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A brilliant if flawed new edition of the Asterix series
on July 29, 2004
The appeal of the Asterix books is universal, and timeless. For children there are terrific stories well told, and dazzling illustrations. For adults - the real audience - there are Rene Goscinny's wonderful jokes and marvellous puns, interspersed with quotations from classical authors, The Bible, Napoleon, Shakespeare and many many more. And Albert Uderzo's illustrations are often simply breathtaking. So, many of the visual ideas in 'Asterix and Cleopatra' come from the movie 'Cleopatra' with Elizabeth Taylor and Rex Harrison. In 'Asterix the Legionary' the pirates' ship is sunk by Asterix and Obelix (again). The image of the pirates on a raft in mid ocean is derived from a 19th Century French Romantic painting, now in the Louvre, 'The Raft of the Medusa' by Gericault. In the French version the pirate captain says to the reader 'Je suis meduse' ('I'm stunned'). In English this is rendered equally cleverly as 'We've been framed, by Jericho.'
Ah, the translations. Asterix owes his success in the English-speaking world to the brilliance of the translators, Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge. They've been responsible for all the Asterix books since 'Asterix the Gaul' first appeared in English in 1969, an astonishing record of continuity. So true is their work to the spirit of the French originals, that it's as though Goscinny and Uderzo had produced the books in English in the first place. Some of the jokes are arguably better in English than in French, especially the names.
24 books were written by Rene Goscinny and illustrated by Albert Uderzo. Then in 1977 Goscinny died at the tragically early age of 51. Uderzo has since produced seven more books on his own, as well as some collections of other material, and they're very good. But Rene Goscinny's genius is sorely missed.
The French versions have never been out of print - hardly surprising as Asterix is a French national icon. But the first 24 in the series, the classic books, have been unavailable in English for several years. Now British publishers Orion Books have put that right, and - for the most part - they've made a very good job of it. The work of re-coloring and re-inking the pages has transformed them, especially the earliest book, 'Asterix the Gaul'. The typefaces have also been recast, and are more legible and closer in style to the French edition. And the books are now printed on high quality glossy paper in the classic hardback format. All in all, it's a vast improvement and the English-language books are now produced to a higher standard than the current French edition from Hachette. That's quite an achievement.
But there are flaws. Many of the jokes come from the imaginative use of different typefaces, an area in which both Goscinny and Uderzo had a special interest. So the Goths speak in Gothic script, the Egyptians in hieroglyphics (which are often really symbols from the Michelin Guide) and so on. Some of this has been lost in the new Orion versions. So whenever Obelix shakes someone, their words should appear twice, overlapping, to suggest vibration. In the new books they don't, and a good joke has been missed. And the cover of 'Asterix and Cleopatra' no longer boasts it's 'the greatest story ever drawn', in a deliberate echo of movie posters, Uderzo being a big Hollywood fan. And there are some other silly mistakes that weren't there before.
But these are quibbles. The Asterix series is triumphantly back for a new generation to enjoy. Buy all 31 (and 'Asterix and the Class Act', an excellent collection of shorter material). And then get them all again in French while you're about it, for more than double the fun. You, and your children, will be glad you did.