Asterix in Britain

An exhibition shows the Jewish side of a Gallic hero, John Westbrooke reports

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Most people will have known Asterix the Gaul from childhood: the plucky little Frenchman keeping the Roman empire at bay in 50BC with no more than a super-strong friend and a magic potion at his side. But who would have guessed he was once “Little Fred – the Ancient Brit with Bags of Grit”?

That’s one of the more surprising revelations in an Asterix in Britain exhibition, now on at the Jewish Museum in Camden Town, London. The Valiant comic was the first to try translating his adventures into English in 1964: it translated the setting into Britain at the same time and gave the strip the name “Little Fred and Big Ed”. Ed was Obelix, and when he vanished from the story for a while, it was just called Little Fred instead.

The next time he appeared, in Ranger magazine’s version of Asterix and the Big Fight in 1966, Asterix was still British, but became Beric the Bold. Fortunately, it was a case of third time lucky when he was finally allowed to keep his own name and nationality.

Despite its main title, the exhibition is really about René Goscinny, the Jewish artist who wrote Asterix’s adventures until his death in 1977. He was born in Paris in 1926 to Polish parents who emigrated to Argentina two years later, so he grew up in Buenos Aires; but many family members died under the Nazis. He loved drawing and after the war went looking for work as an illustrator in New York. There were hard times, he never did make it big in America, and his typewriter (on display here) didn’t even have an exclamation mark, a drawback for a comic artist.

But he got to know other comic book giants of the future, such as Harvey Kurtzman, founder of Mad magazine, and Jack Davis and Will Elder, who became its best known artists. The curators have diligently sought out a frame of Little Annie Fanny, the Playboy magazine comic strip, in which Kurtzman, Elder and Larry Siegel drew Goscinny as a waiter.

He returned to France in 1951 as head of the Paris office of the World Press agency and met Albert Uderzo, with whom he collaborated on women’s weekly magazines and a comic strip called Oumpah-Pah, dealing with a native American of the Flatfeet tribe and his dealings with the French colonists of the 18th century. When he was sacked for trying to unionise the office, Uderzo resigned in sympathy. And in 1959 they introduced Asterix for the first edition of a new comics-based magazine, Pilote.

An obvious reading of Asterix is that he’s a French dream of how they would have won the war single-handed if only they’d had a magic potion – and perhaps, looking forward, how they might resist American cultural imperialism. Is there anything Jewish about him? Yes, says the exhibition: a little like Oumpah-pah, Asterix is a member of a small community under threat of occupation from a great power, and resisting by wits rather by force, since the French comics code of the day barred the depiction of violence (mostly to keep out US comics).

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that another outsider who tries to keep the world in order, Superman, was created by two sons of Jewish immigrants to the USA. Bob Kane, creator of Batman, was originally Kahn, also from a Jewish family. So were Kurtzman, Elder and Siegel. Postwar New York had proved a good career move for Goscinny.

The exhibition’s focus on Goscinny is slightly awkward, though. Though he’d given up drawing for writing, his storyboards provided a detailed scenario for Uderzo – a Frenchman of Italian but non-Jewish stock – to depict. But there’s not much analysis of the words he wrote, and few people outside France ever see them anyway: he’s said to be the 20th most translated author of all time, into 150 languages, including American.

In British English, once Little Fred had been done away with, Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge were hired as official translators. Other publishers had turned down the job on the grounds that Goscinny’s many jokes, allusions and puns were untranslatable, but the work of Bell and Hockridge succeeds brilliantly.

There were name changes: Panoramix the druid became Getafix (or in children’s versions Readymix), Idéfix the dog became Dogmatix (which is better than the original) and Chief Abraracourcix was now Vitalstatistix. But much of the wordplay survives, either translated straight, adapted from one language to the other, or if necessary replaced with something different but along similar lines. Translation is always a tricky business: young English-speaking Asterix readers don’t know how lucky they are.

After 24 gently satirical adventures among the Swiss, the Spanish, the Belgians and even the British, Goscinny died suddenly in 1977, and Uderzo continued producing the books alone until retiring in 2011.

Others have taken them over, as they also did with Lucky Luke, a series created by Goscinny and Morris, a Belgian artist he met in New York. To keep up with changing tastes, the cowboy hero now has a straw hanging from his lips rather than the cigarette that used to be there. Goscinny got through a huge amount of work in his short life, and it included a few such minor embarrassments – Africans, Chinese and Arabs are sometimes caricatured in ways that now seem lazy – but nothing like the more serious imperialism that made Tintin in the Congo unprintable for decades.

But then, the Asterix comics were always intended to be comic. The format of the characters’ names may have come from Vercingetorix, a hero of the Gallic struggle against the Romans, but Ed and Fred look as unheroic as their creators could draw them and have been drained of the racism occasionally attributed to historic French stereotypes. One small village of indomitable Gauls has provided years of unmalicious laughter.

Asterix in Britain: Life and Works of René Goscinny is at the Jewish Museum until 30 September 2018. Tickets £8.50 including voluntary donation, concessions available.