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Sunday, March 29, 2020

This Asterix moment: The world that came alive in the lines of Albert Uderzo speaks to us today

Asterix and Obelix are no conquerors. They resist conquests. They would have coped with today’s lockdown more than the footloose Tintin and Captain Haddock, who would have sworn his head off.

Written by E P Unny | Updated: March 27, 2020 10:55:52 am
coronavirus pandemic, coronavirus covid 19, asterix, tintin, coronavirus outbreak, coronavirus cases world, coronavirus death toll, indian express For the world today, under an unseen threat, it is the Asterix moment. The time to stay back, stay together and resist the invader. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Comic lovers will forever debate which is superior, the adventures of Asterix or Tintin. But for the world today, under an unseen threat, it is the Asterix moment. The time to stay back, stay together and resist the invader. Albert Uderzo, who visualised the indomitable Gaulish village, died at 92 this Wednesday of a heart attack. The world over, he would be intensely mourned for the spirit of his work.

The boy reporter Tintin can never stay for long at sailor friend Captain Haddock’s well-appointed bungalow. It doesn’t take much for the two to dash off on some strange mission. Asterix and Obelix are not averse to travel either. More than the journey, however, what is central to the two is their small Gaulish village (circa 50 BC), the incredible little quarter that refuses to yield to an imperial Ceaserean Rome. Writer Rene Goscinny and illustrator Albert Uderzo would take you out of this quaint hamlet only to bring you back at the end to the familiar banquet under the Gaulish sky. The full moon, the owl, the stars and plenty of roast wild boars, not to mention a mercifully silenced Cacofonix.

What is celebrated is the safe return, not the triumphant travel. Asterix and Obelix are no conquerors. They resist conquests. Left to themselves, they would hardly step out of home except to hunt for wild boars, an essential act of sustenance. They would have coped with today’s lockdown more than the footloose Tintin and Captain Haddock, who would have sworn his head off.

In a world working from home, we are all rediscovering the long lost corners of our dwellings. The pile of old books and magazines cast away in forgotten trunks and shoe boxes. From where comics fans would in all likelihood dust up a well-thumbed volume of Asterix for the umpteenth re-read. In honour of Albert Uderzo. He is the last creative link to the Gaulish world we have more reasons than ever to love today.

Thirty years back when his co-creator Rene Goscinny died, the writer was mourned, but by a world more hectic, more happening and more distracted. Today in a slowing down, reflective world, we have time enough to mourn. Uderzo, the illustrator, took on the writing part in 1977 and single-handedly sustained the comic series. Diehard fans did detect a dip in the wit. But many stayed loyal, thanks to the visual content that grew on you no less than the textual humour. The drawing had finish and it was fresh. The artist, though, had taken his time to settle down. After entertaining dreams to become a clown and then an aircraft engineer, Uderzo finally found his calling because throughout his schooling he had a pronounced talent only in drawing. By the early teens, when he was ready to paint, his teachers discovered he was colour blind. By then, the line had firmed up and that mattered. Colour could always be added.

Editorial | Albert Uderzo, co-creator of the iconic comic books, will continue to show children that authority doesn’t have to be grim

The line is what went on to grip millions of readers across 116 languages. Uderzo brought to life Goscinny’s world through highly stylised characters set against a meticulously drawn to scale architectural backdrop. A daring mix that gave the comic characters a certain sense of reflected realism.

The setting told the story as well as the script. Fortified overbuilt Roman camps where troops practised absurdly geometric formations contrasted sharply with the open airy cluster of elegant modest hutments where Gauls carried on in merry abandon till they were called to war. The battle itself looked like the extended brawls outside Unhygienix’s fish stall. Only, more animated, on the strength of the magic potion Druid Getafix brewed. Structured war theatre of the Romans squarely outwitted. Till the next round.

Meanwhile, the way we go on and on it would seem we have read the original in French. What we have lapped up is the work of Anthea Bell, the celebrity British translator who died in 2018. At home in multiple languages and varied content, her fidelity to the source text is unsurprising. But she had to manage the word count visually. The translated dialogue had to perfectly fit into the speech balloon. The balloons were integral to the structure. That is how Uderzo crafted the frames. Some very bright minds worked in seamless sync to bring us today the much-needed cheer.

This article first appeared in the print edition on March 27, 2020 under the title ‘This Asterix Moment’. Write to the author at ep.unny@expressindia.com.

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