With my 42nd birthday fast approaching, I have been feeling rather nostalgic about my early cartooning influences and re-reading a lot of my old Asterix books for inspiration and fun. I had a lot of fun this week developing my tribute to the masters - Albert Uderzo and René Goscinny. "The Adventures of Asterix" is a French comic book series about a village of indomitable Gauls who have adventures while fighting the Romans, with the aid of a magic potion, during the era of Julius Caesar. The Asterix series debuted in the Franco-Belgian comix Pilote in 1959, and was written by René Goscinny and illustrated by Albert Uderzo, until Goscinny's death in 1977. Uderzo took over the writing of the Asterix books until 2009. As of 2021, 39 Asterix volumes have been released, and it has been translated into 111 languages and dialects. More on translations later!
My first encounter with Asterix was seeing a picture of him and Obelix on a friend's lunchbox while at primary school (I was probably 9 or 10 at the time). When I later saw a copy of "Asterix and the Cauldron" in a mobile library, I made the connection between the distinctive characters on the lunchbox and the cover art, and had to borrow it. Due to his dominating size, I mistakenly assumed Obelix was actually Asterix at first! "Asterix and the Cauldron" was not only my first Asterix book, but also my first encounter with the comic book format. To say this book had a profound effect on me would be a massive understatement - for years, Asterix was everything to me. I liked to draw pictures in my years "BA" (before Asterix) but reading this book was that start of the big drawing inspiration and obsession - and I never looked back. I tried to draw cartoons of Asterix and his friends and enemies throughout my childhood. Visiting Gaul (France) for the first time when I was 10 was indescribably exciting! To see real ruined Roman amphitheatres and triumphal arches, seeing Asterix-branded merchandise everywhere and finally to visit Parc Asterix - wow!
The characters in the world of Asterix books are lovable and engaging and the adventures they embark on are funny and exciting. Most books follow the theme of rebel underdogs triumphing over the powerful bullies (the Roman Empire). But for me the highlight was the illustrations which were and still are simply mind-blowing. And then I got older and really started to appreciate the puns, the funny names, the hilarious national stereotypes, the history, the Latin, the homages (to Hergé in "Asterix in Belgium" and to Laurel and Hardy in "Obelix & Co.", to name but two).
To my mind, no-one can touch Albert Uderzo as an artist and illustrator. He is the pinnacle of cartoon and comic book art, and my greatest influence. His character design is superb. Uderzo draws each character like he is producing intensely detailed keyframes for animation. You only have to look at one of the frames showing Asterix and Obelix walking, for example, and you can see exactly how they would move were the image to come to life - Asterix walks in short, confident steps, chest out, fists clenched; Obelix walks in languid, loping strides, his short legs and large, caldron-shaped body necessitating him swinging each leg out and round with each step, his hands casually clasped behind his back. This demonstrates Uderzo's peerless command of character - he understands his creations so thoroughly he knows how they would move, and act, in any given situation.
Uderzo's artistic depiction of the ancient Gaulish landscape is beautiful, but his architectural drawings are simply staggering. His overhead views of ancient Rome, for example (see "Asterix and the Laurel Wreath" and "Asterix and the Magic Carpet") and other ancient cities are masterpieces. I suspect the phenomenal detail in Uderzo's work is why, even now, I find it so hard to wind back and simplify my work. I envy people who can draw simple pictures, but I am a slave to the details thanks to Albert Uderzo!
And now we come to my tribute to Asterix, the stories, the characters and the creators. I started my piece based upon the punchline scene to possibly my favourite gag in the whole Asterix series, set up in the first two pages of "Asterix in Switzerland" (1970). Before I explain, this brings me onto one of the most important parts of the international success of the Asterix series - the translations! Anthea Bell, who translated the Asterix series into English with Derek Hockridge, was a linguistic master (and subtle comedy expert) who successfully adapted the occasionally esoteric French humour of the comics and maintained the spirit of Asterix's adventures into English.
