A Deceptive Crusade In Flanders Fields – Part 1/3
by Danny de Laet
Translated by Lise Tannahill
Edited by Annick Pellegrin
By Way of Introduction…
In 1940, the quiet beginnings of Flemish beeldverhaal (that is to say, bande dessinée in Dutch) almost came to nothing. The German invasion of Belgium in May 1940 had something to do with it, putting an end to several publications of this kind, thus depriving several illustrators of their livelihood and leaving them unemployed.
During the Thirties, however, bande dessinée attempted to take the market over. The long-running illustrated weekly De Kindervriend, which was first published by Patria in Antwerp in 1911, was still ongoing. Published in a large format, similar to that of French publications and English magazines like Comic Cuts, filled to the brim with serialised stories for young readers and backed up with comics (French and British for the most part) with texts under the panels. Occasionally, comics by Flemish artists—Julien t’ Felt, Willem Seghers, Josom—appeared in their pages.
It’s hard to say that the illustrators of the time were influenced by De Kindervriend. Willy Vandersteen did remember it, but only as a very young reader. The old-fashioned paper disappeared as early as May 1940, the occupation’s first victim, but the publisher was happy to be rid of it. The publisher, Patria, had shown signs of modernity, incorporating a weekly supplement, Wonderland, into their newspaper De Dag from June 30th, 1937. With colour pages in the first sixteen issues, Wonderland continued until 1942, before being included in the daily paper, on a third of a page, where Vandersteen published his first comics.
Also created before the war (on January 16th, 1937) was Ons Kinderland, published by Altiora in Antwerp. Altiora also published the weekly family magazine Ons Land, as well as crime novels, amongst them the first Dutch translations of S. A. Steeman. Ons Kinderland was launched as competition for Bravo!, which began a year earlier. Ons Kinderland mostly republished series from the US, including C. D. Russel’s Pete The Tramp (translated as Snorrebaard); Popeye by Segar, under its French title Mathurin; and the adventure series Radio Patrol by Sullivan and Schmidt, published as Radio Patroelje. Were these series too costly or were they unpopular? They disappeared in 1937, when the Flemish artist Eugene Hermans took centre stage, where he remained from November 13th that year until Ons Kinderland ceased publication on August 13th, 1938. Hermans was also already contributing to Ons Volkske, the supplement of the family weekly Ons Volk, from 1932. Under the pseudonym ‘Pink’, Hermans illustrated half of each eight-page issue of Ons Volkske, until the end of the weekly Ons Volk.
Succeeding A. Delbaere, Hermans published many illustrations and cartoons in Hooger Leven and some gags for Pinnekensdraad (the Dutch edition of Fil Barbelé [Barbed Wire], published in 1939 by the tobacco magnate Odon Warland), where Herman gently poked fun at prevalent militarism. Employed by Ons Land as artist as well as working on layouts, he laid low during the occupation and only returned to the comics world after the war, publishing his work in Ons Land, Poppy and t’ Kapoentje, as well as a good album about the Resistance, Pierrot le bagarreur [Pierrot the Fighter].
A colleague (but not a friend) of Hermans, the young Frans Van Immerseel also tried to make a name for himself, but by rather unorthodox means. In an attempt to get a job with La Bonne Presse (Averbode), he copied material from Felix The Cat and Mickey Mouse, in Rond de Haard [Around The Fireplace] amongst others, crediting himself for the art but not the copyright. He would sink even lower later, trying to get work in an animation studio by pitching a cartoon made up of Disney loops. Sad. In terms of comics, little is known of him, except the panel cartoon, Mijnheer Jansens, which he tried to republish in various places.
Armand Panis also started out with a panel comic: a vague imitation of Silent Sam, his work Klopstock began in 1936 in Radio Magazine, of which his old friend Anton Van Casteren was editor. But Panis established his reputation more so as an illustrator.
A prolific cartoonist, Jan Waterschoot first made his name as an illustrator; his first work in comics was drawing the adventures of Johnny the Orphan, written by Roger Guisolles, and published in Zonneland and Petits Belges. Both magazines originated in the Eucharistic Crusade in 1920 and were published by La Bonne Presse de l’Abbaye in Averbode.
