Sophie by Jidehem
Sophie - 'Les Quattre Saisons'.

Jean de Mesmaeker, better known under his pseudonym Jidéhem, is part of the second generation of the so-called "School of Marcinelle", along with Peyo, Tillieux and Roba. A contributor to Spirou magazine from the 1950s through the 1990s, he is best known as the creator of 'Sophie' (1965-1994), a series about a lovely young girl and her inventor father. The comic is historically important for being the first comic series in Spirou to have a female character as its protagonist, soon followed by Roger Leloup's 'Yoko Tsuno' (1970) and François Walthéry's 'Natacha' (1970). Jidéhem was furthermore an assistant to André Franquin, with whom he worked together on 'Spirou et Fantasio' and the early 'Gaston Lagaffe' gags. Jidéhem was particularly renowned for his expertise in making technical drawings, especially automobiles.

Ginger, by Jidéhem
'Ginger' comic from Héroïc-Albums.

Early life and career
He was born in Brussels in 1935, and picked up drawing at age eight while being at home for a long period due to an illness. His first major influence were the 'Tintin' stories by Hergé. He got his artistic education at the Brussels-based Institut Saint-Luc. While still a student, he presented his work to Fernand Cheneval, the publisher of the weekly comic magazine Héroïc-Albums. The publication was inspired by the adult tone of American comic books and the popular pulp serials of the time. It featured comics by artists such as Maurice Tillieux, Michel Greg, Albert Weinberg, Marcel Moniquet, François Craenhals, Fred Funcken, Christo, Fernand Dineur and Leika. De Mesmaeker was eighteen years old when he joined the team with the detective series 'Ginger', in 1954. He assumed the pen name Jidéhem, which he derived from his initials (JDM). After two longer stories ('Ginger et le Collectionneur' and 'Le Baron est fou'), Jidéhem made seven additional short stories with his detective with the pinched eyes. The stories brought Ginger and his sidekicks Alan and Vera in supernatural and horrific situations, which were usually solved with shoot-outs and car chases. The semi-realistic and action-filled stories were an early showcase of the artist's talent for drawing cars. The action and atmosphere of the 'Félix' stories by Tillieux were an obvious inspiration, although it must be noted that Tillieux' later character 'Gil Jourdan' might have borrowed some of his looks from 'Ginger' in turn.

Ginger by JidehemGinger by Jidehem

Starter (1)
When Héroïc folded in 1956, Jidéhem followed Tillieux to Spirou, one of the foremost Belgian comic magazines, published by Dupuis in Marcinelle. The publisher deemed 'Ginger' too violent and feared a ban from the French censors. Instead, he sent the young artist to their star author André Franquin, who was also working for the competing magazine Tintin at the time. To relieve him from his workload, Jidéhem joined Franquin in his atelier in the Avenue du Brésil in Brussels. Other artists who frequented the studio were Jean Roba, Marcel Denis, Kiko and colorist Jean Verbruggen. One of Jidéhem's first assignments were the illustrations of Spirou's automobile section by Jacques Wauters. Wauters had been writing about the latest car models under the nickname "Starter" since 1950. It wasn't until 1956 that the character was fully presented to the readers in an illustration by Franquin. The mechanic in his blue overall remained the section's mascot after that. Jidéhem took over from issue 999 in 1957, and quickly established himself as a leading artist in the technical depiction of cars. He also turned to writing most of the articles after Wauters' departure in 1965. The 'Starter' section appeared in Spirou's pages until 1978, although less frequent in its final years. Since 1973, Jean-Luc Beghin was also involved in the production. Éditions Dupuis released four books with selections of Jidéhem's 'Starter' pages in 2010, 2013 and 2014. Between 1979 and 1981 Jidéhem also illustrated , 'Chronique de Décibel', a sporadically appearing section about electronics by J.C. Pasquiez.

Starter by Jidehem
'Starter' illustration for Spirou #1233 (1961).

