De Rode Ridder, by Karel Biddeloo
De Rode Ridder #116 - 'In De Witte Hel'.

Karel Biddeloo was a Flemish comics artist, best remembered as the fourth and longest-running artist to continue Willy Vandersteen's knight comics series 'De Rode Ridder' (1959). With 36 years on his resumé (1969-2004) he put his personal stamp on it like nobody else before or after did. He created new recurring characters such as the diabolical wizard Bahaal, the good fairy Galaxa and her demonic counterpart Demonia. Inspired by U.S. action comics Biddeloo used more dynamic lay-out and panels, which were quite innovative in Belgian comics at the time. Under his pen 'De Rode Ridder' evolved into sword & sorcery. Horror and eroticism became more blatant, which led to accusations that the series had turned into pulp. Others felt Biddeloo brought back excitement to a bland studio project. Whether one loved or hated his work Biddeloo did manage to turn 'De Rode Ridder' into a bestseller. Even after Vandersteen's and his own death it remains the longest-running Vandersteen comic apart from 'Suske en Wiske'. Biddeloo's version still enjoys a cult following today, though also because of its unintentional camp appeal.

Early life
Karel Biddeloo was born in 1943 in Wuustwezel, but spent some of his early years in Congo, which was still a Belgian colony at the time. He studied graphic arts at the Instituut voor Sierkunsten en Ambachten in Antwerp, where, a few grades back, Ron van Riet was one of his fellow pupils. Willy Vandersteen was naturally one of Biddeloo's main graphic influences, but he also drew inspiration from Jack Kirby, Frank Frazetta, novelists like Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber and Michael Moorcock and magazines like Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella. Later in life Biddeloo was pen pal with legendary bondage artist Eric Stanton. Their correspondence resulted in a couple of erotic mail-order comic booklets, which Biddeloo signed with "Joreb". From a young age Biddeloo showed graphic talent, but one of his teachers felt he was useless, going so far to state that "in the future 'being as dumb as Biddeloo' will become a saying." In a 2005 interview with Van Riet, conducted by Ronald Grossey for his book 'Studio Vandersteen. Kroniek van een Legende' (2005), the artist had the impression that this negative feedback severely traumatized Biddeloo. He always tried to prove his talent to others.


Biggles #15 - 'Barracuda Schaakmat'.

Studio Vandersteen
After graduation Biddeloo worked for an insurance company, a printing company and as advertising illustrator for the Grand Bazar department stores. A friend introduced him to Willy Vandersteen and from February 1967 on Biddeloo became a studio employee of Vandersteen's Studio Bessy in the Gretrystraat in Antwerp. He was placed in the team under command of Karel Verschuere, where Edgard Gastmans, Edward De Rop and Frank Sels were his co-workers. Accompanied by about four inkers, they were responsible for the production of a weekly full episode of the Wild West series 'Bessy' for the German publisher Bastei Verlag. However, Biddeloo's tenure with Andy and his Scotch Collie Bessy didn't last long.

Halfway 1967 Sels and Gastmans complained to Vandersteen that Verschuere missed his deadlines too often and strongly insisted firing him. So it happened, but Biddeloo was laid off too. His mother paid Vandersteen a visit and asked him to at least let Biddeloo stay until the end of his contract. During these three months he proved his talent and reliability. Biddeloo was not only rehired, but even promoted! In Vandersteen's Kalmthout studio, Biddeloo assumed inking duties over 'Karl May' (1962-1977) and 'Biggles' (1965-1970). 'Karl May' was another western series, based on the popular 'Old Shatterhand and Winnetou' stories by German novelist Karl May. 'Biggles' was loosely based on W.E. Johns' eponymous R.A.F. aviator. After the thirteenth story, 'Objectief Boomerang' (1967), Biddeloo took over 'Biggles' completely and continued it for two years. When 'Biggles' was cancelled, Biddeloo worked on Vandersteen's short-lived jungle adventure series 'Safari' (1969-1974), which was inspired by the popular TV series 'Daktari' (1966-1969). But the series the artist liked best was 'De Rode Ridder' (1959).


Safari #2 - 'De Verboden Jacht'.

