Miezelientje

Phiny Dick was a Dutch comics artist, painter and the wife of the legendary Marten Toonder. Yet Dick was more than just the partner of a celebrity. She was an accomplished comics writer and illustrator in her own right. Just like her famous husband she was a creative spirit, able to help him out with thinking up narratives as well as drawing and inking several of his series. She even came up with the name of his most famous creation: 'Tom Poes'. Dick furthermore created various children's novels and text comics, including 'Miezelientje' (1938-1946), 'Olle Kapoen' (1945-1954) and 'Birre Beer' (1954-1959). Like most Dutch comics of the time, her work can be categorized as funny animal stories and fairy tale comics.


Olle Kapoen from Amsterdamsch Dagblad, 29 November 1945 (artwork by Coen van Hunnik)

Afine Kornélie Dik was born in 1912 in Rotterdam as the daughter of ship owner company Van Nievelt, Goudriaan & Co Stoomvaart Maatschappij (Nigoco). As a child she wasn't a good student and had more interest in reading stories than paying attention at school. The only good part about her education was that she met her future husband Marten Toonder at their local student council. Both turned out to have a lot in common. They shared the same age and both their fathers were sailors who were rarely at home. The couple shared an interest in theosophy and esotericism, as well as reading and drawing. One of Dick's major graphic influences was Gustave Doré, the other E.H. Shepard who illustrated A.A. Milne's 'Winnie the Pooh'. She would later sign her work as "Phiny Dick", using her pet name and adding an extra "c" to her last name. This happened at the suggestion of her publisher Van Goor, who felt it gave her a more "artistic" sounding name. The fact that the word "Dik" is the same as the Dutch word for "fat" might also explain something.

Originally Dick graduated to become a chemist's assistant. As she went to work as a nurse in a hospital she fell ill due to an inflammation in her heart muscle. Toonder feared for her life, but she eventually pulled through. As frightening as her near death experience had been, Phiny actually felt quite peaceful during her comatose state. She always claimed she never feared death again and it motivated her to do something with her life. She gave up her medical profession and decided to follow her lifelong dream of becoming an illustrator. Dick studied painting from sculptor Joannes Diekmann, who'd later inspire the 'Tom Poes' character Terpen Tijn. She also took a written course in drawing by British illustrator Percy Bradshaw, who worked at the London Press Art School. Another close friend of the Toonders was Jewish children's writer Dola de Jong, who edited the children's sections at the Nederlandsche Rotogravure Maatschappij, a printing and publishing house in Leiden. At the start of World War II De Jong would flee to the United States.

Doris en Daantje (Extra Magazine #4, 1935)
Doris en Daantje (Extra Magazine #4, 1935)

One of the reasons why Dick could fulfill her artistic dream had to do with the fact that Toonder was able to make a living as a comics artist. By 1931 he was publishing comics and illustrations for various local magazines, books and advertisements. It was therefore not a bad idea to help him out with both the artistic, technical and financial aspects of his profession. In 1935 the couple married. They would have two children, one of which later become a comics author himself: Eiso Toonder. In 1957 the couple would also adopt two Indonesian orphans. As Toonder received more work, his illustration job became a family enterprise. His brother Jan Gerhard wrote the texts for many of his early comics, while Phiny did the inking. Her first work in that regard was Toonder's 'Thijs IJs' (1934-1938), a comic about a polar bear which appeared in Het Nieuwsblad van het Noorden as a replacement for Mary Tourtel's 'Rupert Bear'. Phiny frequently travelled to Amsterdam to visit local newspaper offices and ask for work. Her first own comic strip, 'De Stoute Streken van Stip en Stap' (1934-1935), made its debut on 15 April 1934 and ran until 24 March 1935 in the Rotogravure weekly Extra Magazine, which was distributed by the chain store Jamin. This was followed by another text comic for the same publication, 'Doris en Daantje' (1935), about two children: the tall Doris and the short Daantje. Even in pregnancy she kept drawing the series, until her husband was forced to take it over during the final months. Phiny also illustrated various magazine covers for the Rotogravure and designed greeting cards with squirrels and rabbits for publisher De Muinck & Co, while Toonder made illustrations of gnomes and bears for the same company.

