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René Goscinny: A Primer

R.M. Rhodes, comic creator and friend of French comics, returns to introduce the uninitiated to a classic artist and character…

René Goscinny is one of the best-known comic book writers of the 20th century. Born in 1926, he spent time as a junior illustrator for an advertising agency. He was also an assistant in a small illustration studio in New York in the late 1940s, where he meet creators like Harvey Kurtzman and John Severin.

Harvey Kurtzman, John Severin & René Goscinny
Kurtzman, Severin & Goscinny

In the early 1950s, he moved back to France, where he started creating strips for various magazines. Eventually, he got to the point where he was creating comics for the famous Tintin magazine, which was the best-selling weekly comics magazine of the time. It was during this period that he stopped illustrating his own works and concentrated his energies on being a writer that collaborated with a dedicated artist.

[ad#longpost]One of Goscinny’s early successes was Lucky Luke, a cowboy that could outshoot his own shadow, with the artist Morris. Goscinny produced this title until his death in 1977. Lucky Luke was originally published in Spirou, a magazine that rivalled Tintin in popularity. The divide between Spirou and Tintin can really be seen in the style of the artwork that each one featured. Tintin published comics in the ligne clare style–flat colors and confident linework. Spirou published comics in the Charleroi style–looser and more cartoony, with oversized heads. Most of Goscinny’s collaborators worked in the Charleroi style and his most famous work, Asterix, has become the examplar of that particular branch of European comics.

In 1959, the comics magazine Pilote was created and Goscinny’s Asterix the Gaul (with Albert Uderzo handling the art) was in the first issue. A comic about a small, defiant Gaul village surrounded by the Roman Empire, Asterix was an immediate hit and the success of the strip became the success of the magazine and the success of the creators as well. Collected editions of Asterix have sold more copies than any series except Tintin and are known worldwide.

Already the most prolific writer for the magazine, Goscinny eventually became the Editor-in-Chief of Pilote and went on to encourage many young creators, including (but not limited to) Jean Giraud, Enki Bilal, Phillipe Druillet and Pierre Christin. The first three creators on that list eventually became disillusioned with the direction of Goscinny’s editorial guidance and struck out to form their own magazine: Metal Hurlant.

Rene Goscinny died of a heart attack during a stress test in his doctor’s office in 1977 at the age of 51. He left behind a legacy of great comics, several of which have been translated into English. Asterix can be found everywhere (a sign of a good comic shop is whether or not they have Asterix comics for sale), but two other titles have received recent reprint attention from Cinebook.

Twenty-seven volumes of Lucky Luke have been translated so far, more than enough material to keep a completist engaged for a long, long time. The depiction of the American wild west is romanticized and produced for a French audience, but the stories are fresh and funny and go in directions that American comic readers would not necessarily expect them to go.

Another series by Goscinny was illustrated by Jean Tabary, called Iznogoud, has also been translated by Cinebook. The title character is the scheming grand vizier of the Caliph Haroun al Plassid whose plots to kill the Caliph always end in spectacular failure.

Be warned: One of the hallmarks of Goscinny’s humor in all three series is his love of puns, often reflected in the names of the characters (a Gaul named Vitalstatistix, for example). Aside from that small caveat, these books come highly recommended – after all, Asterix wouldn’t have sold that many copies if it didn’t appeal to someone.