Sad news – Albert Uderzo has died. He passed away on 24 March 2020 at the age of 92 at his home in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France from a heart attack (unrelated to COVID-19). Does his name ring a bell but you can’t quite put your finger on it? He was the co-creator and artist of the Asterix comic books (Astérix or Astérix le Gaulois in the original French) along with writer René Goscinny.
A successful partnership
I thought for most of my childhood that the Asterix books were written by someone called “Goscinny Uderzo”. Weird name? Oh well, he is French! In the same way as Paul Kidby’s name has become inextricably linked to Sir Terry Pratchett and his Discworld books, and Sir John Tenniel to Lewis Carroll and Alice in Wonderland, and Quentin Blake to Roald Dahl, so the Goscinny-Uderzo duo became tied together. You couldn’t think of the one without the other.
In fact, after René Goscinny died in 1977, Albert Uderzo continued to write and illustrate the Asterix books on his own, and had them published by his own publishing house “Albert René”. He continued to produce an average of one new book every three to five years. I doubt if people noticed or minded that Goscinny was no longer involved. All they wanted was more Asterix books.
Half a century of books
Thirty-eight Asterix books have been published over 58 years, from the first in 1961 to the latest in 2019, called Asterix and the Chieftain’s Daughter. Numbers 1 to 24, 32 and 34 are by Goscinny and Uderzo. Starting in 2008, numbers 25 to 31 and 33 are by Uderzo alone. From 2013, numbers 35 to 38 are by writer Jean-Yves Ferri and illustrator Didier Conrad, who have officially taken over production of the books.
My parents gave me and my brother our first Asterix book when we were six, and I suspect it had to do with familiarizing us with Latin since my dad had studied Latin at university. And sure enough, what I now know about Ancient Rome, Greece and Gaul, the connection between Latin and English, and the sense of humour of the French, I got from starting with Asterix. We had to go and find out what the names and the things in the stories were from the library or our encyclopedia set – why were the Gauls and Romans always fighting? What is a centurion? And a druid? And why did they like eating wild boar?
We read our collection of Asterix books until they fell apart and bought each new book the moment they were in the store. I particularly enjoyed the witty language and the puns in the names of the characters: “Asterix” of course – a pun on asterisk*, the small star symbol, “Obelix” – a pun on obelisk, a large rock pillar, because he is very fat and the strongest of all the Gauls; barrel-shaped “Chief Vitalstatistix” whose vital statistics are quite large; the bad but vain musician “Cacophonix”, after cacophony; and Asterix’s dog “Dogmatix”, a pun on dog and dogmatic. The names are funny puns in all the languages in which the books are translated. For instance, the druid who makes the magic potion that gives the Gauls super-human strength, “Getafix” (get a fix), is “Panoramix” in the original French and “Miraculix” in German.
The phenomenal success of the books can be attributed to them being available to readers all around the world, having been cleverly and wittily translated into English and more than 100 other languages and dialects. Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge translated the majority of the books into English. Hockridge died in 2013 and Bell died in 2018. Adriana Hunter currently serves as translator, starting with Asterix and the Chariot Race (2017).
The language in the books, especially the Latin jokes, have been extensively studied and analyzed. Here is an analysis of some of the Latin jokes in Asterix the Gaul, by talented linguist Steve Dodson, a retired copyeditor. There are more explanations on the Asterix Fandom pages.
Like with Discworld, Asterix’s creators introduced themes that could be related to issues of the day – political power struggles, feminism, espionage, economic crises, etc. But most of the books are amusing, light-hearted and make fun of all sorts of people and nationalities. Albert Uderzo will not be forgotten. He leaves a remarkable legacy and, luckily for children everywhere (and adults who like comic books), there will be more Asterix books.
About the header
This 1899 painting by Lionel Noel Royer depicts the leader of the Gauls, Vercingetorix, throwing down his arms at the feet of Julius Caesar, in an act of surrender after the Battle of Alesia in 52 BC. I’ve added Albert Uderzo’s “Julius Caesar” who looks proud and pleased with himself, as always, but “Asterix” is taken aback and will undoubtedly continue fighting the Romans. He is probably thinking to himself; “These Romans are crazy!” In Goscinny and Uderzo’s world, “Asterix” and the people of his village always outwit the Romans.