Bonté Gracieuse!

Mary Beard

  • Asterix and the Actress by Albert Uderzo, translated by Anthea Bell
    Orion, 48 pp, £9.99, April 2001, ISBN 0 7528 4657 4

When René Goscinny, the creator of Astérix, died in 1977, it was, in the words of one French obituary, ‘as if the Eiffel Tower had fallen down’. The cartoon adventures of the plucky little Gaul holding out against Roman conquest (with the help of a magic potion that could confer a few minutes’ irresistible strength at a single gulp) were as much a defining part of French cultural identity as the most distinctive monument on the Paris skyline. A national survey in 1969 suggested that two-thirds of the population had read at least one of the Astérix books; and by the time of Goscinny’s death total sales in France are said to have amounted to more than 55 million copies, putting Astérix substantially ahead of his main (Belgian) rival, Tintin. The first French space satellite, launched in 1965, was named in his honour (the US later matched this with spaceships called Charlie Brown and Snoopy). There was also, predictably, a more mundane range of Astérix spin-offs, from mustard to washing powder, that flooded the French market in the 1960s and 1970s. The story goes that Goscinny’s partner, Albert Uderzo, once saw three advertisements side by side on a Métro station, for three completely different products each endorsed with equal enthusiasm by Astérix and his cartoon comrades. From then on, they put much tighter limits on the products they would allow their hero to advertise.

Goscinny was born in Paris in 1926, divided his childhood between France and Argentina, and learned the cartoon trade in New York, with the group of artists who went on to found Mad magazine. Returning to France in 1951, he teamed up with Uderzo – Goscinny wrote the words, Uderzo did the drawings. They had a dry run for Astérix with a short-lived cartoon called Oumpah-pah, featuring a Flatfoot Indian living in a remote village in the Wild West that was bravely holding out against the palefaces, but struck lucky when they launched their ancient Gaulish version of Oumpah-pah in 1959 in the first issue of the comic Pilote (which, like Mad, was aimed at adults rather than children). Pilote had the financial backing of Radio Luxembourg; and the instant success of the magazine and its cast of characters can hardly have been unconnected with the barrage of publicity provided by the radio station.

Their first fully-fledged book, Astérix le Gaulois, appeared in 1961; and at the time of his death, 16 years later, Goscinny had just completed the script of the 24th, Astérix chez les Belges – a swashbuckling adventure with some remarkably stereotypical Belgians, large quantities of beer and Brussels sprouts, plus the inevitable walk-on part for a pair of Tintin characters. This was almost the end of Astérix. Goscinny died before the book had been illustrated, and Uderzo was extremely reluctant to finish the job. But the publishers could not afford such sentiment and took him to court to try to force him to produce the drawings. They won the first round of the legal battle and Uderzo grudgingly turned his hand to the work. Ironically, the book had already been published when he got the judgment overturned on appeal. The last 25 years have seen Uderzo (now well into his seventies) repeatedly retire, declaring the series over, only to come back a few years later with a new, solo-authored adventure. Meanwhile, he has been cashing in on the phénomène Astérix with an unusually tasteful theme-park, Parc Astérix, just outside Paris, and a run of movies. The latest, Astérix et Obélix: Mission Cléopatre opened in Paris last month and stars, for the second time, Gérard Depardieu as an appropriately portly Gaul.

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