De Rode Ridder: before Biddeloo
'De Rode Ridder' was originally a Flemish children's novel series, prepublished from 1946 on in De Kleine Zondagsvriend, a Sunday juvenile supplement in the newspaper Gazet van Antwerpen. It featured the adventures of Johan, a heroic knight dressed in red, and his loyal squire Koenraad. The original stories were written by Leopold Vermeiren and illustrated by a pseudonymous artist named "Jan de Simpele", later followed by Paul Ausloos and Karel Verschuere. Willy Vandersteen had a soft spot for historical adventure stories and therefore wanted to adapt 'De Rode Ridder' into a comic strip. Since Verschuere already worked in his studio this seemed to be an easy deal, but De Zuidnederlandse Uitgeverij owned the rights. Antoon Sap, publisher at NV Standaard Boekhandel, solved the problem by simply signing Vermeiren under their contract instead. The novelist green-lighted the comic strip adaptation, but preferred his name to be left off the credits because he also worked as a school inspector. Therefore he couldn't afford to be associated with comics, which still had a derogatory public image at the time. For the same reason his occasional scriptwriting for Jef Nys' 'Jommeke' also stayed anonymous. Vermeiren furthermore only gave permission to use Johan, none of his other characters. As a result the novels and comics don't take place in the same universe. This gave Vandersteen creative freedom to write his own stories around a pre-existing concept, something he'd always been excellent in. The only similarity between the two, other than the name and title hero, was that Vermeiren changed his protagonist's black hair colour into blonde on the book covers so he'd resemble Johan from the comics more. Decades later Biddeloo gave Vermeiren a cameo in the album 'De Koningmaker' (1990) as Leopold van IJsendijck.


Illustration by Karel Biddeloo for 'De Nijlkrokodillen' by Leopold Vermeiren (1988).

The first episode of 'De Rode Ridder' was prepublished in De Standaard on 5 November 1959. The early stories betrayed the influence (and occasional artwork) of Harold Foster's 'Prince Valiant'. Johan is a lonely knight roaming through woods and fields, fighting for justice. Later he becomes a Knight of the Round Table and serves under King Arthur and Queen Guinevere. The story 'King Arthur' (1964) introduced Merlin the wizard, who'd remain a regular cast member in 'De Rode Ridder' afterwards. The first story, 'Het Gebroken Zwaard' (1959), was mostly written and illustrated by Vandersteen's studio employees based on a small synopsis he left behind before he embarked on a long voyage to South East Asia. The maestro wrote and drew the second story, 'De Gouden Sporen' (1960), completely on his own. Afterwards he took a seat back and concentrated on album cover design and script writing while his assistants did most of the artwork. His son Bob Vandersteen drew backgrounds for the first three 'Rode Ridder' stories. Karel Verschuere, Edward De Rop and Frank Sels worked on the albums throughout most of the 1960s. This also explains why there was no real focus. Some stories take place in different era of the Middle Ages, often centuries apart from one another! Sometimes the tone is realistic, while other times Johan meets dragons, witches, fairies, gnomes and wizards. The knight travels through Continental Europe, but his horse occasionally brings him as far as Scandinavia, Iraq, Cambodia, Korea, China or Japan. Since the studio employees had to work on other series too and rush everything out for publication occasional sloppy work was unavoidable. Off-model drawings, mistakes in spelling, continuity, proportion or perspective were rampant. The infamous album 'De Zwarte Roos' (1968) has often been cited as the worst executed 'Rode Ridder' story.

But through it all Vandersteen's storytelling talent shined through. The adventures were captivating, suspenseful and overall epic. It helped 'De Rode Ridder' become a bestseller. Vermeiren's original novels also sold better as a result, even though the comic strip adaptation completely overshadowed them. In the late 1970s the 'Rode Ridder' novels were illustrated by Chris Fonteyn and Stef van Stiphout, followed by Robert Wuyts during the early 1980s. Even Karel Biddeloo himself illustrated a few books, namely 'Aspis, de gifslang' (1980), 'Het Griekse Vuur' (1981), 'De Magische Ring' (1981), 'Dodenvallei' (1987), 'De Wraak van de Farao' (1987), 'De Nijlkrokodillen' (1988), 'De Wurgslang' (1988), 'De Betoverde Ringen' (1995) and 'In De Spookstad Petra' (2000). His fellow comics artists Ronald van Riet and Marvano also served as book illustrators and a few reprints were illustrated by Jeff Broeckx. Marck Meul furthermore wrote a couple of stories. Vermeiren kept publishing new novels until his death in 2005. In 2013 'De Rode Ridder' novels were rebooted by Marc Legendre, who wrote two new books.

