My Top Five Favourite Comic Books: #2 (joint position) Tintin by Hergé (Georges Remi)


Those who know me will be surprised to find Tintin in joint position at number two instead of in the hotspot at number one. I’m a HUGE fan of Tintin and I’ve got the tattoos to prove it. But number two it is, and as with Asterix, I’ve chosen one book to represent the entire oeuvre. In this case, however, I mean the oeuvre minus Hergé’s more offensive early offerings – we all know which titles they are, and a great deal has already been written on the subject, so enough said. The book I’ve chosen in this instance is The Red Sea Sharks. Why this one in particular? I could have chosen Tintin in Tibet – the only book without a villain – or the wonderfully farcical Tintin-Stays-At-Home story, The Castafiore Emerald. But The Red Sea Sharks it has to be, mainly because the whole gang is here. Every character gets a look-in: even Jolyon Wagg has his moment at the end, and, as always, his chief purpose is to annoy Captain Haddock and deprive the poor man of some much-needed peace and quiet. There are, in fact, some Tintin characters we don’t want to see too much of: Jolyon is one of them and so is the ghastly Abdullah, who, thankfully, is not around for too long, and even he is useful in providing plenty of scope for Captain Haddock to fall downstairs, lose his temper, shout a lot, have things blow up in his face, and so on, and it’s all just so funny.


In fact, Captain Haddock steals the show in this book, full stop. He is ‘onscreen’, as it were, for as much time as Tintin, and he makes us laugh all the way through. He is the subject of a wonderful Medusa joke on page 39 when he falls into the sea – for the second time – and emerges with an octopus on his head. (The characters are on a raft at this point, of course, and whenever you get a raft, you invariably get a reference to Géricault’s marvellous painting, The Raft of the Medusa.) When Captain Haddock spots Bianca Castafiore aboard the yacht that rescues the castaways, his reaction is to ask whether or not they should ‘hop back on the raft’. On the frigate, he yells obscenities at the slave trader through a megaphone until this ‘trafficker in human flesh’ is well out of earshot. And an especial bonus: the frigate is captained by the Best Bad Guy in Tintin, Captain Haddock’s old first mate Allan.


Once Allan and his crew have deserted the frigate, Captain Haddock demonstrates exactly why he bears the title of Captain: he knows what he is doing, and it is he, not Tintin, who runs the show from that point onwards. He gets the Ramona’s engines going again after the fire and manoeuvres the ship safely through a barrage of deadly torpedoes.


This book has everything: plane crashes; bombs that ‘tick tick tick’; punch-ups; daring escapes by our heroes dressed as women; chases on horseback; practically every vehicle you can imagine, including a raft; lots of different kinds of weapons; oodles of suspense and let’s not forget the sumptuous settings.


‘By Toutatis!’ versus ‘Great Snakes!’: Asterix and Tintin Compared

Many have asked me why I bother with Tintin, it being their opinion that Asterix is far superior. I’ve lumped Asterix and Tintin together at number two because the truth is I just can’t separate them. I’ve been reading these books since before my age could be counted in double figures and I get more and more out of them all the time. I find another joke every time I read Asterix, and when I revisit my Tintin books, I always find something else to appreciate in the beauty and accuracy of the drawings. Hergé was a pioneer of the ligne claire style, and the cleanliness of his lines is complimented by his use of flat colours. Scott McCloud refers to Hergé’s achievement on page 190 of Understanding Comics:

‘In Europe Hergé captured the magic of such flat colors with unprecedented subtlety. Hergé created a kind of democracy of form in which no shape was any less important than any other – a completely objective world. Comics printing was superior in Europe and for Hergé, flat colors were a preference, not a necessity.’


So I consider it a mistake to dismiss Tintin out of hand without considering the extent of Hergé’s artistic achievement. Nor do I wish to denigrate Uderzo’s artistry: in fact, I find it very difficult to compare Asterix and Tintin at all. But I’ve had a go here under a few different headings, because if nothing else, the observations below will help demonstrate why these two old favourites are united at number two in my top five.

First appearance: To begin with, these two characters emerged at very different stages of comic book history. Tintin was in there right at the start, appearing first in 1929 when the comic book was very young indeed; Asterix appeared some thirty years later when comics as a creative form had really found their feet. The early Tintin books are rough and ready, yes – but this sort of narrative told in art form (or sequential art) was something brand new.


