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Great European Lives: René Goscinny

Rene Goscinny on the shooting of the fiction "Two Romain in Gaulle" - Credit: INA via Getty Images

CHARLIE CONNELLY on Rene Goscinny, the French comic editor and writer, who co-created the Astérix comic book series.

On January 20 this year a statue was unveiled in Paris on a patch of grass near the junction of Rue de Boulainvilliers and Rue Singer.

It’s unassuming, some might say underwhelming: a podgy middle-aged man in a slightly rumpled suit, one hand in a trouser pocket, a slightly sheepish grin on his face beneath a receding hairline.

The statue is situated in a gated residential area so you can’t really get close enough to see the details, the flourishes added by the sculptor to explain why this genial but ordinary-looking man has earned the immortality of statuary.

Some people have a mission in life. It’s what makes them stand out from the rest and, if they complete that life mission successfully it can sometimes result in their likeness being cast in bronze and placed on a pedestal.

It might be for success in politics, or alleviating the suffering of the poor, or winning important military conflicts.

Rarely commemorated are the people whose missions are a little more prosaic.

They have sought no high office, cannot point to achievements manifest in bricks and mortar and strategised no successful battle plans.

Yet their positive effect on people’s lives can be just as profound and enduring as a parliamentary bill or a new hospital, if not more so.

René Goscinny’s life’s mission was perfectly simple: he just wanted to make people laugh, to take their minds off the stresses and tribulations of life, even just for a moment.

If he could induce a person to lose themselves in the sheer joy of a well-crafted play on words or a perfectly-timed punchline, then his mission could be regarded as accomplished.

He succeeded on a global scale. Of all his comic creations Asterix, written with his creative partner Albert Uderzo, has been the most successful, the books alone selling almost 400 million copies worldwide since the first, Astérix le Gaulois, ‘Asterix the Gaul’, was published in 1961.

Goscinny and Uderzo created a brand of humour that tapped into something universally human, meaning the stories have been translated into just about every language on earth (Frisian: Asterix de Galjer, Icelandic: Ástríkur Gallvaski) and become just as popular on one continent as another.

In 1999, Astérix le Gaulois was even listed by Le Monde among the literary heavyweights in its list of the 100 greatest books of the 20th century, placed 23rd.

Unsurprisingly the success of Asterix led to po-faced theories attempting to explain the comic strip’s appeal.

“Asterix is our ego,” one leading French academic postulated, while during the 1960s a scholarly arts quarterly stroked its chin and announced the Asterix character represented Gaullism, the assertive brand of Frenchness expounded by Charles de Gaulle, while the magic potion that gave the villagers superhuman strength to repel every Roman assault was an allegory for ‘providential man’.

“Interesting,” said Goscinny in response, “but to me the magic potion represents something closer to Popeye’s spinach.”

For Goscinny the joke was as pure and elevated an art form as a concerto, still life or the most challenging novel.

The right combination of timing, rhythm and the subversion of the reader’s expectations to induce the spontaneity of laughter could be as exquisite as the Mona Lisa.

Asterix turned out to be a perfect vehicle to showcase his craft, allowing him to make the world laugh through the barriers of language.

That’s why when you look closely at the statue of Goscinny you’ll see his right arm is outstretched, palm pointing upwards.

On that palm, looking back at him, stands a tiny Asterix.

But Asterix wasn’t his only creation: on his shoulder sits Petit Nicolas, struggling out of the breast pocket of his jacket is Baghdadi vizier Iznogoud, while by his left foot is Wild West gunfighter Lucky Luke, all of whom captured the imagination of children just as Asterix did.

The statue reverses the proportions of his lifetime: Goscinny was always happy to remain in the background while his characters flourished, here, finally, their creator is celebrated, not least by his creations.

Paris-born to Polish-Jewish parents, Goscinny was barely two years old when his railway engineer father accepted a job in Buenos Aires and moved the family to Argentina.

It was at the French school in the city that young René first developed a passion and talent for illustration but any immediate hopes of pursuing a career exploiting his creativity had to be abandoned just before Christmas 1943 when his father died suddenly after a stroke.

Needing to bring in a wage Goscinny took a job as a junior accountant at a rubber works then moved on to become an illustrator for an advertising agency.

After the Second World War Goscinny and his mother moved to the United States to join his uncle.

In 1946 the 20-year-old crossed the Atlantic to France for his military service, joining an Alpine infantry division where he demonstrated that his skills were better suited to pen than gun by being appointed regimental artist.

Returning to Brooklyn he struggled initially to find work until he landed a job at a small studio where he met Harvey Kurtzman, Will Elder, and Jack Davis who would later go on to found MAD magazine.

A job at the Kunen publishing house followed where he wrote four children’s books and met Belgian illustrators Joseph Gillain, who signed his work Jijé, and Maurice de Bevere, better known as Morris.

Morris had already created Lucky Luke and in 1955 would invite Goscinny to collaborate, an arrangement that lasted until Goscinny’s death in 1977.

Goscinny was introduced to Georges Troisfontaines, head of the World Press Bureau syndication agency, who invited the illustrator to head up his Paris office and expand the range of Belgian comics the company supplied with strips.

Working for one of them, Spirou, was an illustrator named Albert Uderzo, with whom he would go on to create Asterix.

The pair’s first major collaboration began in 1952 on Jehan Pistolet, the story of a frustrated waiter who decides to be a pirate, that ran for four years in La Libre Junior, the children’s supplement of the newspaper La Libre Belgique.

The strip ended in 1956 when Goscinny was fired by Troisfontaines for attempting to form a trade union for comic artists.

Uderzo and another illustrator, Michel Charlier, resigned in protest and with a former publicist from World Press the trio formed their own agency Édipresse/Édifrance.

In 1959, Goscinny and Uderzo launched the Franco-Belgian comic Pilote, featuring their new creation Asterix, and within weeks sales were rivalling Hergé’s long-established Tintin weekly. For all the wide range of Goscinny’s creations, solo and with Uderzo, Asterix would define his career and make his brand of humour a global sensation. The original intention had been to base a comic strip on Le roman de Renart, a medieval folk epic about a cunning fox, but it emerged that a Belgian illustrator had beaten them to it.

Liking the idea of a historical French series Goscinny recalled that Gaulish history and the resistance to Roman rule of the chieftain Vercingetorix was always a popular story among French schoolchildren.

With Uderzo he set about creating the world of Asterix, centred on a coastal Breton village holding out against the might of the Roman Empire thanks to a combination of faux-naivete and a magic potion devised by the local druid that gave those who drank it incredible physical strength.

The series played to all Goscinny’s comic strengths: hilariously-imagined characters with punning names, running jokes that never grew tiresome and some of the best slapstick comedy ever committed to the page.

He also didn’t underestimate the ability of children to appreciate fairly sophisticated humour, something that helped make the books often as popular with adults as they were with their target audience.

There was a warmth to the stories too, with even Asterix’s adversaries likable in their own way.

There was plenty of violence but it was always comically slapstick and resulted in little more than embarrassment or tiny tweeting birds circling a cranium.

When Goscinny died at the age of 51, suffering a fatal heart attack on an exercise bike during a routine cardiac check-up, some commented that the manner of his death could almost have come from one of his comic strips.

Yet nobody ever died in a Goscinny story. They might be smacked out of the frame by an open-handed meaty blow from Obelix with an onomatopoeic “PAF!”, but they never died because dying wasn’t funny.

René Goscinny’s mission was purely to make to people laugh; to send happiness out into a world that always needed it. It’s fair to say that he succeeded.

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