The comic series chronicles the life of Iznogoud, the Grand Vizier and second in command of Baghdad, at an undefined period in the past. His greatest desire is to replace the Caliph or Sultan of Baghdad Haroun El Plassid, leading him to repeatedly utter the phrase, "I want to be Caliph instead of the Caliph", a phrase that has been adopted in the French language to indicate overly ambitious people. Iznogoud is supported by his faithful servant, Wa'at Alahf.
So far 29 graphic novels featuring Iznogoud have been published in French, with at least 12 of those published in English and a number of other languages. Iznogoud was also turned into a cartoon series produced by Saban Entertainment, with 52 episodes to its name, again with most of them having been translated to other languages as well.
The series made its debut in the Franco-Belgian comics magazine Record on 15 January 1962 under the title, Les aventures du Calife Haroun el Poussah. It was eventually recognised that the wicked supporting character ought to be the focus of the strip, and it was renamed Iznogoud. In 1968, it resumed serial publication in Goscinny's Pilote magazine.
Goscinny's taste for sharp satirical writing keeps the repetitive format of the stories constantly fresh, making Iznogoud one of the most popular anti-heroes in the French comic strip world. Goscinny's skills with puns, made famous in Astérix, is also evident in Iznogoud. Most of the puns in the original French make little sense if translated directly into English, requiring of translators (Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge in the case of the English translations) to find creative solutions for equivalent puns while still keeping within the spirit of the original text.
When Goscinny died in 1977, Tabary eventually decided to carry on the work himself, just as Albert Uderzo did with Asterix. While the Goscinny period was characterized by "albums" comprising several short-length tales each, Tabary turned the series in a new direction, by dedicating every new album entirely to a single story, larger and much more detailed, usually revolving around a new unique concept.
In 1987 a game was produced by Infogrames entitled Iznogoud. The series was adapted to animated film in 1995 with a cartoon TV series, where the caliph is referred to as a sultan. A live-action Iznogoud film starring Michaël Youn and Jacques Villeret, Iznogoud: Calife A La Place Du Calife, was released in France in February 2005.
The publisher Cinebook Ltd is currently publishing English language translations of the books in the Iznogoud series. The first book in the series, "The Wicked Wiles of Iznogoud", was published in March 2008. Further volumes continue to appear at approximately six month intervals. In India, Euro Books published the English versions of 12 Iznogoud titles in 2009.
Iznogoud is the second in command (Grand Vizier) to the Caliph of Baghdad Haroun El Poussah (Haroun El Plassid in English, a pun on the historical Caliph, Harun al-Rashid; "poussah" is roughly translated as "oaf") but his sole aim in life is to overthrow the Caliph and take his place. This is frequently expressed in his famous catchphrase, "I want to be Caliph instead of the Caliph" ("je veux être calife à la place du calife"), which has passed into everyday French for qualifying over-ambitious people who want to become chief. Iznogoud is always assisted in his plans by his faithful henchman, Dilat Larath (Wa'at Alahf in English, se dilater la rate = have a good laugh, in French).
Goscinny and Tabary occasionally make appearances themselves. In one episode, Tabary uses a magical time-travelling closet to help Iznogoud seize the Caliph title. In another episode, Iznogoud gets a magical calendar that lets him travel in time when he rips off its pages. He rips too many and he is transported to the 20th century, inside the studio of Tabary. In another episode, Iznogoud gets a magical drawing paper set that makes anybody or anything drawn on it disappear once the paper is torn apart. Unfortunately, the drawing needs to be realistic, and Iznogoud is a poor artist. In search of an art teacher, he meets Tabary, renamed "Tabary El-Retard".
There are occasionally "behind-the-scenes" moments, as when Iznogoud travels in a country in a mirror, and all is reversed, including text in balloons. Tabary is shown complaining to Goscinny about going through this frustrating "reversal" work, and even threatens him with a gun, to convince him into making a non-reversed "translated" version. They also appear debating after a contemporary crowd demands that they make Iznogoud caliph.
Other recurring characters include Sultan Pullmankar (Sultan Streetcar in English), the Caliph's neighbour who is described as a touchy man with a powerful army. Iznogoud often tries to provoke Pullmankar to become angry at the Caliph, in order to instigate a war. However, Pullmankar never gets angry with the caliph, only with Iznogoud.
The crew of Redbeard, another comics series published in Pilote, appears in A Carrot for Iznogoud, as it did in many stories of René Goscinny's most famous creation Asterix.
The Iznogoud comics were translated into English in the 1970s. Unlike the French version Haroun El-Plassid's title was changed from Caliph to Sultan in order to avoid upsetting the British Muslim community.
In Finnish the name of Iznogoud is Ahmed Ahne (literally translated Ahmed the Greedy).
In Italian the name of Iznogoud is Gran Bailam.
In Polish the name of Iznogoud is Wezyr Nic-po-nim.