How bootlegged versions of the legendary comic books conscripted the little Gaul into the anti-nuclear movement
By Linda Pentz Gunter
It was an audacious piece of bootlegging that began in Austria and then spread like wildfire across Europe. Someone in the Austrian anti-nuclear movement decided to recreate the much beloved Asterix character in an anti-nuclear tale. Through cut-and-paste, an all new Asterix book was born — Asterix und das Atomkraftwerk (Asterix and nuclear power). It was created to coincide with the ultimately successful campaign against the proposed Zwentendorf nuclear power plant in Austria.
For those of us who grew up in Europe, the Asterix books — about the little ancient Gaul and his stone-hauling sidekick, Obelix — were a childhood fixture. Full of whimsy and humor, they were written in French by Rene Goscinny and illustrated by Albert Uderzo. The plots largely centered around Asterix and his fellow villagers defending themselves against the Romans. But they also ventured forth, including to ancient Britain, where Asterix mocks the national obsession with drinking tea by calling it “eau chaude”.
By 1978, when the first bootlegged anti-nuclear Asterix book appeared, Goscinny had died, but Uderzo filed numerous lawsuits and was eventually able to block distribution. Before then, however, the cut-and-paste idea had taken off, and numerous books had appeared, with at least 20 versions in German as well as in French, Dutch and in several Spanish dialects including Basque.
Asterix and Nuclear Power replicated the anti-Roman theme, this time with Julius Caesar planning to build a nuclear power plant in the village of Gauls inhabited by Asterix and his friends.
As researched and documented by Professor Dirk Spennemann, of Charles Sturt University in Australia, the story narrative is as follows:
“The village, which operates as a collective, is declared a construction site which causes the inhabitants to plan resistance. Initial calls for physical responses ‘Wo Unrecht zu Recht wird, wird Widerstand zur Pflicht’ (where injustice becomes expressed as law, resistance becomes mandatory) are rejected as premature, but eventually became a necessity in the face of an attempt by Roman troops to clear the site. An attempt to settle the matter in a session of an administrative court deciding on the construction permit, rather than to resort to radical actions as advocated by some, fails due to biased judges—despite a passionate plea by the protagonist.
“Subsequent acts of civil defiance, such as disrupting the surveying of the site, were interpreted by the authorities as acts of terrorism, leading to an escalation. When the Gaul community induces the workers at the construction site to strike, the authorities move to clear the village by force. The first attempt fails, leading to nationwide declarations of solidarity.
“The narrative adds in a sequence, pillorying the lack of meaningful roles for the women in the Asterix volumes: the women of the village assert their position in what is a partially chauvinistic community. Following a mixed-gender final battle, defeating the powers of the state, Caesar is forced to abandon his plans. The narrative ends on the note that while the nuclear power plant could be prevented, Caesar and his cronies would keep developing new plans, and the fight would continue.”
It was fitting then that in 2018 the Asterix anti-nuclear books returned once more to Austria. Heinz Stockinger, a long-time Austrian anti-nuclear activist with his organization, PLAGE, and one of the organizers of the Nuclear-Free Future Awards in his hometown of Salzburg, organized a poster exhibition there of Asterix und das Atomkraftwerk.
The books are now mainly archived at the Amsterdam, Netherlands-based Laka Foundation which catalogues anti-nuclear magazines and other publications.