By M. S. Mason, writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
Comic strips can reveal a lot about the cultures from which they come. What makes a people laugh is often a key to what makes them tick.
A savvy show at Montreal's Musee Des Beaux-Arts elucidates the cultural significance of the French-speaking world's most famous comic-strip hero. "Asterix, the Exhibition: An Adventure Through 300 Works of Art" (through Nov. 16) is not only amusing but is also instructive, absorbing, and truly ingenious.
Set in a mythical Gaulish village after the conquest of Gaul by Rome (50 BC), the series by Rene Goscinny and Albert Uderzo concerns the escapades of a feisty, tiny local hero named Asterix and his voluminous companion, Obelix. Every time these guys have to face the boorish Romans, Asterix drinks a magic potion supplied by the village druid to make him powerful - sort of like Popeye and that spinach thing. But because Obelix was dropped into a vat of the potion when he was a baby, he is permanently stronger than any army. The pair has no trouble defeating hordes of enemies with nothing worse than a good right fist. "Asterix" bandes dessinee, or drawn strips, came to public attention in 1959 with the launching of the French comic magazine Pilote (French newspapers don't print strips). The strip has been translated into 77 languages and dialects in 30 albums - of which an astounding 280 million copies have been sold worldwide. Running gags about Obelix's penchant for wild boar (the way his mother used to make it) and Asterix's wily wits help sustain continuity. The comics work on several levels: Adults like the wordplay and the cultural references as well as the satire (everything from the feminist movement to advertising, politics, and the reputed rudeness of Parisians), while children respond to the mock heroics, slapstick, and the adventures themselves. The exhibition, which originated in Paris, might merely have been an homage to popular art, but the Montreal museum director, Pierre De Berge, seized the day and made his paean to the diminutive Gaulish hero an opportunity to teach families about culture and art history at the same time. Mr. De Berge explains that comic strips are a popular art form like the movies: At first considered a vulgar entertainment, they are now appreciated for their form and content as art. Walking through the exhibit, viewers first notice just how cinematic these drawings are; odd "camera" angles and "helicopter" shots abound. De Berg points out that the drawings are very open, that they fill the frame, and that they are dynamic in all directions. …