to Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy a decent writer could certainly revive our favourite Gauls and earn new fans.
J T Raja, Surrey UK
Of course he should carry on if that is his creator wishes. The critics complain that it is only children who like it now- what is wrong with that? I grew up on Asterix and would hate to think that other children might not get to experience it. Continuing popularity will mean that the old books will never go out of print and people will still get to enjoy the originals. I don't think the new books are as bad as the article makes out, I still enjoy them.
I loved Asterix from when I was 5, at first for the artwork, but then as I got older, the writing overtook it. I used to go 200 miles to Foyles bookshop the day a new book came out. Goscinny can take credit for shaping my understanding of wit. I was too young to realise he'd died, but even at that young age, I was aware that the quality had gone. Sales may have kept growing anyway, but imagine how many more grinning children there could have been if a similarly talented writer had taken over.
Yes. Last century, I collected them in English, Danish, and German, enjoying the middle ones most. The wordplay occurred in different frames in different languages. Later issues became formulaic, I found.
Erik Christiansen, Melbourne, Australia
I grew up with Asterix, inheriting my mother's French copies and buying my own English translations. It's fair to say that I learnt much of my French through the Gauls' adventures, and even used them several times during my degree course. The English translations, by Anthea Bell and Derek Hockeridge, are some of the very best literary translations you will find - technically perfect in almost every way. Sure, the quality of the adventures may have nose-dived since the passing of Goscinny, but they're still miles (kilometres?) more enjoyable than any English equivalent.
Dafyd, Nottingham, UK
I read Asterix series voraciously when I was young. If the new artists can keep the tradition strong, why not.. If not, quit while the brand is still strong. Tarnish it not with sub-quality materials of it's later years.
Maulvi Bakar, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
I think the books post-Goscinny have taken a small dip in script quality from the "Secret Weapon" onwards but the 1980s releases ("Great Divide", "Land of Black Gold", "Asterix & Son" & "The Magic Carpet") still managed to retain the quality of the Goscinny era.
matthew leslie, Glasgow
To be honest, why should Asterix be retired? because its old? Truly its more important to end something when it becomes unpopular!
As long as people keep enjoying it, it shouldn't stop
Ben Whitehead, Rugby
By Toutias! May Asterix and Obelix continue for a long time - anticipating the new book greatly. To be honest, as a Kid, I had no idea that Goscinny had died, only in later years did I realise and notice the difference in tone. But the humour came through thick and fast, I still love the names given to the romans - Crismus Bonas anyone? The only dip for me was when the village went up against a UFO - very strange. Keep drinking the potion, Asterix!
Andy, Newcastle Upon Tyne
I just love Asterisk. It is my all-time favourite comic.
It would be sad if there were no more issues.
But, rather nothing than mediocrity
sham ramsamuj, Durban - South Africa
Asterix will always be brilliant! I hope they keep the brand alive and keep on making stories, it's always nice to get a new adventure from Asterix and Obelix!
Laura, Midrand, South Africa
NO way, I love Asterix comics, and I guess with the magic potion in hand he cant get old - therefore can retire!
DeepSathya, Sutton, Surrey
From a British point of view, the quality of an Asterix book is heavily dependent on the skill of the translator. The translations for the older books were works of genius, successfully turning almost every French pun and cultural reference into a British one, but from here it's hard to tell whether the recent decline is due to inferior French material or inferior English output.
Edward Green, London, UK
I like the way the books written by Goscinny had different jokes in different languages. My grandfather could speak English, French, Italian and German and, having read Asterix in all four languages, he told me that the jokes were different (and equally clever) in all four languages. This is genius.
Simon Read, Derby, U.K.
Asterix has had is day. Absolutely.
I'd say anything later than l'Odyssee d'Asterix has been a complete failure, a bad caricature of the earlier ones that Goscinny wrote. Uderzo managed two proper albums after his friend's death. That's it.
As a french national, that is something we should be ashamed of. Unfortunately, as well described in your article, the dark forces of economy took over the brand to multiply and go forth. But art got lost in the way.
Two personal comments: Asterix et les Normands, though having been written by the famous duo is in my opinion a very poor album. How on earth did they manage to produce such a lame duck in between two masterpieces like Asterix in Britain and Asterix the Legionary beggars belief.