De Rode Ridder by Karel Biddeloo
De Rode Ridder - 'De Drie Huurlingen' (1969).

'De Rode Ridder': the Biddeloo era
The first 'Rode Ridder' comic Biddeloo worked on was 'De Wilde Jacht' (1968), albeit just as an assistant-inker. He became the main inker and illustrator from 'De Verzonken Klok' (1968) on. With 'De Barst in de Ronde Tafel' (1969) Biddeloo made his debut as co-scriptwriter. The plot revolves around a crack in the Round Table, which causes trouble and ultimately division among Arthur's knights. The same story also introduced a new recurring character, Bahaal, also created by Biddeloo. Bahaal, Prince of Darkness, is a demonic wizard who'd remain Johan's major nemesis for the rest of the series. Vandersteen was very pleased with Biddeloo's gift for storytelling. Most of his studio employees were excellent draftsmen, but rarely great on ideas. Up to that point he seriously considered terminating 'De Rode Ridder', even killing off Johan in his next story. Instead he axed off 'Biggles' and let Biddeloo continue 'De Rode Ridder'. Biddeloo's first complete story was 'Drie Huurlingen' (1969). He would continue illustrating 'De Rode Ridder' for the next 36 years. It should also be mentioned that Biddeloo kept helping out with other studio series 'Safari' and 'Karl May' until both were cancelled. Luckily he wasn't completely alone either. Vandersteen's son Bob sometimes helped him out. Biddeloo's brother Dirk occasionally penned scripts as well. Dirk Biddeloo furthermore gave Vandersteen the idea for the 'Suske en Wiske' story 'De Kale Kapper' (1970-1971). And despite leaving the series in the hands of his successor Willy Vandersteen exceptionally wrote one more 'Rode Ridder' story afterwards: 'Het Dodenschip' (1974).


De Rode Ridder #41 - 'De Laatste Droom'.

Cast expansion
Biddeloo quickly put 'De Rode Ridder' to his own hand. He designed the iconic image of Johan swinging his sword, which appeared on the back cover of every 'Rode Ridder' story since 'De Koraalburcht' (1972). Johan, Merlijn and Bahaal remained part of the main cast, but he also created new major characters. In 'Excalibur' (1971) Bahaal's equally demonic son Qrandar is introduced. 'De Toverspiegel' (1973) marked the debut of Galaxa, "Fairy of the Light". Her evil counterpart, Demoniah, the femme fatale servant of Bahaal, was first introduced in 'De Leeuw van Vlaanderen' (1984). Biddeloo gave Johan and his friends a home base in the album 'De Heren van Rode' (1989), where they settle down in the castle of Horst. The real-life castle of Horst in Sint-Pieters-Rode, Flemish Brabant, was the inspiration. The medieval society 'De Pynnockridders' often held meetings there. Biddeloo was a member too, cosplaying as "knight Karel de Montabour". He made Karel de Montabour a recurring self caricature in 'De Rode Ridder' from 'De Heren van Rode' on. Another self portrait can be found in the guise of assassin Kilyon in 'De Vete' (1977). Biddeloo also gave himself a cameo in the 'Safari' story 'De Motorrijder' and a few 'Karl May' stories.


De Rode Ridder #105 - 'De Bewaker'.

Stylistic innovation
In 1972 'De Rode Ridder' was briefly removed from Het Nieuwsblad and De Standaard to make room for Vandersteen's new series 'Robert en Bertrand'. His adventures were transferred to Pats, the weekly children's supplement of both papers. There Biddeloo had a full page at his command instead of a mere two strips. He took the opportunity to drastically change his lay-out. Inspired by American, British, Spanish and Italian action and horror comics he changed the panel size and enlarged his illustrations. Rather than use the traditional four strips-per-page format it became less easy to tell how many strips one 'Rode Ridder' page counted? Actions became more dynamic by having characters' hands, legs, swords and arrows jump out of the panels. It gave his work a more three-dimensional, dynamic and lively look, which was unique in Belgian comics at the time. However, just as Biddeloo was experimenting, De Standaard informed him that due to enormous readers' request 'De Rode Ridder' would return to the funny pages in Het Nieuwsblad and De Standaard again. He was asked to quickly conclude his story in Pats, so a new 'Rode Ridder' story could start in the papers. To hurry things up Biddeloo held on to his new lay-out and larger illustrations. Rather than draw complicated scenes out he used photocopies of castles, ships or even drawings he used before and pasted the imagery in his panels. When 'De Rode Ridder' made its spectacular comeback to the real papers again Biddeloo kept using this new style and made it his trademark.


