Asterix creator on his life's work
Albert Uderzo, the co-creator of of the world-famous Asterix books, talks about the impact of his little Gaulish hero.
Editor's note: Albert Uderzo died in his sleep on March 24, 2020. In this interview from our archives he told Connexion about his life and work.
ALBERT Uderzo, 80, is best known for creating one of the world’s most loved comic book characters – Asterix.
His adventures have sold more than 300 million comic books and been translated into such diverse languages as Urdu, Arabic and even Latin.
The humorous and action-packed books deal with a Breton village which, in around 50AD, continues to hold out after Caesar’s conquest of Gaul thanks to the magic potion brewed by the druid Getafix, which gives them superhuman strength.
As well as being French classics they are loved by English-speakers, in skilful translations which reflect the original word-play and jokes.
The Connexion’s Oliver Rowland interviewed Mr Uderzo, who has just published an autobiography called Albert Uderzo se Raconte (Albert Uderzo Tells his Story) – published by Stock at €19.50.
It is hoped an English translation will be available in a year or two.
This month also sees the latest Asterix film hit the cinemas.
Based on one of the books, Asterix at the Olympic Games has an all-star cast and is rumoured to have been the most expensive French film ever made.
What was your inspiration for the characters of the Asterix series and the way you drew them - with their big noses and so on? Were you thinking of real people? Do the stories have a message?
By Toutatis! Asterix was born at the best time of the day - aperitif time! I was with my friend René Goscinny on the balcony of my apartment trying to think up a character for a new magazine aimed at children aged 10 -13 - a weekly called Pilote. It was summer 1959.
The brief was very precise - François Clauteaux, one of the magazine's founders, wanted a character taken from French culture.
At the time it was important to try to set yourself apart from the American super heroes, or certain reporters one could mention [Tintin].
So, I looked back through history with René and reviewed all the different periods of French history.
We needed something original which no one else had worked on.
When we got to the Gauls - eureka! We stopped in our tracks and immediately started thinking about "our ancestors the Gauls" [French cliché].
Straight away I made sketches of big warriors, as you might imagine the people of the time, but René wasn't keen - he was imagining a little man, not necessarily good-looking, but cunning. What you could call an anti-hero.
So, I came up with a little man with a moustache and a big nose! I've always liked drawing big noses because they make me laugh. That's how Asterix was born.
We never thought about real people but the story ideas came out of everyday life. The only message we wanted to put across was to laugh. We've always avoided taking any political or ideological stance.
How do you come up with the characters’ names?
We were inspired by the name of Vercingetorix, our history's great Gaul.
We were inspired to a great extent by his qualities as a resistance fighter [against the Romans] and so we decided that all the names of the Gauls would end in "ix."
As for the Romans, it goes without saying; we went for Latin-sounding names ending in "us."
As for Asterix, René wanted him to start with "A" because he thought that our comics would always be first in the bookshop shelves and libraries!
As I child I learned a lot of history from Asterix.
Did you intend for the books to be educational?
To what extent did you worry about being historically accurate?
We never attempted to, or wished to, create an educational comic book.
As I said, we wanted to create characters from French culture as opposed to the typical comic culture at the time where people were being asked to do pseudo-Tintins or super heroes.
But it was still a comic book - that's to say stories to make you laugh.
Even so, we kept Caesar's Gallic Wars as our bible for references.
As I said, I used to think of the Gauls as big and strong, but René wanted an anti-hero - little and ugly but cunning.
That's what I gave him but as I'm stubborn I still drew my strongman - and he ended up as Obelix!
The only historical limits that we put on ourselves were countries visited by - or simply existing! - At the time of the Gauls but we allowed ourselves to use anachronisms, which I continue to do, with great care.
No historian has ever complained!
That's not stopped Asterix from appearing in school books - as long as they aren't history ones!
Your books appeal to all ages on different levels - is that something you always aimed for?
You know, when René and I started out with the series, we were inevitably criticised because you can't please everyone all the time.
Some people said René's humour was too intellectual, some said my drawings were too grotesque…but at least there is something for everyone!
Of course we did always want to please readers of all ages, even if, as I said, we created the series for adolescents.
I've always said that people from seven to 77 enjoyed Tintin… well, what the heck, we'll go for the eight to 88s!
