Edgar Pierre Jacobs is one of the masters of Belgian comics, despite his small body of work. His signature series, 'Blake and Mortimer' (1946), only counts 11 albums by his own hand. Together with just one other stand-alone comic book, 'Le Rayon U' (1943), they form his entire oeuvre. All his other artwork was done in function of Hergé's 'Tintin' series, for which he contributed backgrounds, colouring and occasional plot suggestions in the mid 1940s. Yet all his comics are unanimously regarded as masterpieces of European comic book art. 'Blake and Mortimer' follows the suspenseful adventures of two Englishmen, a secret agent and a scientist. The duo gets involved in all kinds of atmospheric mystery thrillers with more fantastical elements like mad science, mind control, time travel, UFO's, Atlantis and the Third World War. A notorious perfectionist, Jacobs spent months preparing himself for each story. Every drawing and every plot element had to be realistic and believable. His obsessive research, beautifully detailed art work and suspenseful narratives made his comics timeless classics. One of them, 'Le Marque Jaune' ('The Yellow "M" ', 1954) has risen to iconic status in the Franco-Belgian comics scene.
Born in Brussels in 1904, Jacobs had an early fascination for both drawing and music. As a teenager he copied images from his history books, already showing the patience and eye for detail that ensured every line was correct. Among his earliest graphic influences were Christophe, Benjamin Rabier, Étienne Le Rallic, Henry Morin, Ferdinand Raffin, Henri Lanos, Machiatti, Manuel Orazi, Arthur Rackham, Edmond Dulac, Caran d'Ache, Sem, Boudini, Job, Hans Holbein, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Albrecht Dürer, François Clouet, J.P. Laurens, Georges-Antoine Rochegrosse, Dormon, Hippolyte Delaroche, Henri Leys, Gustave Wappers and particularly Georges Omry. One of Jacobs' schoolmates was Jacques Laudy, with whom he would later work together for the magazines Bravo and Tintin. Another significant event in his life was an accident that occured when he was about three or four years old. While playing in his uncle's garden he suddenly fell into a deep pit and had to wait several minutes before he was saved, though to him it seemed more like hours. He never forgot this traumatic experience and several 'Blake and Mortimer' stories feature characters roaming around in caves, cellars, basements and secret tunnels.
For a long while Jacobs couldn't decide which career path to choose. On one hand he wanted to become an illustrator of history books. He studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels and illustrated catalogues for shops like the Innovation, Le Bon Marché and Le Grand Bazar. At the same time, he also dreamed of working in the world of opera. Jacobs drew, painted and designed many sets. He even performed on stage and won a governmental medal in 1929 for his excellent voice. He sang in the Casino de Paris and the Opéra de Lille and shared a stage with huge stars such as Mistinguett. Had World War II not interfered he might have been remembered today as an opera legend.
After the Nazis occupied Belgium in 1940, Jacobs was forced to seek a more lucrative job. He became a designer of jewelry and lace, retouched photographs and made publicity drawings. Jacques Laudy helped him gain a job as illustrator for the magazine Bravo in 1941. As fate would have it, he also published his first comics there. Bravo published a translated version of Alex Raymond's 'Flash Gordon', but when the Nazis prohibited the import of American comics, the series was interrupted halfway a story. To avoid losing readers Jacobs was asked to think up the rest of the tale and draw it himself. For someone with no experience in comics he incapsulated Raymond's style perfectly. However, only a few weeks later Nazi censors even discontinued this home-based imitation.
The editors of Bravo then asked Jacobs to draw a science fiction comic of his own, but somewhat reminscent of 'Flash Gordon'. The end result, 'Le Rayon U' ('The U Ray', 1943), was impressive and proved he was capable of combining his graphical skills with talent for narration. While the atmosphere and some characters still echoed the influence of 'Flash Gordon', it also introduced prototypes of characters Jacobs would later develop in his own 'Blake and Mortimer' series. Marduk, Calder and Dagon look and act very similar to Mortimer, Blake and Olrik. Stylistically it was a text comic, with the dialogue written below the images, but 30 years later it would be republished in the magazine Tintin with speech bubbles. 'Le Rayon U' is also historically important for being the first Belgian science fiction comic.