Also, I would like to point out that as much as Asterix is read and loved here, the english translation kills most of it's jokes and poetry. No need to be french, but to speak the language is essential to capture the essence and the finesse of Asterix. Just like Tintin in english, it looses a lot, and in particular the captain's vernacular language.
Believe me, I live here with children, and have both at home, the difference is immense.
I absolutely agree, Goscinny not only was very funny but he also had a deep knowledge of French culture and literature. You never stop discovering jokes and references in an original Asterix. Goscinny also produced a classic children's character, Le Petit Nicolas. There are a few drawings but the stories are written and show an amazing understanding of the children's universe.
By the way, there is one series which has continued to be very successful after the death of the orignal creator, and that is the Blake and Mortimer.
Ian, Lausanne, Switzerland
At one time or another, heroes have to retire and Asterix is no exception. I grew up with him, but today's generation need their own heroes.
Paul Wickes, Staverton, UK
Asterix has had his day. he has amused me for many a year, and given me a lot of knowledge . And the knowledge has been accurent. the humour has also been great , making me laugh at the drawings the humour and how they gently unfold . How clever they have been.
Dorothy Cox-Rusbridge.,, Chichester
I love all the characters ,and even if the writing has deteriorated, they are still my much loved friends and I would not want to never see them again. They are like family always in the background and when you meet you want to hear all their latest endeavours. Don't be a sour-puss Hugues Dayez, millions say you are wrong.
No, he certainly has not.....Perhaps he might like to be a candidate in the next UK general election?
Jackie, Cobrieux France
i think asterix has still a place in the world we must remember that today is a different world a scary one and I thank toutatis that i can enjoy a bit of roman bashing and they all survive bruised a bit, but still alive so stop being so critical its only fun, does anyone even know or remember a more innocent time with asterix and co, by belanos i do!
Yvonne burns, Greenock scotland
I Loved Asterix as a child, but agree that they went down hill post Goscinny's day... the alter books out when i was inm y avid collecting days were noticably weeker to me, even as a 10 year old. Cultural icons like this should be allowed their time, and then left (as with Tintin) and still admired... true classics remain that without futher add-ons.
Alex Grant, Reading
In the mid 1960s I discovered Asterix in English (superb wit, to me) and became a dedicated fan. My dog, a Westie, almost got the name Idefix. He certainly looks like Idefix. There is a lot of history in these books - and a good way to learn some Latin. My most favourite is Asterix in Switzerland. Long live Asterix and his friends and foes!
Evelyn, Lugano Switzerland
I certainly agree there has been a dramatic decline in quality of stories, with over romanticised 'love interests' so unbefitting of the characters from Asterix and Son onwards. After many happy childhood memories I was very saddened when I came across Asterix and the Falling Sky a couple of years ago, which was truly awful.
Sebastian Crump, London, UK
I have never in my life, laughed harder than I did whilst reading one Asterix adventure nearly twenty years ago. And I laught a lot... Absolutely brilliant.
amit kar, london, uk
Goscinny dead! I never noticed and enjoy both the drawings, humour and especially those names for what they are; brilliant entertainment.
Miles Buckley, Northwich.
Nigerian and from a modest background, I discovered Asterix & Obelix (as well as Tintin and the entire comicverse) through better off friends when I was a very young child. I have since continued to love the books and have re-read all the comics multiple times.
I shivered with excitement when I saw a new one - Asterix and the Falling sky in 2006 at an airport and bought it immediately. To my immediate regret: Mme. Norot was kind in her critique - to me it was rubbish! I think the sales are due to millions of others like me who do indeed purchase the new books out of Pavlovian reflex!
That being said, I guess Uderzo seeks immortality through his part-creation - and as an individual, that is perhaps also his entitlement. What I do know is, I shall never purchase a new one again but shall continue to lovingly re-read the old ones.
By the way, what was Goscinny's wish?
TJ Bot, Kampala, Uganda
Asterix, Obelix, the magic potion all bring back memories of my school days in late 80's & early 90's when i used to scour the govt library in my small town to find any edition which i would have missed reading. in fact i started going there to read Tintin and chanced upon these. Asterix comics were like wine, you acquire the taste as you read more. Thank you for bringing back those memories.
ajith, Trivandrum, India
I luv asterix but I think in order to keep the legacy strong we have to stop making these comics.
PLEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEASE STOP MAKING THEM COMICS!!!