Albert Uderzo, 92, co-creator of French comic series Asterix, dies

Albert Uderzo, a co-creator of Asterix, one of France’s most revered and longest-running comic book series, died on Tuesday at his home in Neuilly-sur-Seine, a suburb of Paris. He was 92. Bernard de Choisy, Uderzo’s son-in-law, told the Agence France-Presse that the cause was a heart attack.

The series is joined perhaps only by Tintin and Mickey Mouse in the pantheon of comic book and cartoon characters with uninterrupted universal appeal. In 1966, France’s first space satellite was named Asterix.

The series has been translated into more than 100 languages and dialects and has sold more than 380 million copies since its debut, according to Les Éditions Albert René, the company, owned by Hachette, that holds the rights to the series. It has spawned animated cartoons, live action movies and its own theme park, outside Paris.

“It’s a puzzle to me why Asterix happened the way it did,” Uderzo said in an interview with The New York Times in 1996. “René and I had previously created other characters with as much passion and enthusiasm, but only Asterix was a hit.”

“I think it’s perhaps because everyone recognises himself in the characters,” Uderzo added. “The idea of the weak who defeat the strong appeals. After all, we all have someone stronger lording it over us: the government, the police, the tax collector.”

Drawn by Uderzo in an exaggerated style — with overblown physical attributes like bulbous noses — the series features a village of unruly Gauls resisting Roman dominion in 50 BC with the help of a magic potion that grants superhuman strength.

Asterix, short but crafty, is always flanked by his rotund friend Obelix and his loyal dog, Dogmatix, as the trio repeatedly foil Julius Caesar’s plans in exploits that take them from England to Ancient Egypt. The hero’s name, like almost all of those in the series, is a pun ending in “ix” — in his case, on the word asterisk.

Uderzo and Goscinny, who met in 1951, worked at a frenzied pace, collaborating until 1977, when Goscinny died of a heart attack. Uderzo took over the series and retired in 2011. Some critics said the quality of the writing dropped after Goscinny’s death, but the series’ success continued unabated.

Uderzo created Les Éditions Albert René two years after Goscinny’s death, after a conflict with Dargaud, the pair’s original publishing house. Uderzo also waged a long legal battle with his only daughter, Sylvie Uderzo, over his literary estate. The two reconciled in 2014.

The Asterix series is now being written by Jean-Yves Ferri and drawn by Didier Conrad. The latest comic book, issued last year, is the first to feature a female heroine, Adrenaline, the teenage daughter of Vercingetorix, the historical chieftain who led the Gauls to rebel against Julius Caesar.

President Emmanuel Macron of France said in a statement on Wednesday that Asterix and Obelix were now “orphans of their creator, and France of one of this century’s most creative imaginations”.

Alberto Aleandro Uderzo was born on April 25, 1927, in Fismes, in eastern France, with 12 fingers — “a nod from destiny to the talent that would soon overflow from his hands”, Macron said — but an operation fixed the anomaly.

As a young man, Uderzo was an assistant to an instrument maker, a welder and then an illustrator in an animation studio. He created his first comic characters, for a youth magazine called OK, in 1946. Uderzo, who counted Walt Disney as one of his biggest inspirations, told the newspaper Le Monde in 2017 that “the Americans taught me how to draw”.

After his mandatory military service, Uderzo drew illustrations for French newspapers before being hired as a cartoonist in the Paris offices of a Belgian agency that distributed comics. It was at the agency that he met Goscinny.

The two got along well and collaborated on a number of comics, including Oompah-pah, a humorous series set in colonial America that was briefly serialised in the magazine Tintin. In 1959, Uderzo and Goscinny were part of the team that created Pilote, a new youth magazine that would go on to feature some of the era’s most talented French and Belgian comic book artists.

François Clauteaux, the creator of Pilote, wanted a comic book series that would be deeply French and stand out in an era of invading American comics, Uderzo told Europe 1 radio in 2008.

Uderzo and Goscinny initially thought of adapting the Roman de Renart, a series of medieval fables featuring anthropomorphic characters. But someone else had already taken the idea, and, pressed for time as the deadline for Pilote’s first issue loomed, the pair had an idea.

“What is more French than our ancestors the Gauls?” Uderzo said. “Within 15 minutes, we had imagined everything: the druid, the bard, the names that end in ‘ix,’ because of Vercingetorix, of course.”

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