Formats Unpacked: Asterix Comic Book

How a comic book series became an international hit using a traditional TV structure.

Hi All,

When I started Formats Unpacked I knew I had there was big gap in my knowledge around comic books. If push comes to shove, I can write about most popular formats. But a comic book? No! I would need your help with that. So I put a call out very early on. And then another. And another.

Given how passionate fans of comic books can be, I’m surprised it’s taken almost two years to be unpacking our first. Will Bidstrup is a big fan of comic books and asked if he could unpack Asterix? Will likes to learn through play, tinkering, writing, making music and games. Check out his work on his website and follow him on Twitter.

Over to Will…

What’s it called?

Asterix (comic book)

What’s the format?

The adventures of Asterix the Gaul and his friends are told in 44-page comic books. Each story is self-contained and the series can be read in any order. The format is embellished with strong stylistic conventions which separate it from its peers. 

What’s the magic that makes it special?

The magic of this format is that it is in essence a sitcom but in comic book form. The sitcom format is based around three essential ingredients that make them work:

  1. A situation - For example a group of Friends, mostly congregating in an apartment

  2. The cast of characters face challenges from the outside world - The One with the Monkey, The One with the Fake Monica, The One with the Jellyfish

  3. Despite these challenges, the characters learn nothing by the end - Joey is still stupid

Asterix adheres to this recipe quite closely. 

Firstly, there’s the situation. Each book starts in the same time and same place - “The year is 50 BC. Gaul is entirely occupied by the Romans. Well, not entirely…One small village of indomitable Gauls still holds out against the invaders.” 

Then there’s a cast of regular characters with their own unique traits and personalities - Asterix is small but cunning, whilst Oblix never stops eating but is very strong. These traits provide humour and are useful in resolving each episode’s main conflict, which often comes as a threat to The Village or its allies. Together they save the day. 

Finally, despite gains or losses made during the story, at the end of each book, the situation resets on the final page with Asterix, Oblix, and the rest of the villagers feasting on wild boar. All is well. 

Writer and Illustrator Goscinny and Uderzo had some experience in advertising and probably watched enough TV for the sitcom to be at least a peripheral influence. Whether consciously or not, they chose to emulate this format. It was a good choice.

Another reason the Asterix format has been so popular around the world is that it has strong visual comedy at its heart - an essential for international appeal (see Mr Bean). It’s much more difficult to be funny across languages and cultures when the jokes rely on verbal (and cultural) understanding. The print format was also a bonus for international readers who may want to take their time and learn about history and language while being entertained. 

Asterix became one of the best-selling entertainment products created in France, translated into 100 languages and selling hundreds of millions of copies across the world. The level of research and detail also made Asterix attractive to educators, always hungry for Trojan horses to deliver learning in the guise of entertainment. 

Favourite episode or example?

My pick is Asterix and Cleopatra where the heroes travel to Egypt to help a friend avoid being thrown to sacred crocodiles. They negotiate the various intrigues and complexities of the court of Cleopatra, learning about local customs and language along the way (alone, the use of hieroglyphics as speech is worthy of your attention). The format is followed. Obelix is seen carving a menhir in a style he has seen in Egypt - he might have changed as a result of this experience - but these changes are never referenced in the stories to come.

Thanks, Will.

It would be great to have another comic book featured before we hit our second birthday in May. Does any want to unpack comics such as The Wicked + The Divine, Ghost World, or the work of Chris Ware? Are there any comic formats that you think the world needs to know about or appreciate more? If so, get in touch.

See you all next week.

Hugh

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