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Last Updated: Thursday, 18 October 2007, 11:16 GMT 12:16 UK
The vital statistics of Asterix
Asterix, Obelix and Dogmatix - copyright Les Editions Albert Rene/Goscinny-Uderzo
The Gauls, copyright Les Editions Albert Rene/Goscinny-Uderzo

Albert Uderzo has charmed children for almost 50 years with his comic book creation, Asterix the Gaul. Despite the death of its co-creator 30 years ago, the character still dominates his life, he tells Mario Cacciottolo.

Florence Richaud playfully tweaks the nose of a plastic Asterix figure, while waiting outside the house belonging to the character's co-creator, Albert Uderzo.

"I am bringing Mr Uderzo his son," she says.

The figure being carried by Florence - who works for Mr Uderzo's publishing company Les Editions Albert Rene - shows his creation proudly atop a podium. It's the same image found on the cover of the book Asterix at the Olympic Games, to be released as a film next year.

Albert Uderzo
Albert Uderzo has been drawing Asterix comics since 1959

The cartoon books of the Gaulish hero and his friends, who live in a village surrounded by invading Romans kept out thanks to a magic potion which gives tremendous strength, have been massively popular since first appearing in 1959.

Inside the Uderzo residence, in the exclusive Neuilly-sur-Seine district of Paris, the artist enters his studio slowly, with the use of a single crutch - his right knee has suddenly swollen up and he had to visit hospital earlier that day.

Goscinny knew how I would draw, and I knew what Goscinny wanted me to draw
Albert Uderzo
Although obviously in some discomfort, he refuses to make a fuss.

His office/studio is exactly how one hopes it would be - bright and sunny, stuffed full of figures of Asterix, his friend Obelix and their friends and foes, with models of miniature Gaulish villages, artistic materials and the walls smothered with original artwork.

There are also two desks, to which Mr Uderzo points in turn. "That one is where I work, that one is where I do my taxes."

Asterix, the village of Gauls with their chieftain Vitalstatistix and the "crazy" Romans surrounding them, were created by artist Mr Uderzo and writer Rene Goscinny. Since the death of his writing partner, 30 years ago next month, Mr Uderzo has taken on the words as well.

Paint brushes and an Asterix chess set
Mr Uderzo's office is filled with working materials and memorabilia
Some 325 million copies of the 33 Asterix albums have been sold, with translations into languages as diverse as Urdu, Arabic and even Latin.

"Asterix is bearing up well after nearly 50 years, he is still awaited by the readers," he says. "We are getting closer to bringing him back to life in a new album", although he later admits that he's still looking for an idea for the next story.

"That's become a lot more difficult for me now - after 33 albums to find an idea is not that easy. If I don't have any more then I am not just going to do an album just for the money. I will stop."

Self-taught artist

Mr Uderzo explains that he creates the cartoon "above all to amuse me" and describes drawing them as "my life", smiling as he says that Obelix is his favourite character in the series and how Walt Disney inspired his early artistic efforts.

He says: "I started very young, not to earn money - because at the time you couldn't make any money out of it - but still after 62 years I get amusement and pleasure when I get a good idea and I translate it into a drawing.

Working on an Asterix cover

"I am purely self taught. I never had time to learn to draw. I had to work at a very young age to earn a living. My family was very modest, my dad worked in a factory and couldn't understand why I wanted to do this job.

"He was panicked, he had this image of painters being people in the 19th Century with tuberculosis. He didn't want me to be an artist."

When asked about Asterix's enduring success, he says this is "a question I've been asked many times, and I asked Goscinny many times also. I still don't really know the answer.

"Why are these characters popular with the public in comparison to other characters we created together, where it seems to us that we have used the same ingredients, the same talents, if you like, the same pleasure above all?

"We are like magicians who don't know how they do a trick."

He does say that perhaps the story's appeal is down to "the revenge of the small against the strong, which the audience can relate to. It's the only explanation I can give".

Mr Uderzo often uses the term "we", meaning his partnership with Mr Goscinny, and sometimes in the present tense.

"We worked together in the dining room. We looked for ideas, often it was him who found them but we both contributed.

"There was a real meshing between the two of us. There are lots of creators who work together, but they work separately on projects. Goscinny knew how I would draw, and I knew what Goscinny wanted me to draw.

"Goscinny would give me the complete script, and then I could work on it."

Mr Uderzo continues this tradition to this day, writing the script before picking up a pencil, "a discipline I learned from Goscinny" and says that "if I have a problem, I think - how would Goscinny have solved this?"

National identities

One of the strongest elements of the Asterix story is the affectionate stereotyping of different nationalities - the British with their formal speech and love of warm beer, for example, and the tanned Spanish with their love of flamenco dancing.

Asterix, Obelix and Dogmatix [Copyright Les Editions Albert Rene/Goscinny-Uderzo]
Asterix, Obelix and Dogmatix - copyright Les Editions Albert Rene/Goscinny-Uderzo
"We work - I say we, because Goscinny still has a monopoly on it - to speak about a people that other people recognise.

"We have to find the archetype that is the most obvious. For example, the Spanish were brown-skinned, but they didn't like it because they said 'We also have blonde Spaniards'.

"But if we did the Spanish as blondes, nobody would understand."

Mr Uderzo may have been unwell of late but he looks tanned and much younger than his 80 years.