You can't imagine how pleased it makes me when I hear about parents handing down their books to their children, who are still just as big fans of the characters.
It's really rewarding for me because my biggest pleasure is to make children laugh and dream.
What about Asterix in Britain - did you have fun working on this book, where you make - gentle - fun of a lot of British stereotypes? Do you like Britain?
That book is one of my favourites because I love all the word-play. René spoke fluent English and was familiar with all the subtleties of your language.
Because of that he really enjoyed putting the quirks of English grammar into French [to create the humorous style of speech of the British characters].
You're right, we had a lot of fun.
I must admit I’ve not often been to your rainy country! But it's a jolly good idea and I'll think about it!
As an Asterix fan I am glad you continued the series after Goscinny's death. Did you discuss it with him? Was it difficult for you? Did he leave any story ideas, or were the books since he died entirely your ideas, apart from Asterix and the Class Act?
Thank you. We always said that after both our deaths the series would end, and that is what will happen.
It was not easy for me because I was very badly treated by the press after René died.
I was weighed down by grief for two years and it was thanks to expressions of friendship from readers and my family's encouragement that I decided to pick up my pencils again.
I published Asterix and the Great Divide in 1979 and I was really scared because everyone was waiting to pounce… but it was a great success and that encouraged me to carry on.
When we worked together, in the first instance René used to give me a call to tell me about his ideas for new Asterix stories, or I would tell him mine.
We always worked very closely and we were friends. We spent a lot of time together and our families got on very well.
We had a lot of laughs together and had the same sense of humour, and we each brought our own experiences to a new storyline.
Once the script was typed out in full, including every detail of the narrative - René was a perfectionist - he sent it to me, enriched with my own ideas and ones we had come up with together.
I started to draw once I got the script because by then we had decided on everything.
I would often laugh out loud on my own while I was drawing the scenes he described.
These days I continue to create the books in the same way - first of all I write our characters' story and then I draw it.
It's not necessarily easy to work alone and I often think about René when I'm working. I miss him a lot. I ask myself if a certain joke would have made him laugh.
He didn't leave any story ideas. Even Asterix and the Class Act [a 2003 compilation of stories, many of which had been previously published in other media like Pilote] contains a lot of short stories which, in most cases, I wrote alone for one reason or another but always with my friend's support during his lifetime.
Will there be another Asterix book?
I promise that I'll write one as soon as I come up with a storyline.
Some readers were shocked that you brought extra-terrestrials into an Asterix book in Asterix and the Falling Sky [2005 - the latest book]. Did that surprise you, and do you regret doing it, or were you just trying to do something a bit different? Perhaps you were disappointed some people took it too seriously?
It surprised and hurt me, but I must say that the attacks came more from the critics than the readers.
I was hurt because no one completely understood what I was trying to do - I wasn't just introducing space ships and weird robots gratuitously.
I've never liked Manga, and I've made no secret of it.
I deplore the way this style dominates the comic market to the detriment of our Franco-Belgian, or at least European, style [the book pits a "good" alien, inspired by Walt Disney against a "bad" one inspired by Japanese Manga].
While reading Manga books - because I don't talk about things I know nothing about - I've often noticed the same things often crop up in this kind of comic, and in the way they approach their characters.
I just wanted to poke a bit of fun at this genre as opposed to one that I admire - that's to say Mr Walt Disney's, who I paid tribute to with one of the characters who is a "Tadsilweny" - an anagram of his name.
People accused me of drawing corny-looking space ships when that's what I intended to do, because I can't say I find the style of Mangas to be especially ground-breaking.
So yes, you're right; some people took it too seriously.
That's their problem. The main thing, for me, is that people liked it enough to buy 2,500,000 of the books.
Are you still surprised by the huge success your series has had?
We were always surprised by it. We didn't expect it at all. For example, we put just as much energy and passion into another series - Oompah-pah [the adventures of an American Indian] but it didn't have the same success.
We first noticed its success when I was walking in the street with my wife Ada and we heard a man call his dog "Asterix"!
We realised something was going on! To be honest, it's a good thing we never asked ourselves about how successful the series might become because if we'd known I think it would have scared us off!
You have brought out a book of memoirs [Albert Uderzo se Raconte]. Is it a chronological autobiography, or just highlights? How do you feel about having written something so personal?
