Dick Bruna was a national institution in his homeland, the Netherlands, but also one of the most recognizable children's illustrators in the world. He has written hundreds of books for toddlers, which he illustrated personally. His most famous creation is the little white rabbit 'Nijntje' ('Miffy' in English). His simple, but instantly readable linework, full with bright colours and round shapes, appeals not only to parents with children, but also gained admiration from fellow illustrators and graphic designers. While Bruna has made little to no actual comics in his lifetime his picture novels can be considered a kind of text comics. Some imagery in his books also makes use of sequential art.
Hendrik Magdalenus Bruna was born in Utrecht in 1927 as son of a publisher. His first name 'Dick' was a nickname he received for being rather chubby as a child ("dik" is Dutch for "fat"). During World War II the Bruna family hid from the Nazis in Loosdrecht, to avoid being send off to work in German factories. He continued his high school education after the war, but dropped out soon afterwards. His father expected Bruna to become a publisher just like him, but the young son had a bigger passion for drawing and painting. After visiting various museums in London and Paris, Bruna knew what he wanted to do in life. He studied at the Rijksacademie voor Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam, but dropped out once again. His parents gave him a job at their company (A.W. Bruna Uitgevers B.V.) after all, albeit as an illustrator rather than a publisher.
Bruna's style was heavily influenced by classic children's book illustrators and graphic designers like Rie Cramer, Anton Pieck, Raymond Savignac, Saul Bass, Jo Spier, Heinrich Hoffmann, Elsa Beskow and particularly Jean de Brunhoff, famous for 'Babar the Elephant'. He mimicked Walt Disney characters for his local school paper by tracing them from official publicity drawings. In the field of high art Bruna admired Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger, Georges Braque and his idol, Henri Matisse. However, his strongest graphical influences could be found in the work of Piet Mondriaan, Gerrit Rietveld, Bart van der Leck and other icons of the Dutch art movement "De Stijl". By using the same strict, precise, minimalistic but at the same time colourful and efficient designs, Bruna can almost be considered their direct stylistic successor. In terms of practical influence Bruna was schooled by Rein van Looy, the home graphic designer of his father's company.
Bruna wrote and illustrated his first book, 'Japie' (1943-1945) during the war years. As this work was just a tribute to his mother it was never published. He made his first children's illustrations in 1952 for Pearl S. Buck's short story collection 'Far and Near: Stories of Japan, China and America'. The young man showed off his own creativity with 'De Appel' ('The Apple', 1953), which marked his real debut as a children's author. In 1954 he became an illustrator for the 'Zwarte Beertjes' ('Little Black Bears') pocket book series, where he decorated book covers by adult authors like Georges Simenon ('Inspector Maigret'), Leslie Charteris ('The Saint'), Ian Fleming ('James Bond'), William Shakespeare and Havank ('The Shadow'). Among his other early children's books are 'Toto in Volendam' (1954) and 'Kleine koning' (1955) and 'Tijs' (1957).
In 1955 Dick Bruna created the character that would make him beloved all over the world: 'Nijntje' ('Miffy'). The little white female rabbit was based on the stuffed toy of Bruna's one-year old son. While Nijntje is Bruna's most famous creation he also created picture novels around other characters such as Snuffie the dog ('Snuffy', 1969), Betje Big ('Poppy Pig', 1977) and Boris en Barbara Beer ('Boris and Barbara Bear', 1989). Later in his career he also made child-friendly adaptations of fairy tales and Bible stories.
As strange as it may seem today, Bruna's books were not an immediate success and even considered "daring" at the time. His illustrations were all one-dimensional and very minimalistic in their execution. Characters are limited to basic round shapes and often look directly at the viewer. All imagery is done in primary colours. Bruna even juxtaposed colours others would deem too much of a contrast, like green and blue. There is no attempt at perspective, left alone much detail. Another eccentric streak was Bruna's refusal to use capital letters in his texts. Most adults were uncertain what to think of these unusual books. The target audience on the other hand was far more receptive. Slowly but surely Bruna's books became global best-sellers which have entertained generations of children.
