As the coronavirus pandemic raged into 2021, I found myself looking at heaving bookshelves and reaching for my collection of Tintin and Asterix comics.
I had no reason to revisit these books. I had read each of them only about 578 times. There were other, more worthy titles. Books about cinema. Anthologies of essays and interviews. Biographies and autobiographies. Poetry. Novels that are featured in 100 Books You Should Read Before You Die lists (and therefore perfectly suited for the threatened end of days).
These books had been kept aside for the extended vacation that hadn’t yet materialised. But in between working from home, chasing the latest updates on Covid-19 and worrying about the general state of the economy and the sanity of humankind, I settled for happy regression into a childhood filled with giddy adventure.
I avoided the early Tintins, rife with Congo-era Belgian imperialist thought and rank racism. I started with the first really great Tintin, Cigars of the Pharoah, which features opium, an Indian kingdom called Gaipajama, sarcophagi and the earliest appearance of Tintin’s nemesis Rastapopoulos. I marvelled for the nth time at the economy and fleetness of Herge’s narratives, the clean and dense drawings and the inventive translations by Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper and Michael Turner.
In between following the order of Herge’s books and waiting impatiently for Captain Haddock to arrive, I also revisited Pierre Assouline’s excellent biography of the man born as Georges Remi. “It’s still difficult to overestimate the impact of his work on several generations of Europeans,” Assouline writes in Herge – The Man Who Created Tintin, unaware of Tintin’s popularity in India and the translations that exist in Indian languages.
The adventures of Asterix the Gaul, written and illustrated by Rene Goscinny and Albert Uderzo, provided a solid counterpoint to Tintin’s Eurocentrism. The irreverence and rambunctiousness of the narratives, their anti-authoritarian streak and the silly but infectious punning (translated from the French by Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge) transported me, as they have countless readers, to a time where we dreamed of eating boar, picked up some Latin (“Alea jacta est”) and developed a healthy disregard for colonialists and conquerors.
Goscinny’s demise in 1977 marked the end of the series for most die-hard fans. Uderzo continued to publish comics in the coming years, but they lacked Goscinny’s sharp wit and fine hand.
Uderzo’s death on March 24, 2020, days after the pandemic had begun blitzing the planet, was a sad reminder of the glory years of these great humourists who, in the vein of the creators of the Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister series, crafted works that will endure. If there ever is a next time when the sky looks like it’s going to fall on our heads, the Asterix and Tintin comics will be part of my doomsday kit.
Read all the articles in the Comfort zone series here.