Alix and the Helvetii

Alix, the intrepid Gaulish warrior is off on a new adventure. This time he is sent by his old friend Caesar on a diplomatic mission to the Celts of Switzerland (the Helvetii). He takes with him a rag tag band including Lucius, a spoilt Roman teenager, and Audania, a Celtic princess.

The Adventures of Alix

The Adventures of Alix tells the ongoing tale of the young warrior Alix during the late Republic. An ex slave adopted by a rich Roman Alix is a conflicted member of the Roman Empire: at once both a victim and a benefactor.

There have now been over 38 books. First drawn by Jacques Martin in 1948, the stories and artwork have been turned over to new artists.

Alix is drawn in the ligne claire style, made famous by Tintin. This style uses clear lines of the same width (with no cross hatching) and solid strong colours. This gives the comics in this style a simple base on which to build complex images. Something which Martin used in Alix to conjure up Ancient cities, wild landscapes and involved battle scenes.

The colours in Alix and the Helvetii (Jean-Jacques Changaurd) tend to be more muddy than classic Tintin and Marc Jailloux, the artist, uses more varied line widths. This creates a more contemporary feel for the cartoon, creating an adult feel which belies the comparatively PG visuals. A lot happens outside the frames, as it were.

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Alix and Asterix

Although the series most visually resembles Tintin, in subject it most strongly compares with Asterix. The same historical characters crop up in both series. Alix’s dad is even called Astorix.

Whereas Asterix was a resister of Roman power, Alix is a collaborator. Both books were written, published and consumed within a period benefitting from expanding economic power but also coming to terms with the Second World War. It is interesting then that Alix takes a more complex view of being made a subject to a foreign power. In this it also resembles some of the historical novels of Alfred Duggan, especially Winter Quarters, written at a similar period.

The figure of the native working as a scout or the vanguard of a civilising power, played out in the literature of the Nineteenth century most powerfully in the Leather-Stocking novels of Fennimore Cooper. It is worth reflecting that Alix was also published at the same time that Fanon was working on his celebrated books such as Black Skin, White Masks and Wretched of the Earth. Colonialism is complex and perhaps Alix gets closer to this reality than Asterix.

The most telling difference between Asterix and Alix however, is the tone. Alix is serious. His missions are complex diplomatic ones which require great ability and knowledge of cultural nuance. The Roman Empire of the Alix series is a union of conquered and “allied” powers working towards higher aims, mostly serving the Roman elite but also supporting non-Roman communities. Asterix goes on adventures to solve problems or to stop Romans when they are being particularly dastardly.

It is not surprising then that Asterix is more popular outside France and that every new  Asterix book is translated into English almost immediately. In contrast although Alix has remained in print for nearly seventy years in France it has not really been translated into English.

Historical Accuracy

One of the strengths of the series is its “historical accuracy” (if such a thing can be said to exist). This plays out not just in visually rich recreations of Ancient Rome but also the cultural acts of the various people. For example, Alix donates his weapons to a Celtic shrine where they are ritually killed. An act which is known from the archaeological record (such as the Bersted Warrior), although the real meaning behind these acts is unclear.

Alix’s adventure amongst the Helvetii is to ensure their continued alliance to Rome against the Germans, so that Julius Caesar can face Persian incursions in the East. The Helvetii were the ostensible cause of the Gallic War. In 58 BCE they attempted to migrate to Southwestern Gaul. In reality, Caesar just wanted a pretext for war: he craved the adulation victory might bring and saw a generalship of a Roman army as a key source of power.

The celts were rich and powerful. Living just to the north of the Mediterranean basin in Spain, France, Switzerland and the Balkans, they were the original bogeymen of the Roman imagination. The sack of Rome by a Celtic war band in the 390s BCE was a historically traumatic event. They only surviving historical records of the Celts come from Greek and Roman sources. The other key source of evidence is material: archaeological remains.

The Helvetii may have lived in Southern Germany around the second century BCE. Ptolemy the Geographer wrote of the deserted lands of the Helvetii. Archaeological evidence then suggests they lived in the area of Lake Zurich. (The city of Zurich properly dates from the reign of Augustus when a Roman camp was built there, probably on Celtic settlements).

During the 50s BCE, the Helvetii began to migrate. We only have Caesar’s report of this and it is self-angrandising and unclear. It seems like several groups migrated together. According to Caesar the plan was carefully organised and involved internal political wrangling within three distinct tribes. Caesar’s history conflicts with archaeological evidence which shows little damage to dwellings and no real decline in Celtic culture in the region during this period.

Following a major war which (if we follow Caesar) possibly saw 70% of the Helvetii and other tribes killed, Caesar allowed the Helvetii to return to their original houses to act as a buffer state against the Germans. It has been questioned why Caesar would have used such a weakened community to act as a buffer state or returned them to their strategical important original homes after defeat.

It is in this context that the action of Alix and the Helvetes takes place.

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Summary

One of the strengths of Alix is that it takes a conflicted view of Roman history and does not provide simple solutions. Although the series tends to be quite male focused (partly due to legal requirements when first published), strong women come to the fore in Alix and The Helvetii. Audania at one points has to successfully defend herself from the prevalent #MeToo culture of Ancient Rome. She is a great character. More complex than Alix, in many ways stronger but also more sympathetic. The character of the piece however is Senaca, a political leader of the Helvetii and bodacious warrior qween.

For those who can read French this is a great story. If you can’t read French but want to explore the world of Alix, I recommend the Journeys series (Les Voyages). These are works of history which depict the great historical civilisations of the world. Although written in French, they are gorgeously illustrated and the text is not neccessarily key to understanding the images. The books tend to focus on the major architectural masterpieces of each society (rather than the living conditions of wider society). There have been books on Classical Greece, Ancient Egypt, Roman London, even The Mayas and Vikings.

☆★★★★

Alix et les Helvetes (Jacques Martin, Mathieu Bred and Marc Jailloux) and Les Voyages d’Alix L’Helvétie (Christophe Goumand, Jacques Martin, Marco Venanzi) are both published by Casterman (2019).

Photo References

All images belong to Castermain and have been used under Fair use as part of a review.

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