Uderzo and Goscinny had a problem. They had just been told that the artist Trubert was working on a cartoon strip adaptation of the ‘Roman de Renart’. This was precisely what they had intended to publish in the ‘Pilote’ magazine that was due for launch in October. Uderzo had even completed the first page of this project. There was nothing left to do except to pour a drink and think again...
Goscinny asked Uderzo to list the main periods of French history. Prehistoric man did not appeal. The Gauls... Goscinny’s eyes lit up. Why not, he thought. He tried to recall what he had learned about them in the school history book by Ernest Levisse that both he and Uderzo had studied (despite spending their childhoods in different continents) : their druids cut mistletoe, they hunted wild boar, and there was the first resistance fighter Vercingétorix. He immediately thought of humorous names based on Vercingétorix : Astérix, Obélix, Panoramix...
After several hours they left to work separately satisfied with their progress so far. Uderzo went off to do the preparatory drawings of the characters and Goscinny to consider the synopsis.
The first sketches of Uderzo’s vision of the characters were not bad but Goscinny envisaged the hero to be small. Uderzo therefore drew a small warrior, but added a fat friend for him.
Goscinny and Uderzo had absolutely no idea of this little Gaul’s future success. During a meeting in preparation of the launch of ‘Pilote’ Goscinny unassumingly told the team : Uderzo and I do not have much to offer, just a small Gaul called Astérix.
Astérix appeared for the first time in Issue no 1 of ‘Pilote’ on the 20th of October 1959. The humour and drawing style appealed to the readers but there was no immediate explosion of interest. The first album came out in the latter half of 1961 with an initial print run of 10,000 copies. It was too early to say that the series was successful...
It depends what you mean by successful... the sales were slow but only because it was totally unknown. Whenever you launch a new character people do not know it and rarely go to a bookshop and ask “what is new ?”. They either have to know it or they have to see it.
The first print-runs of the albums that followed show a significant increase :
La serpe d’or (The Golden Sickle) and Astérix et les Goths (Asterix and the Goths), 15,000 copies.
Astérix Gladiateur (Asterix the Gladiator) and Le tour de Gaule (Asterix and the Banquet), 60,000 copies.
Astérix et Cléopâtre (Asterix and Cleopatra) 100,000 copies.
This year was the beginning of “Astérix-mania”. Astérix made the cover of major magazines : ‘Paris Match’, ‘L’Express’, and ‘Candide’. Sales took off for the reprints of the earlier albums as well for the two new titles that came out in that year : Le combat des chefs (Asterix and the Big Fight) and Astérix et les Normands (Asterix and the Normans) had print-runs of 600,000 and 900,000 copies respectively.
None of the adventures that followed had print-runs of less than a million copies.
The incredible success continued. Large companies wanted Asterix to feature in their advertising. In June of that year, Goscinny and Uderzo placed their own 1 page advertisement in ‘Pilote’ to promote the next story Le bouclier arverne (The Chieftain’s Shield) that parodied their own success with advertisers.
Countless Asterix-derived toys and figurines appeared.
The first adventure was turned into an animated cartoon for cinema release,
Expressions from Asterix entered everyday language : “ils sont fous ces romains (these Romans are crazy)”, “la potion magique, il est tombé dedans quand il était petit (he fell into the magic potion when he was a baby)”, “pas gros, juste enveloppé (I’m not fat, just well-covered that’s all)”.
Astérix et Cléopâtre (Asterix and Cleopatra) followed by Les douze travaux d’Astérix (The Twelve Tasks of Asterix) were hugely successful films.
Astérix was translated into around 30 languages. The little Gaul became so famous that his success has continued uninterrupted after his writer’s death.