Cordelia, by Ilah
'Cordelia'. Translation: Cordelia is phoned by her former lover, whom she tells: "Well, you shouldn't have left, then, is it not?!" Then she sighs: "Oh, how sweet I am again..."

Inge Heremans, who signs her work with her initials Ilah, is most famous for her character 'Cordelia' (1996-2019). She is by far the best-known female cartoonist/comic artist in Flanders, yet her popularity isn't relugated to women's publications alone. Her comics can be read in most major Flemish newspapers and magazines and have appeared in the Netherlands and France too. 'Cordelia' has also promoted the annual Antwerp book market, as well as the bus company De Lijn. As such, her style is instantly recognizable to many. She mainly works in the gag comics format, but manages to avoid its formulaic nature. Her characters are not confined by one particular characteristic trait, environment or profession. She draws much of her inspiration from recognizable everyday situations, without necessarily working to a clear punchline. Much of her comedy comes from Cordelia's unpredictable mood swings or inner thoughts. Ilah also broke new ground by addressing women's sex lives. Several cartoons show her characters in the nude, either between the sheets with their lover or alone with a vibrator. While quite direct, the eroticism is never vulgar and always playful. Ilah has also adapted her travel experiences into comics. By drawing gags and semi-autobiographical storylines, Ilah is one of the few Flemish comic artists who managed to reach a mass audience without holding herself back on personal themes.

Travel diary by Ilah
Travel diary in comics format.

Early life and career
Inge Liesbeth Alfonsina Heremans was born in 1971 in Perk, not far from Leuven (Louvain) and spent her adolescent years in an old-fashioned Catholic convent school. Contrary to many other people, she has no bad memories about her religious education. Her teachers were nuns who were quite open-minded. When Ilah went to study German Philogy at the University of Leuven/Louvain, she dropped out after a few months. She didn't like the course and favoured going to art academy instead. In 1989, she picked a course in Applied Graphics at the St. Lucas Institute in Brussels. Her parents weren't pleased with her decision and she had to bring in her high school Latin / art history teacher to convince them. Eventually, she was allowed to study at St. Lucas and graduated succesfully.

Ilah read many of the Belgian comic classics, like Willy Vandersteen's 'Suske en Wiske', Marc Sleen's 'Nero', Jef Nys' 'Jommeke', Merho's 'De Kiekeboes', but underwent more influence from François Bourgeon, Didier ComèsPeter van Straaten and Lorenzo Mattotti. She was also interested in the work of Belgian animator Nicole Van Goethem, whose film 'A Greek Tragedy' won the 1987 Oscar for Best Animated Short. Nevertheless, in several interviews, Ilah claimed that, compared with some of her colleagues, she was never that extraordinarily interested in comics and cartoons. After Ilah's graduation, she decided to pursue a study in philosophy at the University of Leuven. Encouraged by friends, she sent in some of her drawings to local Flemish newspapers. In 1997, Ilah graduated in philosophy. Since 2008, she is a teacher at St. Lucas School of Arts in Brussels, where she still works today. 

Cordelia's debut in 1996.

Ilah was still in college when on 14 February 1996 her daily comic strip 'Cordelia' was first published in the newspaper De Morgen. Around the same time, she and her partner had their first child, making the extra income more than welcome. It stars a young woman, Cordelia, with a playful, somewhat looney streak. She likes to joke about, but often speaks before thinking. At times ,she is embarrassingly frank and awkward in the presence of others. Other cartoons show her as a merciless bitch or a vulnerable depressed woman in need of comfort. Cordelia is prone to unexpected mood changes, which sometimes happen in just one panel. This is always a golden opportunity for Ilah to give her character hilariously grotesque faces.