Audience: Asterix and Tintin books were essentially targeting different corners of the market. Asterix was always aimed predominantly at the adult reader, whereas Tintin began life as part of a children’s supplement in a newspaper. This is not to say that Asterix cannot be read and enjoyed by children or that Tintin is too childish for adults: neither of these statements is true, but if someone is going to set about trying to compare the two, this is something that should be borne in mind.


History and Geography: Asterix and Tintin differ wildly in their treatment of these subjects. In Asterix, everything is scarily accurate; in fact, I learnt most of my history from Asterix, to be honest. I took my copy of Asterix in Corsica with me when my husband and I spent our holiday there two years ago, and Corsica really does look the way it does in Uderzo’s beautiful drawings. Tintin, on the other hand, plays relatively fast and loose with both history and geography. The books feature a couple of made-up countries, Syldavia and Borduria, and Tintin wasn’t the first man on the moon – although obviously, Tintin’s moon-landing pre-dates the real thing. Some of the events in The Blue Lotus have a fragile basis in historical fact, but on the whole, Hergé freely invents whatever he needs to invent to tell a good story.

Style: I’ve already mentioned ligne claire, and Hergé’s mania for pictorial accuracy is well-known: his archives contain hundreds and thousands of pictures which he used as a reference point for his drawings. Asterix is more cartoon-like in its execution and Uderzo captures a great deal of expression in those cartoon human faces. Tintin himself has a limited expressive range – he’s only two dots for eyes, a button nose and a line for a mouth, after all. In fact, it’s amazing what Hergé does with those few dots and lines.


Humour: In Tintin, the humour is derived mostly from slapstick, the winding-up of Captain Haddock, Professor Calculus’s deafness and the verbal antics of the Thom(p)son Twins; in Asterix, we laugh largely at the ingenious word-play.


Development: Asterix doesn’t develop in the way that Tintin does. Tintin doesn’t have any kind of background or a personal history outside of the oeuvre, but he gradually collects a ‘family’ around him and sets up home with Captain Haddock and Professor Calculus at Marlinspike. When we first meet Tintin, he is a reporter, or journalist, living and working alone. By the end of the last Tintin book, he is in a very different position. Asterix, on the other hand, doesn’t develop and doesn’t need to: he just is. Uderzo’s forays into Asterix’s childhood with Obelix produced some rather unsuccessful books aimed at a much younger readership. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and Uderzo would have done better to stick with the winning formula: the village is threatened, Asterix and Obelix beat up lots of Romans, the story ends with an enormous banquet and the bard gagged and bound beneath the tree so he can’t ruin everyone’s evening by singing.

This is why Asterix and Tintin have to be together at number two. They are too different to be really comparable, and I can’t separate them. So what’s going to be number one? There’s a clue for the beady-eyed hidden somewhere in this post…

My Top Five Favourite Comic Books: #2 (joint position) The Asterix Books by Goscinny and Uderzo


I started reading Asterix during my middle school years, and I well remember the scuffling and elbowing which regularly took place in the school library as everyone fought to grab at the titles on the Asterix shelf. My Aunty Clo and Uncle Jim bought me Asterix the Gaul, my first Asterix book, for Christmas in 1980 when I was nine years old, and I have read and re-read these books ever since. I saved my pocket money to buy them from WHSmith when I had to give up on the library because everyone else’s elbows always seemed to be far sharper and harder than mine and I could never get to the Asterix books without suffering various blows to my weedy little person. In those days – and this may still be the case – Asterix books came in two sizes, and you could buy a copy of the book in a size slightly smaller than A5 which cost 75p. These days, I have in my possession every Asterix book in both English and French. The books are scruffy, foxed and yellowed, but all that’s just proof of how long I’ve had them, how often I’ve read them and how much I love them.

