Asterix at 50: The Comic Hero Conquers the World

Albert Uderzo, French author and illustrator
Albert Uderzo, the French illustrator who launched the Asterix comics in 1959 with author René Goscinny, with his characters Asterix, left, and Obelix
Stephane de Sakutin / AFP / Getty

For 50 years, the small but cunning warrior Asterix and his podgy stonemason pal Obelix have been battling the armies of Julius Caesar in their remote village on the Brittany coast — the only part of ancient Gaul never conquered by the Romans.

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The latest episode in the pair's comic-strip adventures will be released in France on Thursday to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the first Asterix story, written by René Goscinny and illustrated by Albert Uderzo for the magazine Pilote in 1959. The highly anticipated new book, The Birthday of Asterix and Obelix, is the 34th in a series that was created as a way to keep American comic strips from taking over France. These days, however, Asterix is a global brand in itself: more than 325 million of the comic hero's books have been sold in 107 different languages around the world, proving without a doubt the lasting and universal appeal of the plucky French characters. (See pictures of kids' books coming to life.)

Uderzo, who has been both writer and illustrator of the series since Goscinny's death in 1977, attributes Asterix's enduring appeal to people's love of stories about underdogs sticking it to the Man. "It's David against Goliath," he tells TIME. "Everyone can identify with the image of retribution against things that are bigger than us." Yet for some, the Asterix stories have also symbolized French anxiety over globalization and the struggle of independent-minded people everywhere against the hegemonic power of the day, be it Roman imperialists or Anglo-Saxon capitalists.

Many people in France still talk of the "Asterix syndrome" and the "Village Gaulois" (Gallic village), both of which refer to the need to mount a defense against the encroaching cultural influences of the rest of the world. Usually used pejoratively, the terms indicate an inward, backward-looking way of seeing the world. Yet the sentiment is also entrenched in the French obsession with l'exception culturelle (cultural exception), the various rules and regulations that seek to protect the French way of life from outside forces — French singers must sing in French, English words are banned from advertising, half of all TV shows on air must be European. (Read "Can Asterix Conquer Europe?")

It's no surprise then that the colorful French antiglobalization activist José Bové, who coincidentally sports a Gaul-like handlebar moustache, has been dubbed a modern-day Asterix for his campaigns against McDonald's and genetically modified foods. The French have also taken to the Asterix franchise in a big way as an alternative to American cultural offerings. Like his rodent rival, Mickey Mouse, Asterix now boasts a theme park outside Paris, just 20 miles from Disneyland Paris. Over the past decade, three live-action Asterix movies have hammered Hollywood films in French cinemas; the most recent one, Asterix at the Olympic Games, was one of the top-grossing movies of 2008. And while the U.S. has remained immune to the Gaul's charms, his celebrity has been recognized by at least one venerable American publication: Asterix made the cover of a TIME magazine special edition on "The New France" in 1991.

But this sustained success has made Asterix an exportable commodity on par with America's biggest commercial hits, undermining the very concept of the Asterix syndrome and the legitimacy of any remaining French globalization fears. Asterix is not just the biggest comic-book star in France these days, but in the whole of Europe too. Asterix merchandising is big business on the Continent, from video games, plush toys and shampoos to, yes, even McDonald's Happy Meals. (Read "Hooked on McDonald's at Age 3.")

Nor does the Asterix syndrome really reflect French society today. France is as worldly as any other country. French businesses like oil giant Total, retailer Carrefour and carmaker Renault are fixtures in the annual Fortune Global 500 list. President Nicolas Sarkozy openly admires American entrepreneurialism, and has been nicknamed Sarkozy l'Américain. Last year, his government announced plans to make youngsters bilingual in French and English by the time they finish school.

The same goes for the rest of Europe. The patchwork of small and medium-sized countries that make up the European Union — with a combined population of half a billion people — is hardly a Gallic village forced to defend itself from the onslaught of an economic empire (the U.S. or China). Rather, the E.U. has become a collective superpower of its own. (Read "The Next Step for the E.U.")

There is, of course, another reason to retire the Asterix metaphor. For half a century, the Asterix books have delighted generations with their thrilling adventures, rich characters and subversive comedy. Using Asterix to make a political point about France's ostrich mentality demeans the brilliance of the art and writing in the comics. As Uderzo insists, his stories are for children. France — and the rest of Europe — should think like adults.

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