By showing such a wide variety in personality traits, Cordelia feels less like a stereotypical one-dimensional comic character and more like a real and complex human being. The character evolved from Ilah's personal diaries, which she kept in college. She not only wrote down her thoughts, but expressed them in little comics and cartoons. She usually took herself as main character, which explains why Cordelia shares a physical resemblance with her. Ilah acknowledged that Cordelia is her alter ego, but not all comics are autobiographical. Some gags were inspired by people she knows, met or just observed in the street or on the bus. Her private life is also a source of inspiration - her husband also often comes up with ideas - but she still changes details for greater comedic potential. In 1999, Cordelia received her own page in Mix, the youth supplement of De Morgen. She also found a spot in the newspaper De Tijd. Ilah's signature work was in syndication for almost 23 years (1996-2019). 

Mira by Ilah
French-language 'Mira' strip. Translation: "I know it's stupid to say so now, but Mira: I love you." Mira: "Well, you know: I rather prefer afterwards than before." 

In 'Cordelia', Ilah once introduced a male side character, Ivan, based on a former colleague. Ivan is an untactful and obnoxious man. In 2000, he received his own spin-off comic in De Morgen. Later 'Ivan' moved to Vrouwen Met Vaart, the magazine of the female farmers' union. Developing a distaste of the character, Ilah felt it was fitting that an oafish twit like Claus ended up in a farmer's niche publication. 

Ilah also created the gag comic 'Ivan', whose comedic endeavors ran in the men's magazine Menzo. His gags were scripted by Guillaume Vanderstichelen.

For the children's magazine Klap, Ilah drew 'Mini', a young girl variation of Cordelia. The gag comic was also published in Zazie, the youth supplement of the Brussels magazine Bruzz.

In 2006, another female character by Ilah, the curly-haired Mira, made her debut in the women's magazine Flair. Mira can be described as a more gentle and more dignified version of Cordelia. 

Vandaag de Dag
On 13 March 2012, Ilah's gag comic 'Vandaag de Dag' ('Nowadays') debuted in the financial-economical newspaper De Tijd. The gags offer a human element behind rather abstract reports about recession, taxes and budget cuts by showing families directly affected by changes in policies and stock markets.

Other publications
llah's work has also been published in Knack, Focus Knack, Goed Gevoel, Ad Valvas, Vacature and De Standaard. In the Netherlands, she can be read in the newspaper Algemeen Handelsblad, as well as the weblogs Frontaal Naakt and GeenStijl. In French, her comics can be enjoyed in L'Écho des Savanes. Her books are published by Oogachtend in landscape format and usually accompanied by saucy titles.

Cartoon for De Tijd by Ilah
Cartoon from the 'Vandaag de Dag' series in De Tijd (2014). Translation: "And this one?" - "Oh dear, unemployed. Should we do this? They don't want to work anyway?"

Ilah is a master in bringing characters to life with only a few well chosen lines. Contrary to many other gag-a-day cartoonists, she doesn't rely on lame puns or obnoxious punchlines. Much of her comedy is observational and deals with recognizable everyday situations between men, women and children. Some cartoons don't have a clear "joke", but center more around a touching moment which brings a smile to the readers' face. Couples being intimate, parents dealing with endearing questions from their children... Cordelia, in particular, is often alone with her thoughts. Sometimes she feels sad about ageing or wonders about the mystery of life. She can be cranky, yet feel guilty about it afterwards. In other cartoons the woman has a sudden desire to go wild with anger or joy. Or gets scared because she feels "too happy". Little moments like these stay with the reader. They also make Ilah's comics far more unpredictable than her rivals.

Her work is notable for featuring no speech balloons, typeface lettering or frames. Each separate image is shown against a white background with the text usually handwritten above or next to the characters' heads. Her characters, apart from the main protagonist, usually remain nameless. They all speak standard Dutch, but occasionally use Flemish dialect expressions. It gives her work an authentic feel, without coming across as a forced gimmick, and adds to a very intimate atmosphere. Sometimes pigeonholed as a "feminist" artist, Ilah's work isn't political or socially conscious at all. She finds just as much comedy in men as she does in women, without coming across as being gender obsessed. Overall, none of her characters are particularly noble, bad, wise or stupid. They just sometimes say or do things which confuse or embarrass others. Even though Ilah can be quite sarcastic in her work, it never gets too cynical. It shows life for what it is: a series of ups and downs which ultimately are so absurd that one might as well have some fun with it.