Assistance to 'Spirou' and 'Gaston'
Jidéhem also assisted Franquin with the backgrounds of Spirou's title comic, 'Spirou et Fantasio'. He participated in the stories 'La Foire aux Gangsters' (1958), 'Le Prisonnier du Bouddha' (1958-1959), 'La Peur au Bout du Fil' (1959) and most notably the Zorglub cycle ('Z comme Zorglub', 'L'Ombre du Z', 1959-1960). The latter two stories were an example of Jidéhem's talent for drawing futuristic technology as well. In 1967 he also worked on the backgrounds of Franquin's swansong of the series, 'Panade à Champignac'. Jidéhem was part of the collective "Ley Kip" ("L'équipe", meaning "the team"), together with Franquin, Denis and Roba. The team produced the one-shot story 'L'Île au Boumptéryx' (1959), about birds laying exploding eggs, with Jidéhem doing the backgrounds. From the start he was furthermore involved with Franquin's signature series 'Gaston Lagaffe'. The always-lazy office clerk made its first appearance in Spirou's editorial pages in 1957, and then starred in mostly half-page gag strips. The setting was a fictional depiction of Spirou's editorial offices, and Gaston's main antagonist was his chef, Fantasio. Jidéhem did the inking of the strip, and later also the finished pencils of Franquin's lay-outs. For some episodes he did the entire pencil work as well. When in one of the gags a bad-tempered business man came by to sign some contracts, Jidéhem remarked that he reminded him of his father. Thus, the man was named Monsieur De Mesmaeker, and became one of the series' most enduring and hilarious characters. Contrary to common use at the time, Franquin always gave Jidéhem full credit for his contributions to the series, like he did with all his co-workers.

Gaston by Franquin and Jidehem
First appearance of M. De Mesmaeker (although still unnamed) in the Gaston Lagaffe strip.

Starter (2)
Franquin initially wanted his assistant to take over 'Gaston' completely. Yet Jidéhem on the other hand didn't feel quite at ease with the fluidly drawn gag strip, and desired a series of his own. Publisher Charles Dupuis was not so keen on that idea; instead he wanted Jidéhem to focus on his work for Franquin. The conservative publisher was even less supportive towards Jidéhem's outrageous idea to make a comic series about a young teenage girl. However, with the help of editor-in-chief Yvan Delporte, Jidéhem was eventually allowed to draw comic stories with 'Starter'. The character was a Franquin creation after all, and Jidéhem had promised to not let his personal projects interfere with his work as an assistant. The first comic stories with Starter were the fold-in mini-books 'La Révolte des Autos' (1959) and 'L'Histoire de l'Automobile' (1960), written by Delporte.

Starter by Jidéhem
'Starter contre les Casseurs'.

These were followed by Jidéhem and Delporte's serial 'Starter contre les Casseurs' (1961), which was drawn in the normal format in a style close to Franquin. It also introduced Starter's sidekick Pipette, a garage owner who would later also host the 'Starter' articles about motorcycles. By 1963, Franquin had scaled down his workload a bit, and Jidéhem found time to write a story of his own. With 'La Maison d'en Face' (1963), the series found most of its definitive tone and style. The artist inked the story with a brush instead of a pen, which diverted its style from his work for Franquin. Slapstick humor, vicious thugs and weird science became the key elements of the stories. Most notable was the introduction of Zoé, the sentient and conscious car.

Sophie by Jidéhem
First appearance of Sophie in 'L'Oeuf de Karamazout'.

Sophie (1)
Strange inventions were even more prominently featured in the next story, 'L'Oeuf de Karamazout' (1964). It dealt with a gang of criminals trying to steal an egg-shaped floating vehicle created by inventor Karamazout. With the addition of Karamazout's young daughter Sophie and his butler Joseph, the series' initial cast was largely complete. While Jidéhem named Zoé after his cocker spaniel, he gave Sophie the name of his newborn daughter. Sophie and her father were also prominently featured in 'La Bulle du Silence' (1965), which also introduced the recurring villain Ptikochonof. It was Jidéhem's first collaboration with scriptwriter Vicq, who would remain the series' regular scriptwriter until 1976.

Sophie by Jidéhem
'La Bulle du Silence'.

By then, it was obvious that fan favourite Sophie had become the series' real star. Also in 1965, Jidéhem and Vicq started making short solo stories with the friendly and playful girl, which appeared under the title 'Les Bonheurs de Sophie'. These were mostly commissioned by Delporte for special issues about Easter, Christmas, holidays, etc. Instead of adventure and technology, the short stories were humorous and aimed at younger readers. Starter and Pipette were reduced to secondary characters, and Sophie teamed up with the little boy Bernard most of the time. Another notable introduction to the series was the stingy mister Happepognon, a character inspired by the equally stingy Harpagnon from Molière's play 'The Miser'. 'L'Oeuf de Karamazout' appeared in album format under the series title 'Sophie' in 1968. In that same year, Jidéhem and Vicq made 'Sophie et l'Esprit Frappeur', the first longer story in Spirou under the 'Sophie' banner. At this point, Jidéhem ended his collaboration with Franquin. Franquin handed 'Spirou et Fantasio' over to Fournier, so he could fully concentrate on 'Gaston'. The final 'Gaston' page with Jidéhem's participation was gag number 445.

