'Professor Pi'.

Bob van den Born was a Dutch comic artist, best-known for his pantomime gag series 'Professor Pi' (1954-1965), about a strange professor in an equally odd world. 'Professor Pi' is notable for its subtle comedy, which sometimes requires carefully observing the images to contemplate the joke. The series ran in the Dutch newspaper Het Parool, but was also syndicated by Swan Features to many other international papers. 'Professor Pi' only ran for a decade and Van den Born never drew another comic again. Yet it enjoys an enduring cult following. Outside his comics career, Van den Born was also active as a painter, illustrator and caricaturist.

Early life 
Bob van den Born was born in 1927 in Amsterdam. He studied at the RijksNormaalschool 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, the Dutch government sent troops to their colony Indonesia, to supress the growing resistance movement. Van den Born was one of many young Dutchmen to be drafted, though he was mostly active as a combat medic. By 1949, The Netherlands had to accept the Indonesian independence and thus Van den Born and fellow recruits returned home.

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

Cartooning career
In 1949, back in civilian life, Van den Born initially wanted to become an illustrator of news reports. After World War II, many Dutch papers were still recovering from four years of death and destruction. Sometimes photographs were difficult to obtain, so as a form of compensation, editors hired illustrators to attend certain events, make portraits of people or give otherwise graphic interpretations of particular news events. One evening, Van den Born attended a Marxist meeting and sketched all participants. He then offered the drawings to the office of newspaper Het Parool and was promptly hired. For the next few years, he attended theatrical plays, parliamental meetings, court cases and other events, visualizing what he saw and heard. When a huge flood struck the Dutch province Zeeland in 1953, he sketched the disaster area.

Yet, curious bystanders often looked over his shoulder, while he tried to concentrate on his drawings. This irritated him, not to mention the large crowds at all these public events. It convinced him to change his profession and become a cartoonist instead. While some of his drawings were published in Het Parool and the news magazine Mandril, many other cartoons were rejected. Interviewed by Peter van Brummelen for Het Parool (8 March 1991), Van den Born remembered that each time he brought 10 cartoons with him, only one might get published. In order to make a living, he decided to become a newspaper comic artist. 

'Professor Pi'.

Professor Pi
In 1954, Van den Born created the absent-minded and egg-headed 'Professor Pi', who always remains calm and imperturbable in every situation. Many gags poke fun at the professor's daft behavior. But likewise, many people around him act just as strange. Over the years, the titular professor grew into an ardent observer of a world increasingly absurder than himself. Van den Born took delight in thinking up visual jokes that aren't always obvious at first sight. Many panels with crowds are full with people and animals who act bizarre. It's not always clear whether they are part of the main gag or just extra background gags. It gave 'Professor Pi' its own eccentric flavor, which helped it stand out among newspaper gag comics at the time. The comic also attracted fans among intellectuals, since the clever jokes require more meticulous observation to spot every funny detail. While 'Professor Pi' started out as a comic, it nevertheless evolved more into a one-panel cartoon over the years. 

Originally his home newspaper showed no interest in 'Professor Pi', so Van den Born 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. It debuted on 2 January 1955 and first ran in their weekend supplement, as a series of independent cartoons. 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 announcement of the daily strip appeared in the paper in late 1956, and the feature ran from 2 January 1957 until 9 December 1965. Between 1993 and 1998, episodes were reprinted in Het Parool. 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. 

'Professor Pi'.

Despite his impressive global success, Van den Born still felt unsatisfied. Thinking up new ideas gets increasingly difficult over the years, as any daily comic 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 comic 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. Lambiek sent Hergé a copy that same year, who wrote us back that he liked our present, because he "had always been very interested in 'Professor Pi'."

Professor Pi, by Bob van den Born
'Professor Pi'.

Illustration 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 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 replaced by others. 

'Professor Pi'.

On 27 September 2008, during the Stripdagen in Houten, Van den Born and Jaap Kramer received the Bulletje en Boonestaakschaal.

Final years and death
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 DeviantArt, where people can submit their own artworks online. Between 1 March and 15 April 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. Since 2014, Van den Born 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.

Legacy and influence
Professor Pi inspired the bi-annual Professor Pi-prijs for illustrators, which in 2002 merged into the more general Amsterdamprijs voor de Kunst. In the Dutch city Almere, a canal was named after 'Professor Pi', as part of the "Comics Heroes" district.

One of Van den Born's admirers is Joost Swarte

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.

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