“Asterix and the Chariot Race” recounts the adventures of the shrewd Gallic hero and his perennial partner in mischief Obelix during a mad dash down the length of the Italian peninsula.
Five million copies of “Asterix et la Transitalique”, as it’s titled in the original French, have been printed for the first edition, with two million alone reserved for France and 1.7 million for Germany.
In a sign of the enduring global appeal of France’s favourite comic duo, it has been translated into 16 languages.
In keeping with tradition the Albert Rene publishing house has kept the details of the story under wraps, releasing just the bare outline of the only Asterix story set entirely on the Italian peninsula.
The action takes place in 50 BC with Julius Caesar trying to prove “that all of Italy is in thrall to Rome” even though “many regions are determined to maintain their independence.”
To burnish Roman glory and showcase the “dazzling excellence of Roman roads”, Caesar invites teams from all over the known world to compete in the race.
There is only one catch — “the Roman competitor must absolutely cross the finishing line first,” the publishers said.
Caesar’s charioteer and the latest Asterix baddie is a masked villain called Coronavirus, named after the bug that caused SARS, the respiratory disease at the centre of a worldwide health alert in 2002.
Writers Jean-Yves Ferri and Didier Conrad, who have penned the last three Asterix stories, said this time they wanted Obelix to take the limelight.
“It’s very much Obelix driving the chariot and the story,” Conrad said after the new book was announced.
Apart from the two Gauls, the book also features Bretons, Picts (Scots), Goths and Phoenicians.
Albert Uderzo, now 90, who created the characters in 1959 with Rene Goscinny, told reporters in a video message that the “story really touched me because as well as cartoons I love cars.”
More than 370 million Asterix books have been sold since Goscinny and Uderzo first brought him to life in the Franco-Belgium comic magazine Pilote.