Inge Liesbeth Alfonsina Heremans, who signs her work with her initials Ilah, is most famous for her character 'Cordelia'. She is by far the best known female cartoonist/comics 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 as well. '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 as well as semi-autobiographical storylines, Ilah is one of the few Flemish comics artists who managed to reach a mass audience without having to hold herself back on personal themes.
Inge Heremans was born in Leuven in 1971 and spent her adolescent years in an old-fashioned Catholic convent school. Originally she studied German Philology, but dropped out after a few months. In 1989 she chose for a course in Applied Graphics at the St. Lucas Institute in Brussels where she graduated. Ilah has often claimed not being particularly interested or disinterested in comics. She did read many of the Belgian classics, like Willy Vandersteen's 'Suske en Wiske', Marc Sleen's 'Nero', Jef Nys' 'Jommeke', Merho's 'De Kiekeboes' and underwent influence from François Bourgeon, Didier Comès and Lorenzo Mattotti, but felt most interested in the work of Belgian animator Nicole Van Goethem, whose film 'A Greek Tragedy' won the 1987 Oscar for Best Animated Short. After her graduation Ilah 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. She was still in college when her daily comic strip 'Cordelia' was first published in the newspaper De Morgen on Valentine's Day 1996. Around the same time she and her partner had their first child, making the extra income more than welcome. Three years later Cordelia received her own page in Mix, the paper's youth supplement. Cordelia also found a spot in the newspaper De Tijd. In 1997 Ilah graduated in philosophy and became a teacher at St. Lucas School of Arts in Brussels, where she still works today.
Cordelia's debut in 1996
'Cordelia' is Ilah's signature work, in syndication for almost 25 years by now (2017). It stars a young woman 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. She 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 comics character and more like a real and complex human being. Many readers have interpreted her as Ilah's alter ego. Since they share a visual resemblance this comparison is not unusual. The artist herself has acknowledged this to some degree, but stated that not all her 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 a source of inspiration too - her husband also often comes up with ideas - but she still changes details for greater comedic potential.
Other comics by Ilah are 'Claus', an untactful and obnoxious man who was based on a former colleague of her. He was originally introduced as a side character in 'Cordelia' and received his own spin-off comic in De Morgen in 2000. Later he moved to Vrouwen Met Vaart, the magazine of the female farmers' union. Another male character is 'Ivan', who can be enjoyed in the men magazine Menzo. His gags were scripted by Guillaume Vanderstichelen. For the children's magazine Klap she draws 'Mini', who is a child variant of Cordelia. It is also published in Zazie, the youth supplement of the Brussels magazine Bruzz. In 2006 the curly-haired Mira made her debut in the women's magazine Flair, a character that can be described as a more gentle and toned-down version of Cordelia. In 2012 Ilah created another comic strip, 'Vandaag de Dag' ('Nowadays'), published in De Tijd. Inspired by everyday financial and economic news, it provides the human element behind rather abstract reports about recession, taxes and budget cuts by showing families directly affected by changes in policies and stock markets. Ilah'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 het Algemeen Handelsblad, as well as the weblogs Frontaal Naakt and GeenStijl. In French it can be enjoyed in L'Echo des Savanes. Her books are published in oblong format by Oogachtend and are usually accompanied by saucy titles.
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 good, 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 its 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.
A discussion about Ilah's cartoons wouldn't be complete without delving into the topic of sex. When she debuted in the 1990s this was still not a common topic in most mainstream Flemish comics. Her characters often appear in the nude or are seen before, during or after sex with their partner. She also addressed an even bigger taboo: masturbation. Cordelia and Mira are sometimes enjoying 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.
Ilah's work has been praised by Flemish celebrities such as TV presenter and journalist Frieda Van Wijck and columnist/journalist Marc Reynebeau. Her work is also 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 busses 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 Boek.be 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. Since 2007 Cordelia also has her own comic book wall in the Keizersstraat in Antwerp, not far from the local university.
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 graphical 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. In 2005 Ilah was one of many comics artists who made a graphical contribution to Merho's 'De Kiekeboes' album 'Bij Fanny op Schoot'. In the story Cordelia is interviewed by Fanny Kiekeboe. Ten years later Ilah 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's work has reached such popularity that naturally criticism couldn't be avoided. Some have hold her gender against her, implying that she might not have received such media attention if she wasn't the only prominent female comics artist in Flanders. Ilah has defended herself against this rather sexist remark, 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. These minor criticisms aside Ilah's popularity endures. The surest sign how much readers have come to love her comics occured 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 2013 she publishes her musings in comics diary format in the paper.