And then there was the Flemish Bravo!, published by the Dutchman Jan Meuwissen, who tried to build up a small press empire in the 1930s. Meuwissen entered the family market with ABC (in Dutch) and Bonjour (in French). Obsessed with French children’s publications (e.g. Hop-là, Robinson, Le Journal de Mickey), but unable and unwilling to compete with them, from 1936 onwards he limited himself to the Flemish market (and the Dutch, but only in part), with Bravo!.
In the hopes of bringing together the supposedly best “children’s” cartoons in his illustrated publication, Meuwissen put together the US series Flash Gordon (translated as Stormer Gordon); the Italian series Saturno contro la Terra (Saturnus tegen de Aarde) [Saturn Against Earth]; and funnies like Felix The Cat. Missing was Disney’s Mickey Mouse, as an agreement could not be reached with the distributor, Opera Mundi (De Dag, however, was granted these rights for publication in Wonderland!). In addition to this nevertheless superb selection of comics there were tales and serials, published every week by a certain Raymond De Kremer, who made a name for himself in French under the pseudonym Jean Ray. Here he published crime stories, fantasy and sci fi, under dozens of pseudonyms. Many Dutch artists published work in Meuwissen’s publications, whether his family magazines or Bravo!. In Bravo! comics by Marten Toonder appeared, as well as some by Auke Tadema, who would later become an extraordinary surrealist painter. Toonder also published a strange sci fi story in Bonjour and ABC, Le Rayon de la Mort/De doodende straal [The Death Ray], which he would later talk about at length in his memoirs. The series was abruptly cancelled in Bonjour, so only Flemish readers read the real ending of the story; unfortunately, the truncated French version is the one that was published in album format by Brussels publisher Michel Deligne.
The contributions of Flemish artists to Bravo! were small in number but of a high quality. Featured on the last page were the illustrated adventures of Edmund Bell. These stories were written by De Kremer (later better known as Jean Ray), who had already used the character in other series. The stories were adaptations of the pulp series Harry Dickson, with Bell in the place of Tom Wills (but brought into the limelight) and with Sidney Triggs replacing Harry Dickson. De Kremer wrote a handful of scenarios for his good friend, the expressionist painter Frits Van den Berghe (the two men were born in the same street in Ghent). Van den Berghe had already tried his hand at comics, of the humorous and satirical kind, for the daily Vooruit. In Bravo! the adventures of Edmund Bell were drawn in the traditional way, with text captions under the images and particular use of red and blue colouring. Although these comics did not go down in history, it’s undeniable that Van den Berghe’s few stories are something special, even if they seem to be the last gasp of a particular genre and style: old-fashioned bande dessinée, which from that point would be replaced—with a few notable exceptions—by a more dynamic mode and graphic style. Nevertheless, these comics released in Bravo! are a rare example of expressionist bande dessinée, with a very personal atmosphere and graphic style, and in agreement with a style and sensitivity unique to Van den Berghe. The series was unfortunately cut short by the death of the artist in 1939.
Another Flemish artist working for Bravo! was the young Leo DeBudt. A student of Van den Berghe, DeBudt had begun his career under the artist’s guidance with full-page cartoons in Radio-Bode and anti-militarist drawings in Voor Allen, all signed Leo. In Bravo!, he limited himself to puzzles and cartoons. Strangely, he was to still publish them in Bravo! in 1940-41 when Meuwissen relaunched his illustrated magazine in both languages, but so far it has not been possible to work out whether this work consisted of reprinted pre-war material, leftover illustrations from the Flemish Bravo! after it ended in May 1940, or was entirely new work.
This, then, was the situation at the time of the German invasion: Bravo! and Kindervriend stopped publication in May 1940 and the other illustrated magazines and supplements (Zonneland, Wonderland) waited to see what would happen next. None of this was very encouraging for those who wished to make a living from their art.
 The original text has been very lightly revised for style and context.
 Translator’s note: Willy Vandersteen (1913-2000) is considered one of the founding fathers of the Flemish comic strip. Best known amongst his many works is the series Suske en Wiske. This series is variously known in English as Spike And Suzy, Willy And Wanda and Luke And Lucy in different markets.