He speaks calmly, slowly, with minimum movement, a half-smile his normal expression. He's a man who just loves to draw and is still faintly surprised that so many others love his creations as much as he does.

The toy Florence brought to Mr Uderzo was for his approval on what colour the podium should actually be - it is merchandise for the new live-action movie, Asterix at the Olympic Games.

This latest film, starring French film stars Gerard Depardieu and Alain Delon, is released in January.

The telephone rings and Mr Uderzo takes the call. "I'm sorry," he says when he hangs up, "it was Depardieu," who he describes as "charming" - the actor is reviving his role as Obelix in the latest film production.

Mr Uderzo confesses to a weakness for Ferraris, which he collects, and says he has raced them around Europe, admitting to having "crashed, broken and burned cars" in "folly, madness". The last time he raced was in 1998, when in his early 70s.

Later, Mr Uderzo's chatty wife Ada appears. She appears to have hurt her back, which she tweaked that morning "while putting my husband's socks on", which he could not do himself on account of his injured knee.

When asked why he continues to author the Asterix albums under both names, even though he now works on them alone, Mr Uderzo replies that it is a "question of respect".

"I find it completely normal to have both names on the album, I would be ashamed to only put mine on, even if it was only me who wrote them. Goscinny will intrinsically be a part of them as long as Asterix lives."

And is the story true, that Asterix got his name because he is the "star" of the comics?

"No," replies Mr Uderzo. "Goscinny just wanted to make sure that our work would appear first in an encyclopaedia of comics."

With thanks to Marie-Claire Sheppard and Florence Richaud.


Below is a selection of your comments:

Our children were introduced to them as audio books, from being quite young. They were essential listening for the whole family on our holiday trips to France and we seldom came back without another well thumbed book. Both our sons have studied French to a high level, so this lovely gentleman and his partner obviously got the magic right.
Ruth, Derby

I remember swapping Asterix books with friends in primary school to make sure everyone had read everything that was available. I was extremely fascinated by connections between the names of the characters and their roles/personalities. My favourite was Cacofonix because in his name I discovered the meaning of the cacophony. It is great to know that the authors did all the work with pleasure.
Araba Amuasi, Accra, Ghana

Twenty years ago when I first came to Switzerland as a child, all I knew about the country came from Asterix in Switzerland, where the Swiss are portrayed as being fanatical about cleanliness (they couldn't use the whip as it wasn't dry yet). As we came out of the hotel on the first morning, all we could smell was bleach... they were cleaning the fountain outside. There is a reason that stereotypes exist, although I still haven't come across a Swiss person who yells 'cuckoo' at regular intervals.
Weeza, Basel, Switzerland

Will "man mountain" Chabal be cast in the film now France are out of the rugby World Cup?
Maisy, Milton Keynes

Yes, there are a lot of racial stereotypes in the Asterix books but I think there's a rich comic vein to be tapped in such things, and Goscinny and Uderzo are almost always affectionate in their portrayals of other people. Even the nasty Normans/Vikings (from Asterix And The Normans) eventually got much more sympathetic treatment in Asterix And The Great Crossing. I think even today's children could learn a great deal about compassion and understanding from the indomitable Gaul.
Rob Sykes, Tipton, UK

What a lovely, gentle, modest man! Perhaps it is that gentleness that informs Asterix and makes him and his world so likeable. Our Gaulish heroes are renowned fighters, but there is never anything mean-spirited about them. Vive Asterix et Obelix.
Ernest Adams, Normandy, Surrey

I loved Asterix books as a child and am enjoying watching our children devour them as they discover the joys of reading. I am fascinated by the translation into English, which I find excellent, and my improving French is just beginning to capture the nuances of the names in French. Dogmatix is Ideefix; Getafix is Panoramix - sometimes I find the English wittier. The bard is Assurancetourix in French = comprehensive insurance coverage, if I'm not mistaken.
Gwyneth Cairns, Tours, France

I first encountered Asterix in Look And Learn's serial versions of his adventures in Britain and Egypt in 1966, and appreciate the original creative flair, but is it really good for children to encounter racial stereotypes and even playful or comic aggression? In Germany, printing had to be stopped when Asterix became a Siggin with master race tendencies. It is also getting ridiculous when Asterix gets mixed up with the Arabian Nights and similar far-fetched fantasies - the original point of the joke was a parody of Caesar's Gallic War! Tintin was and is a much more inspired and engaging figure - and encourages youngsters to follow solid adventure plots and read for themselves.
K Watson, Stockport

I also like the use of differing fonts to denote the languages the characters are speaking in - the Goths have a really heavy Germanic style text. I've still got some of the Asterix films on video - Asterix in Britain is absolute genius.
Alex, Birmingham, UK

I loved Asterix books when I was younger. They were great for learning about history and geography. They sparked my interest in languages too - the books have been translated into a fantastical number of languages and dialects. I was once in a bookshop in Bangkok and a Dutch gentleman in front of me was asking for a Thai version of Asterix, so it can't be just me that likes to collect these different language versions.
GA, Kent

Thank you for bringing back happy memories of Asterix & Obelix! I was introduced to them when we lived in France as children and adored the tongue-in-cheek humour.
Kathy Stanzler, North Dartmouth, MA, US


SEE ALSO
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