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
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