Tour de France 1903, by Harry Balm 1967
'Tour de France anno 1903' (Sjors, 1967), depicting Maurice Garin, the eventual winner of the first edition. 

Harry Balm was a long-time staff illustrator of the publishing house De Spaarnestad and its umbrella publishing group VNU. He made illustrations and short, biographical stories for Sjors magazine, before becoming responsible for the lay-outs of the Dutch Donald Duck weekly. In this capacity, he painted several historical characters in a "duckified" way, of which his parody of Rembrandt's 'The Night Watch' painting is by far the best-known.

Spaarnestad Studio
Balm was born in 1940 in Haarlem. Keen on becoming a comic artist, he applied for a job with the publishing house De Spaarnestad when he was only fifteen years old. He was initially hired as an office clerc, before he was assigned to the art department. There, he got his artistic training under supervision of Frans Piët, while working alongside the other staff artists Bert Bus, Nico van Dam, Ben Bulters, Ab Schatorjé and Ruud Looman. Based on the Nassauplein in Haarlem, the Spaarnestad Studio produced illustrations for the Catholic publishing house's many magazines, including Libelle, Panorama, Beatrijs, Katholieke Illustratie and Sjors. Besides making new illustrations, the artists also had to reproduce or trace illustrations from American magazines. It was a good experience for the young Balm to become acquainted with the styles and techniques of the overseas cartoonists. Among the other influences on Balm's work were Edgar P. Jacobs, Hans G. Kresse, Pieter Kuhn and Gustave Doré.

comic art by Harry Balm

Historical comics
Balm was mainly active for Sjors, initially as an illustrator, but later also as a comic artist. He became an expert in short, biographical stories, inspired by the classic educational stories of 'Oncle Paul' in Spirou magazine. Between 1965 and 1968, Balm depicted the lives of personalities from long-ago days, such as Francisco Goya, Julius Caesar, El Cid, Marco Polo, Abraham Lincoln, Beethoven, Stendhal, Spartacus and Richard the Lionheart, but also about more recent people, like the Russian space travel pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and French mountaineer Maurice Herzog. He furthermore made an episode about the history of the Tour de France (1965). Years later, in 1981-1983, a selection of these historical comics were published in three black-and-white albums by Oberon.

Maurice Herzog by Harry Balm
'Maurice Herzog - De bedwinger van de Annapurna' (Sjors #16, 1967).

Lay-out man
When Sjors magazine was restyled into a more modern formula in 1969, Balm became responsible for the magazine's lay-out. During this period he also did lay-out work for toddlers' magazine Bobo and the girls' magazine Tina. Since the publishing houses De Spaarnestad and De Geïllustreerde Pers both fell under the VNU umbrella, the company housed its children's publications in the youth division Oberon in 1972. Balm was assigned to the lay-out department of the Dutch Disney publications, spearheaded by Donald Duck weekly. He gave the weekly's popular mail section its playful lay-out, and livened up the pages containing comics serials with beautifully painted frames. Between 1973 and 1995 Balm furthermore illustrated many text stories for the magazine. Balm himself initiated the Arthurian text story feature 'De Ridders van de Tafelronde' ("The Knights of the Round Table", 1973-1975), which was written by Frank Herzen. Other serials with Balm illustrations were 'De Vliegende Hollander' (1978) by Tim Maran, 'Aladdin en de Wonderlamp' (1979) by Allard Schröder, 'De overwintering op Nova Zembla' (1981) and 'Schipbreuk in de Tropen' (1983) by Anton Quintana, and 'Het bezeten stoeltje' (1991) by Dick van den Heuvel. Balm furthermore illustrated fairy and folkloric tales by Ivan Tsarevich, Wilhelm Hauff and E.T.A. Hoffmann, and shorter text stories by Peter Vervloed, Tjibbe Veldkamp, Kees Opmeer, Erna Aak and Nicolle Christiaanse.

Michiel de Ruyter parody, painted for Donald Duck #31, 6 August 1982, and Mickey and Pete during the Eighty Years' War (Donald Duck #6, 1998). © Disney.

Ever since his time at the old Spaarnestad Studio, Balm had spent his spare time painting, inspired by the impressionist movement. His personal work was regularly exhibited, for instance during an exposition in Bordeaux in 1976. Since the mid-1970s he could combine his passion with his daytime job, when Donald Duck weekly launched the parody section 'Galerij der Groten' ("Gallery of Giants", 1975-1990). The first episode, published on 21 February 1975 (Donald Duck #8), was Cornelis Coot, Duckburg's founder, created by Carl Barks. Most of the subsequent installments were based on real-life historical figures, reimagined as Duck characters painted in gouache, among them Marco Polo, Genghis Khan, Ivan the Terrible, Michiel de Ruyter, Madame de Pompadour, Napoleon, Beethoven, Albert Einstein, Enrico Caruso, Mata Hari, Rasputin and Anna Pavlova. The characters received a pun-based name, such as Sarah Canardt for Sarah Bernhardt (with "canard" being the French word for "duck"), Ludwig II Van Eieren for Ludwig II of Bayern (with "eieren" being Dutch for "eggs") and Josephine Kwaker for Josephine Baker (with "kwaker" being derived from the Dutch verb "kwaken", meaning "to quack"). Underneath every drawing appeared a spoof biographical blurb - full of historical in-jokes - written by Cees de Groot and later Thom Roep. Some characters in the gallery weren't historical, but fictional creations such as Count Dracula, or parodies of famous classic paintings, such as James McNeill Whistler's 'Whistler's Mother'. The final episode appeared on 23 November 1990 in Donald Duck #47. The Donald Duck weekly also ran a readers' section where children could send in their own duckified celebrity portraits under the title 'Galerij der Kleinen' ("Gallery of the Little Ones"). The first episode appeared on 4 April 1986 in issue #14 of that year. 