I say ‘every Asterix book’, but that’s not entirely true. Goscinny was the partner who wrote the scripts and the quality of the storywriting rapidly faded after his untimely death: Asterix in Belgium was the last book Goscinny and Uderzo produced together. Uderzo still struggles gamely on alone, but the Asterix books have come to be aimed at a much younger market and all the joy of the original has vanished. The drawings are as beautiful as ever, but the sophisticated wordplay is long gone. There’s a new book due out very soon, if it’s not out already, and I’m not going to read it. I just can’t bear to see what has become of Asterix. I stuck with it for as long as I could, and I’ve enjoyed some recent compilations: Asterix and the Class Act, for example, which appeared in 2003, brought together some previously unpublished short stories, and 2007 saw the publication of Astérix et ses Amis, in which a number of artists paid tribute to this character with their own very amusing versions of the plucky little Gaul and his companion envelopé. But to be honest, everything from Asterix and Obelix All At Sea onwards just hasn’t been up to scratch.

I’ll return now, though, to the good stuff, because I have, after all, placed Asterix in joint second place as one of My Top Five Favourite Comic Books. I’ve chosen one Asterix book dating from the years of the Goscinny/Uderzo partnership to represent the entire oeuvre, rather than trying to write about the whole lot in one blog post. The book I’ve chosen is Asterix and the Roman Agent, or La Zizanie in French; semer la zizanie is to sow discord, or to stir up ill-feeling, and a ‘zizanie’ is ‘a type of invasive weed’. The name of the Roman Agent – Convolvulus – is the Latin term for bindweed, and anyone who has bindweed in their garden knows how quickly it spreads and how destructive it is: it takes over and chokes everything else. It’s extremely difficult to get rid of bindweed once you’ve got it, because it’s also incredibly pervasive. On the subject of the Agent himself, Peter Kessler notes in The Complete Guide to Asterix that ‘[t]his is the only adventure that includes a ‘symbolic’ character. Convolvulus, the Roman Agent, is the physical embodiment of social disruption. Injecting him into the Gaulish Village has the effect of a moral tale about the danger of gossip and deceit’ (p. 41).


I’ve chosen The Roman Agent for several reasons: the story is excellent, tightly constructed and beautifully executed. The repetition of a scene involving the village women standing in a queue for fish provides a neat frame for the arrival and departure of the titular zizanie, and of course, it’s very funny: the reader knows there’s going to be a fight as soon as Unhygienix’s fish appear in any Asterix book, and frankly, I’d be hard pushed to name anything funnier than Uderzo’s fabulous drawings of the Gauls slapping each other with fish. In fact, The Roman Agent contains some of Uderzo’s most amusing images: the mother hen and her row of six little chicks calmly watching yet another fight on page 20 for example, and the bemused expressions on the faces of the pirates on page 10 when the Romans are too busy bickering with each other to pay the pirates any attention. The book also has some of the funniest lines: when spying on the Roman camp, Fulliautomatix warns Unhygienix ‘Try not to smell!’ (p. 27); the captain of the ship escorting Convolvulus to Gaul says of the look-out in the crow’s-nest that ‘No one’s to listen to him! He’s been sent to Coventrium!’ (p. 9) and on page 30, Obelix complains ‘No one ever explains anything to me! They just keep me around because I’m ornamental!’ Obelix isn’t the only one in the dark and the writers milk the ensuing confusion for every last drop of humour: the Romans are too thick to keep up with Convolvulus’s plans and no one knows whether they’ve got the magic potion or not.


So we have some tight plotting, lots of laughs, and a couple of interesting touches to boot: Uderzo is always very inventive with speech bubbles and in this book we see the colour of the bubbles change from white to pale green to dark green as the zizanie does his work and everyone gets angry. We also see this happen in reverse: on page 18, Obelix storms out of Asterix’s hut after an argument, but he calms down as he marches away and the colour of his speech bubbles fades back to white before Obelix rushes back to make up with Asterix. On page 36, flowers appear in the Roman Centurion’s speech bubble to indicate a false honeyed tone when he asks ‘Did you by any chance fail to understand me?’ ‘Well, to be honest…’ replies the legionary. ‘Get on with it!’ shouts the Centurion (bold lettering always denotes shouting, of course). And no critique of The Roman Agent would be complete without a mention of the lovely self-referential moment on page 14 when Impedimenta bellows ‘Well, let me tell you that if anyone should ever be fool enough to write the story of our village, they won’t be calling it the adventures of Vitalstatistix the Gaul!!!’ This is just wonderful, because now the reader too is involved in the spreading calumny: on the page following, when Geriatrix’s wife claims that Mrs Asterix, if she existed, should be the first lady of the village, we know this to be true, because the books we read are entitled ‘The Adventures of Asterix the Gaul’ (not Vitalstatistix), so we are forced in this way to take sides. And as a result, we would be in line for a smack around the chops with one of those fish.


