Willeke 7 - 'De Tinnen Soldaatjes'.

Edgard Gastmans is a Belgian comic artist and painter who has worked with Frank Sels on an immense story production for the German publisher Bastei Verlag with Willy Vandersteen's 'Bessy' and Sels' own 'Silberpfeil', and also as an assistant to Jef Nys. Nowadays he is mostly infamous for an obscure comic strip named 'Willeke' (1972-1974), whose graphic style and characters were so similar to Jef Nys' 'Jommeke' that the author threatened to sue for plagiarism if it wasn't discontinued instantly. He got his wish. 

Early life and career
Edgard Gastmans was born in 1938 in Antwerp. At the age of twelve he began his professional career as a colorist for Ray Goossens' animation studio. Between 1954 and 1957 Gastmans studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. When he was 17 years old he worked as an animator for Raymond Leblanc's animation studio Belvision, where he made graphic contributions to their feature film 'Pinocchio Dans L'Espace' ('Pinocchio in Outer Space', 1965). The picture was a critical and commercial flop, but did inspire a comic strip adaptation which was published in Tintin magazine in December of that same year. The artist behind this comic strip was Willy Lateste , but it never appeared in album format. Gastmans left the animation world and became a commercial designer for the Galerie Anspach in Brussels.

Studio Bessy
After some design work, he joined Willy Vandersteen's Studio Bessy in 1967, located in the Gretrystraat in Antwerp, where he initially assisted Karel Verschuere with co-creating the western series 'Bessy' alongside Karel Biddeloo and Frank Sels. However, Verschuere was fired shortly afterwards, and Biddeloo moved to Vandersteen's studio in Kalmthout. Gastmans and the super fast Frank Sels offered to take complete control over the production of 'Bessy' and received permission from Vandersteen.  Leaving aside a couple of fill-ins by other artists, Gastmans and Sels cranked out a full 'Bessy' story every week for the German publisher Bastei Verlag between October 1967 until June 1969. Daniël Janssens took care of the scriptwriting.

Studio Sels
But Frank Sels had more ambitions. By late 1968 he had contacted Bastei personally and struck a deal for his own Winnetou-like western comic, 'Silberpfeil, der Junge Häuptling' (1969-1988), which would appear on a weekly basis in Bastei's Felix magazine from 1969 onwards. Initially, Sels and Gastmans kept their position at Studio Bessy, so with an additional 14 pages of 'Silberpfeil', they had to produce a total of 42 comic pages each week. 'Silberpfeil' scriptwriter Hugo Renaerts stepped in and pencilled an occasional 'Bessy' story as well, but it goes without saying that quantity went before quality in this heavy production schedule. The two men often worked day and night to keep up. Bastei noticed the decline in quality and Sels had to choose. Sels and Gastmans left Vandersteen and now devoted all their time to 'Silberpfeil', which got its own bi-weekly in June 1970. Sels and Gastmans also made another comic strip about a Native American, 'Kleine Wapiti', though it basically rehashed 'Silberpfeil' again. 'Silberpfeil' also ran in Dutch under the title 'Zilverpijl'. 

Gastmans didn't stay long at Studio Sels however. He made brief return to Studio Bessy, until the German publisher noticed he had reworked an older 'Silberpfeil' story into a "new" 'Bessy' episode. He had only ammended the characters. Bastei informed Vandersteen, who immediately fired Gastmans. After all, the relationship had already soured when Sels and Gastmans went behind Vandersteen's back to launch their own competing comic strip. Gastmans then returned to drawing advertisements, but it wasn't the last time in his career that he would be caught with plagiarism...

Willeke 1 - 'De Triestige Plant'.

Assistance to Jef Nys
In the early 1970s Gastmans became an assistant for Jef Nys' best-selling series 'Jommeke', among other projects. He worked on the 51st album, 'De Fwietmachine'. However, one day Nys returned from a holiday and checked the work his assistants had done in his absence. He noticed that Gastmans' work looked very sloppy, in his opinion because he'd refused to put much effort into it. After a few more warnings Gastmans' work still didn't meet Nys' approval, so he fired him. Years later he still felt Gastmans made the most badly drawn 'Jommeke' stories ever. This also explains why he had them redrawn when these particular albums were reprinted. 

In 1972 Gastmans created a comic strip of his own named 'Willeke'. It stars two young boys, Willeke and Bartje, who own a talking crow named Jan. They enjoy typical children's adventure stories, often facing off against the recurring villains Brol and Krol. Some gag comics were made as well. 'Willeke' originally appeared as a sticker album distributed by Studio Ridiga through local small stores. For each purchase of 100 Belgian francs (2,5 euros in today's money) people could receive one sticker. People could collect the entire story by buying 336 of these stickers to puzzle the story together. Naturally this was quite expensive, but the final 20 episodes could be ordered directly through Gastmans personally. The marketing tactic worked and soon 'Willeke' was established as a regular comics series, even reaching as far as six albums. In 1974 Gastmans signed a contract with a different publisher, Kluwer, which allowed the seventh 'Willeke' story to appear in colour. Studio Ridiga also published another sticker album by Gastmans titled 'Soldaten Van Alle Tijden', which depicts how soldiers were armoured throughout history. 

Willeke by Edgard Gastmans
Willeke 4 - 'De Draak van Kokoluput'.

Meanwhile 'Willeke' caught the eye of Gastmans' former employee Jef Nys, who felt that this comic strip was unsubtly similar to 'Jommeke'. Not only did the graphic style, lay-out and dialogues look eerily the same: even the characters were copies. Willeke was a blond boy like Jommeke, Bartje a black-haired sidekick not unlike Jommeke's friend Filiberke. Willeke even owned a talking bird for a pet, much like Jommeke's parrot Flip. The only difference was that Bartje's bird was a crow, whose ability to talk made far less sense compared with a parrot. To finish it all off, the recurring bad guys Brol and Krol were pure rip-offs of the scoundrels Kwak and Boemel. What irked Nys the most was that the drawings were much better executed than the work Gastmans ever did for him. The plots of 'Willeke' were additionally stories that Gastmans had suggested for 'Jommeke', but which Nys had refused at the time. 

At first Nys just swallowed his anger, mostly because the albums were sold in small editions. But once publishing company Kluwer started to bring them out in colour Nys threatened to sue for plagiarism if 'Willeke' wasn't discontinued immediately. Kluwer instantly obeyed. An eighth album in the 'Willeke' series was finished but never published. At least not at the time. In 1999 it was eventually released for the Mercator Comic-Con, followed by a re-release of a few 'Willeke' stories by Uitgeverij Bonte. 

Gastmans was the first but not the last comic artist to get into legal trouble with Nys. Between 1994 and 1995 two pornographic parodies of 'Jommeke' were published under the name 'Pommeke' by an unknown author: 'Hete Avonturen' (1994) and 'Erop of Eronder' (1995). This time Nys actually sued the publisher and forced them to not only take the albums off the market, but also destroy all remaining copies. It wasn't just the fact that his characters were shown in sexual positions, but many images were directly traced from his stories. 

Later career
Since his 'Willeke' debacle not much has been heard about Edgard Gastmans. He returned to the academy and studied sculpting at the Academy of Mol and painting at the Academy of Lier. The man then started a new career in real estate. In the 2010s his paintings have been exhibited in Deurne and Lier.

Willeke, by Edgar GastmansWilleke, by Edgar Gastmans


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