The webcomics blog about webcomics

Heh. “Coronavirus”.

As promised, Fleen Senior French Correspondent Pierre Lebeaupin has a remembrance of Alberto Uderzo, co-creator and artist of Astérix.


I am still reeling. Astérix, like Tintin and the Smurfs, were the ubiquitous comics of my childhood, I literally grew up with them; but by the time I was born René Goscinny and Hergé were gone already, I could never mourn them, and once Peyo left us too, I had grown out of the Smurfs. But you never grow out of Astérix.

Uderzo was born in France but named Alberto, since his parents immigrated from Italy, and in that his origins parallel Goscinny’s (born in Paris of a Jewish family from Poland). Indeed, Uderzo is commonly associated with Astérix, with reason, but even more characteristic of his career is his association with Goscinny: their meeting was clearly decisive for both their careers, and from then on they never stopped collaborating. Beginning with a first iteration of Umpah-Pah, which they solicited in the US, without success, but the techniques of the time had them put the English lettering directly on the original plates, where it still remains, including in reprints of that pilot: they can only be read in English. Then various other series with uneven success, among which Luc Junior or Jehan Pistolet. Then a retooled Umpah-Pah, probably his second best-known work (5 books).

And then the pair, with a few other friends, founded Pilote, with Obélix quickly settling on the cover masthead. Imagine if Stan Lee has left Marvel in 1959 along with Jack Kirby to found Dark Horse, and succeeded in making it bigger than the Big Two? This is what Goscinny and his friends did, and much the same way that Hergé was Tintin magazine’s star artist, and Franquin was Spirou magazine’s, Uderzo was Pilote‘s.

And as such, while Astérix was born in the first issue of Pilote, in there Uderzo also worked on Tanguy et Laverdure, this time on a scenario from Jean-Michel Charlier and in a more realistic style for which he is less known, and that’s too bad, because his work is just as remarkable there than it is in Astérix. But the success of Pilote, and then of Astérix within Pilote, led the pair to drop Umpah-Pah (which they were creating for Tintin magazine), and led Uderzo to relinquish drawing duties on Tanguy et Laverdure to Jijé. From then on, Uderzo would work on Astérix and only Astérix, with the success for which he is now known worldwide.

I have never seen his work prior to his collaboration with Goscinny, but even after they started working together his style was still evolving: at the beginning of Jehan Pistolet for instance he drew scenes and characters with dense strokes, but later on in Jehan Pistolet he evolved to a very cartoonish style, reminiscent of Disney. While far from Hergé’s ligne claire, the style he settled on can’t really be tied to the Marcinelle school either: while he reported being influenced by US artists, in many ways he cleared his own path.

A style which appears deceivingly simple. It is exceedingly readable and thus instrumental to Astérix’ all-ages appeal: even if you barely understand what is going on you can easily follow along, which better allows you to read them again later, where Goscinny’s writing picks up the slack and reveals additional layers of meaning. And yet when looking more closely you can see how he adds emphasis lines, varies lines width, suggests volumes, etc. without it being salient.

But it wasn’t just the style. When Asterix chez les Pictes, the first book drawn by Didier Conrad, was about to come out Le Monde ran a feature telling how Uderzo initially looked only for a writer for resuming the series without him, as he thought he already had the drawing talent in house: Frédéric Mébarki, who was already punctually filling in for the aging master, seamlessly so. But when it came time to create a full book, no one was satisfied with his “graphical narration”, Mébarki most of all: he had to drop the project, and another search had to be made, this time for an artist.

He was also the last of his generation, of those comics creators of the French-Belgian tradition who broke out in the 50s. Goscinny, Charlier, Delporte, Jijé, Franquin, Peyo, Greg, Morris, Roba, Giraud, are all gone, and so with Uderzo died the last witness to a lot of the history of comics.

It is clear the success of Astérix owes a lot to the work of Albert Uderzo. In the last Tintin book that Hergé completed, Tintin and the Picaros, the last pages occur during a carnival, and while most of the costumes are of public domain characters (harlequin, giant heads, etc.), you can find a Mickey, a Donald … and an Asterix costume. A passing of the guard, in a way.

What to read of Uderzo?

  • Umpah-pah the Redskin (remember it was the 50s, and is best thought as alternate history anyway): the first part of the Umpah-pah series; most of what will be in Astérix is there already.
  • Tanguy et Laverdure: any of the books he drew in this series, just so you can see what he is capable of in a more realistic style as well.
  • Asterix and Cleopatra: clearly inspired by/spoofing the Mankiewicz movie (the original cover boasted of the 67 liters of beer, among other resources, necessary for the book’s creation), the sense of scale is impressive.
  • Asterix the Legionary: How many kinds of Roman legionaries do you think he can draw? More than you think.
  • Asterix in Britain: A crazy rugby game? Of course he can do that.
  • Asterix and the Roman Agent: The strained friendships in this one are incredibly represented.
    (note that Uderzo was at his best when Goscinny wrote for him. In particular, everyone would rather forget the last book he created alone)

Finally, Augie De Blieck Jr of Pipeline Comics has a nice roundup of tributes, but my favorite has to be Eudes’:

Halt Gauls! On order of Coronavirus, prefect of Gaul, you are to provide me your travel certificate.
A certificate … These Romans are crazy.

Mashing news events is a dicey proposition, doubly so when trying to pay tribute to a departed person, but here it works perfectly. Especially as the lockdown in France restricts attendance of funeral services to … 20 people. And obviously forbids any other tribute event or ceremony from taking place, as there doubtlessly would have been for such a celebrity death. My thoughts go to Uderzo’s family who have to mourn him in these constrained times.

Spam of the day:
Spammers don’t get to share the day with Uderzo.

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