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Roaming Asterix comes to Camden

Jane Clinton reports on an exhibition celebrating Asterix’s co-creator, René Goscinny

01 June, 2018 — By Jane Clinton

BY Jupiter! It’s Asterix.. .in Camden Town! The beloved character, his sidekick Obelix and their indomitable Gaul community have decamped to the Jewish Museum for an exhibition celebrating its writer and co-creator, René Goscinny.

With their vivid colours, gentle satire and relentless puns, Asterix was an instant hit when it appeared in the first issue of Pilote, the magazine Goscinny founded in 1959. With Albert Uderzo, Goscinny created Asterix, which follows the adventures of a village of Gauls in the year 50BC as they bullishly resist Roman occupation.

They fend off the Romans using a magic potion brewed by their druid Panoramix (named Getafix in the English translations) which temporarily gives those who drink it superhuman strength.

There is the eponymous protagonist, a plucky little character who is entrusted with the missions. He is joined on his adventures by Obelisk, a menhir (standing stone) delivery man who is never far from said menhir. Other characters accompany them on their various sorties and their various exclamations include: “by Jupiter!”, “by Toutatis!”

The Asterix annuals, adored by children and adults alike, sent the feisty Gauls on madcap adventures.

There is Asterix in Britain in which they travel here to help the English in their fight against the Romans. A generous smattering of “rathers” as well as finishing every sentence with “what!” just about completes all the stereotypes the French have of the English. Similarly, Asterix in Switzerland riffs on cheese, punctuality, and neutrality.

Goscinny and Uderzo worked on some 24 Asterix books together and even on some of the films. By the time of Goscinny’s death in 1977 total sales in France of Asterix were said to have been more than 55 milion copies. On his death one obituarist wrote that is was “as if the Eiffel Tower had fallen down”.

Goscinny’s books have sold 500 million copies worldwide and his work (which includes among others, Lucky Luke with Morris, the Belgian cartoonist Maurice De Bevere) has been translated in 150 languages as well as 100 film adaptations. Despite this, the man himself has remained somewhat in the background.

Born in Paris in 1926 to immigrant Eastern European Jewish parents (from Poland and Ukraine), Goscinny spent his childhood in Argentina before moving to New York as a young man. It was here that he and learned from such the likes of Harvey Kurtzman who is best known for co-founding writing and editing the satirical comic book Mad from 1952 until 1960 and Will Elder, the celebrated cartoonist and Mad contributor.

On his return to Europe Goscinny founded the Franco-Belgian comic magazine, Pilote, which like Mad, was aimed at adults. And so began his career as a cartoonist.

An accomplished artist in his own right (his war-time illustration of both Churchill and Stalin are included in the exhibition), this lent him the ability to work so well with other artists to create such vivid work. He understood them.

In his writing, he was not just creating the narrative, but seeing how the images and the text would unfold together. It was a seamless collaboration.

His groundbreaking cartoons, Asterix in particular, brought an energy and a joie de vivre that is palpable even years later.

It was this playfulness that Goscinny was so keen to capture. When asked why the books were so popular he responded: “because he does funny things, and that’s all. Our only ambition is to have fun.”

A little bit more fun, as well as clips from some of the films, would have certainly helped to animate this rather text-heavy, but admittedly, very informative exhibition at the Jewish Museum. There are more than 100 items on display together for the first time in the UK including Goscinny’s trusty typewriter. Despite such quibbles, in truth if this exhibition switches just one person on to the joys of Asterix then, by Jupiter! it will have more than done its job.

• Asterix in Britain: Life and Work of René Goscinny is at the Jewish Museum, 129-131 Albert Street, NW1 7NB, until September 30, 2018. See jewishmuseum.org.uk

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