Biddeloo used photographs for the depiction of the Horst castle and other buildings and landscapes, and the likeness of Flemish comedian Urbanus for the nar Urban ('De Heren Van Rode', album #131).

In terms of content 'De Rode Ridder' also underwent some major changes. The series evolved into sword and sorcery, influenced by genre novels, comics and films. Biddeloo was a huge cinephile and wrote articles and drew caricatures about the subject for Jet-Magazine under the pseudonym "Bik". For the same publication he once interviewed Charlton Heston. Many plots of 'Rode Ridder' stories were inspired by B-movies. 'De Riviergod' (1976) reminds of 'Godzilla', while the sharks in 'De Ster van het Oosten' (1977) and 'Heerser der Diepten' (1981) took their mustard from 'Jaws'. The gold mine plot in 'De Bewaker' (1981) was inspired by 'The Shadow of Chikara' (1977), while 'Vrykolakas' (1985) was largely based on the horror movie 'The Keep' (1983). The giant woman in 'Gorgonia' (2001) appears to have been lifted from 'Attack Of The 50 Foot Woman' (1956). 'Nosferatu' (1921) and 'Der Golem (1920) were obviously the model for 'Nosferatu' (2002) and 'De Golem' (2002). The 'Rode Ridder' story 'De Leeuw van Vlaanderen' (1984) cashed in on the then current movie adaptation of Hendrik Conscience's novel 'De Leeuw van Vlaanderen' by Hugo Claus, going so far to model Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninck after the actors who played them in that movie: Jan Decleir and Julien Schoenaerts. John Massis' character Leroux from the same movie is caricatured too. The twin sisters in 'De Monsterman' (1983) were based on Marilyn Monroe, while Urban the nar in 'Stille Getuigen' (1986), 'De Heren van Rode' (1989) and 'De Slag Bij Woeringen' (1989) caricatured comedian Urbanus. Galaxa's physical features were based on Austrian actress Senta Berger, while Demoniah's looks were lifted from Sophia Loren and Barbara Stock (best known as Cliff Barnes' girlfriend in 'Dallas').

Biddeloo loved science fiction too. In 'De Vluchtelingen' (1978) and 'Karpax de Stalen Man' (1978) robots and extraterrestrials appeared in the series, obviously influenced by the success of 'Star Wars'. As movies became gorier and bloodier, 'De Rode Ridder' went along with the times. Rather than draw silly cartoony monsters Biddeloo gave them quite creepy designs. Characters were frequently killed off in gruesome ways. Even though the series never became too gory the macabre atmosphere and violence surprised and shocked quite some Belgian comics readers at the time. But it also appealed to young readers who were tired of all the other safe and bland children's comics.

De Rode Ridder by Karel Biddeloo
De Rode Ridder - 'De Vluchtelingen' (1978).

Eroticism
Another reason why 'De Rode Ridder' gained a cult following was the sly eroticism. Together with Hec Leemans' 'Bakelandt' (1975) it was infamous for being quite sexually suggestive. From 'De Hamer van Thor' (1970) on young, attractive, voluptuous women in revealing dresses started to increase. Some even skip around in highly anachronistic mini-skirts. Actual sex was never depicted, but the women in 'De Rode Ridder' did show a lot of skin. Such degree of eroticism was unprecedented in Flemish comics, particularly in a family comic published in a daily newspaper. Though it must be said that in comparison with 'Bakelandt' actual nudity only appeared twice in the entire series. In 'De Witte Hel' (1986) empress Amargith is bare-breasted, while in 'Necronomicon' (1987) Demoniah takes off her clothes. Still it was enough to make 'De Rode Ridder' one of the most talked-about comics of the time. Vandersteen wasn't very fond of this element. He frequently asked Biddeloo to tone it down, sometimes personally drawing a bit more cloth around the bodies. But the young artist kept finding new ways to "accidentally" rip off dresses in the appropriate places.


'Necronomicon' (1987).

