“Uderzo’s approach to postcolonial criticism was much more nuanced and effective. Perhaps it takes a simple comic book illustrator to accomplish the job that overly sophisticated scholars fail to do.”
lbert Uderzo passed away last week at the age of 92. Along with René Goscinny (who died in 1977), Uderzo co-created Asterix in 1959. Asterix is the immensely famous comic book series about Gaul villagers resisting Roman occupation during the 1st century B.C. Asterix was the rage in Europe for decades, and Goscinny and Uderzo combined irony, humor, and historical detail (as well as anachronic references to contemporary issues) to make effective storylines.
Surely, the most appealing aspect of the Asterix universe is its framing of a David vs. Goliath story. The lead character, Asterix, is a little man, who comes from a little village. He lives a simple hut, surrounded by druids and bards, with very precarious technology. The Romans, by contrast, display all that they are famous for: eagle standards, magnificent buildings, powerful armies, elaborate bureaucracies, refined poets. Yet, in all their glory, the Romans fail to conquer this remaining pocket of resistance in Gaul.
Uderzo famously liked to play down the political significance of Asterix, once saying that “our only ambition is to have fun.” But, it is hard not to see politics at play in the comic strips. The first Asterix book, Asterix the Gaul, was released in 1961. The memories of Vichy France and German occupation were surely still fresh in the minds of many adult readers. Thus, it is tempting to read Asterix as an homage to French resistance against Nazi occupation. This becomes clearer in Asterix and the Goths (released in 1963), when Germanic invaders of the Roman Empire are portrayed as particularly vicious, using pressure pots as torture devices—perhaps as an allusion to the Holocaust’s gas chambers.
Anti-imperialism is, thus, the running theme of the series. France is frequently (and rightly) castigated for its colonial practices in Algeria or Vietnam. And, Asterix certainly tried to whitewash these issues by paying very little attention to the way France treated some of its colonists (even though Asterix did make frequent social and political commentaries on contemporary French affairs). But, postcolonialist activists sometimes forget that imperialism is nothing new. Although it may not have yet existed as a nation in the modern sense, 2,000 years ago, France was on the receiving end of imperialist aggression. And, make no mistake: The battle of Alesia, the conquest of Gaul, and the subsequent Roman administration as a whole were as brutal (if not worse) as any imperialist campaigns of the 19th or 20th centuries.
Yet, despite its strong anti-imperialist themes, Asterix is also, in large part, a salute to what Edgar Allan Poe once referred to as“the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome.” In Asterix, Roman soldiers are cowards, and Roman administrators are corrupt. However, there is a recognition that—for all their faults—the Romans successfully carried out a civilizing mission in Gaul. Asterix may be happy in his little village full of huts, yet, ultimately, Uderzo portrays a world in which the modernizing effect of Roman cultural influence left positive aspects in its wake.
So, despite its anti-imperialist ethos, Asterix still embraces the sensible position that positive things ought to be valued, regardless of where they come from. Uderzo would have never asked the French education ministry to “decolonize the curriculum” in order to purge schools from the influence dead Roman males so as to include more Gallic druids and bards. No—the likes of Virgil, Horace, and even Julius Caesar are given their due homage in Asterix. Uderzo spoke for most French people in acknowledging that—while Vercingetorix (the Gaul general who ultimately surrendered to Caesar and was paraded in chains in the streets of Rome) may be a national hero—France still has much to be grateful to the Romans for.
In Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, one Jewish anti-imperialist zealot asks, “What have the Romans ever done for us?” only to receive an embarrassment of riches for a response from someone in the audience: aqueducts, sanitation, roads, irrigation, medicine, health, public baths, safety in the streets, and peace. Now, of course, this was to some extent Roman propaganda itself. Emperor Augustus made sure that his imperialist expansion would be legitimized in the name of Pax romana. Ever since, many empires have cheaply used this as an excuse to plunder.
But, current postocolonialist activists must, themselves, balance their criticisms. Like it or not, modern European empires did bring civilization and higher standards of living to many regions of the world. Yes, Columbus enslaved natives, King Leopold ordered genocide in the Congo, and British soldiers behaved criminally in the Amritsar massacre. However, this is not the full story. The great achievements of Western civilization ultimately made their way to the entire world via colonialism. This needn’t be considered a justification for colonialism, but it should give occasion to acknowledge that there were some positive aspects of colonialism. And, even if this were not a convincing case, then at least postcolonialist critics should allow dissenting voices to express their views—instead of bullying people into silence. In 2017, Bruce Gilley published a well-written academic article with the title “The case for colonialism” in the journal Third World Quarterly; postcolonialist activists were offended. They demanded the retraction of the article, and the journal acquiesced. Gilley’s case was yet another example of how social justice activism is bringing shame to academia.
Uderzo’s approach to postcolonial criticism was much more nuanced and effective. Perhaps it takes a simple comic book illustrator to accomplish the job that overly sophisticated scholars fail to do. With Asterix, Uderzo showed that it is entirely possible to resist imperialist oppression, with no need to throw the baby with the bathwater. His legacy will live on.
Dr. Gabriel Andrade is a university professor. He has previously contributed to Areo Magazine and DePauw University’s The Prindle Post. His twitter is @gandrade80