The grandiose life’s work of cartoonist Albert Uderzo
BY SANDY STRASSER
(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 2 2015)
Asterix and Obelix – undoubtedly the two greatest comic heroes of the past 50 years. Together, they brought tears to the eyes of whole generations, tears of laughter. But who is behind this success story? It is the Frenchman Albert Uderzo. Together with his colleague – back in the days that was René Goscinny – he created the two shrewd Gauls more than half a century ago and they have gathered a cult following ever since.
Monsieur Uderzo here leads us deep into the world of comics and reveals who particularly inspired him and was thus drawing out his career.
With “Asterix” you have created the most successful French comic book series to date. Where did you draw the inspiration from for your over 50 years of success?
Albert Uderzo: First of all you need to know that my friend René Goscinny and I could never have imagined this success. When we created Asterix, we had not yet developed a comic series together. Besides, Asterix was never meant to be at the beginning. We were asked to create a comic book series for young people, which was to be inspired by French culture. Because at that time the American culture asserted great influence on Europe. So we came up with an “animal” comic series inspired by “Roman de Renart,” a novel with a fox from medieval times. Unfortunately, three weeks before the publication of the magazine we found out that this figure was already being drawn. We had to come up with a new idea immediately and so we combed through French history. And when I mentioned the Gauls, René said “That’s it!” no one had taken on this issue before. Well, this was more than 50 years ago. I am honoured and would like to thank the readers from around the world for this success.
What role did the cartoon characters of Walt Disney play?
A. U.: It is not so much his characters, but rather Walt Disney himself, who played an important role in our lives. We were both fascinated by him and dreamed of becoming the Walt Disney of our suburb. Naturally, the drawings and figures of that studio had an influence on us. We both dreamed of becoming draughtsmen of this studio. Some say that my designs are close to Walt Disney, that the movement is very present. I think that comes out of this enthusiasm for him. Walt Disney has played an essential role in our lives indeed, because of him we wanted to become cartoonists. He has aroused this passion in me. And I know that René was just as excited as I was.
What fascinated you about him personally and with his work?
A. U.: Again, it was not so much his person that fascinated us, but rather the people who worked for him in his animation studio. He was simply a great producer.
What do you love about Asterix the most?
A. U.: It’s not that I like something about him in particular. I like the overall character and I like Obelix. The figures have good traits and I love the enthusiasm that they trigger in children. In the end, we created them for them. Asterix is not strong, but intelligent, and Obelix complements him well, because he’s sensitive. I like them both.
What distinguishes him from some of the other of your renowned cartoon characters, such as “Belloy”?
A. U.: Your question makes me smile. I wish that my other figures were as well known as Asterix. It is very kind of you. So compared to Belloy, the Gauls come already as a couple. And the difference is that this (Belloy) is a series that I worked on with Jean Michel Charlier and not with René Goscinny. But in fact, Asterix and Obelix are physically completely different in comparison with the figures I used to draw before. We have created several animated series with different characters. Everything distinguishes the two from the previous drawings. At the time when we created Asterix, we had ambitions for the comic, we wanted to revolutionise the world. It was almost only American comics and the Franco-Belgian comic “Tintin” around. There were only superheroes. Big, strong, muscular. When we thought about the Gauls, I saw them too as big and strong. Barbaric, so to speak, exactly as they were imagined at the time. But René did not agree, he wanted a real anti-hero who bore no resemblance to the other existing characters. He therefore wanted him small, weak, not necessarily super smart, but cunning. At first, he wanted him without henchmen, as a counterpart to Tintin. And so Asterix was created, with a big nose, because that made him look so funny. However, people say that I am stubborn, so I still drew a second figure alongside Asterix. I made that one large, gigantic even. This figure quickly became Obelix. Of course also with a big nose. Nevertheless, we wanted them strong, but not with the super powers like in the other comic series, so finally we gave them a potion that gives them superhuman strength. Actually, our characters are different from all the others.
You have often referred to Asterix as your favourite character. Does he have certain characteristics that Monsieur Albert Uderzo has as well?
A. U.: No, I do not think so. I like all the characters I have created alone or together with my friends. On the other hand, Asterix has been a part of my life for 55 years. The other characters came and went, although I, or better, we, created them with the same passion. And after all, there is not only Asterix. Fortunately, he is in good company. There is Obelix, who as you know now, should not even have existed at the beginning. But because I am stubborn, he now plays a crucial role in the adventures. His character is completely different from Asterix’. And I must admit that maybe I even feel a little closer to Obelix.
What are the ingredients for a successful and lasting story? When has a comic the potential to connect generations?
A. U.: The success of this comic series is similar to the recipe for the magic potion. No one knows the ingredients. And neither René nor I anticipated this success. Fortunately, by the way, otherwise we might have run away. We would have been too scared. However, I cannot give you an answer to the ingredients for success. If we had known it, we would have used that “recipe” for the other characters as well. We developed Asterix in the same manner as all the other figures. But that time we did it for a new youth magazine ‘Pilote’! That was in 1959. It was an immediate success. A few years later, I was leaving my house and heard a man call his dog “Asterix.” That was when I realised that something had changed. Parents suddenly allowed their children to read Asterix. That was incredible because the comic had a bad reputation in France back then. With Asterix people endorsed such a kind of entertainment for the first time. René and I were so proud about that.
Your stories repeatedly reflect on morality. What message do you want to send out to the world with Asterix?
