Asterix and the Brussels Sprouts

Dr Jeff Albertson discusses the widely publicised article “Traumatic brain injuries in illustrated literature: experience from a series of over 700 head injuries in the Asterix comic books” (Kamp, Slotty et al., 2011), and explores how semiotic approaches can reveal important insight into the nature of interpretive processes.


It is certainly a promising sign for comic art studies that scientific disciplines have started to develop an interest for them. Such is the case of a recent and indeed widely publicized article published by Acta Neurochirurgica and authored by Drs. Marcel Kamp, Philip Slotty, Sevgi Sarikaya-Seiwert, Hans-Jakob Steiger and Daniel Hängi, “Traumatic brain injuries in illustrated literature: experience from a series of over 700 head injuries in the Asterix comic books” [subscription required].

This neurological research group studied every head injury in the Asterix albums, detailing their assorted consequences; usually impairment of consciousness, skull fracture and compression of pupils (Kamp, Slotty et al., 2011: 1351). They discovered that, strangely, none of the injured lost his or her life (apparently gender violence was not unknown in the Roman era), or had any serious loss of conscience, like entering a coma. This could only be due to two factors; one, people had stronger skulls during the Roman era; and two, in some cases they used a particular kind of drug, euphemistically known as “the magic potion”: a certain kind of muscle enhancer with curative powers.

We seldom find more useful examples of interdisciplinarity; by applying the scientific principles of neurology to a comic book, two conclusions can be reached in two completely different areas, the humanistic and the scientific. The first one, that Asterix is the most realistic piece of historic fiction written in the 20th century; the second, that future scientific research on the subject may throw a light upon the ingredients used to produce the drug that was used in Gaul, during the Roman era, to avoid traumatic brain injuries (and to have fun bashing the brains out of people you dislike).

Material and Methods

However, interdisciplinarity can also imply the reverse process: applying the methods of comics studies to science, which reminds me of a recent discovery by an international research team led by Drs Roberto Bartual and Ernesto Priego. Drs. Bartual and Priego have been funded by Sotheby’s to conduct laboratory research on the authorship and market value of a series of mysterious pieces of art in their catalogue, one of which we will proceed to discuss next.

"My Brain on MRI" (2005)
“My Brain on MRI” (2005)

Results and Discussion

The heavy pixelation of some panels and the unfathomable verbal contents of the page (indecipherable for most humanities scholars) point to some sort of biological scan, but instead of jumping to this apparently obvious conclusion, Drs. Bartual and Priego decided, with the help of their team, to confront the data with the principles of semiotic research. If Sotheby’s intention was to sell this piece, then it must be art; and if it is art, then it must follow a certain set of stylistic conventions and meanings. Although these six panels show a clear tendency towards abstraction, the way they are organized in the page suggest they must be “read” in sequence. It would not be the first time a comic artist or a painter conceives an abstract comic.

In fact, Cy Twombly’s “Nine discourses on Commodus”, (Guggenheim Bilbao) which is in fact a homage to Asterix (it depicts the effects of Emperor Commodus head being bashed by a Gaul), uses a similar multiple-panel grid structure that characterizes Sotheby’s abstract comic. This structure, the lack of definition of the images and Twombly’s characteristic repetition of the same motif, allowed this research team (with a groundbreaking contribution from Dr Antonio Venezia) to attribute this work of art to this painter.

A close examination of the panels gave this team of comics scholars the clue to the meaning of this sequence; these apparently biological forms, contracting and expanding themselves as the sequence progresses, have a striking resemblance with a cabbage, or to be more precise, with a Brussels sprout, giving the sequence an obvious referential meaning: a clear allusion to Tintin, the greatest achievement of Belgian culture since the invention of the aforementioned vegetable.

Cy Twombly, "Nine Discourses on Commodus" (1963), as scanned and shared by Derik A. Badman
Cy Twombly, “Nine Discourses on Commodus” (1963), as scanned and shared by Derik A. Badman

Of course, there are scholars that have objected to these flirtations between humanistic and properly scientific sciences. Drs. Marcel Kamp, Philipp Slotty, Sevgi Sarikaya-Seiwert, Hans-Jakob Steiger and Daniel Hängi’s article about Asterix has been criticized for taking data from a work of fiction and giving it a treatment we should only give to events in our “real”, physical world. To sum up, these researchers have been criticized for confusing fact and fiction, real people with made-up characters, a critique performed by well-known members of the scholar community. Even scarier is the fact that a general misunderstanding of the unserious nature of the article has been used as an example of the kind of “serious” research that should not be allocated any private or public funding. Since any four-year-old kid, even before learning how to read and write, can easily understand that it is impossible to be thrown a rock in the head without being harmed, the fact that not only one but five grown-up scientists, working in Heinrich-Heine-University in Dusseldorf, mistake reality and fiction should make us conclude that University education in Germany must be below the level of kindergarten.


The fact that, unlike a kindergarten student, these five people can actually read and write, makes me cherish some doubts about this hypothesis. And what is more, they certainly can write better than most scholars; they seem to be in total command of two of the rhetorical devices that make the difference between good and bad writing (or thinking): sense of irony and sense of humor. The author sincerely recommends anybody unable to perceive the irony in the following statements, to undergo a brain scan in order to check if the contents of their heads are vegetal:

All thirty-four Asterix comic books were screened for TBIs [Traumatic Brain Injuries]. For each head-injured character, a detailed Neurological examination was estimated and signs of TBI, like raccoon eyes, Battle’s sign, and subgaleal hematoma, were recorded  (Kamp, Slotty et al., 2011: 1352). Male gender, Roman sociocultural background, and loss of the helmet during traumata were risk factors for severe initial impairment of consciousness. (Kamp, Slotty et al., 2011: 1354).

