PARIS: Comic book hero Asterix and his rotund sidekick Obelix returned for their first new adventure in eight years Thursday, reviving a global phenomenon that has sold millions of copies around the world.
Five million copies of “Asterix and the Picts” – the 35th installment in a series that has become a publishing juggernaut – were released in 15 countries and 23 languages, following months of anticipation.
The Gallic duo’s latest gag-filled adventure takes them to ancient Scotland for the first time, with the edition’s cover featuring Obelix in full caber toss as a winking Asterix sits nearby.
Two million copies were printed for France and another three million for foreign audiences.
The Asterix series – created by illustrator Albert Uderzo and writer Rene Goscinny in 1959 – is a bestseller in the comic book world, with 352 million copies sold worldwide and translations in more than 110 languages and dialects.
It features the adventures of an indomitable tribe of Gauls resisting Roman occupation, often with the help of a Druid-brewed magic potion that grants them superhuman strength.
The series has been adapted into four live-action films and is the inspiration for a popular theme park, Parc Asterix, outside Paris.
Soaked with whisky references, kilt-wearing Celtic warriors and bagpipes, the latest installment sees Asterix and Obelix journey to Scotland after a wayward Pict washes up on the shores of Gaul.
Amid run-ins with the Loch Ness Monster, the story sees various Celtic tribes unite into one nation – a clear reference to the independence movement ahead of Scotland’s vote next year on whether to leave the United Kingdom.
The latest edition is the work of writer Jean-Yves Ferri and illustrator Didier Conrad, and is the first not written and illustrated by one of the series’ original creators.
Uderzo, who took over the writing when Goscinny died in 1977, announced in 2011 that he would no longer be drawing the series.
The 86-year-old did supervise production of the latest book, however, and drew the Obelix featured on the cover.
Ferri said that taking on the mantle of writing Asterix had been a daunting task.
“With Asterix, you have to keep all the benchmarks that readers love, while at the same time making the stories fresh,” he said.
But Uderzo said he was thrilled with the work of his successors.
“We made the right choice, Jean-Yves Ferri and Didier Conrad were made for Asterix,” he said.
Anthea Bell, the English translator of all the Asterix books, said the latest edition continued in the long tradition of the series.
“Particularly difficult in the Asterix saga is the fact that they are crammed full of puns and wordplay, and that is why for 10 years nobody even tried to translate them into English – they didn’t think the jokes would cross the Channel,” she told BBC radio.
“In fact, we have a lot in common with the French. We like wordplay, and we like to laugh at our own history.”
The European press gave widespread coverage to the book’s release, with front-page treatment in newspapers in France, Belgium and Germany.
“Asterix is back!” France’s Le Figaro screamed on the front of its arts section, hailing the new installment as a “breath of fresh air” for the series.
In Belgium, Le Soir said the new book was a “triumphant return,” while De Standaard declared it “the best Asterix in a long time.”
In Germany, where 1.5 million copies are on sale, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung hailed the book as one of the best since Goscinny’s death thanks to “the originality of the writing, which had been lacking for so long.”
A special edition of the book featuring additional sketches was also released in France Thursday, while the Paris mint put out commemorative 10, 50 and 100-euro coins featuring the Gallic duo.
The release of the latest book coincides with a retrospective of the Asterix series on at the Bibliotheque nationale de France until Jan. 19.
It features original drawings from the early days of the series, Gallic relics, reconstructions of scenes and the original desk and drawing table of Goscinny and Uderzo.