Bthe last time we met, Albert Uderzo was supported on a walking stick. But he smiles when he receives me at the door of his town house in the Parisian suburb of Neuilly. He points to the stick succinctly and tells in his wonderfully mumbling French that he is currently a bit ill in health.
“In all the years before, I was lucky to always be healthy. But now God may have wanted to say that there is no longer a reason why I should always stay healthy, ”he says and pauses. “But I’m feeling a little better now.”
This meeting was three years ago. It was shortly before his 90th birthday, which he celebrated on April 25 despite a serious illness of many years. Now Albert Uderzo, the illustrator of Asterix the Gaul, one of the most successful comic series in the world, died in Paris – shortly before his 93rd birthday.
I had spoken to Uderzo several times in the past few years. Initially in the offices of his publishing house near the triumphal arch, then at the Frankfurt Book Fair and finally more often in his study in his Parisian town house.
We sat there again in 2017, on the top floor of his office, which was stuffed with bulbous-nosed wigs, the mustaches and braids, figures that were displayed with dozens of comics in showcases or hung from the ceiling on ropes or populated his desk. But this last conversation with the great comic artist was different from the previous ones because this time he wasn’t just talking about a new comic album or another Asterix film that he oversaw with his production company.
It was a look back at his life and a look into a future that sometimes frightened him. He spoke very strongly and clearly, about his love for Europe and Germany, but also about his fear of a populist like Marine Le Pen and of Islamist terror.
And he spoke about his hope that an open, modern society can overcome such threats – through a sense of community, solidarity and also determination. Just like that village that was populated by indomitable Gauls in 50 BC.
When Albert Uderzo, the son of Italian immigrants, first came up with stories of a rowdy Gauls tribe with his friend, the writer René Goscinny, in 1959, neither of them could have guessed that this would turn into a 60-year success story with more than 380 million albums sold worldwide would.
With the help of a potion, the Gauls were able to defend themselves against the Roman occupiers. At the time, she came up with the idea for this story by a publisher friend who wanted to differentiate herself from the masses of US superhero comics and encouraged the two to invent a French hero.
“René and I quickly agreed that we wanted to go back to our ancestors, the Gauls. But the time pressure was enormous, the booklet with the first episode should appear soon, “recalled Uderzo,” so we developed almost all characters in a quarter of an hour. “
Goscinny ended all surnames with -ix in homage to the French national hero, the Gallic chief Vercingetorix. “If we had known then how important our comics would be later, the meticulousness with which intellectuals would dissect our characters, we would have taken a few months and not just these 15 minutes.”
Another inspiration for the cartoon characters goes back much earlier, to the time of the German occupation of France, which the young Uderzo witnessed in Paris as well as in Brittany. His family was poor at the time and, like many, would have suffered under the occupation.
“Back in my dreams I was always a clown with a big red nose that made the audience laugh. As a boy, I fell in love with a circus poster. It was huge and showed several clowns. One of them was called my name: Albert. He had the brightest mask and the biggest nose, ”said Uderzo. “I wanted to be like him. This Albert must have unconsciously inspired me later on the bulbous noses of my Gauls. So Asterix and Obelix have become clowns in my place. ”
Uderzo has often been disturbed by the fact that Asterix has been reinterpreted and captured by a wide variety of social groups. Once the Gaul was considered an icon of the 68s, later he was captured by opponents of globalization. And again and again the Asterix stories were read as an allegory for the struggle of the resistance against the Nazis.
Uderzo has repeatedly resisted such interpretations and then always emphasized the universal message of the stories. That the small can defeat the big, that a village full of loners who are proud of their identity and independence can be curious, open-minded and helpful to foreign countries and cultures. Asterix – an understanding of the people. That was important to him.
In our last conversation, he then, quite surprisingly, hinted that the Nazi occupation had shaped him more as a draftsman and storyteller than he had previously publicly admitted. At least indirectly.
