Bob van den Born was a Dutch cartoonist best known for his pantomime gag comic 'Professor Pi' (1954-1965). It has been translated worldwide, making Van den Born one of the few Dutch comics artists to have enjoyed an international career. He was furthermore active as a painter, illustrator and caricaturist.

Bob van den Born was born in Amsterdam in 1927. He studied at the Rijks Normaalschool to become a graphic teacher, but preferred drawing comics rather than teaching. Among his graphic influences were Saul Steinberg, Honoré Daumier, Bruno Paul, Pieter Saenredam and Lucebert. In 1945 he was one of many young Dutchmen sent off to the colony Indonesia to surpress the growing resistance movement. He was mostly active as a combat medic. By 1949 the Netherlands finally had to accept Indonesia's independence and thus Van den Born could return home. Back in civilian life he initially wanted to be an illustrator of news reports. One evening he attended a Marxist meeting, sketched all participants and showed his work to Het Parool. This led to the job he desired. Soon Van den Born attended theatrical plays, parliamental meetings, court cases and other events as Het Parool's official graphic journalist. In the wake of the 1953 flood in the Dutch province Zeeland, he even sketched the disaster area.


"What a world!", cartoon by Bob van den Born

Yet the artist didn't like the crowds and noise around him while he tried to concentrate on his sketches. Seeing that cartoons were quite popular at the time, Van den Born decided to become a cartoonist instead. He published in both Het Parool as well as the news magazine Mandril. But this job too started to frustrate him, since so many of his cartoons were rejected. In a interview with Peter van Brummelen for Het Parool (8 March 1991) he remembered that each time he brought ten cartoons with him, only one might get published. In order to make a living he developed the plan of becoming a newspaper comics artist. 

In 1954 Van den Born created the absent-minded and egg-headed 'Professor Pi', who always remains calm and imperturbable in every situation, yet is an ardent observer of an increasingly absurd world. Originally his home newspaper showed no interest, so he offered it to the British magazine Time & Tide instead. Only when it became a success there and found a spot in a Spanish and Chinese magazine too. 'Professor Pi' finally got greenlighted by Het Parool as well. It debuted on 2 January 1955 and first ran as a series of independent cartoons in their weekend supplement. Popular demand, including some urging of photo editor Theo Ramaker, eventually made it a daily fixture, which ran in Het Parool for almost a decade. An anouncement of the daily strip appeared in the paper in late 1956, and the feature ran until 30 December 1964. The strip returned to Het Parool in reprints between 1993 and 1998. Thanks to its lack of dialogue, 'Professor Pi' was easily translatable and thus ran with equal popularity in Spain, China, Italy, Switzerland and North and South America through the Swan Features Syndicate. Van den Born took delight in thinking up visual jokes that weren't always obvious at first sight. This gave it a more dignified and clever reputation than most other pantomime gag comics at the time. Over the years it nevertheless became more of a one-panel cartoon. 

Despite his impressive global success Van den Born still felt unsatisfied. Thinking up new ideas gets increasingly difficult over the years, as any daily comics artist can confirm. Plus: he didn't consider himself to be a genuine fan of the medium. In the aforementioned 1991 interview with Peter van Brummelen, Van den Born confessed that he didn't like serialized comics: "I don't understand how people do this. They read three images and only 24 hours later they read the rest. By that time I've already forgotten the previous episode." He also felt that even the most beautiful illustrated comics, specifically naming Marten Toonder's 'Tom Poes' and Pieter Kuhn's 'Kapitein Rob', were too infantile for him. This also explains why Van den Born never drew longer stories and why 'Professor Pi' remains his only contribution to comics history. In 1971 a first compilation of 'Professor Pi' comics was released as a joint production by Arcanum and Kees Kousemaker's imprint De Morsige Roerganger. Kousemaker reprinted it in 1978 and published three more collections through his comics shop Lambiek in 1978 and 1979. The character's name also inspired the bi-annual Professor Pi-prijs for illustrators, which was merged into the more general Amsterdamprijs voor de Kunst in 2002.

Professor Pi, by Bob van den Born

Outside his comics career, Van den Born has been active as a book and advertisement illustrator. He also made numerous caricatures of politicians and sports celebrities in clay and paper-maché. Some of these have been exhibited at the Amsterdam department of Madame Tussauds. His best known work in this wax museum was a ship featuring caricatures of Dutch politicians Piet de Jong, Marga Klompé, Hans van Mierlo, Bauke Roolvink, Norbert Schmeltzer, Joop den Uyl and Willem Witteveen. The ship worked like a carousel, spinning in circles. The piece was introduced in September 1970 and remained part of the permanent exhibition until the caricatured politicians disappeared out of public view and were therefore replaced by others. 

Since 1973 Van den Born spent most of his time painting. From the 1990s on he made experimental collages made with the aid of a computer. He had his own page on the site Deviant Art, where people can submit their own artworks online. In 1991 Gallery Lambiek organized a special exhibition about Van den Born's work, where several of his 2,929 'Professor Pi' comics were put on display. One of Van den Born's admirers is Joost Swarte. Since 2014, the artist lived in the Rosa Spier Huis, a notable retirement home for Dutch artists. He passed away on 27 November 2017 at the age of 90.

Bob van den Born and Joost Swarte
Bob van den Born with Joost Swarte on the opening of his exposition at Gallery Lambiek on 1 March 1991

Series and books by Bob van den Born in stock in the Lambiek Webshop:

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