A magic potion made to last

It has been half a century since Albert Uderzo and Rene Goscinny introduced Asterix to the world. Now, controversy reigns.

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Zut alors! This month, the lovable French cartoon series Asterix is 50 years old: that's five whole decades of the indomitable warrior with a magnificent moustache, who pits his wits against the Roman empire. And just as good old Asterix and his fulsome friend Obelix defend Gaul against the marauding Romans in 50BC, so these unique stories have been celebrated as a kind of bulwark against the Americanisation of French culture. Vive la différence, indeed.

But did the cartoonist Albert Uderzo and the writer René Goscinny realise what they were creating back in 1959 with their first comic strip Asterix the Gaul? Almost certainly not: legend has it these friends were actually working on a different idea altogether - the comic adventures of Reynard the Fox - before discovering that storyline had already been swiped by a cartoonist peer of theirs. They switched to the the Gauls as a last-ditch effort to fill the space - and the rest is history.

History, and mind-boggling numbers. Asterix and Obelix's madcap adventures have been translated into 107 languages and have sold more than 300 million copies over the past half century. America (and, ironically, France) might have Disneyland, but just 35km north of Paris is Parc Asterix. There are Asterix films starring Gérard Depardieu, video games, even crisps. And therein lies the rub. Asterix, an unlikely hero fuelled by magic potions and roast wild boar, has become to his fans a symbol of the cunning little man standing up against a faceless empire. His character makes the point that culture cannot be homogenised. But as he became more and more popular, and his creators and publishers became richer and richer, Asterix essentially sold out.

What was the difference between Asterix and Mickey Mouse or Buzz Lightyear if, in 2002, McDonald's was using him to sell its "ancient Gallic" burgers? Asterix and Obelix might have feasted on wild boar, but one wonders whether they would have banqueted on a Big Mac. Certainly, the ethos behind Asterix has been damaged, the price of building a brand. Uderzo took over the writing duties when Goscinny died in 1977, but the consensus is that he made the new stories overly childish rather than the universal treat they once were.

Take, for example, Asterix and The Falling Sky (2005) - supposedly a tribute to Walt Disney but featuring our hero dealing with aliens rather than Romans. The final insult for many fans - and, bizarrely, Uderzo's own daughter Sylvie - was when the 82-year-old sold his rights to the publishing giant Hachette Livre last year, even permitting new writers to extend the series after his death. "It's as if the gates of the Gaulish village had been thrown open to the Roman Empire," she told the French newspaper Le Monde. "I am entering resistance against perhaps the worst enemies of Asterix, the men of finance and industry."

That Asterix can provoke such a family row illustrates just how special a place the series holds in the French national heritage. The 50-year celebrations have been immense: a flypast from the French air force, a musical on the Champs-Elysées, an exhibition in the Cluny Museum in Paris and, perhaps most importantly, a new, 34th book. Aptly, it's called L'Anniversaire d'Asterix & Obelix: Le Livre d'Or (The Gold Book), and as usual with Uderzo's recent work, reaction has been mixed. It's a collection of short stories rather than one big adventure - possibly wise, seeing as coherent storytelling is clearly not Uderzo's strong point - with all the famous characters gathering together to celebrate the birthdays of Asterix and Obelix.

So is it time for Asterix to hang up his winged helmet for good? Possibly. But the amount of goodwill towards the cheeky Gaul this week alone suggests that he could live on - just with a more skilled writer in the wings to tell his stories. Meanwhile, the fans wait on for another Asterix tour de force. And they'd probably be forgiven for quoting a speech bubble in his very first adventure. "Quo Vadis?" it said. Or, "Where are you going?"