None personified it better than Galaxa and Demoniah. In many stories they each try to seduce the gullible knight. Johan loves Galaxa, but since she is a fairy she can never stay in the mortal world for long. Demoniah is a genuine femme fatale. She often exploits Johan naiveté and ties him around her finger. In 'Gilgamesj' (1986) Demoniah is tied up, teasing Johan to "liberate her". Johan is aware that she is evil and only wants to eliminate him. Yet they feel a mutual attraction to one another and can never bring themselves to kill one another off for good. And thus Johan finds himself in a vicious circle. A platonic ménage-à-trois where two sex bombs have cat fights over him while he struggles to suppress his urges.

The sexy women in 'De Rode Ridder' might be explained by the fact that Biddeloo was a long-time bachelor. As written before he often gave his female characters the physical features of famous film actresses. He had several scrapbooks full with pictures. One of them was not devoted to a Hollywood starlet, but princess Caroline of Monaco. When he gave an Amazone in 'Xanador' (1981) Caroline's looks his colleagues joked that he ought to send a copy of the comic to the Royal Palace of Monaco to ask permission. Biddeloo actually did it, sending the scrapbook along with it. Weeks later princess Grace's private secretary sent back a letter. It stated that Her Highness thanked for the interest in her daughter, but that it was kind of difficult to have her appear in a comic book. Nevertheless the image stayed in the comic without any legal consequences.

It took until halfway the 1980s before he finally met the woman of his life: Ursula (sometimes spelled Urslla) Lundmark. From 1987 on she became his colorist and provided the Swedish dialogue in 'De Duinenabdij' (1987). They married in 1989. Lundmark was also Biddeloo's moral support. Once the artist had severely hurt his right wrist when his own dog ran him over. The fall severely hurt his drawing hand, just when he had to meet several deadlines. Ursula therefore held his hand to soften the pain, so he could continue drawing.


De Rode Ridder #125 - 'Medusa'.

Criticism
Biddeloo was often accused of reducing the series into pulp. Sensational action, horror and eroticism became the comic strip's major selling point. Several people felt the series jumped the shark once extraterrestrials and robots were introduced in two albums. The endless affairs and catfights between Johan, Galaxa and Demoniah resembled a campy soap opera. Equally ridiculous were the B-movie level monsters, witches, wizards, zombies, gnomes, demons, werewolves, mummies, dragons, vampires and giant beasts. A few verged on silliness, such as fish-faced monster men ('De Koraalburcht', 1972), colossal shrimps ('De Terugkeer', 1971) and a cross between an ant and a caterpillar ('De Maagdenburcht', 1983). Many storylines recycled the same clichés. In his wonderfully funny book 'Geheimzinnige Sterren' (1996) author Rik Pareit noticed that in Biddeloo's stories Johan's horse has a tendency of dying once per album. The knight is quite preachy when it comes to telling other people how they should behave, yet isn't all-knowing either. Time and time again he fails to recognize his enemies when they wear a paper-thin disguise. Another formulaic plot element are arrows hitting characters in the back. Pareit observed that both the action itself as well as the accompanying sentence tend to be staged in the same way. Usually among the lines of: "Suddenly an arrow hits [name] and he crashes down with a raw/loud yell."


'De Maagdenburcht' (1983).

Biddeloo defended himself that he was merely an entertainer who just wanted to give his readers some escapism. He saw no reason to put of lot of care and precision in his work, even if he wanted, because he had to whip it out at such a high production rate. It also explains why Biddeloo occasionally recycled plotlines and imagery from his older stories and, more controversially, from other comics. Kalidiah and Kogorka in 'De Duivelszee' (1979) were modelled after two characters from the 'Batman and Aquaman' comic 'The Best of the Brave and the Bold 3' (1969) by Bob Haney and Neal Adams. Hans van Adrichem proved in issue 133 (March 1980) of Stripschrift that the monster Grawwar in 'De Beelden van Djomaz' (1979) was plagiarized from Larry Ivie and Frank Frazetta's comic book 'Werewolf'. Biddeloo admitted that the "inspiration from the work of colleagues had been a bit too much", yet added: "Can the artist without 'copy sins' throw the first stone at me?"