As well as the moments that make The Roman Agent special, all the usual things we’ve come to expect from an Asterix book are here too: lots of fights, obviously, including fish fights and cat fights; the pirates, who this time scuttle their own ship; the banquet at the end following one final punch-up; Julius Caesar getting grief from the Senate…it’s all here. And what’s nice about this book is that the Romans provide us with at least as much entertainment as the Gauls. There are gags galore involving psychological warfare (hitting someone with a club), and the Romans’ ability to bicker amongst themselves is seemingly endless. The Romans come out of this book very well, because Convolvulus is the main baddie – but there’s even scope for a little sympathy for Convolvulus. It’s a nicely balanced book and a worthy representative of the Asterix canon.

For more about Asterix on Aunty Muriel’s Blog, see Asterix in Translation: The Genius of Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge.


Kessler, P., 1995. The Complete Guide to Asterix. London: Hodder.

Asterix in translation: the genius of Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge

As promised in a previous blog entry, what follows is a discussion of the translation of some of my favourite Asterix gags. The translators’ modus operandi was to include as many jokes in the English translation as existed in the original French text, and on occasions, this task required a great deal of ingenuity on the part of the incomparable Bell and Hockridge.

I’ve included scans of the original illustrations – I’m not sure where I stand as far as image copyright is concerned, but I’m happy to remove the pics if requested to do so.

I.          The Raft of the Medusa


First and foremost, the visual joke is in the artistic parody of Géricault’s famous painting, The Raft of the Medusa, shown above. The French text draws attention to this parody through the pirate chief’s use of the word médusé, in its phonological resemblance to the word ‘Medusa’. This resemblance is lost when the pirate chief’s words are rendered in English, however: médusé(e) translates approximately as ‘dumbfounded’. So, if the chief’s words are to carry out the same function in the English version of the joke, they must be changed, and the altered version reads: ‘We’ve been framed by Jericho!’

There are two references to Géricault’s painting here: (i) the chief speaks of having been ‘framed’, to mean ‘duped’ or ‘set up’, but the reference here is also to the physical frame of a painting, (ii) Jericho/Géricault: the ingenious translators have even managed to retain the joke based on phonological resemblance. The caption, ‘Ancient Gaulish artist’, alerts the reader unfamiliar with Géricault’s work to the parody of the painting.

The words had to be completely changed in order to retain the joke, but the translated version entirely captures the spirit of the original.

II.        The melon gag from Asterix in Britain

The joke in the French version centres on the word melon. In French, ‘melon’ means both the fruit and a bowler hat. A half-melon is similar in shape to a bowler hat, as you can see in the picture. In this frame, the French are mocking the English way of dressing, or at least, the French idea of the English way of dressing: the chap to the left of the frame carries an umbrella, a fact which is discussed by Asterix and his English cousin; the grocer and his customer to the right of the frame are discussing the inflated price of a melon, thus adding the bowler hat to the umbrella, and – voilà! – we have an English businessman.


In English, the melon/bowler hat joke is lost. To keep a joke of some kind in the frame, the melon is no longer too expensive, this time it is rotten: ‘Oh, so this melon’s bad is it?’ This allows the customer to respond to the grocer’s outburst with the words ‘Rather, old fruit!’, thus creating a joke about rotten fruit and the refined speech of the English, as perceived by the French. The elegant and cultured ‘Rather, old fruit!’ is a rendering of the polished response in the French version – instead of ‘Oui,’ or even worse, ‘Ouai,’ the customer replies ‘Il est.’


Unfortunately, the tidy picture of the English businessman is lost. In addition, the coherency of the frame is also lost: in the French version, both sides of the frame work together to produce the joke (umbrella + bowler hat), but in the translated version, the man carrying the umbrella no longer has anything to do with the irate grocer and his customer. Nevertheless, ‘Rather, old fruit,’ still makes me laugh every time.

