Flanders’ comic heritage often binned or sold


A research project has concluded that more needs to be done to preserve the documents and materials behind the great comic artists and their works

Preserving the present for the future

While comic strips are an indispensable part of Flanders’ heritage, its related valuable archives are often hidden away or lost. Strip Turnhout has just announced the results of an investigation into how to ensure that future generations can enjoy and learn from the sketches, letters and photos of yesterday’s masters of the ninth art.

Strip Turnhout, a non-profit that publishes the twice-yearly Stripgids (Comics Guide), examined the state of Flemish comic strip patrimony with literature museum Letterenhuis, the Hendrik Conscience Heritage Library, Luca School of Arts and Flemish heritage organisation Faro. The government of Flanders funded the year-long research project.

“Original plates and sketches naturally have great heritage value, but many more parts of the production process are potentially valuable,” says Evelien Verschueren of Strip Turnhout, explaining what comic strip archives consist of exactly. “Take for example preparatory notes, correspondence, photos and merchandising.” 

Source of income

These by-products of creating comic strips, albums and graphic novels offer a unique look behind the scenes and are thus invaluable for researchers, students and anyone else interested in the work and life of comic artists. They also allow exhibition curators, for instance, to inspire the public, editors to publish reissues and teachers to better train new generations of comics creators and illustrators.

Currently, much of these related materials are thrown out or end up on the market, snapped up by private collectors. “Artists are sometimes not aware of the value of this material and throw much of it away. And if they do realise their value, they often sell them, because they need the money or are afraid their heirs will have to taxes on it after their death.”

A telling tale of the lure of the market is that of Brussels comic artist Edgar P Jacobs, creator of the Blake and Mortimer series. During his life, Jacobs carefully preserved his archives and established a foundation to manage it. Only two people had a key to the safe where the valuables were stored and yet someone managed to get a hold of some of his original plates and sell them for a tidy sum.

We would also like to see how we can bring the treasures hidden in private collections to light

- Researcher Evelien Verschueren

In 2010, original strips by Jacobs and by Herge, creator of Tintin, were auctioned off in Brussels. This is not unusual; original drawings and sketches by famous comics artists are often auctioned off. And that is part of the problem, says Verschueren.

Another is that the comic strip heritage sector in Flanders and Brussels is very fragmented. Letterenhuis and the Hendrik Conscience Library in Antwerp, along with the Belgian Comic Strip Centre in Brussels all hold crucial collections. Verschueren investigated how to organise the sector, such as by founding an umbrella organisation that would be responsible for all aspects of archival management, along the lines of the French comic strip centre in Angoulême.

“We concluded that it’s not a good idea to invest now in a whole new centre, but the current network of heritage sector actors should be bolstered,” she says. “It’s also important to make solid agreements, so that the role of all the partners is clear.”

How-to guide

Letterenhuis, for example, could focus on archival heritage, the Hendrik Conscience Library on printed works in newspapers, comics magazines and albums and the Belgian Comic Strip Centre on original plates. Faro and Strip Turnhout could have an important role in streamlining the communication and sharing of expertise between these organisations.

“How we can exactly fine-tune the collaboration of these institutions would be the subject of a follow-up study, for which we will request government funding,” says Verschueren. “We would also like to examine how we can in the short term bring the treasures hidden in private collections to light. Many collectors refrain from lending out their showpieces, fearing authorities will impose high inheritance taxes on them.”

In the meantime, Strip Turnhout has produced the guide De Schitterende Schat (The Wonderful Treasures) to help comic artists and collectors determine how to store their own archives. The brochure gives practical tips on how to conserve materials and describes the institutions that can provide support.