Chapeau, Uderzo!

Updated: Mar 29, 2020, 10:26 IST | Meenakshi Shedde | Mumbai

Albert Uderzo and Rene Goscinny created a marvellous world around the pint-sized hero Asterix, his pot-bellied buddy Obelix, and his dog Dogmatix, and their adventures.

Illustration/Uday Mohite
Illustration/Uday Mohite

Meenakshi SheddeAlbert Uderzo, most beloved French comic book artist, best known for creating the Asterix series with writer René Goscinny, passed away last week at 92. The duo created a marvellous world around the pint-sized hero Asterix, his pot-bellied buddy Obelix, and his dog Dogmatix, and their adventures. "The year is 50 B.C. Gaul (France) is entirely occupied by the Romans. Well, not entirely! One small village of indomitable Gauls still holds out against the invaders" heralded a series of laughing fits. And their characters' names were delicious puns: the village chief Vitalstatistix, the bard Cacofonix, the blacksmith Fulliautomatix, the fishmonger Unhygienix and his wife Bacteria. Two Romans were even called Nefarius Purpus and Crismus Bonus. Part of the series' popularity is due to the terrific English translation by Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge.

Created by Goscinny and Uderzo in 1959, the cult Asterix comic series is billed as France's most lucrative literary export. It has been translated into over 100 languages, and sold over 380 million copies worldwide. Also a major film franchise with 14 animated and live action films, Asterix and Obelix: Mission Cleopatra, starring Gerard Depardieu, was one of the biggest French box office successes. There are also 40 Asterix video games, and Parc Astérix, a theme park with over 50 million visitors.

What set the Asterix series apart from all the other comics is that they were intelligent, funny, adventurous and popular worldwide. That's an extraordinary combo. Take the other comics of my time—The Adventures of Tin Tin, Archie, The Phantom (remember him, anyone?), Mandrake, the Magician (OK, I'm carbon dating, or comic dating myself here), Peanuts, Popeye, Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, Amar Chitra Katha, et al. I greatly enjoyed all of them, but I didn't adoooore them, as I did Asterix.

At heart, Asterix is the story of an underdog outwitting a mighty Empire, friendship and adventures. The heroes are not handsome buddies with six-packs; their creators made key characters hard to like. Asterix is a shorty gavti (rural) type with a droopy moustache; his mota dost Obelix, who relishes wild boar, is a junglee by Indian standards. Yet, the two hold out against Julius Caesar's mighty Roman empire, by their wits—and a swig of magic potion, which briefly gives Asterix superhuman abilities. And we love them unconditionally.

Asterix comics are even intellectual. You had to delight in languages to appreciate the humour, such as a druid (priest-doctor) being called Getafix, and it was peppered with Latin phrases like Alea jacta est (the die is cast). Yet, there were plenty of belly laughs, verbal and visual gags for the non-Latinwallahs too. My favourite is Asterix the Legionary, where Obelix falls in love with Panacea, then Asterix and Obelix go to rescue her fiancé Tragicomix, who has been conscripted into Caesar's army. It features a hilarious Egyptian tourist, Ptenisnet, who speaks in hieroglyphs, and constantly thinks he is checking into a holiday camp, while actually being drafted into Caesar's army. My sister Sarayu and I have spent many childhood summers roaring with Asterix. I would be laughing so hard, weeping, my sphincter in danger of giving way. Oh my. Chapeau, monsieur. You were immortal to begin with, by Toutatis!

Meenakshi Shedde is India and South Asia Delegate to the Berlin International Film Festival, National Award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. Reach her at meenakshi.shedde@mid-day.com

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