Sophie by Jidéhem
Sophie and Bertrand in 'Le Goinfre Volant' (1968).

With 'Les Bonheurs de Sophie' in 1965, Sophie became the first female character in Spirou to star in her own series. She wasn't the first female Belgian comic character ever, though. In the history of French-language comics, Emile-Joseph Pinchon's 'Bécassine' already made her debut in 1905. In Belgian comic history, Hergé's 'Jo, Zette and Jocko' (1936) and Willy Vandersteen's 'Suske en Wiske' (1945) were the first series to have a young girl in a starring role, even though they were still teamed up with a boy as well. Some Belgian comic series had recurring female cast members, such as Bianca Castafiore in Hergé's 'Tintin', Madam Pheip in Marc Sleen's 'Nero', Seccotine in 'Spirou et Fantasio', Queue-de-Cerise in Maurice Tillieux's 'Gil Jourdan', Susan in Pom's 'Piet Pienter en Bert Bibber', Pompon in André Franquin's 'Modeste et Pompon', Annemieke and Rozemieke in Jef Nys' 'Jommeke' and Grenadine in Jean Roba's 'La Ribambelle'. But all of them were basically side characters and rarely played a major role in any of the stories headed by male protagonists. The first Belgian comics star to be female was Maurice Maréchal's 'Prudence Petitpas' (1957-1987) who made her debut in the magazine Tintin. On 14 March 1965 Raymond Macherot created 'Sibylline' in Spirou, only five issues before Sophie's solo career debuted in the same magazine. But Prudence was an old lady and Sibylline a female mouse, which made their feminity less problematic to the prudent and conservative magazine editors. In that regard, Jidéhem's 'Sophie' was indeed the first female human protagonist in Spirou and the first young girl to solo star in a Belgian comic series. Since she quickly became popular with readers, Spirou's editors became less uptight about creating new series with female lead characters. As such, 'Sophie' paved the way for Delporte, Macherot and Will's 'Isabelle' (1969). Roger Leloup's 'Yoko Tsuno' (1970) broke new ground by being the first female Asian protagonist in a Belgian comic strip. For the first adult female comics protagonist in a Belgian comic, readers had to wait until François Walthéry created stewardess 'Natacha' in 1970.

Sophie by Jidéhem
Sophie - 'Le Douanier Rousseau'.

Jidéhem and Vicq produced both short and longer stories throughout most of the 1970s. The serials 'Sophie et le Rayon Ka' (1970), 'Sophie et le Cube qui parle' (1971), 'La Tiare de Matlotl Halatomatl' (1972), 'Le Douanier Rousseau' (1973) and 'L'Haleine du Dragon' (1974) were a mix of playful comedy, criminal plots, fantasy and sci-fi. 'Les Quatre Saisons' (1977) was Jidéhem's first solo story since 'L'Oeuf de Karamazout' and marked a more realistic approach. 'Sophie et l'Inspecteur Céleste' (1978) and 'Sophie et Donald MacDonald' (1980) also involved more serious crime plots. It were the final major appearances of the character for several years, apart from a couple of short stories written by Vicq and Mittéï in 1981 and 1982.

Natacha by Walthery and Jidehem
From the 'Natacha' episode 'Les Machines Incertaines'.

Assistance of colleagues
While working on 'Sophie', Jidéhem continued to give a helping hand to his colleagues. As early as 1963 he temporarily replaced Will as the background artist of the 'Benoît Brisefer' story 'Madame Adolphine' by Peyo (Jidéhem drew the prison escape sequence). He assisted Jean Roba on the stories 'La Ribambelle enquête' (1968) and 'La Ribambelle contre-attaque' (1975). Roba needed all of his time for his weekly 'Boule et Bill' gag page, and left most of the artwork for this kids' gang adventure comic to Jidéhem. In 1980 and 1981 Jidéhem provided the backgrounds for the science fiction diptych 'Instantanés pour Caltech' and 'Les Machines Incertaines' by François Walthéry and Étienne Borgers in the 'Natacha' series. The graphical challenge of these two stories inspired Jidéhem to return to his original character, 'Ginger'. 