III.       The godwottery joke: Asterix in Britain     

The joke in the French version takes the form of a parody of English syntax. In English, the adjective is placed before the noun to which it refers, ‘the white house’, but in French the adjective usually comes after the noun, ‘la maison blanche’. The Jolitorax/Anticlimax character – Asterix’s English cousin – routinely places the adjective before the noun: la magique potion, les romaines armées, a practice which invites Obelix to ask ‘Pourquoi parlez-vous á l’envers?’ Obelix wants to know why this Englishman keeps putting words the wrong way round. In the third frame following this exchange, Obelix mischievously makes fun of Jolitorax by reversing his own word order: ‘Vous avez vu mon chien petit?’ (‘Have you seen my little dog?’) Two things to note here: firstly, petit(e) is one of a small number of adjectives that come before the noun in French (‘mon petit chien’ is the correct phrase). Secondly, Obelix uses the formal vous form, when Asterix characters habitually use the informal tu to address all and sundry, including Julius Caesar himself. Therefore, Obelix is mocking both the syntax of English through his reversal of word-order, and the formality of the English in his use of the vous form. (Click on the image to enlarge.) Godwottery_French_FINAL


Obviously, this joke is not going to work in English. We do not have an equivalent to the tu/vous distinction, and it would not make sense to the English reader if the usual noun/adjective order were to be reversed. To preserve the joke about the way in which English people speak, Anticlimax expresses himself in an excessively formal way, peppering his speech with interjections such as ‘I say,’ and ‘What’. Obelix is led to ask ‘What do you keep on saying what for?’ to which Anticlimax replies, ‘I say, sir, don’t you know what’s what, what?’ (Click on the image to enlarge.)godwottery_english_final.jpg


To pave the way for a magnificent joke a little later, Asterix’s invitation to Anticlimax is subtly and more specifically reworded: ‘viens chez moi’ becomes ‘Come and see round my house and garden’. The French authors poke fun at the English obsession with gardening at several points in Asterix in Britain, and the exchange we see here is the first example of this. Anticlimax replies, ‘A garden is a lovesome thing, God wot!’ to which Obelix’s rejoinder is ‘What’s wot, what?’ Of note here are the following points:

i) Godwottery – not a word in common use! – means excessively elaborate speech or writing, especially regarding gardens. Hence the use of ‘lovesome’, noted in the COD as adj. literary, and therefore not a word commonly used in everyday speech.

ii) God wot: ‘wot’ is an archaic form of ‘know’, so Anticlimax’s comment could be paraphrased as ‘God knows”.

iii) ‘What’s wot, what?’: an echo of Anticlimax’s ‘what’s what, what?’ in the third frame at the top of the page. This is a joke which works on both a phonological level, because it is an echo, and on a graphological level: Obelix could not possibly hear Anticlimax’s alternative spelling of ‘wot’.

It’s all very clever stuff, and certainly rewards the extra bit of investigation necessary to rootle out everything that’s going on here.

IV.       The beer gag: Asterix in Switzerland

This joke is both an elaborate pun and a visual gag. It works slightly better in English because the translators got a little bit more mileage out of it.

In French, Abraracourcix/Vitalstatistix complains ‘J’aurais l’impression de n’être qu’un demi-chef si…’; Astérix picks up on the idea of ‘demi-chef’ for ‘Il est en train de servir un demi.’ This refers to a half-litre of beer, served under the metric system in France. (Click on the image to enlarge.)Half-pint_French_FINAL


In English, Vitalstatistix complains that with only one warrior to carry him, he feels like a ‘half-pint chief’. A sentence is added to his outburst in the next frame, ‘I’m a mild man but this makes me feel very bitter!’ which later allows Asterix to quip, ‘He’s just serving a half-pint of mild and bitter.’ (Click on the image to enlarge.)half-pint_english_final.jpg


The visual gag is of course Obelix holding the chief aloft on his shield as a waiter would carry a tray of drinks, the most elegant touch being the cloth draped over Obelix’s arm: he was going to use this cloth to polish his menhirs but now the cloth completes the picture of Obelix as a waiter. Vitalstatistix, the half-pint of mild and bitter, retains an expression of nobility befitting a Gaulish chief, even though his subjects are quite literally rolling on the floor laughing.

I love it. I love it all. I love it all now as much as I ever did.