Why “Asterix the Gaul” is Important

…And not just because it’s one of our favorite comics:

Asterix: The Great Unsung Fantasy Hero – by Charlie Jane Anders

When people in the United States talk about great fantasy heroes, it’s all Conan, Bilbo, and Harry Potter. Nobody ever talks about the little French dude with the wings on his head. Asterix the Gaul has a huge following in Europe, thanks to decades of adventures in the Roman Empire and the rest of the world. But he’s never gotten his props in the United States, and few people recognize his importance in the fantasy canon.

Here’s why Asterix deserves more props as a fantasy hero.

Who is Asterix?

Asterix was the hero of a comic strip by Goscinny and Uderzo in the early 1960s, which later became a popular series of books in France, which took off massively in the U.K. thanks to some witty translations by Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge. In a nutshell, the comic takes place in an alternate history where the Romans failed to conquer one tiny part of ancient Gaul — a single village where the inhabitants take a magic potion that gives them super-strength.

Asterix is a story of resistance — and it’s probably no coincidence that it came to popularity for the post-World War II generation that still remembered the German occupation. But the little Gaul and his best friend, the large and dim-witted Obelix, also go on tons of adventures together, traveling to various parts of Europe and elsewhere. The typical Asterix adventure has to do with the Romans (or some other group) trying to outwit the Gauls, or steal their supply of magic potion, or mess with one of Asterix’s friends. And Asterix has to use his wits and cunning — as much as any magical powers — to win out.

It’s a wish-fulfillment fantasy about the underdog beating the giant unstoppable armies of oppression. But it’s also a story of a wily hero making his way through a series of adventures, in the tradition of Odysseus and countless others. And it’s a super-satirical look at things like bureaucracy, war, boxing, and cultural differences, filtered through a very French wackiness. The downside, of course, is that it’s a product of its time and a lot of that satire is pretty darn racist, especially whenever African people show up.

Besides Asterix and Obelix, recurring characters include the vain and shouty chief Vitalstatistix, the lovable druid Getafix and the ear-bleedingly-terrible bard Cacophonix. Plus the cute dog Dogmatix. There are tons of recurring jokes and motifs in the series, and part of the fun is seeing the same gags in every book, like Obelix devouring an entire wild boar by himself and Asterix’s cartoon uppercut.

Goscinny and Uderzo did 24 volumes of Asterix before Goscinny died — and even though the series continued after that, it’s probably best to ignore all of the later stuff. Their penultimate Asterix volume, Obelix & Co., is probably my favorite —

Read it all (especially if you loved Carl Barks’ Uncle Scrooge because Asterix is filled with the same sense of wonder)

Yep, they’ve made Asterix movies too!