Vandersteen came to Biddeloo's defense about the accusations of declining quality. Quite some old-time fans abandoned the series, yet others actually loved this new direction. The maestro stressed that sales of 'De Rode Ridder' had actually increased tenfold over the years. Marc Sleen, who sometimes jokingly referenced the nudity of 'De Rode Ridder' in his own comic strip 'Nero', also liked Biddeloo. He gave him a cameo as a cowboy in the 'Nero' stories 'De P.P. Safari' (1979-1980) and 'Het Monster van Sarawak' (1982). Biddeloo returned the nod by giving Jan Borluut from Ghent in 'De Leeuw van Vlaanderen' (1984) Sleen's looks, since the comics legend was also born in Ghent.


'De Leeuw van Vlaanderen' (1983), featuring a caricature of Belgian politician José Happart. 

Personality
While 'De Rode Ridder' was dramatic in tone Biddeloo was well known for not taking things too seriously. He loved giving certain celebrities a cameo for fun, like the aforementioned movie stars and Marc Sleen. In 'De Heren van Rode' he gave notorious quack doctor Herman Le Compte a small role, while Albert Einstein appears as 'Dr. Alberstein' in 'De Zwarte Toren' (1987). In 'De Leeuw van Vlaanderen' (1983) the artist even indulged in a rare bit of political satire when one of the French knights attacked by Flemish peasants happens to be a caricature of José Happart, the then-major of Voeren who was controversial for his refusal to learn Dutch despite Belgian language laws. Some side characters in 'De Rode Ridder' are played for laughs, like the bickering alchemists Jork and Muulsh in 'De Verrader van Yarkand' (1975), 'De Ster van Het Oosten' (1976) and 'De Scharlaken Brigade' (1982). In 'De Galeislaaf' (1977) Storkas the barbarian and his tall tales about his "adventures" were another example of Biddeloo's comedic side. A running gag is the self-important and loud-mouthed Yacki (occasionally spelled as "Jakke", "Yakki", "Jacqui", "Shaky" and "Dzaky" too). This ridiculous little bragger reappeared in several albums from 'Xanador' (1981) on and was based on a teacher Biddeloo used to know. Some of the short 'Rode Ridder' stories Biddeloo made for special occasions were also deliberately silly. Sleen and Hec Leemans once drew a few characters on page 18 of 'Het Dievengilde' (1980) as a joke. The break in style might've been noticed by some readers, but certainly not everybody.


Stories for seasonal books were often a parody of the series itself, full with anachronisms ('Een droomvakantie voor De Rode Ridder', Zee Zon Zand Stripboek, 1986).

Many of Biddeloo's colleagues remember him as a jokester and a prankster. At Studio Vandersteen he loved to fool his co-workers or have them play out humoristic stories, which he photographed scene by scene. Afterwards he puzzled the snapshots together to make photo comics. As mentioned before Biddeloo was a member of the medieval society De Pynnockridders in Horst, but later left them in favour of another similar medieval-themed club, de Tempelierridders. Oddly enough for someone associated with comics about knights he was also a huge western fan. Biddeloo was a member of a gun shooting club and two western-themed clubs: Arizona Ranch in Halle-Zoersel and El Paso in Wuustwezel. For years El Paso was a small street designed to look like a western village. Tourists could come and watch cowboy performance acts there, while TV crews often used the setting for cowboy-themed sketches and/or music videos. Naturally Biddeloo did cosplay too. His stage name was "Johnny Reb" (or "Johnny Rebel") and his moustache and black costume made him look like cowboy actor Lee van Cleef. Yet it was far from a risk-free hobby. In 1972 Biddeloo fell of a roof during a stage act and had a broken wrist. Eugeen Goossens, Edward De Rop, Eric De Rop, Merho and Vandersteen himself had to finish the 'Rode Ridder' story 'De Verborgen Berg' (1972) until Biddeloo had recovered. In 1988 Biddeloo was accidentally shot in the eye. He was hospitalized for four days. Even though it was only loose powder it damaged his eyesight with 50 percent. When he left the hospital he was deeply hurt by the fact that Studio Vandersteen had already been looking for a permanent replacement to continue the series... He never forgot the incident.

Karel Biddeloo as Johnny Rebel
Karel Biddeloo as Johnny Reb (from Brabant Strip Magazine 191).

