Although I knew of the existence of both, I somehow managed to go through my entire childhood without ever reading a single book of The Adventures of Tintin or Asterix the Gaul. These exotic heroes from the Continent were well known in my younger days, mainly via the cartoon adaptations that crept up on TV in the summer holidays and although I saw both in the local library, I somehow managed to avoid ever reading of their exploits. Until now. For some inexplicable reason, I have chosen the fifth decade of my life to start exploring both Tintin and Asterix in chronological order. Although there are many more of the latter, his exploits are available in omnibus editions, so it might balance out a bit better. Let’s start at the beginning, shall we…?
THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN IN THE LAND OF THE SOVIETS
When I was young I used to draw a comic strip for my own amusement called Jim Danger. He was a James Bond rip-off spy and what characterised the story was that every time he got into a fast car or plane, it crashed and every time he went into an office building, it exploded. Reading Tintin in the Land of the Soviets reminded me of nothing so much as Jim Danger, because that is exactly what this first outing for the Belgian boy adventurer, published in 1931, is like. Even with my very limited knowledge of Hergé’s famous comic character, I can tell that Land of the Soviets is atypical for the series; for starters, it looks nothing like that which follows – the artwork is simplistic and presented in stark black and white, with Tintin himself being of indeterminate age, but not appearing as boyish as he does in later stories. He’s also quite physically violent, gleefully duffing up Reds at the drop of a hat with a surprisingly arrogant attitude for a young lad in a strange land.
The ‘Soviets’ are presented as broad stereotypes, all mob-caps and bushy beards and unfortunately this type of racial generalisation is something which is slow to change in the Tintin books, leading to much greater controversy in future volumes. None of the supporting characters associated with the Tintin series appear in this volume, so no Captain Haddock, no Professor Calculus and no Thompson & Thompson; they all come much later, the only recurring feature in this story apart from Tintin himself is his little white dog Snowy. In several of these early books, Snowy speaks (although not even Tintin can hear him), usually to pass a critical comment upon his master’s choices. When more of the regular characters started appearing, Snowy stopped speaking, but to be honest it is a welcome relief in this story, as otherwise it’s just Tintin giving a constant monologue of whatever punch-up, car crash or plane crash he’s involved in at that moment.
There’s not a lot of story in Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, it mainly rolls on from one perilous situation to the other and even if I didn’t know that it was originally a serialised strip, I’d be able to tell by reading it because it’s quite samey and repetitive. Fortunately, I know enough about The Adventures of Tintin (mainly from the old cartoon series shown during my youth) to know that this story is something of an anachronism in the canon; if I didn’t, I’d be tempted to stop here, because it’s not tremendously engaging. Hergé wasn’t particularly fond of it either; electing not to go back and recreate a colour version of the story, as he did with most of his other early strips, which is why it’s the only one in black and white. Not a great start to my marathon Tintin read, but worth it for its historical value… and unfortunately there are more problems to come with the next album in the series, but that’s a story for next time.
ASTERIX OMNIBUS 1: ASTERIX THE GAUL, ASTERIX AND THE GOLDEN SICKLE, ASTERIX AND THE GOTHS
If Tintin gets off to a faltering start, then Asterix hits the ground running. Published 30 years later in neighbouring France, the adventures of the super-powered 1st century BC Frenchman and his friends arrive fully formed and in glorious colour. The first story, Asterix the Gaul, introduces all of the familiar characters, although Obelix is little more than one of the ensemble at first and Asterix spends most of this adventure teamed up with Getafix the druid. In this first adventure it is established that Asterix gets his powers from a magic potion brewed by Getafix and the story revolves around the two of them trying to stop the amazing brew from falling into the hands of the invading Romans. Although Asterix the Gaul was created in its original French in 1961, the British translation dates from 1969 and there are several sly countercultural references in there, not least among them the name ‘Getafix’ (Panoramix in the original French and Magigimmix in the more coy American release of the album).
Asterix and the Golden Sickle is more in the mode that we traditionally associate with the series, with Obelix accompanying the diminutive hero on an adventure to obtain a new golden sickle for the druid Getafix. You can instantly see why they stuck with Asterix and Obelix as the ideal partnership; the two characters spark off each other beautifully and they have the perfect big guy / little guy comedy team physicality. Once again, the British translation shines with a treasure trove of sly witticisms; we’ve always been rather good at this business of taking other countries’ masterpieces and putting our own cheeky slant on the translation, from The Magic Roundabout to Monkey. Perhaps this is where Asterix succeeds over Tintin to a degree, with the latter being perhaps a little too respectful to the source material for its own good. I’m happy to be proven wrong as my odyssey continues, but my impression of these two classic series so far is that Tintin is a trifle dry in comparison to its cheeky successor.
In Asterix and the Goths, Asterix and Obelix escort Getafix to a druid’s convention, where a demonstration of the strength potion is witnessed by a gang of marauding Goths from Germania, who kidnap the druid. The Germans aren’t painted in the best light, coming across as brutish, goose-stepping invaders, but you have to remember that this was less than 20 years after World War II and both Goscinny and Underzo would have lived through the Nazi occupation of France. In one scene, a Goth swears with the traditional comic strip trope of a collection of symbols being used and one of those symbols looks suspiciously like a swastika. The English edition contains what could be said to be the first ever typesetting pun, as the dialogue of the Goths is printed in the traditional font Serif Gothic Extra Bold; it’s a joke that takes some sticking to, as the font is rather unwieldy and has to be printed quite small to be read in some of the speech bubbles. So far there has been no drop in quality as the series progresses, which is great news.
It’s hard to believe that Asterix is 60 years old. Albert Underzo’s artwork is fantastically modern and stands up much better than a lot of what was coming out of Great Britain or America at the time; it’s beautifully clean of line and has incredible movement. It has a real sense of artistry and you can imagine the artists on Britain’s Beano and Dandy looking enviously at the latest Asterix album and thinking, “I could do that if I had 5 weeks to produce a strip instead of 5 days!” As well as being entertaining, René Goscinny’s scripts are also quietly educational. The Roman Empire was one of the main topics of history lessons in my day and since Asterix was pretty much the only comic book available through those school book clubs we used to have, I can imagine many discussions down the pub ending in the History teacher buying the English teacher a pint. I mean, who in the UK can honestly say they knew what a Menhir was without reading Asterix…?
TO BE CONTINUED…