Flemish artist Arthur Berckmans, who used the pseudonym Berck, was born in Leuven in 1929. 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'. 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.
Berckmans then became a clerk in a Jesuit monastery in Leuven. While he disliked the boring work, it did provide him with the opportunity to make religious drawings for their monthly magazine Pro Apostolis between 1948 and 1952. He also published his first professional comics stories here, 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. Berckmans continued to illustrate the books by the Leuven-based Jesuites until 1956.
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'.
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. Together with writer Yves Duval, he began a second series called 'Rataplan', about a little drummer boy in Napoleon's army in 1961. Berck and Duval additionally made a couple of oneshot comics, such as 'Panchico' (1963), 'Ken Krom' (1966) and 'Lady Bound' (1967).
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.
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 New York towboat captain 'Mulligan', written by Raymond Macherot and Yvan Delporte. However, it was the gangster series 'Sammy' that became his most famous creation. 'Sammy', written by Raoul Cauvin, first appeared in 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. While the series is humoristic 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 initital 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 Humoristic 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.
While drawing 'Sammy', Berck also worked extensively for publishers and papers from the Netherlands, Flanders and Germany. He created the daily comic about pre-historic 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 boyscout 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).
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 of 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 W. 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.
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.
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.