Between 1944 and 1946, Jacobs published in Stop and ABC. While working on a theatrical adaptation of the 'Tintin' story 'Les Cigares du Pharaon' ('Cigars of the Pharaoh') Jacobs met 'Tintin' creator Hergé. They got along, despite Hergé's hatred for opera, and soon Jacobs was hired to restyle several of the earlier black-and-white 'Tintin' albums for color publication, more specifically 'Tintin in the Congo', 'Tintin in America', 'The Blue Lotus' and 'King Ottokar's Sceptre'. Jacobs not only colorized the stories, but also drew new backgrounds. As a sign of gratitude, Hergé added cameos of Jacobs in 'Cigars of the Pharaoh' (as the mummified archeologist E.P. Jacobini) and in 'King Ottokar's Sceptre' (as a military officer standing next to Hergé when Tintin is removed from intruding the king's palace). Hergé also claimed that Jacobs was a major inspiration for some of Captain Haddock's energetic outbursts. A large part of the plot of the new Tintin stories 'The Seven Crystal Balls' and 'Prisoners of the Sun' was co-written by Jacobs. This would eventually provide tensions when Hergé refused to credit his contributions. By 1947 Jacobs terminated the collaboration.
However, Jacobs and Hergé remained on good terms otherwise. When the magazine Tintin was founded in 1946, Jacobs' own comics series, 'Blake & Mortimer', was already present in the first issue. The moustached secret agent William Blake and his bearded friend, the scientist Philip Mortimer would soon become some of the most iconic and admired Belgian comic characters of all time. Jacobs modelled Blake after Jacques Laudy, while Blake was inspired by Tintin's editor-in-chief Jacques Van Melkebeke, though in both cases the characters' facial hairs were additions by the author. The physical appearance of arch nemesis Colonel Olrik was inspired both by Hitler as well as Jacobs's own face.
The first 'Blake & Mortimer' story 'Le Secret de l'Espadon' ('The Secret of the Swordfish', 1946) was an action-packed science fiction tale that still echoed the events of the only recently ended Second World War. The two friends get involved in a new world war where the Japanese army conquers the entire planet. The two-parter 'Le Mystère de la Grande Pyramide' ('The Mystery of the Great Pyramid', 1950), was set in Egypt and had a similar atmosphere to Tintin's 'Cigars of the Pharaoh', with Blake and Mortimer exploring an Egyptian tomb. Early stories such as these sometimes suffer from an overabundance in text in both speech balloons as well as captions. Gradually Jacobs found his balance and created stories which are widely considered to be highlights in the history of comics. Working in the same "Ligne Claire" ("Clear Line") as Hergé and with the same eye for realism, suspense and documentation, 'Blake and Mortimer' is a worthy equivalent of 'Tintin', minus the comedy. The stories are atmospheric mystery thrillers with a touch of fantasy and science fiction. The highly realistic artwork makes everything all the more believable.
Jacobs' masterpiece is without a doubt 'Le Marque Jaune' ('The Yellow "M"', 1956). The plot revolves around a mysterious villain who terrorizes London by informing the press in advance where he is going to strike. As a signature he leaves an "M" in a yellow circle behind. Parts of the story were inspired by the classic film thrillers 'M' (1931) by Fritz Lang and Karl Freund's 'Mad Love' (1935). The page-turning suspense is comparable to the best film noirs and its detailed depiction of 1950s foggy London provides an unintentional time capsule. 'The Yellow "M"' has risen to classic status in Franco-Belgian comics and the iconic album cover alone has been referenced, homaged and parodied numerous times. In 1997, at the Comics Festival of Koksijde, the book was voted "Best Comic Book Story of the 20th Century". It received a similar honor two years later from the "Bronzen Adhemar" jury. Since 2005 the wall of the Rue du Houblon/Hopstraat in Brussels has a depiction of the album cover of 'The Yellow "M"', designed by G. Oreopoulos and D. Vandegeerde.
