Sammy by Berck

Berck was one of the most productive Flemish comic artists from the 1950s until his retirement in 1994. He has worked for both Tintin and its competitor Spirou, and was additionally active for publications in Flanders, the Netherlands and Germany. He is most famous for co-creating 'Sammy' (1970) with Raoul Cauvin, a humorous crime series about two American bodyguards during the Prohibition era. 'Sammy' has been translated all across the globe, making Berck one of the few Flemish comic artists whose work has crossed international borders. Still, just like Morris, he is rarely acknowledged as being Flemish since 'Sammy' was published in the French-language press first. Berck draws in a lively and dynamic style, with many adrenaline pumping action scenes and bullet rains. At the time 'Sammy' was considered to be quite violent and therefore sometimes victim of censorship. While 'Sammy' remains Berck's best known work, he started working on it relatively late in his career, when he was already 41. Furthermore, he was already active as a comics artist twenty years earlier and created various other comics series before and afterwards, like 'Strapontin' (1958-1968), 'Rataplan' (1961-1967), 'De Familie Nopkes' (1965), 'De Donderpadjes' (1971-1974) and 'Lowietje' (1974-1983).  

Early life and career
He was born as Arthur Berckmans in Leuven in 1929. His father was an electrician, while his mother repaired shoes. As a child he read Kindervriend, Robbedoes, Bravo and Le Journal de Mickey, taking a particular liking towards C. Franchi's 'Zozo', E.C. Segar's 'Popeye' and Fred Harman's 'Red Ryder'. Later in his career he also underwent tremendous influence from Raymond Macherot and Mad Magazine. One of his earliest comics was 'Het leven van Hitler', a comic strip he drew along with a schoolfriend, whose father was a dedicated Communist. This satirical take on Hitler was scribbled in one of his school books and made before the Nazis occupied Belgium. Luckily for him, it was destroyed long before the German occupiers could ever see it. Berckmans studied drawing at the Leuven Art Academy and at the St. Luke Art Institute in Brussels. After the war, he tried to apply for a job at the new comics magazine Tintin, but was refused because he had personally colorized all his drawings by hand, instead of doing this in a more professional way.

Early comics
Berckmans then became a clerk in a Jesuit monastery in Leuven. While he disliked the boring work and rigid atmosphere, it did provide him with the opportunity to make religious drawings for their monthly magazine Pro Apostolis between 1948 and 1952. He eventually succeeded their home illustrator, Krack. In 1952 Berck married and left the monastery, but despite his bad memories there he was still persuaded to return to them, since he would paid for making some religious comics for them. These were Berckmans' first professional comics stories, namely 'La Vie de Saint Ignace' and 'Le Père de Smet au Nebraska' ('De Grote Zwartrok'), which were biopics of respectively St. Ignace and priest Pieter-Jan De Smet. He continued to illustrate the books by the Leuven-based Jesuites until 1956.

Strapontin, by Berck
'Strapontin et le Monstre du Loch Ness'.

By the mid-1950s, Berck joined Publiart, the advertising division of publishing house Le Lombard headed by Guy Dessicy. He made a great many illustrations for advertisements and stories, that were published in Tintin and Line, and took over 'Le Grenadier Victoria', the advertising comic strip for Victoria chocolat, from Albert Weinberg. Other advertising strips that Berck illustrated include 'Polochon dans la Pampa', 'Vic et Rio' and 'Les Frères Cha-Cha'.

Strapontin by BerckPanchico by Berck
Covers for Tintin #617 and #775.

Tintin magazine
By 1958, he found his way to Tintin magazine. He became an assistant to Jean Graton and helped him create cover illustrations for Tintin as well for the girls magazine Line. Berck credited Graton with teaching him everything about drawing comics. His most notable work for this magazine was the series about cabdriver 'Strapontin', which he made in cooperation with René Goscinny, and from 1965 with Jacques Acar. The word 'Strapontin' was a Parisian slang term for a cabdriver of Russian descent. In Dutch translation 'Strapontin' was named 'Pechvogel' (literally 'Unlucky bird'), not to be confused with the Dutch translation of  George Baker's 'Sad Sack', which ran in Humoradio (nowadays Humo) under that name. Since 'Sad Sack' was an unlucky character too, it may have inspired 'Strapontin''s Dutch-language name too. Strapontin's dog, Wimpi, took its name from E.C. Segar's character Wellington Wimpy. 

Together with writer Yves Duval, he began a second series called 'Rataplan', about a little drummer boy in Napoleon's army in 1961. Originally Berck wanted to situate the story during the Peasants' War (1798), a farmer uprising in the Southern Netherlands (nowadays Belgium and Luxembourg) against the French occupation, but the French-language editors felt this wouldn't be appreciated by French-language readers and was a bit too local. Berck and Duval additionally made a couple of one-shot comics, such as 'Panchico' (1963), the James Bond parody 'Ken Krom' (1966) and 'Lady Bound' (1967).

