To mark the centenary of the birth of Willy Vandersteen, one of Flanders’ most popular – and certainly most prolific – comic-strip authors, the Belgian Comic Strip Center is running an exhibition on the man’s life, career and extensive influence.
Brussels comic museum celebrates the much-loved work of Willy Vandersteen
“Willy Vandersteen is certainly one of the most important strip artists from Flanders or Belgium, and there are various reasons for that,” explains Willem Degraeve of the Belgian Comic Strip Center. “His output is gigantic: He created a large number of series and told an enormous number of stories. That’s pretty unique for one cartoonist.”
Willebrord Jan Frans Maria Vandersteen, always known as Willy, was born in 1913 in the Seefhoek area of Antwerp, then as now a vibrant, popular quarter. His father was an ornament-maker and sculptor and may have inspired Vandersteen’s artistic talents; from an early age, Vandersteen the younger was making up stories to entertain his friends and chalking cycle race paths on the pavement in the street where he lived.
According to legend, Vandersteen’s fantasy often overtook his studies, and one teacher warned him he would never be able to make a living by drawing and making up stories.
Fortunately, that didn’t stop him from taking evening classes in drawing at the Arts Academy in Antwerp or from entering his father’s trade and later moving into the window-dressing business. His first publication, in fact, was a strip called Kitty Inno, about a sales assistant in the store where he was employed, published in the staff magazine.
Real-world publication followed in 1941 when the newspaper De Dag was looking for home-grown strips for its children’s supplement to replace the American imports banned by the Nazi occupier. Vandersteen came up first with Tor de holbewoner (Tor the Caveman), then the cat Pudifar – heavily influenced by US cartoonist George Herriman’s banned Krazy Kat.
Vandersteen became a full-time artist, commuting between home in Antwerp and work in Brussels. And the characters and stories kept coming at a prodigious rate: Piwo the little wooden horse, his first full-length album; Simbat the chubby pirate; Floche and Flache, two wacky resistance fighters; trapper Bill Bing; Peggy the Scotch terrier.
Finally, in 1945, came a story of espionage in Cocoslavia starring brother-and-sister adventurers Rikki and Louise. Never heard of them? For various reasons, including that he was rather too similar in appearance to Kuifje (Tintin), Rikki disappeared in the following adventure, and we meet a young orphan called François, nicknamed Suske. At the end of the tale, he returns with Louise, nicknamed Wiske (who appears also to be an orphan, though it’s never made explicit), to live with her Aunt Sidonia.
Suske en Wiske
Suske en Wiske, which still publishes daily in De Standaard, was without a doubt Vandersteen’s most successful strip. Vandersteen handed over the art and writing completely to his collaborators in 1974, and there have been more than 300 adventures published in albums, usually following their publication in the newspaper.
Complete sales figures for Suske en Wiske are impossible to come by, though we do know that a new release sells about 3.5 million a year worldwide, adding up to a total of more than 200 million sold since 1945.
As a result, it’s hard to find anyone in Flanders who didn’t grow up with Suske and Wiske and pass the dog-eared, red-coloured albums on to their children. As well as the albums, the heroes have appeared in a puppet series on TV, animated films, their own weekly magazine for children, a musical, a live-action movie (with Peter Van Den Begin as Aunt Sidonia), a game for Nintendo and, most recently, a 3D animation.
Team of artists
Suske en Wiske albums have been translated into myriad languages (including Esperanto and Latin) and even dialects like Frisian and Limburgish. The characters’ names change, too, which you’ll see in an installation of covers at the exhibition: Anu ja Antti in Finnish, Bob et Bobette in French, Baga & Basang in Tibet; Spike and Suzy in the UK – but Willy & Wanda in the US – and so on around the world.
But while Sus and Wis are the largest single success, the influence of Vandersteen, who died in 1990, reaches much farther. He created 25 series, for a total of more than 1,000 albums. “Suske & Wiske is certainly the number one,” confirms Degraeve. “Then perhaps De Rode Ridder, although Bessy is also a very well-known series, incredibly popular in Germany, and Robert en Bertrand is also very well known.”
Vandersteen’s contemporary Marc Sleen, creator of Nero, likes to boast how he wrote and drew every single album of Nero single-handedly. Vandersteen could never have achieved his formidable output alone and hired a number of artists and writers, opening Studio Vandersteen in the 1950s.
The exhibition is a clear and comprehensive look at Vandersteen’s career, with all information in Dutch, English and French. Most importantly, while it places Suske en Wiske in its correct place, it doesn’t ignore the many other characters and series Vandersteen created.
That’s essential to understanding his particular genius: Most great strip creators found a successful recipe and stuck to it, none more than the exalted Hergé, creator of Kuifje. Vandersteen worked for Hergé at one point and learned from him how to clean up his drawing style, but, in the end, Vandersteen’s creativity far outstrips Hergé’s, while his productivity outstrips everyone’s.
And there’s still new life in the old idea. Last month the first rumours started to circulate of a new Suske en Wiske album, Amoras, which would take the pair back to that first time they ever met. Only they would no longer be children, and the world they inhabit would be darker and more dangerous.
The new album, it was reported, was to be the first in a series of six, to be released over the coming months, with the full backing of Vandersteen’s daughter Leen, who manages his estate. Amoras has yet to appear, but the ending of that part of the story has already been revealed in the Flemish press (which appear not to have heard of spoilers). As we are convinced that many readers of Flanders Today will want to read the new series, we’ll decline taking any surprises away from you.