ASTERIX is where it's at:
when Liz Taylor and Richard Burton were the planet's icons the show-stopping story was Astérix and Cleopatra (1963); with the swinging sixties and World Cup fever in full fling the irreductible cartoon Gaul went to London for Asterix chez les Bretons (1966); as the USA was preparing to celebrate its bicentenary Astérix was anachronistically imitating the Statue of Liberty in Astérix and the Great Crossing (1975). And this coming Thursday sees the publication of the next exciting instalment of the world's best selling book series.
The Astérix series was created in a Paris café in 1959 by best pals René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo. It was to be the flagship strip for a Gallic update of Mad, the new Pilote magazine, the publication that retrospectively is credited with taking French comics, and potentially comics worldwide, into adulthood, going on to become a cultural form worthy of the Ninth Art—Neuvième Art—accolade, and currently the subject of an exhibition, Astérix à la BnF, in France's national library.
Astérix chez les Pictes, to be released neext simultaneously in 23 languages—including Gaelic and Scots - will be the 35th album in the series originally drawn by Uderzo and scripted by Goscinny, until Uderzo took over both roles following Goscinny's premature death in 1977. Unlike Hergé for Tintin, the authors decided that Astérix would continue after them. Astérix chez les Pictes is therefore a landmark of menhir proportions in that it is the work of neither founder, with Jean-Yves Ferri providing the storyline and Didier Conrad the pictures, although the 86-year-old Uderzo has had a strongly paternal overseeing eye.
The choice of Scotland has a political dimension on a scale comparable with the 1980 Asterix and the Great Divide, where the ditch that separated the Gaul's village in two was an unmistakable reference to the Berlin Wall. Yet despite being solicited by all parties from the Communists to the Front National, Goscinny and Uderzo have always refused to dish out any politically-affiliated magic potion. That has not stopped one of the most popular readings being that of Astérix as De Gaulle, the little man with brains not brawn, who stands up against the empire of the American cultural invader by saying "non" to NATO and surviving on France's number one national product, wine, a magic potion if ever there was one, and a fine antidote to Coca Cola, on which the French parliament passed a banning motion in 1950. It is perhaps fitting therefore that on his trip to Scotland in June for a University of Glasgow conference and the album's first publicity bash, Jean-Yves Ferri imitated the General's stance on Quebec by proclaiming: "Vive l'Écosse libre."
Although a closely-guarded secret, we know that Astérix chez les Pictes will be a colourful tartan of Scottish clichés, from in-clan fighting, to whisky, bagpipes, kilts and the Loch Ness Monster. This is not the first time, however, that Nessie has starred in a bande dessinée. Jean-Claude Forest's Barbarella is an intergalactic icon, but her equally sexy brunette counterpart, Hypocrite, star of Hypocrite et le monstre du Loch Ness (1971), shed her clothes in the Highlands. Outer space and Inner Hebrides were also two poles of exoticism for Tintin, who, prior to landing on the Moon in 1950, had donned a kilt in The Black Island (first version 1937), arguably the key album in the series, the only one that Hergé reworked twice, and the first in which the boy scout detective fully embraced an alien culture.
The fascination continues as the current generation of French graphic novelists - Tanitoc, Nikola Witko, Frank Giroud, Joseph Béhé and Sandra Marrs are just a few names worth googling - give seemingly disproportionate attention to a nation of five million. Of course the world's eyes are turning towards us as we prepare to make a decision that could counter empire-based globalisation, but more generally Scotland boasts some of the last European unspoilt wildernesses, and as such more than ever is a truly visual country.
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