At one point in the interview, he pointed to a large-format book in his display cabinet: The animal comic “The beast is dead”, written in 1944 by the French comic book author Edmond Calvo. It depicts the German soldiers as wolves, the British as dogs, the French as frogs and rabbits and the Americans as bisons.
When Uderzo was 14 he had met Calvo. For a while they both worked for the same publisher, and Uderzo was allowed to watch the older colleague at work. “It was like paradise for me,” he told me, “Calvo supported me, helped me and encouraged me in what I wanted to do myself.”
The other great inspirations for the self-taught artist were Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse. As a teenager, he dreamed of working for Disney once.
After working in a cartoon studio himself, he refrained from doing so. “I realized there was a huge industry around Disney. Then I would have been just a little cog in a lot of artists. I did not want. I wanted my independence. “
When Uderzo also wrote the Asterix stories as the author after the death of his partner Goscinny in 1977, the critics regularly attested to him not to match the jokes of language of earlier stories. When asked about it, one always felt that this disregard affected him.
Especially with his 1980 debut as sole author “The Great Ditch”. An album that he had deliberately created as a political allegory this time – without being noticed. “When the album was released – with great success in Germany – none of the German journalists had recognized that this was an allusion to the Berlin Wall. Nobody understood that. “
He was praised as a draftsman throughout his life: for his attention to detail, his change of perspective and his ability to make the reader laugh with just a few strokes. As an author, he was in the shadow of Goscinny, who died early.
In 2013, Uderzo finally handed over the series to a new team of authors, the illustrator Didier Conrad and the writer Jean-Yves Ferri, who have since released four successful Asterix albums in exchange with him. Stopping with Asterix was difficult at first, as if he had given his son up for adoption, Uderzo said.
In the end, however, he seemed to have made his peace with this form of relay delivery. “At some point I had to retire,” he said. With Ferri and Conrad, he found two great authors who kept Asterix alive, for which he was happy and grateful.
In 2015, he interrupted his retirement again. After the terrorist attacks on the editorial staff of the French satirical magazine “Charlie Hebdo”, Uderzo had two drawings by Asterix published on Twitter.
One picture shows Asterix and Obelix in mourning for the victims, another shows Asterix how he knocks someone out of his shoes, in the speech bubble he shouts: “I’m Charlie too.”
Uderzo knew the murdered Charlie Hebdo illustrator Cabu well, later donated 150,000 euros for the survivors of the victims. “When I found out about Cabu’s death, it was terrible for me. Immediately after the attacks, there was nothing else I could do but make a drawing of Asterix. ”
He suffered terribly from Goscinny’s death
A world where illustrators were murdered for political reasons, all on his doorstep in Paris – when Uderzo last talked about it, you could still tell that he was having trouble understanding the attack. At the end of the conversation he led me through his office again, which looks more like a small museum.
Pointed to a toy landscape with all residents of the Gallic village, including two figures that showed him and René Goscinny. His old friend.
Uderzo smiled when I finally saw her in the smorgasbord. Said: “I miss him. I suffered terribly from the tragedy of his death. Nobody expected it. “
Leaning on his stick, he continued to guide me through his Asterix world upstairs. Past photos of Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröder holding an Asterix comic. Finally, he pointed to a photo that meant a lot to him. It showed Kirk Douglas flipping through the Asterix volume “Obelix on Cruise”.
Uderzo had used the actor in his film role as Spartacus. He was a great admirer of Kirk Douglas, Uderzo said as he stood next to me, almost devoutly in front of this photo. “This photo was the greatest gift for me”.
In the end, I asked him if he wanted to be as old as Douglas – who was 100 at the time. He smiled. “Unfortunately, I never met Kirk Douglas personally, I only know him from his films,” he said, “he certainly deserved to have gotten so old. He is said to be still quite fit. I hardly dare hope that I can go as far as he does. ”Douglas recently died at the age of 103.
It is hoped that the two will meet now, as in one of the large final pictures of each Asterix band – in the sky, with a roasted wild boar and a lukewarm cervisia.