PICTURE, if you can, the imposing figure of Gerard Depardieu in the role of Obelix, toting a vast boulder and defeating the hapless Romans yet again with his tiny sidekick Asterix. This is the glint in the eye of Albert Uderzo, the man who describes himself as the 'keeper of the image' of the cartoon Gauls. He created the pair with Rene Goscinny in 1959, and has both drawn the characters and written their script since the latter's death in 1977.
Uderzo was in London for the first ever Asterix convention, 25 years after the appearance of the first book in English, Asterix the Gaul. The crush at the Commonwealth Institute on 17 September was so great that the doors had to be closed, with crowds of youngsters in their cardboard winged Gaulish helmets threatening to break down the gates as if it were a Roman camp. It seemed everyone there had their own version of who Asterix and Obelix might be. Willie Rushton, who gave a hilarious reading while Uderzo did a few rapid sketches, spoke of the inspiration behind his voices: 'Asterix I think of as a clever Cockney type, maybe Dudley Moore; the other chap I see more like Frank Bruno.' One little girl even said she thought of Obelix as Prince Charles; afterwards I wondered if she had understood my question.
Uderzo himself agrees that the central partnership between Asterix and Obelix is crucial to the success of the comic books, which by now have sold 250 million copies in over 40 countries. He gives his own explanation of the origins of these unlikely superheroes. 'When I met Goscinny in 1957 we immediately became close friends. We used to have this kind of verbal ping-pong going, a comic dialogue, and people called us Laurel and Hardy. I think that was the start of it: one who is pretty dumb, and the other one who has all the answers, but in the end it's the stupid one whom everyone loves.' Beyond this, Uderzo finds it hard to explain why these comic book Gauls should have conquered almost the entire world, except to suggest that 'everyone feels put upon by authority: the police, the tax inspectors, in some countries the army, so they're glad when the little guy wins out; 'Ah, if only I could be like him,' they think]'
Uderzo's humour has crossed the Gallic Channel very successfully, with Asterix books now selling half a million copies a year here. He is generous in his praise of his translators, Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge, who make an English adaptation rather than a literal translation. As Willie Rushton says: 'There's no problem about the English having to understand French humour: the jokes and wordplays are completely English.' Anthea Bell sees them in the tradition of books like 1066 and All That and attributes their success partly to the way she is able to make them appeal both to kids and to adults, by operating on different levels simultaneously. Uderzo confirms that this is true in French as well as English. 'A recent market survey we did of readers showed there were as many in the age group 20-25 as between 12 and 15'.
A recent bitter dispute with his former publishers Dargaud has left Uderzo more determined than ever to be in charge of his creation and every spin-off from it. The son of Italian immigrants who came to France after the First World War, Uderzo gives the impression that the difficult times his family knew during his childhood in the Thirties have provided him with a proper respect for his sous, even though these are counted by the million these days. His closest connection with Italy now is his fleet of Ferraris.
Uderzo's immediate reaction to the French appeal court ruling in favour of his publisher Dargaud over past royalties was to say he would never draw another Gaul again. Now his attitude seems to be changing. He was clearly impressed with the number and range of people who turned up in London to celebrate his creations, and a suitably dreamy look came into his eyes when he spoke of future possibilities. It was obvious that the germ of a new story was there: 'The main thing,' he said, 'is to keep all the fixed elements, the magic potion, the banquet at the end, but to surprise yourself as well as the potential reader in how you get there.'
In the meantime though, he has his duties as the Asterix and Co. executive. There is a new full-length cartoon film adventure, which Uderzo hopes will finally mean success in the United States. There are video games, CD-Rom language teaching courses, more translations in Eastern Europe, and of course, the tantalising possibility of dressing up Depardieu in skins and letting him loose on the wild boar. Je dis, plutot.
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