With a face that could’ve launched a thousand ships, Monica Bellucci positively smoulders on screen as Queen Cleopatra in Asterix and Obelix: Mission Cleopatra, now available on SBS On Demand. No surprises given the exotic scenery and Bellucci’s myriad of form-fitting haute couture, but when released in 2002, Mission Cleopatra was the most expensive, and second most successful, French film ever made.
And it all started on the page, where those BC-era Gallic heroes – Asterix and Obelix – came alive.
Time spent reading heavily-thumbed library copies of Asterix stuck together with masking tape is a tween-age rite-of-passage ranking alongside slumber parties, fumbled first kisses and trampoline injuries.
For those looking to reconnect with their childhood reading passions, or influence another generation, Asterix has real appeal. Much of the humour, history and cultural allusions is pitched way above your eight-year-old self. Writer René Goscinny and illustrator Albert Uderzo dreamt up complicated characters and scenarios that were aimed at kids but never excluded adults – an inspired world of politics, puns, menhirs and magic potion.
They represent France’s greatest literary export – translated into 111 languages and more than 350 million copies sold globally. Since 1959 there’s been 36 Asterix books - and these are the best:
1. Asterix and Cleopatra (1965)
Billed as the greatest story ever drawn, Asterix and Cleopatra is a pastiche of Elizabeth Taylor’s 1963 movie epic, Cleopatra. Ironically, it’s served as the source material for two of its own films – a 1968 animation and Monica Bellucci’s 2002 blockbuster. The book’s Cleo looks like Liz with a bigger, pointier nose - “had it been shorter it would’ve changed the whole course of history” - and a similarly volatile temperament, but that’s where the parallels ends. This story rips along at a rapid rate compared to that famous flat four-hour filmic flop.
When Caesar flippantly intimates that Egypt has faded to being a second-rate nation, Queen Cleopatra makes a bet that her best architect, Edifis, can produce a palace every bit as impressive as the pyramids or Sphinx in only three months. Knowing it’s an impossible task, Edifis asks the Gaul druid Getafix for assistance with his magic. Asterix, Obelix and Dogmatix [making his book debut] journey to Egypt to help win the bet over Caesar. It’s full of Latin jokes, hieroglyphic puns and an excellent villain in Artifis.
2. Asterix the Legionary (1967)
The funniest book in the series, Asterix and the Legionary sees the Gaul duo join the Roman Army and it’s all for love. Obelix has fallen for the beautiful Panacea but quickly finds she is betrothed to another, Tragicomix, who has been conscripted into the Roman army and sent to Africa. Obelix volunteers to join the legionnaires and bring him back from the battlefields of the Roman civil war – but first he must get through the fierce training from Romans Nefarius Purpus and Dubius Status. Tragicomix is drawn as an homage to French actor Jean Marais, who melts the frame even in comic form.
3. Asterix in Britain (1966)
Obelix: What do you keep on saying what for?
Anticlimax: I say sir, don’t you know what’s what, what?
Always the most well-thumbed copy in the school library, Asterix in Britain tells the story of Asterix and Obelix's trek to Roman-occupied Blighty, as ruled by governor Encyclopaedius Britannicus. And the jokes come thick and fast about horrendous food, warm beer (as served by barkeep Dipsomaniax), double-decker buses, stiff-upper lips and the practice of stopping mid-day, even mid-fight, for “a cup of hot water with a spot of milk”. Writer Goscinny placed a note in the English version just in case the Brits took real offence at the French jibing.
The most famous cameo comes from a group of bards – none other than a blond version of The Beatles – that give lyre-bearing village throat-strangler Cacophonix a run in the noise stakes.
4. Obelix and Co. (1976)
The 23rd, and last, volume released before author René Goscinny's death in 1977, Obelix and Co. is the best satirical book of the Asterix series. Unable to beat the Gauls by means of war, the Romans attempt to divide and conquer by introducing capitalism into the village. A Roman economist, Caius Preposterus (a parody of French politician Jacques Chirac, who can’t help but pull focus on the pages with his timeless stream of capitalist credos), helps create a market for Obelix’s menhirs (those large upright standing stones that archaeologists and historians still can't figure out the purpose of). As the druid Getafix says, “The funny thing is, we still don't know what menhirs are for!"
Author Goscinny and illustrator Uderzo make a cameo appearance as shield bearers, as do comic duo Laurel and Hardy.
5. Asterix and Son (1983)
With Goscinny gone, artist Alberto Uderzo took care of both the drawing and the writing, with increasingly mixed results. His best effort was Asterix and Son (the 27th book in the series), which sees Asterix and Obelix having a deal with a baby who imbibes the Gauls’ magic potion and creates seven levels of chaos. It turns out the baby is Cleopatra and Caesar’s son (Ptolemy XV Caesarion), sent by Cleopatra to the Gauls village for protection from Brutus.
When Cleopatra does appear, she is drawn with a small nose rather than the huge, pointy beak she possessed in Asterix and Cleopatra. Maybe a sign that, in this volume, the course of history was being changed.
6. Asterix and the Roman Agent (1970)
A case of life imitating art. In the past decade, the behind-the-scenes world of Asterix has been in turmoil due to the bitter split involving Alberto Uderzo and his daughter, Sylvie. In 2007, Uderzo fired Sylvie and his son-in-law from his publishing company because of their "filial ingratitude and obsession with money". He also sold the Asterix rights to France’s biggest publisher and agreed that other writers/artists could continue Asterix after he’d died. In turn, Sylvie accused her father of selling off a "symbol of France's cultural heritage".
It’s a situation reflected in the 15th book, Asterix and the Roman Agent, which focuses on the traits of loyalty and trust. In this story it’s suggested to Caesar that causing internal conflict between the Gauls will lead to their breakdown. The Roman Agent who foments discord is Tortuous Convolvulus, who preys on mistrust and hidden grievances, and can divide families and friends with a couple of ill-chosen words.
7. Asterix and the Missing Scroll (2015)
For some, continuing Asterix after Goscinny’s death and Uderzo’s retirement is looked on with the same horror as a wax-faced Axl Rose fronting AC/DC. For others, it’s given the series the kick start to the heart it desperately needed, especially after the ridiculous flying carpet in Asterix and the Magic Carpet (1987) and, worse, extra-terrestrials in Asterix and the Falling Sky (2005). The Missing Scroll is the 36th book in the series and the second by new writer Jean-Yves Ferri and illustrator Didier Conrad.
They bring a new twist – the first direct satirical take on a specific real-life incident with a journalist named Confoundtheirpolitix (inspired by Julian Assange), who plays a major role in the story when a whistle-blower named Bigdatha (an allusion to Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning) passes secret info that could “make the Roman Empire tremble”. So, it’s propaganda and data leaks, Asterix-style. The postscript features a nice tip of the hat to the original creators, Goscinny and Uderzo.
Watch Asterix and Obelix: Mission Cleopatra right here: