Sammy - 'El Presidente'.

Berck was one of the most versatile Flemish comic artists, with a career spanning from 1948 to 1994. With his vivid and dynamic artwork, Berck managed to break out of the Flanders comics scene and enjoy an international career. Outside of Flanders and Wallonia, he was also hired by magazines in the Netherlands and Germany. Berck was one of the few artists who worked for both Tintin and Spirou, the two leading Belgian comic magazines. After drawing the humor comics 'Strapontin' (1958-1968) and 'Rataplan' (1961-1967) in Tintin, he swapped his angular drawing style for a more fluid one and became a hit in Spirou magazine with 'Sammy' (1970-1994). Created with scriptwriter Raoul Cauvin, this humorous gangster series about two Chicago bodyguards during the Prohibition era has been translated all across the globe. With its many adrenaline pumping action scenes and bullet showers, it has also been the victim of censorship, however. Besides Tintin and Spirou, Berck was also a prominent author in the Catholic children's magazines for Altoria Averbode with 'De Zwartepinken' (1965-1972), and in the Dutch comics magazines Sjors and Eppo with 'De Donderpadjes' (1971-1974) and 'Lowietje' (1974-1983). Still, 'Sammy' remains his best-remembered work, even though the artist was already 41 when he began working on the series. Because of this Franco-Belgian staple, Berck is often mistaken for being Walloon, just like 'Lucky Luke' creator Morris and 'XIII' artist William Vance.

Early life and education
He was born in 1929 as Arthur Berckmans in Leuven/Louvain. His father worked as an electrician, while his mother repaired shoes in the family home. Arthur's family had no particular artistic background, with the exception of his maternal great-grandfather, the Italian sculptor Jacobini. His paternal grandfather was a contractor of railway wagons, who travelled back and forth to the USA to buy wood, even prior to 1900. This successful enterprise made the Berckmans family famous in the Louvain region, until the business went bankrupt during World War I. Arthur Berckmans believed he inherited his drive and ambition from his grandfather. As a child, he read the magazines Kindervriend, Robbedoes, Bravo and the French-language Le Journal de Mickey, taking a particular liking towards C. Franchi's 'Zozo', E.C. Segar's 'Popeye' and Fred Harman's 'Red Ryder'.


'De Grote Zwartrok'.

One of his earliest comics was 'Het leven van Hitler' ("The Life of Hitler"), a childhood strip he drew in a school book with a friend, whose father was a dedicated Communist. This satirical take on Hitler's life was made before the Nazis occupied Belgium, and destroyed long before the German occupiers could ever find it. Berckmans got his artistic education at the Leuven Art Academy and at the Sint-Lukas School of Arts in Brussels. After the war, he tried to apply for a job with the new comics magazine Tintin, but was refused because he was still too inexperienced. For instance, he had colorized all his original drawings by hand, instead of doing this in a more professional way.

Pro Apostolis
Instead, Berckmans became a clerk in a Jesuit monastery in Leuven. While he disliked the boring work and rigid atmosphere, it gave him the opportunity to make illustrations for the religious monthly Pro Apostolis between 1948 and 1952. He eventually replaced the magazine's house illustrator, Krack, but was forced to continue in his predecessor's scraperboard technique. His drawings illustrated stories, lives of saints and missionaries, regular columns, but also editorial gag strips, often signed with his initials "AB". Berck also made his first long comic stories for the magazine: realistically drawn hagiographies of St. Ignace ('La Vie de Saint Ignace') and priest Pieter-Jan De Smet ('Le Père de Smet au Nebraska' AKA 'De Grote Zwartrok', 1950-1952). The experience in the monastery gave him no artistic fulfillment and shattered his childhood admiration for Catholic priests, who were, as he discovered, mere human beings. In 1952, Berck got married and left the Jesuits, although he was later persuaded to return for new assignments. He continued to illustrate books for the monastery until 1956.


Advertising strip for Governor (Kuifje #18, 1957).

Publiart
By the mid-1950s, Berck managed to join Tintin after all, although in an indirect manner. Through some first illustration jobs for Ons Volkske/Chez Nous, he was asked to join Publiart, the advertising division of the publishing house Le Lombard, headed by Guy Dessicy. The young illustrator became the apprentice of Jean Graton, the studio's part-time art director, who taught him the finer points of the comics medium. In return, Berck helped Graton with making full-color cover illustrations for the Lombard magazines Tintin and Line. At Publiart, he worked on several advertising comic strips, which ran in the Lombard publications Tintin, Line and Ons Volkske from 1957 on. The first was 'Polochon dans la Pampa' (1957) for Governor camping equipment, and it marked his debut in Tintin magazine. Berckmans came up with his own stories, but because of his Flemish background, left the French dialogues to the scriptwriter Yves Duval. Other advertising strips by Berck were 'Le Baron Bluff et les Cha-cha' for Parein biscuits (1960, 1963), as well as 'Un Vilain coup de Sabot' (1959), 'Le Grenadier Victoria en Vacances' (1959), 'Le Spectre du Mousquetaire' (1960) and 'La Valise Rouge de Vic et Ria' (1961), all for Victoria chocolate.


'Michael Strogoff' (from Le Route des Jeunes, 1960).

Berck also contributed to De Weg der Jongeren/Le Route des Jeunes, a promotional children's magazine produced by Publiart for petrol company BP in the early 1960s. The budget was limited, so the authors could only reuse existing material. The finished pages of Berck's aborted comic book adaptation of the Hendrik Conscience novel 'De Leeuw van Vlaanderen' were transformed by Yves Duval into a completely different story, under the title 'De Dappere Gids' (1960). The story was credited to "Pedro Divel". Berck also contributed a comic serial about Michael Strogoff, and the design for the magazine's beaver mascot.

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

Strapontin
Berck's talent did not remain unnoticed, and by 1958 he got the opportunity to make his official comics debut in Tintin magazine. The editors wanted more humor comics in the editorial mix, and paired Berck with the scriptwriter René Goscinny. Berck came up with the concept of a cab driver as protagonist, and he continued to contribute to the plots in the following years. The title hero of 'Strapontin' (1958-1968) was named by Goscinny after a Parisian slang term for the many Russian refugee cabdrivers that worked in the city after the Russian Revolution. In Dutch translation, the character was named 'Pechvogel', a term for an unlucky person. The original short stories indeed presented Strapontin as a victim of all sorts of slapstick humor. The later serials upgraded him to a more heroic role. In the first adventure, 'Strapontin chauffeur de maître' (1959-1960), Strapontin is hired by the great scientist Petitpois. The professor remained the driver's main client, joining him on most of his adventures, together with his son Wimpi and his dog Gérard. This team-up brought Strapontin and his cab all over the world, resulting in imaginative aventures in the USA, Scotland, Japan, Argentina, Greenland and the jungle.

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

Rataplan
During the 1960s, Berck worked on several other comics for Tintin, in addition to 'Strapontin'. The most enduring was 'Rataplan' (1961-1967, 'Hansje' in Dutch), about a little drummer boy in Napoleon's army, written by Yves Duval. Together with his sergeant and guardian, Bobèche, the orphan Rataplan participates in the Napoleonic campaigns, which bring the duo as far as Egypt, America, England, Russia and the Antilles. During their adventures, they are often confronted with the spies Kromyr and Koursurpatt. Originally, Berck wanted to situate the series 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 the readers wouldn't appreciate it.

Rataplan, by Berck
'Rataplan'.

Departure from Tintin
Berck and Duval tried to launch more comic series, but they all stranded after one episode. 'Viva Panchico' (1963) is about the Mexican shoe polisher Panchico and his donkey Violeta, who sabotage the revolutionary plans of Colonel Rossavacca. 'Ken Krom' (1966) was a James Bond parody, and 'Lady Bound' (1967), about an elderly widow who uses her boxing skills to prevent the assassination attempts at the life of Sir Archibald Buttercake.


'Strapontin' in Bosustow style ('Strapontin contre Mygalex', Dutch version in Kuifje #26, 1967).

All these additional comics were unsuccessful attempts to force a breakthrough with another creation. Berck was not happy with the editorial interference at Tintin, especially with regard to 'Strapontin'. Scriptwriter Goscinny was let go, and it took great effort to find a suitable replacement. Jacques Acar eventually assumed the writing duties, and continued the series with Berck until 1968. Another letdown was the editor's request to change the drawing style. Originally, Berck took inspiration from Raymond Macherot and drew in the same angular style as Tintin's other humor comics. By 1967, the editors wanted him to switch to a more stylized design, based on the animated 'Mr. Magoo' cartoon shorts by Stephen Bosustow. And so, Strapontin all of a sudden was way smaller than before in the final two stories. Berck always regretted this, as he felt the reader now couldn't identify with their beloved hero anymore. Worst of all, Berck could not get along with Tintin's chief editor Michel Greg. It prompted him to try his luck with the competition: the comics magazine Spirou! Both 'Strapontin' and 'Rataplan' ended after nine albums each, published by either Lombard or Dargaud between 1962 and 1975.


The infamous bra sequence from 'Mulligan' (Robbedoes #1606, 1969).

Spirou
In 1968, Berck left Tintin magazine and transferred to its direct competitor Spirou, where he changed from his strict style to a looser, more liquid one. His new dynamic linework, with more variation in thickness, was inspired by André Franquin and the energetic drawings in Mad Magazine. Franquin even gave him some personal tips. His first work for Spirou was an adventure comic about the Irish-American towboat captain 'Mulligan' (1968-1969), written by former chief editor Yvan Delporte and another Tintin-dropout, Raymond Macherot. Freed from the strict regime of Tintin magazine, Berck really lived it up. The action-packed stories were set in the eventful New York City of 1933, where Mulligan was accompanied by his temperamental shipmate Gaetano Botticelli and the silent sailor Flagstaff. Gangsters and beautiful girls formed the rest of the cast. But also Spirou had its limitations. Reading the issue of 23 January 1969, publisher Charles Dupuis was shocked to see the diva Baby Bloops bombard Flagstaff with not only a flower vase and her entire make-up set, but also her bra! The Belgian publisher was afraid of a ban from the French censors, and ordered the authors to tone down the violence and nudity. All in all, 'Mulligan' came to an end after only two serials and a short story, but did pave the way for Berck's next series...

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

Sammy
At his own request, he was paired with scriptwriter Raoul Cauvin for a new comic project: the humorous adventure comic 'Sammy'. Berck envisioned a detective comic in the tradition of Chester Gould's 'Dick Tracy'. Cauvin, however, felt there were already too much comic sleuths and picked bodyguards as central characters. With this original outset, the good-natured bodyguard first appeared in Spirou on 26 March 1970, and quickly became a staple in the Belgian magazine. Set in crime-filled Chicago during the 1920s Prohibition era, Sammy Day works in a small bodyguard agency with his boss, the quick-tempered and cigar chomping Jack Attaway. The stories were rooted in historical facts. A major adversary is the real-life gangster boss Al Capone, who is constantly at war with the Prohibition agent Eliot Ness. The time period's poverty and unemployment were regularly addressed.


Sammy - 'Nuit blanche pour les gorilles'.

Several stories were inspired by historical events, such as the rum row and its illegal liquor bootleggers ('Rhum Row', 1972), the upcoming Hollywood stardom ('Les Gorilles à Hollywood', 1980, and 'La Diva', 1987) or the Wall Street Crash of 1929 ('Crash à Wall Street', 1989). The authors didn't shy away from addressing controversial themes, such as the Ku Klux Klan ('Ku-Klux-Klan', 1981). Other stories are pure comical fantasy, like the episode in which a special elixir turns grown-up gangsters into children ('L'Élixir de Jeunesse', 1977), or the one in which Sammy and Jack guard a walking skeleton ('L'Homme qui venait de l'au-delà', 1986). Besides downtown Chicago, the authors constantly picked new settings for the stand-offs between the two bodyguards and an endless stream of thugs. They have been sent to mental hospitals, the circuses, soccer fields, boarding schools, banana republics and even the Vatican.

Sammy by Berck
Sammy - 'L'Homme qui venait de l'au-delà'.

At the time of its debut, 'Sammy' was a refreshing newcomer in the traditional Spirou magazine. Just like the other Cauvin-scripted adventure series, 'Les Tuniques Bleues' (1968-), it cleverly mixed true-life horrors with pure comedy. Cauvin's humorous plots came to life in Berck's vivid ink lines. The dynamic action sequences with car chases, rains of bullets and explosions caused a non-stop succession of "TAKATAKATAKS", "KABOOMS" and other sound effects. However, the prominent machine gun fights and other violence also stirred controversy. Especially in France, the 'Sammy' stories were perceived as "extremely violent". The French censors specifically banned the episode 'Les Gorilles et le Roi Dollar' (1975) upon its initial book release, because it satirized corruption among politicians, police officers and other officials. Still, 'Sammy' managed to become a success both in Belgium and France, as well as other countries. In 1973, Berck won the Prix St. Michel for "Best Humor Artist" with the album 'Rhum Row'. The comic album 'Les Gorilles font les Fous' earned the authors the Prix Saint-Michel for "Best Humor Comic" two years later. 'Sammy' has been translated in many languages, including Dutch, Spanish, Turkish, Berber and Arabic, making Berck one of the few classic Flemish comic artists, along with Willy VandersteenMorris and William Vance, to have enjoyed an international career.

Sammy by Berck
'Sammy'.

Flemish comics
During his time at both Tintin and Spirou, Berck continued to work for the Flemish market. Between 1965 and 1983 he had an equally impressive output for the Catholic children's magazine Zonneland, published by Altoria in Averbode and edited by Nonkel Fons. To keep up with the production, he teamed up with fellow artist Leo Loedts under the banner "Studio Arle". After the stand-alone story 'Wim en Eric: De Verdwenen Sloep' (1965), they created the adventure kids gang comic 'De Zwartepinken' (1965-1972). Eleven serials were made in cooperation with scriptwriter Maurice Renders, which were also published in the French-language counterpart Tremplin. Zonneland had a fare more edifying tone than Spirou or even Tintin, and the stories reflected that. The publisher emphasized that the main heroes Marleen, Erik and Hugo are average kids with normal parents and normal homes, who have unusual adventures that cannot happen in real life. For Altoria's other magazine, Zonnekind, Arle made the serial 'De Vliegende Schildpad' ("The Flying Terrapin") in cooperation with scriptwriter R. Staelens.


'De Zwartepinken en de moderne zeerovers', by Studio Arle.

Berck and his co-workers continued to work for Zonneland until the early 1980s, making many illustrations and stand-alone comic serials. 'De Wrede Nacht van Huntington' (1974) and 'Balderham' (1975-1976) were based on stories by the Belgian novelist John Flanders, the five following serials were made in collaboration with scriptwriter Rik Puttemans. Raoul Cauvin is believed to be the anonymous scriptwriter of Berck's last three stories for the magazine, serialized between 1981 and 1983.

In 1965, Arle also made the comic 'De Familie Nopkes' with scriptwriter Jos Loedts for 't Kapoentje, the children's supplement of newspaper Het Volk. 'Kenton' (1965), about the misadventures of a Canadian mountie appeared in Ons Volkske, children's supplement of the weekly Ons Volk. It also appeared in French in Junior (Chez Nous). With scriptwriter Daniel Jansens, Berck made two adventures of the prehistoric giant 'Lombok' (1969-1971) for the newspaper Gazet van Antwerpen. This series was also published in the French language in Le Soir Jeunesse and Samedi Jeunesse.

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

De Donderpadjes
In 1971, Berck was one of the two Belgian artists recruited by editor Frans Buissink to spice up the Dutch comics magazine Sjors. Eddy Ryssack was already present with his 'Brammetje Bram' series. Berck was requested to draw the replacement for Roba's 'La Ribambelle' ('De Sliert'), that the magazine licensed from Dupuis. 'De Donderpadjes' (1971-1974) was a kids gang comic as well, this time starring a group of six boy scouts. All members had their own personality traits: the reporter-type (Sjakie), the chubby comic relief (Pietje), the talker (Kareltje), the handy-guy (Kees), the helpful one (Oene) and one who is unwillingly a boy scout (Jeroen). The names were changed for the reprints in the Flemish Zonneland. Four long stories were scripted by editor Rudy Jansen, who according to former boy scout Berck had no knowledge about scouting whatsoever. Luckily, the series was basically a straightforward humor comic.

Lowietje by Berck
Lowietje - 'Olympische Spelen'.

Lowietje
In 1974, Berck was requested to take care of the the replacement of Peyo's 'Benoît Brisefer' ('Steven Sterk') as well. This became 'Lowietje' (1974-1983), about an orphan boy who receives a major inheritance. The fortune comes with a butler called Jacob and the alcoholic seal Burp, who is replaced in the fifth story by the martian Skoebidoe. To keep his fortune, Lowietje has to carry out difficult tasks, otherwise his evil aunt Doortje will rake in the money. Of course, she does everything in her power to keep Lowietje from achieving his goals, aided by her two henchmen Teetje and Toffel. The original 'Lowietje' story was plotted by the Sjors editorial team, and then scripted by Piet Hein Broenland. 'Lowietje' was kept on board when the two comic magazines Sjors and Pep merged into Eppo in 1975. The editors would've rather acquired Berck's hit series 'Sammy', but were satisfied when Berck brought in Raoul Cauvin to write the new 'Lowietje' stories. This had to be done anonymously, however, because Cauvin was on Spirou's payroll, and not allowed to work for other publishers. 'Lowietje' continued until 1983. The stories were also reprinted in Zonneland, and appeared in French in Spirou under the title 'Lou'. Oberon published the Dutch book collections, Dupuis released the series in French.


Lowietje - 'Het Complot'.