Difficult relation with the studio
This was by far not Biddeloo's only unpleasant experience with his bosses. Despite its success 'De Rode Ridder' remained the only Studio Vandersteen series to still appear in black-and-white. Vandersteen felt that since children bought the series, rather than their parents, the price had to be cheap. It wasn't until 'De Levende Doden' (1983) that 'De Rode Ridder' finally appeared in colour. At the same occasion Biddeloo's name was mentioned in the credits, an honour other Studio Vandersteen members didn't receive. Originally Marita Bayens and Hannelore Vantieghem were the colorists, but by 1987 Biddeloo's wife Ursula Lundmark took this job upon her. Within a decade computer colorizing made its entrance. Like many people at the time she had a tough job adapting to this new modern technology. More than once they lost hours of work by hitting the wrong button. In 1998 she had enough and left the colorizing to Vantieghem again.

Biddeloo often tried to convince Standaard Uitgeverij to organize more media events, but since 'Suske en Wiske' was their cash cow they were more willing to invest in that series. Only once did they actually grant him his request, at the occasion of the 200th album 'Oude Vijanden' (2003). When the album 'Olavinlinna' (2003) came out Biddeloo went so far to organize a press meeting on his own, paid out of his own pocket. The script was written by Martin Hofman, host of a 'Rode Ridder' fansite. Since the story took place in Finland, Biddeloo held the event in the Finnish church in Antwerp. He'd obtained a devil throne, which was a prop used by the Norwegian black metal band Ancient during their European tour. In an interview with Hofman, Ursula said that it actually amused Biddeloo that he was seated on a Satanic throne in a church. The press meeting was quite a success and even Antwerp mayor Leona Detiège paid an official visit.

Nevertheless Biddeloo kept suffering under the high production tempo. From 'De Holle Aarde' (1997) on, the amount of pages was reduced from 34 to 30. Yet this didn't relieve his tension. Rather than draw four albums a year he was now expected to publish six! Predictably this had a negative effect on the overall quality. Artwork and plotlines started to get a rushed-out feeling. For fans of unintentional comedy these stories were a goldmine worth of drawing mistakes, recycled narratives and odd, unresolved transitions. But the stress started to take its toll. The two-parter 'Reis naar Atlantis' (1997) and 'Magiërs van Atlantis' (1997) was such a mess that both De Standaard and Het Nieuwsblad decided to quit their prepublications. Biddeloo was strongly advised to reduce the amount of eroticism and bring the series back to the roots. Yet without the prepublication album sales went further downhill.


A more cartoony Biddeloo than usual in 'Het Geheim van de Kousenband' (2001).

Graphic contributions
Biddeloo was one of several former Bronzen Adhemar winners to make a graphic contribution to 'Marc Sleen. Een uitgave van de Bronzen Adhemar Stichting' (1993), which paid homage to Marc Sleen. In 2001 Biddeloo was one of several comics artists to make a graphic contribution to the cross-over album 'Het Geheim van de Kousenband' (2001), where various series of Standaard Uitgeverij appear together in one album, drawn by the respective artists themselves. Apart from him Marc Sleen, Dirk Stallaert, Merho, Hec Leemans, Marc Legendre, Paul Geerts and Urbanus & Willy Linthout also drew some pages.

Recognition
In 1979 Karel Biddeloo became the third artist to receive a Bronzen Adhemar, the most prestigious Flemish comics prize. In 1996 a comic book mural depicting De Rode Ridder was erected in Hasselt. On 21 Augustus 2009 De Rode Ridder received a statue in Middelkerke, where the annual Comics Festival is held. A month later, on 27 September, Biddeloo received a statue of his own in his birth city Wuustwezel. He is one of the few Belgian comics artists to be honoured this way, as in most cases characters receive a sculpture, not the actual creators. Another statue for De Rode Ridder was erected on 12 October that same year in Sint-Pauwels.

Death
In 2004 Biddeloo felt a pain in his right arm, which he suppressed with pain killers to keep on working. His 205th album, 'Het Scheepskerkhof', was partially finished by his wife Ursula, even correcting a few mistakes here and there. By that time the comics veteran was already gravely ill. He turned out to have lung and bone cancer, to which he succumbed that same year. He was 60 years old. His funeral was attended by his many friends and colleagues. As a special tribute an actor dressed up as De Rode Ridder also attended the service.

After Biddeloo's death Dutch comics artist Martin Lodewijk, of 'Agent 327' fame, became the series' new writer while Claus Scholz provided illustration work. In 2012 Marc Legendre became co-writer. Since 2016 Italian artist Fabio Bono is the series' new illustrator. He took the opportunity to give the always clean-shaven Johan a stubble.


