A Survey of Flemish Comic Strips Under Nazi Occupation

27 Nov

A Deceptive Crusade In Flanders Fields – Part 3/3[1]

by Danny de Laet

Translated by Lise Tannahill

Edited by Annick Pellegrin


Original publication: de Laet, Danny. « La BD flamande sous l’occupation : Entre croix gammée et croisade faussée. » La Crypte tonique septembre – octobre 2013: 35-44. Print.[2]

Lots of young people got their break with Henri Winkeler, who was already interested in animated cartoons before the war, so much so that he wanted to create a studio, funded by Wilfried Bouchery (who, after the war, would produce Claude Misonne’s animated version of Hergé’s Tintin adventure The Crab With The Golden Claws). To achieve this, he hired several students from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp: Bob de Moor, Ray Goossens, Jules Luyckx, Marcel Colbrandt and a few others including Jef Nys. This greatly displeased their tutor, Baron Opsomer, who threatened to expel them. Only Nys, after working on Smidje Smee for three days, would return to the fold.

At the AFIM (Antwerpse Filmaatschappij) studio, Goossens was just as obsessed as Winkeler and he became the obvious leader. Together, they made the short film Smidje Smee, which showed some promise. However, the Germans (and this scenario would also occur in the Netherlands, where Marten Toonder was also trying to make animated films) tried to take control of the studio by promising easy funding, on the condition that they work only for the occupiers. Winkeler’s refusal led to the closure of the already cash-strapped studio. Goosens found refuge with his grandmother; as they had not yet reached the age of majority, De Moor and Colbrandt were not sent to Germany but instead sentenced to forced work making aircraft parts at the ERLA factory in Oude-God. After the liberation, Winkeler went back to his idea of a studio and founded Arefim, where he was reunited with De Moor and Colbrandt.

German rockets rained down on Antwerp. De Moor was injured in an explosion and ended up in hospital; Arefim closed its doors. After the war Winkeler, Colbrandt and brothers Jef and Cois Cassiers (who would later become humorists and stars of show business, starring in the Flemish films of Edith Kiel and Jef Van der Heyden, who was president of the filmmaker’s union during the occupation) began working in a villa owned by Bouchery in Keerbergen, this time under the name Animated Cartoons, but a fire finally put an end to Winkeler’s efforts.

Goossens, De Moor and Luyckx were taken on by De Vlijt—who had just recovered his paper De Gazet Van Antwerpen (of which the editor died in the concentration camps) as well as his printworks—and the three artists together worked for the weekly Zondagsvriend and its supplement Kleine Zondagsvriend, which soon became an independent comic, of which the first years were especially splendid, thanks to the talent and versatility of Goossens, Luyckx and De Moor.

Marc Sleen, who had been arrested and interned by the Germans in 1944 in place of his brother, a member of the Resistance, found employment at the newspaper De Standaard/De Nieuwe Gids as soon as Belgium was liberated, he later became the driving force behind the newspaper Het Volk and it was the start of a great career.

Of course, there were many others, minor players, overjoyed to see themselves published, giddy and drunk with the attention the occupiers paid them, or dazzled by the uniforms of the triumphant German forces. A. Mortier, R. Clément, J. Meulepas and a few others, collaborators through stupidity rather than conviction. Can you blame these young people who wanted to work, and didn’t know where to turn?!

We cannot say in any way that Flemish artists ‘benefited’ from the occupation. Quite the opposite, since many publications were censored (Zonneland) or disappeared (Kindervriend, Wonderland), others would be killed off almost as soon as they appeared during the occupation (Ons Rakkersblad, De Rakker). Certainly, new pro-German publications saw the light of day but few artists made their careers there and very few comics displayed Teutonic political leanings; in fact Siegfried by Panis in De Blauwvoet; DeBudt gag cartoons Hanske de Vendeljongen and Grietje het Kerlinneke; and Hitlerjongen Flup by Delbaere were the only ones drawn that way.

Vandersteen, admittedly the most ambitious of all the artists who debuted in the 1940s, concentrated on humorous comics. He and DeBudt are the most prolific of the artists discussed here. Even if he displayed less technical prowess than DeBudt, Olrac or Panis, his work was nevertheless the funniest and most dynamic as he was a master storyteller, in comparison to the much more staid and static narratives of DeBudt and Panis, who were very much artists rather than writers. Besides, Vandersteen was also crafty enough to use his pseudonym Kaproen (Hood) for his more controversial work, a name he would never use after the war and which he would insist was not his all his life. Gard, Olrac, Panis, Delbaere, Van Immerseel and DeBudt were less clever, happily signing their real names to wartime works in publications that wore their ideologies on their sleeves.

It remains to be seen if these artists followed that same ideological persuasion. For Gard, Olrac, Panis and Van Immerseel, the answer is a definite yes. For DeBudt and Vandersteen, there were undeniable attenuating circumstances. And then there were those who laid low (J. Waterschoot, Hermans, G. Van Raemdonck) and a few kids who did stupid things, through weakness or the sins of youth, like the theoretically funny drawings of De Moor and Rik Clément. Not forgetting those who waited until the liberation to break through: Sleen and René Demoen.

But before them, a whole generation of students from Antwerp took their first steps in the industry, throwing themselves in without political views, a generation who found themselves in an animation studio (Goossens, Luyckx, De Moor, Colbrandt). All of them had to wait for the liberation, with its avalanche of new media outlets and the resurrection of the old daily publications, to launch themselves head-first into a comics sector that was to become a vitally important part of the Flemish press landscape. A few stubborn fellows were banned from publishing after the liberation and were from then on absent from this medium that began to rise in prominence under the occupation, its faded star once again in the ascendant. Olrac, Gard, Delbaere and Van Immerseel disappeared, but others (DeBudt and Panis) persevered, in spite of publication bans of various durations. At the same time, the innocent ones (Goossens, De Moor, Sleen, Demoen, Hermans and Nys) created a particularly Flemish form of the ninth art.

In the immediate post-war period, Flemish comics sometimes sought to be the politicised version of the medium, leading to a biting, caustic, satirical tone absent from the Franco-Belgian equivalents. This wasn’t borne from the five years of occupation or from a desire to prolong them, but rather a desire to finally be equals with Francophone artists, who during and immediately after the war had been punching above their weight and dominating the market in Flanders. With a specific character all of its own, Flemish comics, so much so that we can talk of a ‘Flemish School’, became a great success, on both the left and right wings of the media. And all, ironically, under the watchful eye of the ‘master’, Vandersteen…

Danny de Laet: Journalist and critic, also organiser and/or curator of exhibitions, conventions and film festivals in Antwerp and Brussels. Fan editor of Serial Thriller, Les Cahiers BD and many more. Published books and essays on Fritz Lang, Raoul Servais, Harry Kümel, John Flanders, Raf Verhulst, Willy Vandersteen, Marc Sleen and many more.

Is only interested in science fiction, horror and crime fiction in comics, movies and literature. Also president of the semi-secret non-profit association (The Puf Puf Club) against non-smokers.

[1] This is the third part of a three-part essay. The second part can be found here:

[2] The original text has been very lightly revised for style and context


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