Mischa
In 1972, Berck was additionally hired by Rolf Kauka in Germany to reboot the humor sci-fi series 'Mischa' in Primo magazine. The space hero was originally created for Fix und Foxi magazine, and drawn by Becker-Kasch, Walter Neugebauer and Ludwig Fischer between 1961 and 1967. The Berck version was situated in the earth satellite Terra II, where Mischa has to safeguard important research facilities. New characters were introduced, such as the French mouse Kiki and Professor Freiherr Wernbert von Bräunli, a former researcher who prefers to live in the Terra II jungle as a Tarzanesque drop-out. Adding a Franco-Belgian touch to this German comic series, Berck and his team worked on new stories until 1975. 'Mischa' was rebooted once again in 1982, this time drawn by Josep Marti.

Mischa, by Berck
'Mischa'.

Studio Berck
During the 1970s, Berck was at the top of his game. He worked simultaneously on 'Sammy' for Spirou, his series for Sjors magazine, his large production for Zonneland and on the German 'Mischa' feature. To keep up with this heavy workload, Berck gathered a team of assistants, which was unofficially dubbed "Studio Berck". First of all, Raoul Cauvin stood in for much of the scriptwork. He contributed to the Zonneland serials, as well as the 'Mischa' and 'Lowietje' stories. Artists that have worked for Berck were Francis, Guy Bollen, Lucien De Gieter, Armand Sorret, Hurey, Bédu and Willy Ophalvens. They provided inking duties, background art and also pencil work, not only for the secondary productions for Zonneland and Kauka, but also for 'Sammy' and 'Lowietje'. Berck's daughter Luut was responsible for the colors and lettering. Once, when Berck's shoulder was dislocated, François Walthéry acted as ghost artist for a few pages of 'Lowietje'. The duo Yann & Conrad have also worked for Berck at one point in their career. Jean-Pol on the other hand has never assisted Berck, even though this is often erroneously claimed.


Historical serials like 'De Opstand' (1981) from Zonneland were typical Studio Berck productions.

Vlaams Stripgilde
By working for a variety of magazines and publishers, Berck had a good overall sense of the comic book industry. Fuelled by his boy scout mentality, he was a strong advocate for author's rights and fair page rates. This was the drive to establish the guild of Flemish comic artists (De Vlaamse Onafhankelijke Stripgilde), together with Danny De Laet and Eddy Ryssack, in the fall of 1978. Ryssack served as its first president, while Berck delved into a collective insurance for the guild members. Among the other (founding) members were Dani Dacquin, John Bultinck, Hec Leemans, Merho and Marc Sleen. In 1980 Yvan Delporte founded the Upchic (Union Professionelle des Créateurs d’Histoires en Images et de Cartoons), the first special interest organisation for Belgian comics artists, which served as the Walloon counterpart to the Stripgilde.

Retirement and death
Arthur Berckmans continued to draw new 'Sammy' stories for Spirou throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, while steadily dropping his other activities. Additional comics in the 1980s were the title strip of Vittorio Leonardo's short-lived magazine Job (three issues in 1984) and four advertising comics with the crime story 'Het H.A.P.-Mysterie' (1987), created by Berck and Cauvin for De Ruijters chocolate sprinkles. He retired in 1994, after 31 albums, and sold his part of the rights to the publisher Dupuis. Cauvin continued the series for nine additional albums with Jean-Pol as Berck's successor.

Following his retirement, Dupuis collected the Berck stories in ten luxury 'Tout Sammy' volumes (1994-1998). In the 21st century, several of Berck's other comics were collected in new book series, mainly for a small, Dutch-language audience. Arcadia released hardcover editions of 'Lowietje' in 2009-2010, while Peter Bonte collected Berck's more obscure serials for Zonneland in black-and-white limited editions in 2013. In 2016, Bonte also collected Berck's 'Rataplan' stories in the books 'Hansje Integraal'. In French, BD Must published landscape-shaped book collections of 'Ken Krom', 'Viva Panchico', 'Kenton' and 'Lady Bound' in 2010, and La Vache qui Médite published limited editions of 'Mulligan' and 'De Donderpadjes' ('La Patrouille des Astucieux').

Unfortunately, Berck didn't live to see the launch of the new Dutch-language collection with all 'Sammy' stories, set to be released by Saga Uitgaven in 2021. The veteran cartoonist passed away in his retirement home on the morning of 28 December 2020. He was 91 years old.

Recognition
Arthur Berckmans goes down in history as one of the grandmasters of Flemish comics, whose popularity has extended way beyond the Dutch-speaking regions. His vivid drawing style has been labelled as the "School of Louven", with Jean-Pol and Bédu as main followers. For his entire body of work, Berck was awarded the Bronzen Adhemar, the most prestigious Flemish comics prize, in 1985. Berck initially wanted to refuse the award, feeling he should have received it earlier in his career, but he eventually warmed up to it. 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). 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.


Berck and his characters.

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