Willeke #7 - 'De Tinnen Soldaatjes'.

Edgard Gastmans is a Belgian comic artist, animator and painter. In the late 1960s he worked for Willy Vandersteen's studio, alongside Frank Sels, producing stories of the western comic 'Bessy' for German publisher Bastei Verlag. When Sels left Vandersteen, Gastmans assisted him on his own western series 'Silberpfeil', for the same publisher. In the early 1970s, Gastmans was also an assistant of Jef Nys, helping him out with his signature children's series 'Jommeke'. However, after Nys fired him, Gastmans launched his own comic series, 'Willeke' (1972-1974), which gained infamy as  shameless plagiarism of 'Jommeke'. Although 'Willeke' sold well, Nys' threatened with legal action, which led to its instant cancellation. Since then, Gastmans has concentrated on painting. 

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 adaptation, 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, Gastmans 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 Sels received permission to take over the entire production of 'Bessy'. Apart from a couple of fill-ins by other artists, they 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. Sels, however, had higher ambitions. In late 1968 he contacted Bastei Verlag and signed a deal to produce a western comic of his own for them. 

Studio Sels
Frank Sels' western comic 'Silberpfeil, der Junge Häuptling' (1969-1988) went into production for German publisher Bastei Verlag and appeared on a weekly basis in their magazine Felix from 1969 onwards. Initially Sels and Gastmans combined 'Silberpfeil' with their work for Willy Vandersteen's series 'Bessy'. On top of their weekly 42 'Bessy' pages, they had to create an additional 14 'Silberpfeil' pages. '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. Sels and Gastmans often worked day and night to keep up. Bastei Verlag 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 magazine in June 1970. Sels and Gastmans also made another comic strip about a Native American, 'Kleine Wapiti', basically a rehash of 'Silberpfeil'. '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. The only difference were the main characters. Bastei informed Vandersteen, who immediately fired Gastmans. Since Sels and Gastmans' 'Silberpfeil' was in direct competion with Vandersteen's 'Bessy', their professional relationship had already soured. Gastmans returned to drawing advertisements, but it wouldn't be 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 was an assistant on 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 Nys still felt Gastmans made the most badly drawn 'Jommeke' stories ever. Decades later, when the stories were reprinted, Nys let other assistants redraw all his artwork. 

In 1972 Gastmans created a comic strip of his own: '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. By buying 336 stickers the story could be puzzled together. While the price was expensive, buyers could order the final 20 episodes directly through Gastmans' work address. The marketing tactic worked: 'Willeke' sold well enough to develop into a regular comic series. Six comic book albums were published. 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, 'Soldaten Van Alle Tijden', which depicts how soldiers were armoured throughout history. 

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

'Willeke' caught the eye of Gastmans' former employer Jef Nys, who felt that the graphic style, lay-out, typography, poses and dialogues looked suspiciously similar to his own series 'Jommeke'. The main characters were direct copies of his own cast members. Willeke is a blond boy like Jommeke. His black-haired sidekick Bartje is similar to Jommeke's friend Filiberke. Willeke even owns a talking bird, much like Jommeke's parrot Flip. The only difference is that Bartje's pet is a crow, whose ability to talk makes far less sense compared with a parrot. The recurring villains Brol and Krol are pure rip-offs of the scoundrels Kwak and Boemel. Much to Nys' irritation, the artwork was far better executed than what Gastmans created at his studio. The plots were stories Gastmans had once suggested for 'Jommeke', but which Nys had rejected.

At first, Nys simply swallowed his anger, mostly because 'Willeke' was only distributed in small editions. But once publishing company Kluwer brought them out in color, Nys had enough. He sent them a letter, threatening with legal action if they continued this decoction of his work. Kluwer instantly obeyed. An eighth album in the 'Willeke' series was finished, but never published. Only two decades later, it was eventually released for the Mercator Comic-Con, followed by a reprint 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 by an unknown author. Here the innocent child hero was renamed 'Pommeke'. His albums, 'Hete Avonturen' (1994) and 'Erop of Eronder' (1995), featured 'Jommeke' characters in graphic sex scenes, with lots of images directly traced from Nys' albums. This time Nys sued the publisher, Libidos Erotheken. The court case ended in his favor. All 'Pommeke' stories had to be taken off the market and the remaining copies were destroyed on legal order. 

Later career
Since his 'Willeke' debacle, not much has been heard from 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
'Willeke' albums. Note the horse on the second cover, directly plagiarized from Jolly Jumper in Morris' 'Lucky Luke'. 


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