The set up to the punchline in my tribute involves the village chief, Vitalstatistix, firing his two shieldbearers for dropping him too often, and appointing Asterix and Obelix to serve him instead (Vitalstatistix is typically carried around on a large, round shield by two shieldbearers, as befits his status as chief). Naturally, the height difference between Asterix and Obelix causes hilarious scenes as the shield is carried at an angle, with Vitalstatistix struggling to stay aloft and the villagers laughing at the ludicrous nature of the scene. Asterix then suggests Obelix (who has permanent superhuman strength) carry the chief on his own. Vitalstatistix fears that, with only one shield bearer he would feel like a "half-pint chief". When Obelix insists has has to go and polish some menhirs ( he is still carrying his cloth), Vitalstatistix sets up the punchline by raging "BY TOUTATIS! ARE YOU REFUSING TO SERVE ME? I'M A MILD MAN, BUT THIS MAKES ME FEEL VERY BITTER!". And so, this delicious punchline is set up! Does anyone know what the original French version of this joke was? Obelix clearly is in full Parisian waiter mode here, but Anthea Bell aced this translation - what a classic Asterix joke!
I did several sketches of Asterix and Obelix to prepare for this piece, and it gave me a chance to try out a few different techniques. My main tribute piece was completed in the current style I am using for my digital illustration work, with softer outlines, textures and with gaussian blur on the background for depth. However, I also sketched out this piece (below) of the two heroes, trying to maintain something of the clear line style of Uderzo's original art with no shading, and a limited colour palette on the characters. For years now I have been subconsciously trying to move away from the hard black outline style I first learned from Asterix comics to get a softer style more attuned to modern digital illustration, so this was great for me to go back with a black, pressure-sensitive pen and simplify the inking and colouring process again. And this picture reminds me what a touching friendship is depicted in the books between Asterix and Obelix. They occasionally fall out and argue, they have their strengths and their flaws, their differing strategies to solve problems (Asterix goes for cunning, Obelix for brute force) and they both make mistakes...but through it all they are utterly devoted to each other, unafraid to hug, cry and bawl out how much they love each other. It is far more convincing a bond than the slightly weird and inexplicable friendship between "blank slate" Tintin and old drunkard Captain Haddock in the Tintin albums.
And then while sketching my main piece for this tribute I continued reading "Asterix in Switzerland" and I noticed something else about these books that I love. I have already mentioned Albert Uderzo's attention to the little details in his work, and his unrivalled ability to know his characters and how they act and respond to narrative events. It reminded me of how he often shows characters doing things in the background of panels, not necessarily linked to the main dialogue and interactions. In one scene in this book, Asterix and Obelix are hidden from the Romans in a Swiss bank vault (owned by Zurix). Obelix, naturally, is getting hungry and they break out and ask for food. In the scene where Zurix is hiding them again, and talking to Asterix, we see what (typically Swiss) food our friends have been given:
Knowing Obelix's character, you can tell by the way he is exploring the unfamiliar Swiss cheese that he is not impressed. I love this picture - it tells you so much about Obelix's personality and unspoken thoughts, a mark of Uderzo's genius. Obelix loves food, but you can tell this is not what he had in mind. Needless to say, he then asks if they can break out again and find some cheese without holes in it! I simply had to draw Obelix again from this scene, this time simply colouring my rough pencil sketch which has actually come out really well! Perhaps if I have learned anything new from this tribute it is that I am trying too hard to digitise my artwork and my pencil sketches are still the best way to show the soul of my work.... What do you think?
Finally, no discussion on the Toast Cartoons website would be complete without a mention of cartoon dogs, and thankfully the Asterix adventures have, in my opinion, the greatest cartoon dog of all - Dogmatix! (Idéfix in the original French) Dogmatix first appeared in Asterix and the Banquet as an unnamed dog sitting outside a Lutetia butcher's shop who then follows our heroes on their adventure, appearing in nearly every panel until he is finally noticed by Obelix at the very end of the book. Dogmatix is tiny compared to his master Obelix and is fearless, loyal and the only known canine ecologist who howls in distress when a tree is uprooted or felled. Uderzo's use of Dogmatix throughout the Asterix books is usually doing something funny in the background of scenes, biting Romans during fights and as a cause of friction between Asterix and Obelix (should he accompany them on their adventure or not). So, the last word should go to the wonderful Dogmatix, hoping he will like my attempt to draw him. "WOOF!"
With grateful and eternal thanks to Albert Uderzo and René Goscinny for opening the door and showing me the way.
With awe and appreciation to the English translator team extrordinaire, Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge.
Blog text ©Toast Cartoons 2022
ASTERIX® OBELIX® IDEFIX®/© 2021 LES ÉDITIONS ALBERT RENÉ / GOSCINNY-UDERZO