In 1938 Toonder created Tom Poes, a white cat whose name is a pun on the dish "tom pouce", a name suggested by Dick. She also wrote the captions for the first six episodes of Tom's debut story in 1941, but eventually decided that the character didn't suit her that much. By that point she felt more at ease with another cat created by her husband: Miezelientje, which she had instantly made totally her own. Miezelientje appealed to her since she was a female cat and all stories were set in a happy, carefree forest. She wrote and illustrated the text comic 'Miezelientje' (1939) for Onze Club-Krant and published three books around the character: 'Miezelientje en de Prinses Roosmarijn' (1939), 'Miezelientje en Kakeline de Kip' (1941) and 'Miezelientje en Wol de Beer' (1948). Dick wrote and/or illustrated several other children's novels: 'Oli Fant uit Poppelo' (1940), 'Pijper, het Bosmannetje' (1940), 'Sinterklaas, Kerstmis en Nieuwjaar' (1941), 'Suizebol en Bijdepink' (1941), 'Pom, Verk en Fop' (1941) and 'Pom Van De Pomheuvel' (1943). The latter two books are the most significant since they featured characters whom Dick would later redevelop for her post-war signature series 'Olle Kapoen'. Yet the two protagonists, Pom the gnome and Verk the pig, weren't creations of her own, but thought up by her infant son Eiso. In 1941 Dick furthermore illustrated various books about children's games and nursery rhymes, as well as Jan Gerhard Toonder's 'De Dag na Bethlehem' (1941).

Around the same time Toonder's own graphic studio finally evolved into a big lucrative enterprise. The only downside was that Phiny's creative input in the company started to diminish as her husband now had plenty of writers and artists to help him co-create his comics, cartoons and illustrations. The studio grew so large that Toonder knew more about its inner workings and employees than her. During the war period he was also involved with the Dutch resistance movement and felt it was safer if she knew as little as possible about these secret and dangerous activities. Throughout the rest of his career he remained devoted to her as a partner and would always ask her opinion regarding his latest storylines. But still they grew more apart on a professional level, as both made their own separate contributions for the Toonder Studios.


Sinterklaas, Kerstmis en Nieuwjaar

In 1944 Dick gave birth to their second son Onno, but this happened in difficult circumstances. Because of World War II the hospital conditions were less than favorable and Phiny suffered an exhausting birth process as a result, once again dangling between life and death. Mother and child survived, but Phiny had to remain in bed for several months to let a trombosis in her leg heal. Doctors adviced her to move as little as possible, which was frustrating for a creative woman like her. By the time she was allowed to leave the hospital she had lost a lot of weight. Dick eventually got healthy again, but another traumatic event happened soon after, as is depicted in Wim Hazeu's 2012 biography of Marten Toonder. One day, when her husband was out, the Sicherheitsdienst held a razzia in her home, looking for Fritz Gottesmann, a Jewish businessman with whom Toonder frequently had contact in secret. She refused to tell them anything, until they threatened to send her to concentration camp Vught and her two children to an orphanage. When the officer in question also threatened her baby's life, she eventually succombed to the pressure and gave them his address. Gottesmann was arrested the same month and sent off to Nazi camp Mauthausen, where he died in February 1945. All these traumatic events proved to be too much for Dick. As a creator of happy carefree children's stories she couldn't cope with the harsh reality of war times and the guilt she felt over what happened. She fell into a severe depression, but nevertheless tried to clear her mind by writing another children's novel, 'Schuimpje en Zigzag.' Yet her publisher objected to an illustration of a bare-breasted mermaid in her manuscript. When she refused to alter it, the book never came out. Having lost her only escapist project over such a ludicrous matter, Dick refrained from writing or drawing anything again until the end of the war.

