Island of Fear, by Fernand Cheneval

Fernand Cheneval was a Swiss-Belgian comic artist, editor and publisher. With his comic magazine Héroïc-Albums (1945-1956), he innovated the post-war Belgian comic market with thrilling action-packed adventure stories, modelled after American comic books. Apart from Cheneval's own series - starring characters like Bill Flight, Nick Mask, Tim Tom and Attila - Héroïc launched the careers of such famous authors as Maurice Tillieux, Albert Weinberg, Fred Funcken, Michel Greg, Jidéhem, François Craenhals and Tibet.

Studio Guy
Fernand Cheneval was born in 1928 (some sources erroneously say 1918) in the Eaux-Vives district of Geneva, Switzerland. His father died young, so the boy was largely raised by his mother. Eventually moving to Belgium, the young Fernand initially dreamed of a career as a film director. In 1942, at the age of fourteen, he was hired as an apprentice by Guy Depière, the Brussels-based publisher of the comic magazine Bimbo. The initial collaboration was short-lived; in September 1942 the publication of Bimbo was forbidden by the Nazi oppressor due to the magazine's anglophile content. Shortly after the Liberation of Belgium, in October 1944, Bimbo was relaunched and most of the original contributors returned to Depière's company, Studio Guy. Fernand Cheneval took over the science fiction serial 'Akko, Roi des Planètes', originally created by Fred Funcken, and also replaced Marcel Moniquet on the 'Robin Moderne' feature for a while. In June 1945, Depìère launched another comic magazine, called Jeep, bringing an even heavier workload to the already underpaid staff. Cheneval felt the Depière magazines had to switch to running complete stories instead of serials, but his pleas fell on deaf ears. In mid-1945, Cheneval left Studio Guy to publish his own magazine.

'Akko - La Guerre des Planètes' (from Bimbo).

As a seventeen year-old, Cheneval was not allowed to run his own company, so on paper, his mother acted as the official publisher. She also provided the funding for the first issue, released in the fall of 1945 in both a French and Dutch-language edition - with respective print runs of 6,000 and 3,000 copies. Initially appearing under the banner Héroïc Collection, the first issue contained a full adventure of Cheneval's U.S. aviator Bill Flight fighting the Japanese army during World War II. From the second issue on, Cheneval had a partnership with the Antwerp socialist publishing house De Ontwikkeling and its printing firm Excelsior to print and distribute his magazine, now called Héroïc-Albums.

During the first year, Cheneval tried to maintain a monthly publication rate. Since he did almost everything by himself - writing, drawing and editing - production was sometimes delayed. Two issues appeared in late 1945, and ten over the course of 1946. Content-wise, Cheneval took inspiration from both American comic books and the popular pulp magazines with serialized novels. In his comics and text features, the busy artist tackled most of the popular genres of the time. Besides aviator Bill Flight, Cheneval created adventures of the detectives Nick Mask and Tim Tom, the journalist Attila and of Leo Walon, a fifteen year-old World War II resistance fighter. Early back-up features were provided by Joë Muray ('Ohio, the Little Negro') and Tenas ('Ali Riff').

In 1947, Cheneval launched Series II of Héroïc-Albums, increasing both the number of pages (from twelve to twenty) and the publication rate (from monthly to twice a month). From then on, each issue of Héroïc-Albums contained a complete story of 11 to 13 pages, an illustrated text serial, some editorial pages and a comic serial in the back. New characters were introduced in comic serials under the "non-stop program" banner, before being offered lead story position. In 1949, the French-language publication became a weekly, while the Dutch one remained bi-weekly, since the Dutch distributor W.A. Palm alternated publication of Héroïc-Albums with his own magazine filled with Scandinavian comics, Star Editie. As a result, much of Héroïc's content was never translated to Dutch.

comic art by Fernand Chenevalcomic art by Fernand Cheneval

Héroïc team
With his own production slowing down, Cheneval gradually gathered a team of comic creators to fill the pages of Héroïc-Albums. Many of them were former colleagues from his Studio Guy days, recruited by Héroïc after the Depière magazines went out of business. The first and foremost was Maurice Tillieux, who created the adventurer 'Bob Bang' (1947) and the western 'Bill Sanders', before becoming an expert in the detective genre with 'Félix' (1949-1956). Starting in 1948, Fred Funcken resumed several of his Depière series in Héroïc-Albums, but also created new ones, as did Albert Weinberg with 'Luc Condor' (1949-1954) and 'Roc Meteor' (1955-1956). Historical features were provided by Christo and Marcel Moniquet, while Fernand Dineur created back-up features and exclusive stories with his 'Tif & Tondu' characters, originally created for Spirou magazine. Cheneval also opened his doors to newcomers like Tibet, François Craenhals, Michel Greg (then still using the pen name Michel Denys) and Jidéhem, who all became important players in the Belgian post-war comic industry. One of the final new contributors was P. Leika, a joint pen name of artist Pierre Kosc and scriptwriter Georges Leunis. Apart from the original material, Héroïc-Albums acquired foreign comics like Chester Gould's 'Dick Tracy' and work by Scandinavian authors, such as Björn Karlström.

