Remarkably, given what he went on to do in life, Albert Uderzo was born with six fingers on each hand. Even after he had the two extraneous digits amputated he could only grip a pencil in a seemingly impossible contortion between his third and fourth fingers. Becoming an illustrator did not seem like an obvious career choice for him, yet he went on to create one of the best known and most loved comic book characters in the world: Asterix the Gaul.
Asterix, who is invincible thanks to the magic potion he drinks, always outwits the Roman legionaries besieging his village in Britanny. The character was a projection of Uderzo’s underdog psyche, as he himself was a diminutive figure born into a poor Italian émigré family in France. “He stands for the revenge of the little guy,” Uderzo said. “Everyone feels put upon by forces which are more powerful than the individual. Whether it’s the Romans, the king, the president of the republic, the police … one may be little; one still has to fight back.”
Some 380,000,000 Sold
The little Gaul with the walrus moustache always prevailed in more than 14,000 illustrations that accompanied the stories created with Uderzo’s co-writer René Goscinny, replete with Latin witticisms, scholarly classical allusions and satirical references to modern politics and culture.
The adventures of Asterix sold some 380 million books and were translated into more than 100 languages. Children adored the slapstick violence; Asterix and his fellow villagers, emboldened by the magic potion, periodically break out to “paf” and “tchak” the serried ranks of Roman soldiers.
Asterix always prevailed in stories replete with Latin witticisms, classical allusions and satirical references to modern politics and culture.
An unreconstructed product of its time, Asterix was imbued with 1960s machismo: the Gauls are anti-authoritarian freewheelers and pugnacious chauvinists; the Romans never seem to pose an insurmountable threat, their adherence to the straight lines of their roads a metaphor for the rigidity of their thinking.
The Gaul’s biggest challenge often involved rescuing Obelix. Asterix’s pigtailed, menhir-bearing friend with the bulbous undercarriage would either be inebriated or suffering the loss of all reason because of a crush on a shapely blonde, whom Uderzo portrays as being straight out of a modish party on the Left Bank.
In France Asterix became a national institution and the country’s most high-profile ambassador, courted by politicians, studied by academics and an inspiration to a generation of aspiring classicists. When the French sent their first satellite into space, it was named Asterix.
Tricks, Puns, and Anachronisms
The jokes, for the most part Goscinny’s, are full of linguistic tricks, coupling witty puns and the clever use of anachronism that brought out the best in translators. Anthea Bell skilfully adapted the Latin puns for a British audience, so that Panoramix, the village druid who confects the magic potion from mistletoe, becomes Getafix.
In Asterix in Britain, one of Uderzo’s favourites, the ancient Britons are a nation of eccentric gardeners who drink warm beer or hot water (tea has yet to be invented), eat everything doused in mint sauce and only fight between the hours of nine and five. Other caricatures proved a little too barbed, however: the Belgians felt demeaned by their image as a greedy race obsessed with beer, while the Spanish took umbrage at being portrayed as lazy gypsies. Yet Goscinny and Uderzo were unflinching when accused of racism, misogyny and homophobia, not to mention risqué references to the indulgences of ancient Rome that might prompt children to ask their parents what an orgy was.
In Asterix in Britain, the ancient Britons are a nation of eccentric gardeners who drink warm beer or hot water (tea has yet to be invented) and only fight between the hours of nine and five.
A man of lugubrious charm, Uderzo enjoyed the wealth that came his way by building up a fleet of Ferraris (he was president of the French Ferrari club in 1978) and Lamborghinis, as well as a Jaguar for daily use. Yet he continued to see himself as “a little artisan who loves drawing and writing”.
Alberto Aleandro Uderzo was born in Fismes in the Marne department of northern France in 1927 to Silvio Uderzo, a lutemaker, and Iria (née Christini), who had recently moved from Italy. With Mussolini posturing like a Roman emperor across the border, Alberto was bullied. He found solace in drawing, overcoming two striking disabilities: as well as his two extra fingers, he suffered from colour blindness (his parents only realised when he started painting landscapes with red grass).
He started as an apprentice at a publishing house and built up a reputation as a skilled illustrator, for the most part working in the ubiquitous style of the Disney and Captain Marvel comics.
At Editions du Chêne he created his first all-French hero, Clopinard, a peppery veteran of the Napoleonic wars whose virility was maintained by imbibing cannon powder and who dispatched his enemies with a projectile wooden leg.
In 1951 Uderzo met Goscinny, a cosmopolitan French writer already, well known for his characters Lucky Luke, a French-speaking cowboy, and Le Petit Nicolas, a naughty schoolboy.
Uderzo’s Clopinard was a peppery veteran of the Napoleonic wars whose virility was maintained by imbibing cannon powder and who dispatched his enemies with a projectile wooden leg.
The friends’ first collaboration was Oumpah-Pah, a native American warrior. The comic-strip featured in Journal de Tintin and helped to school the pair in the more sophisticated stories that would engage older children.
In 1959 they started work on a comic magazine called Pilote and needed a hero to lead the publication. In an era bursting with patriotic spirit after the election of President de Gaulle, they decided on a Gaul holding out against Roman invaders in 50BC. While Uderzo suggested a muscle-bound superhero, Goscinny pushed the idea of a nose-thumbing little man.
In 1960 they published their first book, Asterix the Gaul. From 1967 they devoted themselves exclusively to Asterix and would produce on average two albums a year until Goscinny’s death in 1977.
Panacea, one of the svelte blondes who feature in the Asterix books, was supposedly based on Uderzo’s wife, Ada (née Milani), whom he had married in 1953, though Uderzo later denied this. She survives him along with their daughter, Sylvie, who managed her father’s estate until he sacked her in 2007. A seven-year legal battle was settled amicably.
After Goscinny’s death, Uderzo continued work on Asterix singlehandedly, but relations with their publisher, Georges Dargaud, and later Goscinny’s family, soured. Attempts by Dargaud to assert control over the 24 books already published ended up in a bitter court case, prompting Uderzo to set up his own publishing house, Les Editions Albert-René, while Goscinny’s daughter, Anne, sued Uderzo for 50 per cent of the new company’s profits.
A Masked Villain Called “Coronavirus”—in 2017
The six later titles produced by Uderzo were dismissed by purists for lacking the sparkle of Goscinny’s storytelling and plays on words.
When in 1994 Uderzo finally lost his legal battle over rights to Dargaud, the cartoonist announced the end of Asterix, claiming “creative exhaustion”. The reaction in France was one of national mourning. Two years later, however, Uderzo produced a 30th adventure, which sold millions.
In 2008 Uderzo reneged on his original intention that Asterix would not outlive him by selling the publishing rights to the French publisher Hachette Livre. His daughter accused her father of betraying the spirit of his little hero to “the men of finance and industry”. She wrote in Le Monde: “It’s as if the gates of the Gaulish village had been thrown open to the Roman Empire.”
He finally gave up illustrating the stories in 2011, but gave his blessing to new adventures that remained current, even prescient. Asterix and the Chariot Race (2017) features a character called Coronavirus, a masked villain who will stop at nothing to win. Undoubtedly, Uderzo would have been delighted at the thought of the little man defeating Coronavirus.
Albert Uderzo, cartoonist, was born on April 25, 1927. He died after a heart attack on March 24, 2020, aged 92