Alberto Uderzo, the comic book artist who created the Asterix comic books, along with René Goscinny, passed away in his sleep in March 2020.
Although Asterix is popular across the world, in the UK and America we miss some sense of its massive impact in France. The Asterix series combines the high artistry and cultural ubiquity of Disney on the one hand and the urbane humour of the Simpsons on the other. Across its 34+ books, the series explores ideas of national identity in complex ways: playing with stereotypes and rewriting history. The books were first published in the economically expansive post war period when France was recovering from the war and finding its place in an increasing American world, from which it was both isolated linguistically but culturally (and racially) intertwined.
Both authors of Asterix felt like outsiders. Goscinny was Jewish and his parents’ families came from Eastern Europe. Many family members were murdered during the war. Uderzo was a Frenchman of Italian extraction, he experienced racism as a child, partly because of anti-fascist sentiment before the war. Too young to fight, he experienced the privations, shame and compromises of occupation. Goscinny and Uderzo met in the fifties when the worked for various comics (Bandes-Desinees) including Tintin. In 1958 they founded Pilot. The first Asterix story appeared here in 1959. It was immediately a hit. Uderzo and Goscinny worked on it until Goscinny’s death in 1977. After that Uderzo took over writing until retirement in 2009. He published 34 books in the main series (23 with Goscinny).
These books will remain his artistic legacy.
My first introduction to the ancient world was (probably) through Asterix and my first introduction to Asterix was a VHS of Asterix and Cleopatra. This article was planned before the sad news, but is dedicated to Alberto Uderzo as an homage.
Asterix and Cleopatra
Asterix and Cleopatra, the sixth book in series, was written in 1965. Queen Cleopatra and Julius Caesar are having a lover’s squabble about the Egyptians. Caesar think they are a decadent people. Cleopatra denies this. She says they are still able to build great masterpieces (like the pyramids). Caesar challenges her to build a new palace in three months. Cleopatra accepts and the adventure begins.
The first thing you notice is that the drawing is exquisite. Asterix is a Franco-Belgian comic. Although this is not a unified artistic school certain traits predominate such as the ligne Claire style of Tintin and Alix. The style of Asterix is sometimes called the Comic-dynamic.
Whilst the colours tend to be solid blocks, they do merge to give a sense of solidity and depth. In Asterix and Cleopatra this is often used for large buildings, but also for shade. The line is varied and small hatchings are used for shade or surfaces. Movement is also denoted by lines.
The Egypt of Asterix
In keeping with the satirical spirit of Asterix, the book draws on and undermines the cliches of ancient Egypt for humour.
Numerobis (Edifis in English), the architect chosen to design the new palace, and his rival Artifis both use slave gangs in images which draw on the tropes of nineteenth century art. But it is subverted- Numerobis’ labour gangs are whipped, but the men dragging the rocks swap roles throughout the day.
And of course, someone is captured in a mummy sarcophagus.
Egypt was a popular tourist destination in the Twentieth Century and when the Gauls visit the Sphinx of Gizeh, they encounter tourist shops selling small replicas and picture takers. There is probably a level of historical reality here (which Goscinny and Uderzo would have known). Roman visitors did travel down the Nile visiting historical sites. Small figurines of various statues have survived from across the Empire (the apostle Paul angered stall holders selling replicas in Ephesus). Egyptian art began to be popular around the time the book is set and several villas in Pompeii had objects and images of Egypt.
One of the abiding jokes of Asterix is language and the visual portrayal of speech. Goths “speak” in a Blackletter font and the Egyptians speak, of course, in Hieroglyphs. Hieroglyphs were a priestly text, only understood by a select and highly educated section of society. Numerobis’ scribe has had years of training to be able to do this. Hieroglyphs were a status language used for building inscriptions. In papyrus texts, hieratic, a form of hieroglyphs, was more commonly used.
During Cleopatra’s reign two textual languages were used more widely in Egypt: Greek and Demotic. Demotic was used for the same language as the hieroglyphs and later Coptic. Shapes, but not images, were used which were derived from hieroglyphs. It was not an alphabet: symbols could stand for single letters, but also for syllables, but was much easier to learn and use than Hieroglyphs.
It is interesting to see Egyptian characters speak to each other in Hieroglyphs and then to each other in French or English (depending on translation). The Gauls would have presumably spoken a Celtic language and Latin. The Egyptians, Egyptian and Greek.
The Cleopatra of the comic is based on Liz Taylor’s cinematic portrayal in the eponymous film released a few year earlier. She wears similar clothes and whole scenes are lifted from the film. Visually she also resembles the Nerfertiti bust, a resonant image of regal Egyptian femininity. She is portrayed as an able and just ruler, but one prone to emotions.
She is a woman of colour.
But this is the Cleopatra of Western male desire. She is luxurious and beautiful. The men swoon at her beautiful nose. She has enraptured Caesar, who hides from her displeasure. Her dégustateur and sommelier recoils from yet another pearly wine. Her palace is full of intrigue with spies and poison. But she is a sympathetic character.
The arts of Egypt
The Egypt of Asterix is a combination of classical and Egyptian. Alexandria is portrayed as a classical city with Greek temples, columns and colonnades.
Cleopatra is portrayed in settings with Egyptian motifs such as a animal gods, ram- and lion-sphinges and cavetto corniches. At other times her palace resembles the Egyptianising styles of the French neoclassicism: it would not look out of place at the Wallace Collection.
This melange is played for comic effects: Numobis house is a haphazard combination of Greek columns and Cavetoo corniches which literally collapses. At other times it is more subtle: a Greek vase which Cleopatra smashes portrays an Egyptian scene.
When Obelix goes home he is so enamoured he begins carving standing stones into Egyptian obelisks.
The architect Edifis is threatened with being fed to the sacred crocodiles. He says the stresses won’t make him a good meal. “So much the better” says the Druid Panoramix (Getafix). “But these are scared crocodiles!”, says Numerobis, “You can’t just give them anything too eat”. As an Egyptian, Numerobis is devout towards his gods.
The crocodile was revered partly because of how frightening it was to the inhabitants of Egypt who lived close to the Nile river. They would have been only too aware of the danger. Yet no records of execution by crocodile is known from the Roman world. This is a Roman development. The sacred crocodiles of Egypt seemed to enjoy a diet partly made up of cakes.
Much play is made of the gods of the different peoples of the Roman Empire. The Egyptian gods, especially Isis were venerated across the Greek and Roman World. There were already several temples to Isis in Italy at this point.
An intriguing practice was that priests of Isis would shave their hair. Several statues have survived from antiquity which are identified as priests of Isis because of the shaved hair. In Asterix, the dastardly Krukhut swears to not cut his hair if something happens. When it does, his hair grows and grows in a nod to the contemporary 60s fashion for long hair on men.
Asterix and Cleopatra is a fine comic. One of the best to get a sense both of the world of Asterix and cliches of Egypt. Some images use cliches without thinking about what they are saying and may offend today.