Inspiring Young Readers
Albert Uderzo : the man who drew Asterix
Born in France in 1927, Uderzo’s parents were originally from Italy but they eventually became naturalised French nationals and moved themselves and Albert from Clichy-sous-Bois to the Rue de Montreuil, in the 11th district of Paris. Despite always having a talent for drawing, the young Underzo toyed with the idea of a career in engineering but once the war was over and France was liberated he started producing cartoons for magazines. These typically featured characters who were pumped-up heroes with huge bulging muscles – a style he initially thought would work for the Asterix comic strip when he first got involved with his creative partner, Goscinny.
That meeting with his partner came in 1951 after Underzo had served a period of time in the army and a little later in journalism. The two men immediately hit it off and they start to work together and create characters to write about and draw. They put a lot of energy into a magazine called Pilote and in 1959 the initial issue carried the first Asterix the Gaul comic strip.
Asterix was a massive success and there has been plenty written about why that should be. Clearly in a country that had experienced the horrors of German occupation a few years before and had relied so much on a gallant resistance movement, the idea of a similar Gaulish resistance to an earlier Roman invasion must have had plenty of resonance. But it must also be about the humour – the cunning use of creative language and puns and Underzo’s astonishingly imaginative drawings. He abandoned the idea of making his Gauls muscle-bound heroes and instead gave them idiosyncratic personalities – Asterix himself is slight but resourceful, Obelix is massively strong but almost an oval in shape and his Romans aren’t just stock baddies but have character of their own. The strips are endlessly inventive and allow both Underzo and Goscinny plenty of latitude to keep the stories fresh by taking the action to all corners of the old Roman empire.
Goscinny died tragically young in 1977 and Underzo took on the task of not just illustrating Asterix but also writing the stories – and he was very successful at it. He eventually sold the rights to the comic strip to Hachette in 2007 and this led to an acrimonious falling out between Albert and his daughter, Sylvie. Uderzo stopped drawing Asterix and retired in 2011, passing the continued production on to Jean-Yves Ferri (script) and Didier Conrad (art).
Now 90 years old, Uderzo’s drawings for Asterix are part of British as well as French comic history. He also produced drawings for other strips but in all honesty these aren’t the ones that are going to be remembered.
Rather like Herge’s Tintin there are cultural stereotypes in the Asterix cartoon strips that will give the modern reader some discomfort but which, when they were first produced, wouldn’t have been a cause for comment. But despite this the Asterix strips are life affirming and focus in the main on the positives of the unquenchable human spirit and its desire to be free from oppression.
I think the English language first editions are now becoming quite collectible but there are plenty of them out there in second hand bookshops or charity stores and I would advise you to grab them now if you see them – they are only going to get harder to find in the future.