Ginger, by Jidéhem

Sophie (2)
Since 'Gil Jourdan' was no longer present in Spirou after the death of Tillieux in 1978, the time was right for a new hardboiled detective comic. The artist applied a drawing style closer to Tillieux and his co-worker Gos, and threw his heroes into an adventure full of mysteries, explosions and science fiction. The first story was published in two parts. 'Les Yeux de Feu' (1981) and 'L'Affaire Azinski' (1982) were subsequently published in book format by Dupuis as well. Two half-length stories, 'Les jeux sont faits' (1984) and 'Les mouches de Satan' (1985) were collected in a third album. Spirou's editorial policy changed in the second half of the 1980s, and the editors demanded that Jidéhem returned to 'Sophie'. The three new stories, 'Don Giovanni' (1989), 'L'Odyssée du U.522' (1991) and 'Le Tombeau des Glyphes' (1994), were miles removed from the tone of the 1970s era of the comic. Sophie had aged quite a bit, and the drawings had an almost Clear Line approach. The stories were also less playful than before. Reason for these changes was that Jidéhem had reworked new plots he had originally conceived for 'Ginger' to 'Sophie' stories. This demanded a more mature lead character and a more serious approach. The readers didn't respond well to the changes, and Sophie's career came to an end with her 20th album in 1995. The artist's attempt to launch a gag strip with a character called 'Zinzinc' was cancelled in the conceptual phase. Jidéhem's career with Dupuis and Spirou ended after almost 40 years of loyal service.

Sophie by Jidéhem
Sophie - 'Le Tombeau des Glyphes'.

Advertising comics
Throughout his career, Jidéhem also did a couple of commercial projects in addition to his regular series. In 1960 and 1961, he was a contributor to the Bonux-Boy mini-comics that came with Bonux washing powder produced by Benoît Gillain. Jidéhem created three short stories with 'Sylvain Tripotté', a collector of oldtimers. Jidéhem redrew these stories for their reprints in Spirou magazine in 1966. He made about a dozen gags with the character 'Uhu-man' with Yvan Delporte for Uhu glue, while 'Starter' was regularly used in advertisements for car brands. 'Sophie' starred in advertisements for Tesa tape and Kellogg's cereals. With writer Geo Salmon, Jidéhem made the comic album 'Mission BX 415' in commission of the truck manufacturer Berliet in 1964. He was furthermore contracted by the magazine Auto-Journal to make drawings of car tests at the racing circuit of Montlhéry in 1959. The editors also asked him illustrate reconstructions of accidents. The collaboration ended when the artist refused to draw a motorcyclist who was cut in half after a crash with a Citroën DS. However, he returned to Auto-Journal in the mid-1990s with new 'Starter' reviews.

Sophie by Jidéhem
Sophie - 'La Cube qui Parle'.

Final years and death
In 1980 Jidéhem was one of many Belgian comic artists to make a graphic contribution to the book 'Il était une fois... les Belges'/'Er waren eens Belgen' (1980), a collection of columns and one-page comics, published at the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Belgium. Between 1990 and 1993, he adapted several naughty student's songs for the series 'Chansons Cochonnes' by Louis-Michel Carpentier's Éditions Top Game. Other contributors to the collection were Carpentier, Daniel Kox, Laurent and Malik. Éditions Joker published one new 'Ginger' book, 'Le Prisonnier du Kibu', in 2000. The effort wasn't a success, and Jidéhem went into retirement. The royalties of the 'Gaston' books with his participation assured him of a steady income. Jean De Mesmaeker passed away in Brussels on 30 April 2017 at the age of 81. The artist had lived to see the revaluation of his 'Sophie' series with the launch of the collected works in luxury books by Dupuis in 2011. The fifth and final volume appears in 2017.

Legacy and influence
Although Jidéhem has never become a household name like his contemporaries Franquin, Tillieux and Peyo, he has left his mark on Belgian comics. He was widely praised by his colleagues for his high quality background art and technical drawings. It was Jidéhem who inspired Franquin to find joy in making these kind of drawings as well. His way of staging, his precise backgrounds and his finely caricatured vehicles set a new standard for background art in Spirou magazine. Traces of Jidéhem's influence can be found in the work of Janry, Didier Conrad, François Walthéry, Olivier Schwartz, Yoann, Stéphane Colman, Simon Léturgie and Bruno Gazzotti. Storywise, the devise for absorbing all sounds from Jidéhem and Vicq's 'Sophie' story 'La Bulle du Silence' was subconsciously copied by Raoul Cauvin in his 'Spirou et Fantasio' story 'Les Faiseurs de Silence' (1982). When confronted with this fact, Cauvin and artist Nic Broca quickly added a scene to the story which paid homage to the source. But perhaps Jidéhem's greatest accomplishment was paving the way for all the female heroes that found their way to Spirou magazine after Sophie...

Jidéhem performing with Sophie in the photocomic 'Carrosseries en vrac' (Robbedoes/Spirou #1724, 1971).

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