Willeke 7 - 'De tinnen soldaatjes'

Edgard Gastmans is a Belgian comics 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 was eventually condemned for plagiarism.

Early years
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 of this comic strip was Willy Lateste and the comic has 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 the Gretrystraat in Antwerp in 1967, where he initially assisted Karel Verschuere in creating adventures of 'Bessy', along with Karel Biddeloo and Frank Sels. Verschuere was however fired shortly afterwards, and Biddeloo moved to Vandersteen's Kalmthout studio. Gastmans and the super-fast Frank Sels had offered Vandersteen to take complete control over the production of this popular western series, and got greenlighted. 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 comics 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. Gastmans didn't stay long at Studio Sels however. He made brief comeback at 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 was caught with plagiarism, though...

Willeke 1 - 'De triestige plant'

In the early 1970s Gastmans became an assistant for Jef Nys and helped him with his best-selling series 'Jommeke', among other projects. 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. 'Willeke' originally appeared as a sticker album distributed by Studio Ridiga. People could collect the entire story by buying 336 different stickers to puzzle the story together. The marketing tactic worked and soon 'Willeke' was established as a regular comics series, even reaching as far as six albums. A seventh album was considered, but by 1974 Gastmans had joined publishing company Kluwer where his comics could appear in color. Nevertheless only one more album appeared, because Gastmans ran into legal troubles.

Willeke by Edgard Gastmans
Willeke 4 - 'De draak van Kokoluput'

'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 basically copies of 'Jommeke' characters. Willeke was a blond boy like Jommeke, Bartje a black-haired sidekick not unlike Jommeke's friend Filiberke and they 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. Gastmans was sued for plagiarism and sentenced to discontinue 'Willeke' immediately. Oddly enough, an eighth album of 'Willeke' was published in 1999 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 comics artist to be sued by Jef Nys for plagiarism. 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). Nys won his case and both of these albums were not only forced to be taken off the market, but the remaining copies were also ordered to be destroyed.

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. In the 2010s his paintings have been exhibited in Deurne and Lier.

Willeke, by Edgar GastmansWilleke, by Edgar Gastmans


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