It’s easy to understand that much of the confusion recently produced in comics scholarship by the publication of this article has a lot to do with the inferiority complex our research area still suffers. We are still too prone to adopt a defensive posture against any “intrusion” from other fields of the science, interpreting these “intrusions” as jokes on our subject of study or considering them based on a serious misunderstanding of the nature of fiction.

However, the parody of academic writing these German neurologists perpetrated shows more understanding of popular culture than most of the academic essays written in the field of comics, and it also reminds us of something very important: every humanistic or scientific researcher has the responsibility of writing veraciously, but also the responsibility of critical reading, in order determine what is being said in a literal manner and what is being said in an indirect manner. Irony is an attribute of intelligence, and in being so, it should be considered a perfectly valid characteristic of academic writing too.


Badman, D. (2006) “Two more Twombly”, MadInkBeard, 4 September 2006, <>. Accessed 27 June 2011.

Bartual, R., Priego, E. et al, “Sequential reading in a cognitive analysis of figurative Brussels sprouts in brain scans. A semiotic study.”, Journal of Visual Communications and Multimodal Interpretation (unpublished manuscript).

Brienza, C. (2011) “Asterix comics study: ‘research sets a troubling precedent'”, The Telegraph, 16 June 2011. <>. Accessed 27 June 2011.

Falk, J. (2005) “My brain on MRI” (digital image). 29 June 2005. <>. Accessed 27 June 2011.

Flood, A. (2011) “Asterix books contain 704 victims of brain injury, study finds”. The Guardian, 16 June 2011. <>. Accessed 27 June 2011.

Meirose, K. (2011).  “The untold tale of Asterix and the brain-damaged Romans”, Robot 6, Comic Book Resources, 16 June 2011,  <>. Accessed 27 June 2011.

Kamp, M. Slotty, P. et al, (2011) “Traumatic brain injuries in illustrated literature: experience from a series of over 700 head injuries in the Asterix comic books”. Acta Neurochirurgica, Volume 153, Number 6, 1351-1355, DOI: 10.1007/s00701-011-0993-6, URL <>. Accessed 27 June 2011.

 Research Blogging citation:

Marcel A. Kamp, Philipp Slotty, Sevgi Sarikaya-Seiwert, Hans-Jakob Steiger, & Daniel Hänggi (2011). Traumatic brain injuries in illustrated literature: experience from a series of over 700 head injuries in the Asterix comic books Acta Neurochirurgica, 153 (6), 1351-1355 DOI: 10.1007/s00701-011-0993-6


About the author

Jeff Albertson has contributed one article.

Dr Jeff Albertson has worked in the liminal spaces between the humanities and neuroscience for nearly thirty years. A San Francisco native, he has conducted empirical research on the effects of hallucinogens on the interpretive processes of male comic book readers. He is currently writing a theoretical volume on tomography as multimodal storytelling.

Author: Jeff Albertson

Dr Jeff Albertson has worked in the liminal spaces between the humanities and neuroscience for nearly thirty years. A San Francisco native, he has conducted empirical research on the effects of hallucinogens on the interpretive processes of male comic book readers. He is currently writing a theoretical volume on tomography as multimodal storytelling.

5 thoughts on “Asterix and the Brussels Sprouts”

  1. I completly agree with your opinion about the use of irony on academic writing. I’m currently working on an article about an action TV show titled The A-Team. I’ve noticed that, in that show, everyone who suffers injuries caused by a former Vietnam group of ex-soldiers gets recovered in a few minutes. I think I’ll be able to prove without mistake that nobody died at the Vietnam war.

  2. Thank you, Drs. Bartual and Priego, for allowing me to publish this. It was great meeting you at the conference the other day; the manuscript has been very useful and I thank you for sharing it. Dr Bartual, I look forward to reading your article on Vietnamese war victims. I’m sure it will be yet another important contribution to the field of medical humanities.

    Derik, I merely followed Dr Martin Barker’s advice. The following passage comes to mind:

    “Too many critics expect to take their descriptions on faith. Often they tell us their conclusion with only fragmentary quotations. When studying pieces of popular culture, very often they do not bother to note their sources. No dates, no edition numbers. It doesn’t seem to matter, since their description must be accepted. This is not a matter to be taken lightly. The way critics look at their materials is already conditioned by their theories of ideology and influence. If we want to question those theories, it is vitally important to be able to re-view those original materials” (Comics: Ideology, Power and the Critics, 1989:5).

    Therefore, citing the source of the digital image I included was a decision of ethical, scientific, and political order.

    Thank you all for your comments.

    1. I forgot to mention that the reason I attributed the Twombly image with the phrase “as scanned and shared by” is because that particular grid layout, which Derik digitised from Cy Twombly : a monograph by Richard Leeman (2005), is not the same layout as exhibited at the Guggenheim Bilbao, as it can be seen if the hyperlink I included in my text is followed.

      Though I’d seen the originals in Bilbao myself, it had escaped my recollection, but was kindly reminded of the fact by Dr Venezia in our recent conversations at Senate House.

      Once again we have before us a clear example of the importance of noting any changes in the way artworks are presented, and of keeping track of said transformations.

      I’ve been talking to the Art librarian at Orbis College, who has agreed to work with me on a future monograph on the theme of layout manipulation in the reproduction of artworks.

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