Asterix in Britain
Medium: comic
Year: 1966
Writer: Rene Goscinny
Artist: Albert Uderzo
Keywords: Asterix, historical
Format: 44 pages
Website category: Comics
Review date: 5 May 2021
Asterix! I've always enjoyed Asterix. Goscinny and Uderzo did 26 Asterix books together, starting in 1961, but there are also eight by Uderzo as solo writer/artist and another four (so far) by Jean-Yves Ferri and Didier Conrad.
Asterix and Obelix are Gauls in the year 50 BC, beating up Roman soldiers and having adventures. Their druid, Getafix, can brew a magic potion to give them super-strength, so any fights are completely one-sided and played entirely for laughs. Asterix is the small, cunning one with a blonde moustache. Obelix is the big, fat, stupid one who loves fights and would be a bit worrying if you started taking these books seriously. Obelix loves violence and regards battles much as a child would a new toy shop.
(Violence is always harmless slapstick, by the way. Even when Roman commanders threaten their underlings with fatal punishments, it's always laughed off with a comedy punchline.)
It's more obviously a children's comic than Tintin, but it's also a lot funnier. The plotting's quite good, incidentally, and always has more than enough incident and setbacks to keep the story bubbling. (Theoretically, it could get hard to write for heroes as overwhelmingly powerful as Asterix and Obelix, but you never get that impression here.) Here, the lads get given a barrel of magic potion to take to their cousins in England.
(a) comedy Britons who talk like Bertie Wooster. (Well, in the English translation anyway.) They put battles on pause at 5 o'clock for a drink of afternoon hot water. They cook badly, drink warm beer and have regional clans who are clearly Scottish and Irish. This is far funnier than you'd think. They're hairy, spear-wielding barbarians, you see, which makes it amusing to see them "I say old chap"-ping each other and getting politely aggressive with a Roman platoon that didn't keep off the grass.
I loved the picture on p41, for instance, of Chief Mykingdomforanos in a winged battle helmet, saying "and now to sit back and wait for the Romans to attack!" ... while delicately holding a teacup and saucer.
(b) Romans, pirates, etc. getting the tables turned on them. This never stops being funny.
(c) Rugby. My goodness, the rugby. It should be terrifying, but you know that no one ever really gets hurt in this series. That huge bloke jumping repeatedly on a little bloke's head and half-burying it in the turf really shouldn't be funny... but it is. (Obelix's reaction: "We must take this nice game back to Gaul!") After that, I laughed out loud at the horror of a Roman centurion being thrown the ball in mid-match.
(d) Obelix being a big dumb loon. At one point, he gets steaming drunk.
The pirates include a caricatured black pirate who's... well, this is 1966. The best I can say is that he's not out of line with the book's cartoonish art style in general.
There are other 1960s-specific gags, e.g. the Beatles. ("That's a very popular group. They're top of the bardic charts.") Also, every so often, characters speak in Latin. I think we can safely say that fewer general readers know Latin today than would have been true sixty years ago.
The Romans have invaded England almost 100 years early. (Caesar never actually conquered it himself, despite conducting two campaigns there. Instead, he installed a puppet king. It was Cladius who actually invaded England properly, another hundred years later.)
Londinium exists, again 100 years early.
Obelix gets locked in the "Tower of Londinium" (founded in 1066 by the Normans).
Anticlimax has a jolly boat. This leads to some middling wordplay, but "jolly boat" is a real term from much later in history.
Rugby, tea, etc.
Obviously, though, none of this matters a jot. Bending history into pretzels and lampooning 20th century stereotypes is part of the comedy.
It's really good. I've always liked Asterix, but it's still nice to find that one's childhood favourites stand up. The jokes pop, the pace is excellent and it's a well-constructed comedic storyline. I also like Uderzo's artwork. It's well composed and framed, plays with its camera angles and is full of energy.
For what it's worth, this is one of the better-selling Asterix stories worldwide, but in the UK it's by far the most successful. The parody is affectionate and its stereotypes are flattering. (These Britons are calm, polite and always perfect gentlemen. Well, except on the rugby pitch.) It's great stuff.