'Cordelia'. Cordelia notices the man is distracted, but he blames it on her cleavage. Cordelia: "It's only tits, you know. Fat and glands. Udders."

Sexual themes
A discussion about Ilah's cartoons wouldn't be complete without delving into sex. When she debuted in the 1990s, this wasn't a common topic in most mainstream Flemish comics. Her characters often appear in the nude or are seen before, during or after sex. She also addressed an even bigger taboo: masturbation. Cordelia and Mira sometimes enjoy their vibrator or sex toys. The direct depiction of sex attracted quite some attention, parcticularly since these cartoons were made by a woman. However, to Ilah sex is just one of many aspects of life. In interviews, she explained that it would feel odd to her not to discuss it, nor find some comedy in it. Overall, the topic is presented so matter-of-fact that nobody objects to it at all. The nudity is handled tastefully, without overly eroticizing her characters.

Cordelia by Ilah
'Translation: "Say, Cordelia: are you angry? She is not, you know." Cordelia: "Traitor!" 

Merchandising and public awareness campaigns
Ilah's work is very prominent in the Flemish landscape, most notably as part of the Belgian public transport company De Lijn, who made Cordelia appear inside and outside many buses and streetcars. In 2002, she drew advertisements for an awareness campaign by the Maatschappelijke Jongeren Actie to remind youngsters of the dangers of alcohol. In 2005, Ilah made an illustrated contribution to another campaign by the same organisation to promote condom machines. The Fnac store let her design a hand bag in 2006, while she also promoted reading by working for the literary website and the annual Antwerp book market. Her work was used to promote the 2011 campaign 'Vergeet Dementie, Onthou Mens' ('Forget Dementia, Remember The Human') to combat the negative public perception of dementia. 

De Barabass by Ilah
Suske & Wiske - 'De Barabass'

Graphic contributions
Ilah collaborated with actress An Nelissen on the theater monologue 'Gestript/Gestroopt' ('Stripped/Poached', 2008), where Nelissen played a middle-aged woman confronted with a graphic version of herself, drawn by Ilah. She also illustrated books like 'De Erotische Verbeelding' (2003) by Ann Cuyvers, Ingrid Neujens and Peter Perceval, 'De Penismonoloog' (2003) by Peter Perceval and Nigel Williams and 'De Pikorde' (2006) by Marleen Finoulst and D. Vanderschueren. Ilah also designed the album cover of 'Vrouwen Bijten' (2015) by musician RudeS. 

In 2005, Ilah was one of many comic artists who made a graphical contribution to Merho's 'De Kiekeboes' album 'Bij Fanny op Schoot' (Standaard Uitgeverij). In the story Cordelia is interviewed by Fanny Kiekeboe.  On 28 December 2010, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of  Kim Duchateau's character Esther Verkest, P-Magazine organized a special, where various artists, including Ilah, drew a graphic tribute.  Five years later she joined the ranks of Charel Cambré, Jan Bosschaert, Ivan Adriaenssens, Kim Duchateau and Kris Martens to draw a one-shot special 'Suske en Wiske' comic book to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Willy Vandersteen's popular franchise. The profits went to S.O.S. Children's Villages. Her album, 'De Barabass' (2015), drew Vandersteen's characters in her own style and was scripted by radio host Siska Schoeters. For Ilah this was the first long adventure story she ever drew. 