Rataplan, by Berck

Zonnekind, Zonneland and 't Kapoentje
In addition to his work for Tintin, Berck cooperated with Leo Loedts on several stories for the magazines Zonnekind and Zonneland of the publishing house Altoria in Averbode between 1963 and 1976. Under the name Studio Arle, they created 'Wim en Eric: De Verdwenen Sloep' (1965) and the adventure series 'De Zwartepinken', with scripts by Maurice Renders (1965-1972). The stories were also published in the French-language counterparts Dorémi and Tremplin. Arle also made the comic 'De Familie Nopkes' with Jos Loedts for 't Kapoentje in 1965.

Mulligan by BerckSammy by Berck
'Robbedoes/Spirou' #1600 and #1731.

In 1968, Berck left Tintin and his series 'Strapontin' and 'Rataplan' and transferred to Spirou, where he changed from his strict style to a looser, more liquid one, inspired by Stephen Bosustow. He also underwent influence from André Franquin, who gave him some personal tips, and the dynamic, energetic drawings in Mad Magazine. His first work for Spirou was the comic about the Irish-American towboat captain 'Mulligan', written by Raymond Macherot and Yvan Delporte. The stories were set in New York City during the 1930s and can be seen a spiritual predecessor of what soon become Berck's signature series: 'Sammy'. 

 Sammy', written by Raoul Cauvin, first appeared on 26 March 1970 and became one of the staples of Spirou magazine. Set in the 1930s, the series follows the adventures of two bodyguards, Sammy and his boss Jack Attaway. They are often confronted with violent attacks from gangsters. Berck envisioned something comparable to Chester Gould's 'Dick Tracy', but Cauvin felt there were already too much detective comics and suggested using bodyguards as central characters. While the series is humorous in tone it didn't shy away from addressing more adult and controversial themes, such as the Ku Klux Klan and politics. Because gun fights are featured so prominently in the stories 'Sammy' was often perceived as an "extremely violent comic" by publishers. The story 'Les Gorilles et le Roi Dollar' (1975) was banned in France upon its initial release, officially because it depicted "political and police corruption". Still 'Sammy' managed to become a success both in Belgium, France as well as other countries. In 1973 Berck and Cauvin won the Prix St. Michel for "Best Humor Comic Book". 'Sammy' has been translated in many languages, including French, Spanish, Turkish, Berber and Arabic, making Berck one of the few Flemish comics artists, along with Willy Vandersteen and Morris, to have enjoyed an international career.

Sammy by Berck

Lombok, De Donderpadjes and Lowietje
While drawing 'Sammy', Berck also worked extensively for publishers and papers from the Netherlands, Flanders and Germany. He created the daily comic about prehistoric giant 'Lombok' in cooperation with Daniel Jansens in Gazet van Antwerpen in 1969. This series was also published in the French language in Le Soir Jeunesse and Samedi Jeunesse. For the Dutch comic magazines Sjors and Eppo, he developed the boy scout series 'De Donderpadjes' with Rudy Jansen (1971-74) and the adventure series starring the wealthy orphan 'Lowietje' ('Lou' in French) with Piet Hein Broenland (1974-83). Lowietje is an orphan who inherits a massive fortune, but needs to fulfill several tasks in order to receive it. Together with his seal, Burp (who was written out of the series in the third story) and butler Jacob he goes on adventure, while his evil aunt, Tante Doortje, and her two henchmen, Teetje and Toffel, try to prevent him from fulfilling these tasks.

Mischa, by Berck

Rolf Kauka / Assistants
From 1972 to 1974, he was hired by Rolf Kauka in Germany to create new stories of the science fiction series 'Mischa' for the Kauka magazine Primo. To keep up with the heavy workload on all his series for Spirou, Sjors/Eppo, Primo and the papers, Berck set up Studio Berck to have some assistance. Among the artists that have worked for Berck are Francis, Guy Bollen, Lucien De Gieter, Armand Sorret, Hurey, Bédu and Wally Ophalvens. Raoul Cauvin contributed many scripts for both 'Lowietje' and 'Mischa', although anonymously, while his daughter Luut was the colorist on many of Berck's comics. Once, when Berck's shoulder was dislocated, François Walthéry acted as ghost artist for a few pages of 'Lowietje' so that the comic could reach its deadline.

Lowietje by Berck
Lowietje - 'Olympische Spelen'.

Final years
Arthur Berckmans continued to draw new 'Sammy' stories for Spirou throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, while steadily dropping his other activities. He retired after 31 albums in 1994, and sold his part of the rights to the publisher Dupuis. Cauvin continued the series for another nine albums with Jean-Pol as Berck's successor.

Graphic contributions
In 1993 he was one of several Bronzen Adhemar winners to pay a graphic tribute to Marc Sleen in 'Marc Sleen. Een uitgave van de Bronzen Adhemar Stichting' (1993).

In 1985 he received the Bronzen Adhemar, the most prestigious Flemish comics prize. Yet Berck initially wanted to refuse the award, feeling he should have received it a lot earlier in his career. He eventually warmed up to it.

Lambiek will always be grateful to Berck for illustrating the letter "C" in our encylopedia book, 'Wordt Vervolgd - Stripleksikon der Lage Landen', published in 1979.

De Donderpadjes, by Berck
'De Donderpadjes' (Sjors #42, 1973).

Series and books by Berck in stock in the Lambiek Webshop:


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