Jojo Rabbit, the Oscar-winning film that portrayed Nazism and Hitler through a child’s eyes, was criticised in many quarters for looking at the system of repression and murder through humour, and for humanising Hitler by making him the imaginary friend of the 10-year-old protagonist. Albert Uderzo, the co-creator of the Asterix comics along with René Goscinny, never faced such criticism. But the most successful Francophone export after wine, cheese and existentialism, was also a kind of re-telling of one of history’s most gruesome wars, with brilliance, artistry, humour and innocence.
Uderzo, who died at 92 this week, created a kind of detail in his panels, especially of large battle scenes, that remains remarkable to this day. But more than mere technical finesse, what the Asterix universe did — through untold translations, a dozen or so films and even an amusement park a la Disneyland — was take the brutality out of history. Julius Caesar’s occupation of Gaul (which comprised large parts of modern France, along with Belgium and Switzerland), was a violent evisceration of a people. But in the world created by Uderzo and Goscinny, the brilliant Asterix, strong and bumbling Obelix and faithful canine companion Dogmatix, managed to resist the might of empire with cunning, superpowers and hijinks.
Uderzo lived through the Nazi occupation of France. As much as anyone of his generation, he knew how grim war and occupation could be, how cruel the human stories behind the dates and speeches. And, perhaps, his creation provides an antidote to that harsh reality. Generations of children have been introduced to the cast and characters of the ancient world — from Caesar and Cleopatra to the gods and myths of ancient Rome and Greece — through the series Uderzo created, learning to laugh at those who claim to be great, wishing for a magic potion themselves. There is, of course, no potion. But the ability to laugh at authority is a lesson Uderzo will continue to provide to every child who opens up one of his books.
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