Ilah joined several Belgian cartoonists to make special cartoons and comics for Gilles Dal’s book "België, Et Cetera" (Van Halewyck, 2016), a funny look at the history of Belgium. In 2017, she was one of many comic artists to pay tribute to André Franquin's 'Gaston Lagaffe' in the collective homage album 'Gefeliciflaterd!' (2017). In 2020, she joined 75 Dutch & Flemish comic artists to make a graphic contribution to the free collective comic book ‘Striphelden versus Corona’ (Oogachtend, Uitgeverij L, 2020). The book is intended to support comics stores who had to close their doors for two months during the lockdown at the height of the COVID-19 virus pandemic. 

Written contributions
In 2007, Ilah wrote a contribution to 'Er was geenszins' (Oogachtend, 2007), an absurd fairy tale book aimed at an adult audience, for which Kim Duchateau provided illustrations. 

"Final" Cordelia cartoon from 2011. Cordelia says that she has been told that people wouldn't miss her. Final panel: "And?"

Some critics have held Ilah's gender against her, implying that she might not have received such media attention if she wasn't the only prominent female comic artist in Flanders. The artist has defended herself against this sexist criticism, stating that she had quite the opposite feeling at times. Early in her career, various magazines refused her work and adviced her to go to a women's magazine instead. One of her cartoons caused a minor stir in 2003, because it had Cordelia wonder what it would be like to have parents like Filip Dewinter, Alexandra Colen, Gerolf Annemans and Johan Demol (all politicians of the extreme-right party Vlaams Belang). Cordelia then concluded that "they might be very good mums and dads... After all Hitler took great care of his own dog too." The cartoon resulted in an official complaint from the party. After she took a lawyer and kept the brouhaha out of the press, the party dropped their complaint again. 

Cancellation, triumphant revival and... recancellation. 
The surest sign how much readers have come to love Ilah's comics occurred in 2011, when De Morgen cancelled 'Cordelia' after almost twenty years of non-stop syndication. According to her editor they wanted to cut down expenses and told her that "her character wouldn't be missed." A huge backlash from readers over the decision proved quite the contrary. After a few months, Ilah returned to the paper in triumph, and since 20 April 2013 she publishes her musings in comics diary format in the paper. Yet on 19 January 2019, it was announced that Ilah would be publishing her last cartoons in De Morgen, once again because the newspaper wanted to cut down expenses. 

Legacy, celebrity fans and influence
Ilah's work is admired by several fellow cartoonists, among them Kim Duchateau, Pedro Elias, Brecht EvensMaaike Hartjes, LectrrMerhoAimée de Jongh, Eva Mouton and Fleur van Groningen. Among the many other Flemish and Dutch celebrities who have declared themselves fans have been musicians Chantal Acda and RudeS, sports journalist Aster Nzeyimana, actress Sien Eggers, TV director Jan Eelen, columnist Marc Reynebeau, comedians Bart Cannaerts, Lukas Lelie, Katrijn van Bouwel, novelists Tom Lanoye, Herman Brusselmans, Heleen Debruyne and Saskia de Coster and radio and TV hosts Chantal Pattyn, Ayco Duyster, Heidi Lenaerts, Tom Lenaerts, Layla El-Dekmak, Ilse Liebens, Tim van Aelst and Frieda van Wyck. 

Ilah is one of several Belgian cartoonists who are a member of the collective and website The Cartoonist, established by Marec, where Belgian cartoonists make their archived and new work available to the public. Musician RudeS once wrote a song about her, titled 'Een Karakter van Ilah'. Since 30 November 2007 Cordelia also has her own comic book wall in the Keizerstraat in Antwerp, not far from the local Ufsia University. 

Books about Ilah
Ilah was interviewed in Roel Daenen's book 'Het Is Maar Om Te Lachen. Hoe Cartoonisten De Wereld Veranderen' (Polis, 2016), which collects interviews with Belgian cartoonists regarding censorship, in the light of the 2015 terrorist attacks at Charlie-Hebdo's headquarters. 

Self-portrait from 2013.

Series and books by Ilah you can order today:


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