The Jozeph Aldenzee single about De Rode Ridder from 1984.

Cultural impact
Thanks to Biddeloo's successful run 'De Rode Ridder' remained a bestseller for decades. In Belgium and the Netherlands it's arguably the most famous knight comic. Attempts have been made to translate 'De Rode Ridder' into different languages. 'De Levende Doden' (1983) appeared in English, but failed to find a market there. The series was also translated in German as 'Der Rote Ritter' by Wick Comics, but in limited copies. Some merchandising was created around the franchise as well. The album 'De Overlevenden' (1984) came with a musical single, sang by Joseph Aldenzee. This 'Rode Ridder' song also received a low-budget music video in which TV star Bart Peeters played Johan with the help of a blond wig. In 2004 a 'Rode Ridder'-themed CD-ROM game, 'Gebroken Kracht' was issued. In 1990 an official fan club was established, "De Orde van de Rode Ridder", which came with its own three monthly club magazine. An official subscription card could be found inside 'De Slag van Woeringen' (1990).

In 1990 Ronald Grossey and Marvano came up with a more adult take on the series, modelled after Frank Miller's reboot of the 'Batman' franchise, in 'The Dark Knight Returns'. Their version, 'Red Knight', was fiercely criticized by readers and thus never received a sequel. Even Biddeloo disliked it. In hindsight the idea was probably to far ahead of its time, seeing that two decades later 'Amoras' (2013), an adult reimagining of 'Suske en Wiske', did manage to find an audience. In 2017 the old idea of modernizing 'De Rode Ridder' was dusted off, but by changing the knight into a biker named 'Red Rider'. Cartoonist Lectrr wrote the script, while Stedho illustrated the story.

Parody
Like any famous franchise 'De Rode Ridder' has been an irresistible target for parody, particularly because of its dry, serious tone, archaic "medieval" language and camp appeal. But also since the high production level resulted in many unintentionally funny plotlines, continuity errors and drawing mistakes. In 1996 Matthias Sercu played Johan as a campy, effeminate knight nicknamed 'De Roze Ridder' ('The Pink Knight') in the episode 'Kitsch en Kunst' of Bart De Pauw's TV sketch show 'Buiten de Zone'. In the early 2000s Jeroom created 'Ridder Bauknecht' whose physical appearance is a deliberately bad copy of Johan's looks. His sidekick, 'Frans de Dode Ridder' ('Frans the Dead Knight') was another nod. Tom Bouden and Kim Duchateau made another homosexual version named 'Herman de Lichtrode Ridder' ('Herman, the Slightly Red Knight', 2003). In the 2010s illustrator Pascal Agotha create an anti-hero named 'Nahoj, de Groene Ridder' ('Nahoj, the Green Knight'), while Geinz and Jean Deras came up with 'De Rode Ruiter' ('The Red Horseman') on the comics information site www.stripelmagazine.be.


'The Escape', one of Biddeloo's erotic mail-order comics under the pen name Joreb.

As written before Marc Sleen caricatured Biddeloo twice in his 'Nero' series, but Hec Leemans also gave Biddeloo a cameo in the 'Bakelandt' story 'Op Leven en Dood' (1980). In the 'Rode Ridder' story 'De Sluier van Wuustwezel' (2009) both Biddeloo and his wife Ursula are caricatured by Claus Scholz. Biddeloo can also be spotted in strip 214 of the 'Suske en Wiske' story 'De Briesende Bruid' (1968-1969), when tante Sidonia leaves the city hall after being married. He and colleagues Eugeen Goossens and Lucienne Van Deun can be seen in the background. 

Books about Karel Biddeloo
For people interested in Biddeloo's life and career 'Johnny en Ik. Herinneringen aan Karel Biddeloo' (2012) by comics expert Danny De Laet is a must-read. A very thorough essay is 'De Rode Ridder Story' (2011), written by Ivo De Wispelaere, Bert Gevaert and David Steenhuyse for www.stripspeciaalzaak.be. The most hilarious analysis of Biddeloo's 'De Rode Ridder' can be found in Rik Pareit's book 'Geheimzinnige Sterren' (1996).


Karel and Ursula Biddeloo have important roles as Lady Urssla and Karel De Montabour in 'De Sluier van Wuustwezel', written by Martin Lodewijk and drawn by Claus D. Scholz.

www.roderidder.nl

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