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By Toutatis! The year is 50 B.C. and Gaul is now entirely occupied by the invincible and mighty Romans. Well, hold on a minute. Not entirely. One small village of indomitable (and completely mad) Gauls still defiantly, even nonchalantly, holds out against the bemused invaders and life is certainly never easy or dull for the unfortunate Roman legionaries who garrison the surrounding military camps of Totorum, Aquarium, Laudanum and Compendium. Asterix the Gaul is the first book in the famous and often wonderful comic strip series by René Goscinny (stories) and Albert Uderzo (illustrations) and was serially published in 1959 before later appearing in album form in 1961. In this first ever Asterix adventure Centurion Crismus Bonus - head of the Roman garrison at the fortified camp of Compendium - is determined to find out the answer to a very puzzling question. Why has the Roman Empire swept all before them in irresistible fashion in countless countries but failed miserably to defeat and capture a solitary and sleepy village by the coast in Gaul? What is the secret of these pesky natives? The secret of course is the mysterious magic potion brewed by their venerable druid Getafix. The potion gives them superhuman strength and the ability to bash up countless Romans without hardly breaking a sweat. The Romans learn of the existence of the potion and decide they must get hold of the secret at all costs. Various schemes ensue. A Roman legionary named Caliguliminix is (with shades of the later Asterix and the Roman Agent) disguised as a Gaul to infiltrate the village, Getafix is kidnapped etc. Will the Gauls prevail? With decades worth of books and stories still to come I think it's fair to say that they have a good chance.
Asterix the Gaul pleasantly sets the template for the long series of adventures that would follow and introduces us to numerous characters (and the little village) that would remain a fixture throughout the decades. The shrewd and cunning Asterix - a most diminutive but noble hero! - and his boar munching best friend, the burly Obelix. Obelix is more of a background character here though and yet to assume his near equal billing status (he even had his name on a few books instead of Asterix in the end). Asterix is broader and more "comic book" than Tintin and often seems simplistic on the face of it, never seeming to deviate too much from the staple elements. But look closer and there is much clever and subtle material. The riffs on real historical events and characters, the cultural references (Fellini, James Bond, Laurel & Hardy etc), even an ecological message. In The Mansions of the Gods, Asterix and Getafix walk in the forest amongst the trees and wonder if the forest will even be there one day as logging and civilisation spreads its tentacles. Getafix tells Asterix that all they can do is enjoy the forest and what time they have. Asterix is a comic farce and big, bold and colourful but it can be surprisingly poignant and strange (man being whipped during the 'cheese orgy' scene in Asterix in Switzerland!) Perhaps the most genius element is the historical time period. Albert Uderzo's Roman and Gaulish interiors in particular remain fantastic.
Aside from one blurry page in the earlier English language versions (this was redrawn by Albert Uderzo's brother Marcel in 1970 and appears in a post 2004 English language version, the drawings noticeably different), Goscinny and Uderzo hit the ground running sooner here than Herge did with Tintin and Asterix the Gaul is as colourful and amusing as many of the adventures that followed. The one difference I think is that many of the characters are not quite fully formed yet. Cacofonix the bard is not yet banished from the great coda banquet (a running joke) and Fulliautomatix the blacksmith seems different (and is bashing metal with his hands rather than a hammer). This is because Uderzo constantly refined his drawings to make them better and characters changed in appearance somewhat. Another difference here actually is the way everyone is juiced up on magic potion all the time and running around the village like superheroes. In later adventures they tended to only be given the potion by Getafix when Romans were about to attack. Getafix the wise druid is one of the most wonderful characters in the world of Asterix. He's like a cross between Gandalf and a hippy. He's slightly different here but not alarmingly so. He seems more of a rustic character who might actually live in the woods rather than the unfeasibly cosy and snug hut he would later reside in, pacing up and down pondering new potions as his shadow loomed on flickering walls and a fire crackled away in the background. Getafix cuts mistletoe with his golden sickle (it MUST be a golden sickle!) to use for his potions.
There are other ingredients of course but the potion remains a secret. Amusing moment here when Getafix adds a lobster to the potion cauldron, not because it is an ingredient but merely because he thinks it improves the flavour. We see some of his other potions too and they have some very unusual and surreal effects. The secret of the potion is lost in the 'mists of time'. Getafix (Panoramix in the French version) is a humanist and provides moral guidance in the village. He is like everyone's wise grandfather. The Gauls might be near invulnerable with their potion but they are a superstitious bunch and greatly fear the day when the sky might fall on their heads! The various twists and Roman bashing capers in Asterix the Gaul will not of course seem quite so fresh if one has not read the books in sequence and you come to this later on but it stacks up fairly well in the Asterix collection considering it was the first book. The art is not yet perfected but it's still colourful and entertaining and full of personality. The surreal flourishes are enjoyable and Caliguliminix proves a relatively amusing character as he goes undercover in the village and is rumbled by a fake tache. His reactions to the superhuman Gauls as he wanders around are fun and he supplies a crafty sob story as a ruse to getting his hands on some potion for the Romans.
We also of course get our first appearance by Julius Caesar here. He's drawn to look rather James Coburn, angular and distinguished. The depiction of Caesar in Asterix is interesting and clever. Although he has rages and plots against the Gauls he is not a merciless dictator or ever made to look completely foolish for too long. He even shows kindness and generosity when the Gauls perform a deed he considers to be noble. The most important thing is that remains more than a one dimensional character and a worthy opponent for Asterix and the Gauls. Asterix the Gaul is a solid and fun first adventure for our yellow pigtailed hero and serves as a wonderful blueprint for the series that followed in its wake. At the time of writing you can buy a paperback version of this for about a fiver.