Billy Cam selfportrait

Billy Cam was an American cartoonist who worked for d'Oriënt, a family magazine from the Dutch Indies (now Indonesia). He was the author of the popular gag series 'CAMouFLAGES' (1935-1939), which gave an interesting look on life in this Dutch colony during the 1930s.

Mysterious cartoonist
For many years, very little was known about the reclusive artist, whose real name was William Thomas Campbell. An article by Joop van den Berg for the June 1998 issue book-lovers' magazine Uitgelezen Boeken brought the man somewhat out of obscurity for the first time. Van den Berg's research was largely based on old copies of d'Oriënt and the scarce recollections of the former editor-in-chief Albert Zimmerman. Latter-day investigations by another Dutchman, George Mulder, revealed more about Campbell's early and later life.

From: 'Great Falls Tribune' (24 February 1924).

Early life
Billy Cam was originally from St. Louis, Missouri, where he was born in 1891 to parents of Irish descent. On later documents Campbell's listed birth years vary from 1892 to 1894. Campbell's father ran a factory, but passed away from tuberculosis before Billy was born. According to the 1910 census, he saw himself as a landscape painter. Campbell was drafted for World War I, but it is unsure if he ever fought in the trenches? By 1920, he was married and had moved to Los Angeles County, where he resided in San Marino.

From: The Signal (9 February 1933).

Early cartooning work
Cam had taken correspondence courses in art, and made some illustrations for poems and rhymes by Dan Mack for various Navy and Marine Corps publications during the 1920s. These were later collected in the booklet 'Water Sonnets' (1930). He also made cartoons and illustrations for local Californian papers like the Great Falls Tribune, The Signal (Santa Clarita) and the Wilmington Daily Press Journal. Besides this, Cam had a hard time finding assignments. He was therefore eager to accept the offer to work for d'Oriënt in the Dutch Indies from the magazine's overseas correspondent Frits Mounier, albeit leaving his wife Margaret and son William F. behind in the States.

Cam ou Flages, by Billy Cam

d'Oriënt was the largest Dutch weekly magazine published in the Dutch Indies between 1923 and 1942. It originated from the more sensational magazine De Zweep, the one-man action front against the establishment of journalist Dominique Berrety. Berrety was forced to sell his paper in 1923. Renamed d'Oriënt, it became a more prestigious photo-glossy when the printing firm Kolff & Co took over in 1926. Editor-in-chief Albert Zimmerman transformed d'Oriënt into a high-quality family weekly with illustrated articles and commentaries about everyday life, culture and politics in the Dutch overseas. All in all, old issues of d'Oriënt give an historically interesting account of the mostly romanticized Dutch colonial life. Billy Cam's regular feature 'CAMouFLAGES' (1935-1939) certainly contributed to that portrait of an era. Other artists for the magazine were Henk Brouwer and Jan Dickhoff, and d'Oriënt also ran Alex Raymond's 'Flash Gordon'.

Cam ou Flages, by Billy Cam

Billy Cam settled in Batavia (nowadays Jakarta), the capital of the Dutch Indies on the northern coast of Java. In December 1935, he launched 'CAMouFLAGES' (1935-1939), his semi-autobiographical view on local life in comics format. The strip was a great success, and because of Cam's resemblance to its hero, he was recognized wherever he went. The main character was a short, chubby man wearing a white suit and topee. He is accompanied by his small dog and a bespectacled cricket with top hat and umbrella. Like his creator, the character was shy and rather clumsy, but quickly adapted into colonial life. He enjoyed not only the traditional rice tables, but also the couleur locale. Cam however couldn't withdraw from the prevailing colonial morals of the time. While an Indonesian woman was described as a graceful "queen of Sheba" in the first strip of 24 December 1935, she was devaluated to colonial level several episodes later, in which Cam describes his female servant as: "not too smart, slow and lazy."

comic art by Billy Cam

Further work in the Indies
Billy Cam lived and worked in Batavia for four or five years. Besides illustrations and his regular feature in d'Oriënt, he also drew advertisements and caricatures for the newspaper Nieuwsblad voor Java. He furthermore provided the illustrations for a pamphlet about road safety in commission of the "Royal Dutch Indies Motor Club" in 1937. Kolff & Co. released a book with a selection of Cam's 'CAMouFLAGES' pages in 1938. In a January 1940 issue, d'Oriënt bid farewell to its American co-worker, who had returned to the USA. His farewell drawing remained unfinished and thus unpublished, as the author apparently not in the mood. He was quoted: "I don't know what to draw, I guess I'm too tired now."

advertisement by Billy Cam
Advertising comic strip by Billy Cam for Hygenol cleaner, which "will definitely kill all pathogenic microbes. It will surely cure poor Mies from the terrible headache caused by the ayah's nasty cleaning stuff!"

The long way home
Cam's return to his home country was for a long time shrouded in mystery and speculation. Two clairvoyants, one back home and one in Batavia, had foreseen that Campwell would never see the USA again. Rumour had it he eventually took his chances and headed back home by boat in the early 1940s, not long before the attack on Pearl Harbour. He allegedly took the crossing in short steps, in order to spread the risk of his grim prophecy coming true. His colleagues in Batavia knew that his first destination was Singapore, but the last thing Albert Zimmerman and the editors of d'Oriënt heard from Billy Cam was a letter from Hong Kong. During the 1980s, Zimmerman wrote a fictionalized account of Cam's further whereabouts for researcher Van den Berg, but in fact none of his friends on Java knew if he ever made it back home. Later research however casts doubt on Zimmerman's speculations altogether.

Spoiler alert: Campbell made it! (The Los Angeles Times, 23 February 1940).

Later life and death
It wasn't until the 2000s that Dutchman George Mulder took matters into his own hands to further explore Cam's mysterious life story. With the help of newly available (online) archives. Mulder discovered that Cam left Batavia on Sunday 7 January 1940. According to an article from the Los Angeles Times of 23 February 1940, he returned to the States on the Norwegian motorliner Roseville of the Klaveness Line on Thursday 22 February 1940, indeed way before Pearl Harbour took place and in a relatively short time. By 1942, Cam apparently had his own studio on South Broadway in Los Angeles. An article in The Los Angeles Times on 7 November 1942 mentioned Cam doing the "signs and general artwork" at the Douglas Aircraft Company in Santa Monica during World War II. According to the paper, Cam was at that time a newspaper cartoonist for a Los Angeles paper.

William T. Campbell passed away in Los Angeles on 25 April 1962. While he was a local celebrity in Batavia, Billy Cam's further homebased life story ended in relative obscurity...

Billy Cam in Soerabaya
Billy Cam (right) with the head of photostudio Fotax in Soerabaya.

Series and books by Billy Cam in stock in the Lambiek Webshop:


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