A. U.: No special message if not the humour. We never wanted to hold a sermon or give a history lesson. Our only inspiration has been human values, fundamental values that make up all people. We were making fun of the customs and traditions of different people in a nice manner. In the end though, faced with looming disaster, everyone becomes a friend in our Gallic stories. Asterix is not a moraliser. But he is a brave warrior, who, together with Obelix, comes to the aid of those in need. I have Italian, René has Polish roots, so our figure is tolerant. We never wanted to convey a special message but rather amuse the people with our story and revolutionise the comic scene of that time instead. We were idealists and wanted to change everything, especially the humour that we considered old-fashioned and boring back in those days.
How do you deal with criticism?
A. U.: What criticism? I have always been criticised, sometimes more and sometimes less harshly. Whenever we published a volume, critics never spared us: they said that René’s jokes were too intellectual and that I drew too grotesque figures. The critics have never forgotten us. It became even harder to bear for me, when my friend, my brother, died in 1977, far too early. The press said that Asterix had died with René. I was dejected. I had not only lost him, who was my brother in heart, but also the character we had created together. These two people, so very dear to my heart, were gone. Thanks to the letters from readers and their popularity, I made my decision to take up the pencil again. I had to continue, to let him live. When the Asterix volume “The Great Divide” came out, a critic said: “The scenario is so good, Goscinny must have scripted it.” That was the best critique someone could give me!
Some of your Asterix stories have been made into several successful films. What do you feel when you see your heroes coming to life on the big screen?
A. U.: That makes me very proud. I have to admit though, that in the beginning I had some trouble imagining the characters in real life. And I do not only mean their rather unreal appearance. How, for example would the effects of the magic potion be depicted? But when I first went into the studio for the shooting of the first film, “Asterix & Obelix vs Caesar“ I was overwhelmed. The set was great. I was very impressed with Cacofonix’ treehouse. Not to mention Obelix, who was literally incarnated by Gérard Depardieu. Gérard makes a great Obelix. He has managed to give him the tenderness and softness the cartoon character has. And I always feel very flattered when such talented comedians agree to bring my little characters to life.
What prerequisites do you need to become a good cartoonist? What is the difference to a caricaturist?
A. U.: Whether you have to have particular prerequisites, is difficult to say. I have not been through a special school except that of life. I’ve probably had a predisposition for drawing since childhood. But what has motivated me to make the drawing of comics my profession was my passion. Drawing is my life and I had the extraordinary opportunity to turn it into my profession. I wish everyone could do that. But cartoonist and caricaturist are just a different genre, ultimately both are drawing. I eventually decided to make comics for youngsters. It is the more imaginative genre but that did not stop me from drawing caricatures as well. I loved to include pictures of current personalities I had painted myself in my books. But I suppose you are primarily talking about the political cartoonist. These caricaturists are often draughtsmen for the press. A very specific discipline. They draw inspiration for their unique drawings from actualities. We, the draughtsmen for the youth, if I may say so, spread a story over many pages.
What is the impact both have on modern society and the world of media today?
A. U.: I do not know if these two professions have a special impact on modern society. The caricature has been around at least since the emergence of the press. What has evolved is society and with it the kind of press drawings. That is an entirely logical development. The topics vary but the errors of humans do not and that again will never change in my opinion. In this context, I would like to speak about the fatal attack on the premises of “Charlie Hebdo.” Because one thing is clear: No illustrator deserves to die because of his drawings.
Why did you lay down the pen in 2013? How does it feel to know that others are now carrying on your heritage?
A. U.: I have been drawing since I was 14 years old and at the age of 85, I decided to quit. I think I have the right to retire too. And I do not look at it as someone continuing my heritage because I am still here to watch over my characters. Two talented boys accepted the offer to realise the 35th volume “Asterix and the Picts” and they are currently working on the 36th adventure. But they are not my heirs. The publisher has chosen them both to make these two volumes and I have given my consent. I remain present nonetheless, not to censor, but to support them.
What do you expect from Jean ‒ Yves Ferri and Didier Conrad, both experienced comic authors ‒ who will take care of future Asterix adventures?
A. U.: I hope that they respect the values René Goscinny and I gave Asterix and Obelix when we created them. They know that and I trust them. Their volume “Asterix and the Picts” is a success. I am happy for them.
How far does your influence on future developments go after this step has been made?
A. U.: Just because I have retired as a cartoonist, does not mean I no longer look after Asterix and what you can do with him. On the contrary, I remain his creator and it is my responsibility to ensure that the features of this figure and his environment are safeguarded. Each film, animation or stage project and the like is first submitted to me for approval.
What are your personal dreams for the future?
A. U.: I am 87 years old today. I have had many dreams and the opportunity to realise many of them. I hope that my grandchildren have a lot of dreams and if I can help them to fulfil one or the other I will be there for them.
What motivates you every day?
A. U.: As long as I live, I benefit from it.
Albert Uderzo is born in the French town of Fismes in 1927. Already in the nursery, young Albert’s talent for drawing shines through. The autodidact soon lets go of his original aspiration to become a clown. He feels an irrepressible urge to draw and starts to outline figures with bulbous noses when he is only ten years old. In 1947, Albert Uderzo eventually starts to work as a comic and satirical illustrator for newspapers in France and Belgium. Uderzo creates famous characters like the pirate ‘Pitt Pistol’ or the detective ‚Luc Junior’. In 1952, the cartoonist collaborates with the author René Goscinny. Together they develop many creative projects in the following years.
Picture credits © Herve BRUHAT/RAPHO