When peace returned in the country, Dick resumed her artistic career. Even though she still published a third installment in her 'Miezelientje' book series, she felt she was no longer able to write innocent children's stories. A telling example of how the war changed her was a little text she wrote two weeks before Nazi Germany capitulated. The unpublished writings appear to be a foreword for a republication of one of her 'Pom the gnome' novels, but have such a cynical tone that it's understandable why they were never used. Dick writes how Pom "probably lost a lot of weight from the hunger he suffered during the war" and hides "his non-Aryan friend Rits the squirrel in his cellar." All other characters are now working "on the black market", while Owl is "now suspicious since he used to be a member of the Kulturkammer" (Toonder too was arrested over this matter). Dick finally bitterly remarks their forest might be "burned down, but if it survives she might once again tell some little adventures in which (...) treasure hunts will be the biggest sensations."

cover of Olle Kapoen, by Phiny Dick circa 1949

Oddly enough Dick never wrote children's novels again, yet did create some text comics with virtually the same innocent child friendly and carefree themes. It has never been explained by her, or any of her relatives, why she made this distinction? Her best known series, 'Olle Kapoen' (1945-1954), even featured the same gnome and animal characters as in 'Pom, Verk en Fop', though some under different names. The chubby bearded gnome Pom was now called Olle Kapoen. The beardless gnome Puk was rechristened Puck Toffel. Side characters like Verk the piglet and Uil the Owl reappeared under their original names. The three initial stories of the text comic ran from 22 October 1945 until 27 February 1946 in Het Amsterdams Dagblad. The series was continued in Het Algemeen Handelsblad from 2 November 1946 until 30 October 1954, after which 'Olle Kapoen' appeared in Het Binnenhof from 1 December 1954 until 15 November 1955. Precise credits are unknown, but Dick at least wrote the early stories and possibly also participated in some of the artwork. The first stories were illustrated by Coen van Hunnik, after which Toonder Studio staff artist Richard Klokkers became a prominent contributor. In 1958 and 1959 four stories were reworked to balloon comics for the weekly Disney magazine Donald Duck, presumably by Andries Brandt and Hans van Gorkom. 'Olle Kapoen' additionally appeared in the Belgian weekly De Zweep and newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws, and also as 'Chapon' in the French newspapers Le Républicain Lorrain and La Croix and as 'Tobias' in the Norwegian magazine Norsk Ukeblad. In Sweden it was published in Vårt Hem and Svenska Dagbladet, though under two different titles, respectively 'Ole Kapon' and 'Barney Bump'.


Tom Poes collections in the "Literaire Reuzenpocket" series of De Bezige Bij (1970s)

Sources differ on this matter, but Phiny Dick was possibly also involved in the early writings of her husband's post-war creations 'Kappie' (1946-1949, with Dirk Huizinga) and 'Panda' (1947-1948, with Jan Gerhard Toonder). On 27 December 1954 Dick published her final comics series, 'Birre Beer' (1954-1959) in Het Algemeen Handelsblad. This text comic told the adventures of a little bear named Birre whose naïvité always gets him in trouble. He is a good friend of Mirre, the daughter of a woodsman, and Socratov the mouse, who both frequently help him out whenever the need is highest. Phiny originally wrote the first scripts herself, while Ton Beek provided illustrations. Later she passed the pen on to her son Eiso and then to Andries Brandt, who continued the series until 28 March 1959. 'Birre Beer' was republished in Trouw and the Flemish children's magazine 't Kapoentje during the 1960s and 1970s.

Dick was also an accomplished portrait painter and creator of tapestries. When she and her husband moved to Greystones, Ireland, in 1965 she spent her final decades painting by nature. She also painted the covers for several of the 'Tom Poes' pocket books published by De Bezige Bij. In 1985 an exhibition of her work was held in Galerie Brink 7 in Yde, the Netherlands. Phiny Dick passed away in 1990, after a short coma. Her husband felt immense grief over her death and would survive her for 15 more years.

In 2012 Eiso Toonder published a 16-page book about his mother named 'Portret van Phiny Dick'. A bridge and a canal are named after Phiny Dick in the "Comics heroes" district of the Dutch city Almere. The district also has a street named after 'Olle Kapoen'.


Phiny Toonder in the late 1980s

Phiny Dik in De Nederlandse Stripgeschiedenis

Series and books by Phiny Dick in stock in the Lambiek Webshop:

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