Gangsters, by Fernand Cheneval

Héroïc-Albums and its competitors
With a print run of 18,000 French and 12,000 Dutch copies, Fernand Cheneval's Héroïc-Albums became an important competitor to the leading Belgian comic magazines of the time, most notably Spirou and Tintin. Aiming at teenagers and young adults, Héroïc's content was more violent, thrilling and realistic than the mostly Catholic children's magazines. Its genres were directly inspired by American comic books, and ranged from crime, western, science fiction to superheroes. Cheneval gave his staff complete creative freedom, resulting in a strong mutual loyalty between publisher and authors.

With its daring editorial mix, Héroïc-Albums however failed to get a foothold in France, a major sales market, but with a strict censorship board for comic magazines. In 1953, Cheneval tried to introduce his magazine to the French audience under the name Croquis-Magazine (the French already had a title called Héroïc), as a joint venture with the Lille newspaper Nord-Éclair. French censors constantly changed their mind whether Héroïc Albums was allowed publication in France, while Cheneval refused to bow to their restrictions. As a result, Croquis-Magazine had a bumpy publication rhythm, forcing Cheneval to quit his attempts to export to France. Tintin and Spirou, on the other hand, did attune their content to the wishes of French censors, which gave them a bigger audience than Cheneval could ever reach in just Belgium and the Netherlands. With its weakened position, things went downhill for Héroïc-Albums. Throughout the magazine's run, Cheneval insisted on maintaining the prize of 5 Belgian francs. As production costs increased, Héroïc-Albums in the end failed to make a profit. 

'Masque d'Argent' (Dutch version) in Kuifje #25, 1968.

The final issue of Héroïc-Albums appeared in December 1956, ending the eleven-year run of a unique publication in Belgian comic history. Cheneval's artists spread out to the other magazines. Tibet, Greg, Albert Weinberg, François Craenhals and Fred Funcken became staples of Tintin magazine, while Maurice Tillieux and Jidéhem further developed their talent at Spirou. Marcel Moniquet - another longtime Cheneval associate - was by now in his sixties and retired from comics. Fernand Cheneval turned to advertising art. Between 1957 and 1968, he also illustrated several short historical comic stories for Tintin magazine, scripted by Yves Duval. Near the end of his collaboration with the magazine, he created a handful of short stories under the title 'Masque d'Argent' (1967-1968), a western series starring a masked vigilante.

Illustration by "Tabou" for België Vrij magazine (1954).

Political cartooning
Throughout his career, Cheneval used a variety of pseudonyms for different types of work, including Chenn, Lola Tabou, F. Oakdale and F. Thiry. As "Tabou", he created mostly political work, such as cartoons for Flemish worker's magazines like België Vrij and De Werker. In 1954, Tabou also created a political propaganda comic aimed against the christian-democratic party CVP/PSC. It appeared in the party magazine of the Belgian Socialist Party (BSP/PSB).

1954 political comic by "Tabou" for the Belgian socialist party.

Revival of Heroïc-Albums
After thirteen years of absence, Cheneval revived Heroïc-Albums in collaboration with a Volkswagen dealer from Namur and the petrol company Fina. Starting in May 1969, it was distributed in Belgium and the north of France. The new Héroïc reprinted Marcel Moniquet's 'Aviorix' comics from the older editions, but also contained a modernized version of Cheneval's journalist character Attila, now called 'Bruno Franchorchamps'. Since the magazine was a promotional publication, Volkswagen cars and Fina gas stations were featured prominently in the new stories. The collaboration between Volkswagen and Fina however came to a sudden end, and the revived Héroïc-Albums folded after only seven monthly issues. After that, Cheneval left comics for good, and fully focused on his advertising work.

'Bruno Franchorchamps', from the new Héroïc-Albums (1969).

Death and legacy
Fernand Cheneval passed away in 1991 in the Brussels suburb Woluwe-Saint-Pierre/ Sint-Pieters Woluwe, at age 63. While his own comics are largely forgotten by now, Cheneval is remembered as a groundbreaking publisher and important talent scout. Despite its relatively short run, his Héroïc-Albums magazine is considered a landmark in Belgian post-war comics, gaining a legendary status among collectors and comic historians.

Photo of Fernand Cheneval

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