A meticulous perfectionist, Jacobs tried to make his drawings as accurate as possible and his plots watertight. Whenever he lacked necessary info for the story he refused to continue until he had obtained it. He made sketches on location or acquired photographs of places he couldn't simply visit, such as a Caïro museum, the Tower of London or the sewers of Paris. A famous anecdote goes that the artist once needed an image of a Japanese rubbish bin for a story. As he couldn't find one in Belgium itself he sent a letter to the Belgian embassy in Tokyo asking them for a photograph of the object. For months the story was interrupted and the drawing left unfinished. Finally Jacobs received a reply and the desired photograph... only to discover that a Japanese rubbish bin looks exactly like any other bin!
Jacobs also had the habit to redraw entire pages if he disliked the end result, even if that meant starting all over again and rewrite the plot. Once he threw out the entire first part of 'L'Enigme de l'Atlantide' ('The Enigma of Atlantis') after learning that Willy Vandersteen was working on a similar story about Martians ('De Gezanten van Mars') for his humoristic series 'Suske en Wiske'. Afraid that his readers wouldn't be able to take his story seriously anymore he changed the plot to a story about the hidden continent of Atlantis.
Jacobs' painstaking research and perfectionism also explains why only eight long stories were drawn, namely 'The Secret of the Swordfish' (1950-1953, spread over three albums), 'The Mystery of the Great Piramid' (1954-1955, spread over two albums), 'The Yellow "M"' (1956), 'L'Enigme de l'Atlantide' ('The Enigma of Atlantis', 1957), 'S.O.S. Météores: Mortimer à Paris' ('S.O.S. Meteors: Mortimer in Paris', 1959), 'Le Piège Diabolique' ('The Time Trap', 1962), 'L'Affaire du Collier' ('The Necklace Affair', 1967) and 'Les Trois Formules du Professeur Sato ('Professor Sató's 3 Formulae', 1971, 1990). All of these were published in book format by Le Lombard.
From the 1960s on his production started to slow down. His story 'Les Trois Formules du Professeur Sato' (1971) never got further than the first part. Realizing his own mortality he published his autobiography, 'Un Opéra de papier' ('An Opera on Paper') in 1981. When the unavoidable day of passing eventually came in 1987, the second part of 'Les Trois Formules du Professeur Sato' was still only a script on paper. Bob De Moor finished the story based on the writings Jacobs left behind.
In 1996 Jean Van Hamme and Ted Benoit were given permission to continue the franchise. They co-wrote the album 'L'Affaire Francis Blake' ('The Francis Blake Affair, 1996), the first to be published through the new imprint Éditions Blake et Mortimer. The next story, 'La Machination Voronov' ('The Voronov Plot', 2000) was scripted by Yves Sente, drawn by André Juillard and colorized by Didier Conrad. Van Hamme and Benoit teamed up a final time for 'L'Étrange Rendez-Vous' ('The Strange Encounter', 2001), after which Sente and André Juillard created the double album 'Les Sarcophages du Sixième Continent' ('The Sarcophagi of the Sixth Continent', 2003-2004) and the stand-alone 'Le Sanctuaire du Gondwana' ('The Gondwana Shrine', 2008). Van Hamme returned for 'La Malédiction des Trente Deniers' ('The Curse of the Thirty Denarii', 2012), but the artwork was provided by René Sterne and his partner Chantal De Spiegeleer, with further graphical assistance from Antoine Aubin and Étienne Schreder. Sente and Juillard teamed up again for 'Le Serment des Cinq Lords' ('The Oath of the Five Lords', 2012) and 'L'Onde Septimus' ('The Septimus Wave', 2013), which is a sequel to 'The Yellow "M"'. Jean Dufaux wrote the script for the next story, 'La Bâton de Plutarque' ('The Staff of Plutarch', 2014), with Antoine Aubin and Étienne Schreder providing the drawings.
Between 1997 and 1998 Ellipse adapted the series into an animated TV series. The first nine episodes were straight adaptations of the original albums, while the four others were stories created by the animators.
With the new titles of 'Blake & Mortimer' outselling even the albums drawn during Jacobs' lifetime, his legacy seems safe for future generations. In 1999 the French newspaper Le Monde compiled a list with 100 Books of the Century they considered to be essential reading. The entire 'Blake and Mortimer' series ended at 90th place, as one of the few comics in that list. The franchise even inspired a parody: 'Les Aventures de Philip et Francis' by Pierre Veys and Nicolas Barral.
Les amis de Jacobs