As Europe worked to rebuild in the aftermath of World War II, cartoon character Asterix—a plucky Gallic warrior whose superhuman strength enables him to outwit outlandishly incompetent Roman legions—emerged as a symbol of perseverance, assuring war-weary readers that the continent would continue to endure against all odds.
“It’s David against Goliath,” said “Asterix” co-creator Albert Uderzo, who died Tuesday at age 92, to Time’s Leo Cendrowicz in a 2009 interview. "Everyone can identify with the image of retribution against things that are bigger than us."
Per Agence-France Presse, Uderzo succumbed to a heart attack unrelated to the current COVID-19 pandemic. Son-in-law Bernard de Choisy told the French news agency that the illustrator died in his sleep at his home in Neuilly, a suburb of Paris, after experiencing several weeks of extreme exhaustion.
Uderzo and writer René Goscinny created Asterix in 1959 as a “Gallic alternative” to American cartoons such as Superman and Batman, according to the Washington Post’s Harrison Smith. An instant sensation, he became an icon of French culture, taking center stage in dozens of comic books, live-action and animated films, and a Paris theme park, among other spin-offs. France’s first satellite, launched in 1965, was even named after the character.
When Goscinny died in 1977, Uderzo opted to continue the series on his own, writing and illustrating a total of 33 volumes prior to his retirement in 2011. Since its debut, reported the New York Times in 2019, “Asterix” has been translated into more than 100 languages and dialects and sold more than 380 million copies. The comics, now written and drawn by Jean-Yves Ferri and Didier Conrad, respectively, are currently up to Volume 38.
A pint-sized, mustachioed warrior who derives his strength from a magic potion made by the village druid—the aptly named Getafix—Asterix is accompanied by a band of motley friends, including sidekick Obelix, whose childhood tussle with a cauldron of potion left him permanently overpowered; the elderly Geriatrix; Chief Vitalstatistix; and Cacofonix, a bard whose musical overtures leave much to be desired. (As readers can likely infer, wordplay is a major component of the series’ comedic draw.)
Armed with the magic potion, this “village of indomitable Gauls,” in the words of journalist Tom Holland, becomes the region’s only hold-out against Roman occupation—a mantle of honor its residents uphold by regularly trouncing all legions unlucky enough to cross their paths. Contrary to the dark undertones of its subject matter, the “Asterix” series is decidedly upbeat, its heroes and villains participating in fights but always escaping mortal harm. As Goscinny theorized, people enjoy the comics because Asterix “does funny things, and that’s all. Our only ambition is to have fun.”
When Asterix and Obelix aren’t fighting the Romans, they embark on trips to far-flung locales populated by affectionate stereotypes: Holland cites the “chocolate-loving Belgian” and “the stiff-upper-lipped Briton.” Caricatures of contemporary figures and references to popular culture also abound; when Asterix visits Cleopatra, for example, he finds himself immersed in a parody of the 1963 epic starring Elizabeth Taylor as its titular heroine.
Born to Italian immigrants on April 25, 1927, Alberto Uderzo (he later dropped the “o” from his first name) grew up in a commune outside of Paris. Despite being colorblind, he exhibited a natural talent for art, beginning to illustrate cartoons for French and Belgian publications when he was just 14 years old.
Uderzo and Goscinnny came up with the character of Asterix while sitting on the balcony of the artist’s apartment enjoying aperitifs, reported Oliver Rowland for the Connexion in 2008. Striving to set themselves apart from American superheroes and other cartoons like Tintin, the pair landed upon Asterix, who started out as a handsome warrior but quickly evolved into the “not necessarily good-looking, but cunning,” anti-hero seen in the comics.
Though Asterix and Obelix are instantly recognizable to millions across the globe, their creator never actively sought the limelight.
“Nobody recognizes me when I walk down the street,” he once said. “Characters can become mythical but not us, their fathers.”