In 1973, during the summer holidays, a chance visit to the National Library in Kolkata introduced me to the magical world of indomitable Gauls. I did not know French and the children’s section at the library only had editions in that language. For a long time, the Asterix comics led to a fight with my schoolmates, for I was convinced that these fantastic adventures were created by one person, Goscinny Uderzo. I lived with that belief for several years, till a much-used copy of Asterix the Gaul landed in my hands.
I was astonished when I learnt that Rene Goscinny and Albert Uderzo were two separate people. It was some time in 1977. That year Goscinny, the brilliant writer of the series, which was originally serialised in the French comics magazine Pilote in 1958-59, bid his partner goodbye. The memories of that discovery were refreshed when Uderzo followed Goscinny to the little Gaulish village in the sky on March 20, 2020.
Much later when I came across the works of the Brazilian cartoonists Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon, the seamless integration of words and pictures reminded me of “Goscinny Uderzo” yet again. Goscinny’s almost untranslatable (though not in the able hands of Anthea Bell) French wordplay took flight in Uderzo’s drawings. Even in translation it was the image that carried the pun through. The series was a work of pure genius. But the idea of violence and the brutal massacre of the Romans at the hands of Asterix and Obelix was far from my mind when I read the adventures of the Gauls.
Despite the fabulous English translation by Bell, aided by Derek Hockridge, Asterix to me was all pictures. It was Uderzo all the way. While it is true I missed Goscinny’s writing in Asterix at the Banquet or Asterix and Son, with Uderzo having taken over the writing too, it was the artist’s images that still moved me. His retirement in 2011, leaving the Asterix saga to other artist-and-writer pairs, was something I could not reconcile to.
Why could Uderzo not have followed in the footsteps of Hergé, who did not want anyone else to write or draw the Tintin comics after him? The adventures of Asterix, however, clearly have a different sort of appeal. A few years ago, I learnt during a chat with a couple of French cartoonists that comics sales in France have an uptick when an Asterix album is published. Six decades after their first appearance, the adventures are still a major publishing event. And Uderzo, along with Goscinny, is still among the most translated French authors in the world.
Albert Uderzo, the comics auteur, was born to Italian parents in 1927 in the town of Fismes in north-eastern France. He was born with six fingers on each hand and was colour blind – he could not distinguish green from red. All his life he depended on others, most notably his brother Marcel, to do the colour corrections after he finished the sketches. Despite demonstrating an early love for comics and graphic art, Uderzo wanted to become an airline mechanic. He even began training for this, but World War II broke out and, luckily for us, he had to abandon his studies.
After the war, Uderzo tried unsuccessfully to become an animator, even creating an 11-minute short film. Then, trying his hands at comics and illustrations projects, he participated in a competition that earned him a publishing contract with Editions du Chene. In 1946, Uderzo published Les Aventures de Clopinard with the Parisian publisher. His comics career was still in the making. During the post-war period short strips and comics for the children’s page of the Toulouse newspaper La Democratie kept him busy.
In the month of November in 1951, one of the most important collaborations in the world of comics took place when Albert Uderzo illustrated Rene Goscinny’s columns on everyday life, Qui a Raison? and Sa Majeste Mon Mari. The collaboration did not immediately make history, but a lasting partnership began. Of course, Uderzo was will illustrating for many other writers at the time.
In June 1952, Uderzo and Goscinny created the first noteworthy work, Jehan Pistolet, for the junior supplement of the Belgian newspaper Le Libre Belgique. The illustrations in this series were to take world-beating form seven years later in the adventures of Asterix. Goscinny’s scripts, full of puns, challenged Uderzo, and he was up for it. This story of a young waiter from Nantes soon became successful, and by 1956, four albums later, Jehan Pisolet firmly established the writer-illustrator duo as one of the emerging forces of comics.
Tintin by then was a sensation in the comics world. Uderzo and Goscinny did also try creating their own version of Tintin – Luc Junior – that ran in the same supplement between 1954 and 1957. The stories were exciting and Uderzo’s illustrations were beautiful – the young reporter had a run of seven successful cases with the original creators, and the series was carried on by others.
Then, in 1956, Goscinny tried to create a union of comics artists, and Uderzo joined him. Along with others, they created EdiPresse and EdiFrance, and became independent owners of all their comics.
A year later Uderzo and Goscinny had their work featured in the famous comics magazine Journal Tintin, titled Poussin et Poussif. In 1958, the duo tasted big success with a story that had been rejected earlier by several publications. Oumpah-Pah, an adventure story starring a Native American set in the 18th Century. It was a great success, but Hergé, the owner of Journal Tintin did not like it because of Uderzo’s illustration style. So Goscinny and Uderzo left.
Uderzo and Goscinny quickly found a place in the newly launched magazine Pilote, which became a formidable rival to Journal Tintin, thanks to the two works featured at its launch in 1959. Both were illustrated by Uderzo. The first was on aviators, Tanguy et Laverdure. And the second, Asterix the Gaul.
In 1961, when the album was released in French, Goscinny and Uderzo became celebrities overnight, a position they have never had to give up. The first French artificial satellite, for instance, was named Asterix. The Gaulish warrior, along with his cast of characters Obelix, became more famous than their creator. Uderzo, who loved motor racing, must have been more than happy to see it happen in his lifetime.
In 1978, I got a mint copy of Asterix and Cleopatra – which convinced me that I wanted to become a comics creator. I copied the entire album, trying my best to do it as perfectly as possible. It was an unmitigated disaster – Julius Caesar’s nose was so difficult to copy! The exercise left me with little doubt that Uderzo indeed was in a class of his own.