This is a very important project for me. Above all, I wanted to tell my parents' story, because I love them very much. I start off with the story of how my family [Italian immigrants] came to France where I was born.
I tell the whole story of my life, including how I got started in drawing, my meeting with my friend René Goscinny, my partner, my brother, - up to the founding of Editions Albert René after the death of my comrade-in-drawing.
I feel happy about it. I wanted to tell the story of the facts as I lived them - everything that happened whether good or painful.
I wanted to bear witness and to talk about my friend in my own words; but above all, as I said, I wanted to tell the story of my family.
What do you think of the new film - Asterix at the Olympic Games? Do you like Clovis Cornillac and Gérard Depardieu as Asterix and Obelix?
How do you feel about seeing your characters played by actors as opposed to being animated cartoons [as in early films of the books]?
My friend and I never imagined the two Gauls in live-action cinema and I am delighted with the result.
It was Thomas Langmann who first had the idea of bringing our characters to life through actors' talents, more than ten years ago.
The first time I saw Gérard Depardieu in Obelix's breeches, I was won over.
He was, and is, perfect for the role. As for Clovis Cornillac, who is sporting Asterix's moustache for the first time, he's done a great job.
He's got the same funny expressions as our Gaul. It's impressive. He must have really worked out his leg muscles as well - because he keeps them a little bit bow-legged the whole time to imitate the look of Asterix who has little legs.
Having Mr Alain Delon as Caesar is a real gift.
To see him bring this character to life, with all his haughty dignity, is an honour, and I think I can speak for René as well when I say that! Really, I am honoured, happy and satisfied with the result.
It's said you might - perhaps unconsciously - have been inspired by Erquy (Côtes d'Amor) when you created Asterix's village?
René insisted the village should be near the sea so the characters could travel more easily. It was me who decided to locate it in Brittany, which I see as a land that has nourished me.
During the war I joined my older brother who had moved to Brittany, in Saint-Brieuc, and it was there that I started to earn my living, during very difficult times.
I've always had a fondness for that area and since then I regularly spend my holidays over there.
I didn't specifically want to copy Erquy but it would seem that there are a lot of similarities.
Do you like wild boar and has anyone ever roasted one for you whole as the Gauls like to eat them in the books?
Alas - that's one of the hazards of the preconceived ideas people sometimes have.
As it happens we often regretted having made Obelix eat wild boar because there was a time when, thinking it would please René and I, people went mad on preparing roast boars for us - and wild boar, when it's roast, is inedible because it's so tough.
Where did you get the idea that the Gauls' only fear is that the sky will fall on their head?
It has always been said, including in the history books, that the Gauls were brave warriors who feared nothing, apart from thunder bolts - and it's a well-known expression.
In the same way, our Gauls fear nothing apart from the lightening bolts of Toutatis or their other gods.
Which current comic book artists do you prefer? Did you like Asterix and his Friends [2007, a book of Asterix stories by well-known comic book artists in their own styles, in honour of Uderzo's 80th birthday]?
I have no favourite artist at the moment but I have always admired many different ones during the different periods of my life.
Walt Disney, or at least the artists who worked in his studios, always made me dream, to the extent that my ambition was to be the Walt Disney of Bobigny [a town to the north-east of Paris where Uderzo lived at the time he created Asterix].
Later on I had the good fortune to meet a great man - Mr Franquin [a Belgian cartoon artist] - who I had a lot of respect for, not only for his unique, inimitable talent, but for his personality, which really touched me. He was a friend.
I have never had one favourite artist, and today, thank God, there are still plenty of talented people in comics - Zep, of course, who has a very distinctive style, and I like the guy a lot; I can't mention them all, but François Boucq knows I like his work, Achdé, who has carried on the Lucky Luke series, is a great guy with huge talent…
No, really, the comic book industry today is certainly not lacking in talent, and I've only mentioned the artists - I should also pay tribute to today's writers, like Arleston, another guy I like a lot, or Laurent Gerra, who really makes me laugh.
I am flattered and honoured by the way my fellow comic book artists took part in Asterix and his Friends.
It was an unbelievable birthday present for me, and I'd like to take this opportunity to thank all my friends who were involved in it again - most of them old friends, like Tibet and Dany, with my apologies to those I've not mentioned.
Photo: Editions Albert René
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