On 18 January 1991, a new section was launched, with Duck versions of famous literary works, under the title 'Klassiekers uit de Duckstadse Bibliotheek' ("Classics from the Duckburg Library", 1991-1999). It followed the same formula, with Balm recreating a scene from a famous novel and Roep writing a brief plot summarisation, usually giving the work a pun-based title such as 'Duckleberry Finn' ('Huckleberry Finn'), 'De Raaf van Monte Cristo' ('The Count of Monte Cristo', with the word "raaf" being Dutch for "raven") and the very cryptic 'Een Eendje in Z'n Eentje' (literally "A Duck On His Own", referring to Hector Malot's 'Sans Famille', known in Dutch translation as 'Alone in the World'). In the final sentence of each entry, readers were told that if they wanted to read the book, they should search for the original work in their library. Interestingly enough, from 5 February 1993 on, the pun-based titles were dropped and all episodes just appeared under the name of the original novel, presumably since not all children were familiar enough with the books to understand the references. The final episode appeared on 16 April 1999. 

Between 2 June 1995 and 26 June 1998 a new section was launched, called 'Terug in de tijd met Mickey' ("Back in time with Mickey"). Each installment portrayed Mickey Mouse and Goofy in a historical setting. Balm provided the background painting, while the Disney characters were drawn by the comic artists Michel Nadorp and Wilma van den Bosch. The accompanying texts were by Thom Roep and Frans Hasselaar.

Duckwacht by Harry Balm
'The Duck Watch' - © Disney.

The Duck Watch
Harry Balm's masterpiece is without a doubt his Duck-version of Rembrandt's 'The Night Watch'. His faithful reproduction of the 1642 painting portrays the entire Militia Company of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq as Duck characters, while Pluto is present as the dog in the front. 'De Duckwacht' (literally 'The Duck Watch') was originally created as a poster in Donald Duck #50 of 12 November 1981. It remains one of the best-known works of the Dutch Disney production, and even Disney comics legend Carl Barks had it hanging on his living room wall. Years later, Balm spoofed another classic painting, reworking Pieter Bruegel the Elder's 'The Peasant Wedding' to 'De Eendenbruiloft' ('The Duck Wedding') for Donald Duck #33 of 16 August 1996.

Additional comics work
Harry Balm has only sporadically returned to making comics after leaving Sjors. He was present in the early issues of the alternative comic magazine De Vrije Balloen with the short stories 'Merle' (#4, 1976) and 'Elsinore van Flamberge' (#8, 1977), and in the science fiction magazine Essef with the serial 'Inferno-Ballade' (1977). Between 1988 and 1992 he also worked on a comics adaptation of Charles Dickens' 'Barnaby Rudge', which was eventually published in book format by Boumaar in 1998. His former Spaarnestad colleague Ruud Looman provided the lettering.

'Inferno-Ballade' (Essef #5).

During a period of over 20 years, Harry Balm did all his Donald Duck lay-outs the traditional way, with pen, paper and scissors. When the magazine switched to digital production methods in the second half of the 1990s, he had a hard time getting used to the brand new desktop publishing software. New designers joined the editorial team, and by 1998 Balm went into early retirement. In the following decades, many have come and gone in Donald Duck's lay-out division, which has Ellen Hagenaars and Remco de Waard as its longest serving members.

Harry Balm was the last of the three Spaarnestad house artists to leave the company. Nico van Dam had retired in the 1980s and Bert Bus in 1990. On 23-24 October 2004, during the Stripdagen in Alphen aan de Rijn, the three veterans were collectively awarded the Bulletje & Boonestaakschaal by comics appreciation society Het Stripschap for their contributions to the Dutch comic industry. Balm has spent his retirement painting in his hometown Haarlem.

His contributions to the Dutch Disney productions are however far from forgotten. Balm's Duck-related paintings have been reused in many latter-day publications, and were exhibited in the Cobra Museum in Amstelveen in 2004. 'The Duck Watch' appeared in several of the special issues the Donald Duck editors have made for the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum since 2014. At the occasion of the 85th anniversary of the character Donald Duck, a merchandise line was launched which featured the painting on bags, puzzles, mugs, postcards and a birthday calendar. The collection was festively presented at the Rijksmuseum in May 2019, where Balm's 'The Duck Watch' was installed next to Rembrandt's slightly larger 'The Night Watch'.

Donald Duck's editorial team around 1984. From left to right: Erna Hiddes, Lucas Abedy, Harry Balm, Joan Lommen, Co Loerakker, Conny Verweij, Marjolein Westerterp, Thom Roep, Kitty Smit and Ed van Schuijlenburg.

Harry Balm's Inducks entry

Series and books by Harry Balm you can order today:


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