Many people have been misled by the simplicity of Bruna's illustrations. In reality everything followed a clearly defined concept. The small rectangular shape of each book, for instance, was done to acknowledge to toddlers that the stories were specifically made for them. Each illustration was made with the utmost care and precision. The tiniest line could make a difference in emotional or technical impact. After putting the basic contours on paper Bruna usually made a copy of his drawings first. This allowed him to experiment with colour schemes without having to ruin an otherwise perfect black-and-white design. Bruna sometimes spent weeks drawing and redrawing everything. His earliest book illustrations were painted, while later publications used collage techniques to give them a smoother design. By 1963 he had perfected his style into the way it is best known today. The stories were an equally painstaking process. Each sentence was done in rhyme and had to be understandable to the target audience. The plots moved along with the times. Miffy received a black girlfriend, Nina, in 'Nijntjes droom' ('Miffy's Dream', 1979), while Miffy's grandmother passed away in 'Lieve Oma Pluis' ('Dear Grandma Bunny', 1996). Since death is such a taboo subject in children's literature the latter story was very controversial upon its release. Yet the topic was treated in a serene way, without frightening imagery or downplayed emotional impact. The book won many awards and Bruna said he felt he made the right choice when parents wrote him to say that their little son or daughter took a copy of the book to their own grandmother's funeral.
Dick Bruna's picture-stories have been translated in many languages, including Arabic, Chinese, Korean and Japanese. Even books in regional Dutch dialects have been published, such as Marnix Rueb's translation of 'Miffy' in the local slang of The Hague. As Bruna's global fame grew he received more commissions too. In 1969 and 1998 he designed a series of stamps for respectively the Dutch Ministry of Post and the Japanese one. He made wall paintings, wishing cards and posters for various companies, city councils and humanitarian causes such as Terre des Hommes, the Red Cross, the Green Cross, Veilig Verkeer Nederland, Amnesty International and Unicef. He crafted the official logos for World Aids Day (2002), Stop Child Soldiers (2002) and the Special Olympics in Nagano, Japan (2005). His characters have been adapted into a hand-drawn animated TV series (1992, with help from animation veteran Gene Deitch), a stop-motion one (2003-2007) and a CGI-animated one (2015-2016). Miffy inspired several theatrical musicals and her own feature-length stop-motion animated film in 2003, directed by Hans Perk. In 2003 Miffy was appointed as New York City's Family Tourism Ambassador, to give the Big Apple a new appeal to children and European and Asian visitors. Five years later a new species of Peruvian booklouses was also named after her: Trichadenotecnum miffy.
'Miffy' is such an iconic creation that naturally similarly designed fluffy white mammals have sometimes been accused of being rip-offs, such as Ray Goossens' 'Musti' (1968) and Yuko Shimizu's 'Hello Kitty' (1974), particularly her character Cathy the rabbit. In 2010 Bruna's estate won a copyright claim against Sanrio - the company that distributes 'Hello Kitty' - to put a stop to marketing Cathy in the Benelux. However, after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Tohoku both parties agreed out-of-court to donate their legal fees to the victims of this natural disaster. He was less friendly when the Belgian satirical magazine Deng put Miffy on a 2005 cover to illustrate an article about international drug trade. The cover showed Miffy ('Nijntje') with a bloody nose and a line of coke, accompanied by the text: "Ieder zijn lijntje" ("To each his little line"). The issue had to be removed from stores on grounds of copyright infringement. The court case effectively drove the magazine into bankruptcy. In 2009 the weblog community mijndomein.nl also spoofed Miffy doing controversial stuff, like snorting cocain. This time the judge ruled in favor of the site owners. From that moment on 'Miffy' parodies were allowed, albeit only in The Netherlands.
Throughout his long career, Bruna received many honours. In 1991 his drawings were exhibited in the prestigious Centre Pompidou museum in Paris. He received a museum of his own in his birth city Utrecht in 2006. The artist was knighted in the Order of Oranje-Nassau in 1983, followed by a knighthood as Commandeur in the Order of the Dutch Lion in 2001. The Dutch public voted him to the 67th place in the election of "De Grootste Nederlander" ("The Greatest Dutchman") in 2004. In 2000 Bruna landed a spot in the Guinness Book of Records, when 38.000 children from 80 different countries sent him a post cards to congratulate Miffy. He broke his own record five years later, when he received 39.670 cards. In August 2014, after nearly 60 years of work, he announced his retirement. Dick Bruna passed away in Utrecht on 16 February 2017, at the age of 89.
Bruna was still an internationally beloved artist and novelist. Architect J.J.P. Oud once sent him a personal letter to express his admiration for his work. Novelist Georges Simenon gave Bruna one of his pipes and signed it with the name of his signature character 'Maigret'. Leslie Charteris ('The Saint') expressed sadness over Bruna resigning as illustrator for 'Zwarte Beertjes' and wrote the company to say: "Since Dick retired book covers are no longer the same." Among the graphic artists who adored Bruna's work are Kurt Lob, Max Velthuijs, Eric Carle (best known for 'The Hungry Caterpillar') and Charles M. Schulz ('Peanuts'). Wilma van den Bosch made a small comic story for De Inktpot in 2003 about how she once met Bruna while visiting a store for artists' supplies. The French artist Blexbolex also ranks Dick Bruna among his influences.