The children's graphic novel publisher Papercutz has launched a new American edition of Asterix, one of the bestselling comics in the world. But there’s a problem. This long-lived and popular French classic makes use of stereotypical caricatures of African characters that have long been considered offensive to many people.
Asterix, a slapstick comedy/satire about feisty Gauls outsmarting Roman soldiers in the occupied France of 50 BC, was created by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo for the Franco-Belgian children’s magazine Pilote in 1959. Goscinny died in 1977, and Uderzo wrote and drew the series until 2013, when the new team of writer Jean-Yves Ferri and artist Didier Conrad took over. The series has been a bestseller for decades, not just in France but in the rest of the world as well. And while the humorous series was aimed at children, its sly political satire also appealed to adults.
Asterix is published in France by Hachette (which licenses the series to Papercutz), and the most recent French volume had an initial print run of five million copies in over 20 languages. The Papercutz editions will feature a new American translation and a new format. Papercutz is releasing the series as omnibus editions (trim size 7 ½” x 9”), with each omnibus edition including three of the original 48-page French volumes (called albums).
The house relaunched the series in July with Asterix Omnibus #1 with 50,000 copies in paperback and 20,000 copies in hardcover. Papercutz is also publishing 50,000 paperback copies of the newest French volume, Asterix: The Chieftain’s Daughter Vol. 38, as a standalone U.S. edition.
“The French format just doesn’t work here,” said Papercutz president and publisher Terry Nantier in reference to the 48-page Euro-format. “The trend here, and what’s really worked, is [the graphic novel format with] hundreds of pages, so we are looking to have a lot more to read and a lot more to get for your money.” Papercutz has used the omnibus format for its other European series, he says, and it has worked well for them. The relaunched book series will be published in hardcover and paperback with different covers, with the hardcover version pitched at collectors.
Nantier himself read Asterix as a child, and he says that in the 1970s, it literally changed the public perception of comics in France from the negative view that was also prevalent in the U.S. at the time, to the realization that comics could appeal to both children and adults. “The Romans in Asterix are portrayed as the bureaucrats, basically,” he says, “which is where the satire takes on a deeper meaning, [in its comic depiction of] vast administrations that crush the little person. I think that’s something everyone can relate to.”
The series often refers humorously to contemporary events and the Cleopatra volume cleverly uses actress Elizabeth Taylor as a model for the Egyptian queen. As a result, the children who grew up on Asterix continued to read it as adults, spurring a culture change that would make France one of the leading publishers of comics in the world.
But despite this broad appeal, Asterix has a problem that has been remarked upon for many years: Its racist depiction of African people. While some of the comics, including the entire first volume of the Papercutz series, contain no such depictions, they show up in the second omnibus edition, which includes the original volume, Asterix and Cleopatra, which depicts African slaves with such racist tropes as enormous lips.
Acclaimed cartoonist Ronald Wimberly is an Eisner Award nominee, a Glyph Award-winner, was resident comics artist at the Maison des Auteurs in Angoulême, home of the annual French comics festival, and is a media and cultural critic. He is also the editor/founder of the broadsheet pop culture and art critical journal LAAB: An Art Magazine, where he has written about depictions of Blackness in comics. He described the Asterix comics as “blatantly white supremacist.”
“It’s clear that Uderzo has the chops to draw a myriad of things,” said Wimberly, who saw some of the original Asterix art while living in France. “It’s true that he has a limited bag of tricks for characters, but he takes the time to differentiate by type and by importance. He has three traits to differentiate slaves from other characters: black skin, full lips, and ‘oriental’ clothing and accessories.”
Wimberly continued, “Even a child knows that the Romans kept all types of slaves and promoted ethnicities of all types to high position, so it’s easy to see that the purpose of making all of the slaves black is a modern, white supremacist device.”
Nantier acknowledges the problem. “It is an issue, and we brought it up to the rights holders and we have been having discussions with them.” However, Hachette, the rights holder, is not open to changes in the artwork, and the book carries only a cursory disclaimer that says “Asterix was born in 1959 in France. This omnibus respects the artwork as originally created per the wishes of the authors and their publisher.”
Nantier says that the publisher did agree to a few subtle changes—the enormous red lips have been recolored and subdued, up to a point. Asked about adding, for example, an explanatory essay to each book that provides context about the history of race and representation, Nantier said he continues to negotiate with Hachette. “But this is a classic, and we have to keep that in mind,” he says.
“The series has caricatures of absolutely everyone, including the Gauls,” Nantier says in its defense. “Everyone is skewered, every nationality, and this was the way 50-60 years ago that Black people were caricatured. There are issues of stereotypical representation which by today’s standards are a problem. We weren’t able to get much changed, but there were some changes.”
Wimberly doesn’t think the comics should be changed either, but he also doesn’t think they are appropriate for children. “Personally, I believe they belong in textbooks along with historical context,” he says. “I think the way I experienced them, in the museum, was also a great context.”
“It takes an adult, a professional, or a scholar to see it and appreciate it for what it is; to differentiate between form and function; to place it within a politically subjective context,” he says. “Now if this is sold as it was when it was first produced, without any of that context, then the publisher is producing and selling white supremacist cartoons.”