Pinkie Pienter - 'De Grote Wedstrijd'.

J.H. Koeleman jr. was a Dutch comics artist whose only contribution to the medium consists of one series, the children's comic strip 'Pinkie Pienter' (translated in English as 'Ronny Roberts', 1954-1960). It was widely distributed all across the Netherlands and translated in French, German and English too. Despite its relatively short run, 'Pinkie Pienter' is fondly remembered by many comics fans, especially those with an interest in curiosities and oddballs. Koeleman was essentially an amateur without much understanding of comics language. He created naïve, but charming fantasy and science fiction stories for young readers, full with primitive artwork in bright colours. Unaware of how original and unique he was, Koeleman can be considered a prime example of an outsider artist. Yet he was a man of principles too. When 'Pinkie Pienter' was shamelessly exploited by his publisher he refused to cooperate and even sued him. Falling back into obscurity for decades, 'Pinkie Pienter' nowadays enjoys a cult following both in the Netherlands as well as abroad.

Early life and career
Johan Hendrik Koeleman was born in 1926 in Amsterdam. In the early and mid 1940s he studied to become a reproduction artist at the local Graphic School. He later attended the School of Applied Arts ("Kunstnijverheidsschool", the future Rietveld Academy), but dropped out to work at an advertising firm in 1946. Koeleman illustrated several advertisements, with his ad for 'Miss Blanche' cigarettes using a pantomime comics format. Koeleman remained active in this sector until health issues forced him to quit in 1969.


A selection of Koeleman's advertising artwork, as published in Stripschrift #80.

Pinkie Pienter
Koeleman might have never created a comics series if it weren't for his young nephews. One day in 1951 he visited his brother and heard that his sons read Hergé's 'Tintin'. Yet they couldn't get through the stories because the artwork was too fastidious and the plots too complicated. Koeleman decided to make a comic book especially for them. He imitated Hergé's artwork, but wrote a simpler story fit for young kids. Instead of a young adult like Tintin he made his protagonist a smart young boy, named 'Pinkie Pienter' (a 'pinkie' is a 'little finger', while 'pienter' is Dutch for 'smart'). Pinkie's best friend is Floris Fiedel, a moustached violinist. The antagonist of the series is the wicked crook Bul Bumper. Coincidentally, Flemish comics artist Pom created a series titled 'Piet Pienter and Bert Bibber' (1950-1995) around the same time, though they weren't aware of each other's work.

Amateur artwork
While Koeleman had artistic expertise it is clear that creating a children's comic book was quite a challenge for him. He went through great efforts trying to mimick Hergé's signature style, the "Ligne Claire" ("Clear Line") and made a recognizable watered-down version, to say the least. Contrary to Hergé he kept his drawings simple and not too detailed. Everything is drawn in a loose style, without attention to anatomy, perspective, proportion or depth. Many backgrounds are very linear. All machinery, vehicles, planes, rockets, buildings, forests,... look unconvincing, while people and animals are stiff. The lack of onomatopeia only accentuates how lifeless most of the action is. In some scenes Pinkie looks more like a grown-up man than a little boy, because there is no sense of proportion. The lay-out is very basic. All speech balloons are white rectangular spaces with a straight line drawn underneath them. Most panels show little variation and are awkwardly paced. The colouring is so bright that it looks flashy.


De avonturen van Pinkie Pienter - 'De Testpiloot'.

Amateur narratives
Just like 'Tintin', 'Pinkie Pienter' makes use of science fiction and mystery. Yet while 'Tintin' is set in plausible reality, 'Pinkie Pienter' is pure fantasy. Robots, UFO's, Martian & Saturnian invaders, treasure hunts, deserted islands, hungry cannibals, dinosaurs, Atlantis, time machines, submarines, the Emperor of China, Neptune... are all recurring ingredients. Given that his nephews were the target audience, it can be argued that Koeleman deliberately kept the stories simple and näive. Yet even then many stories are brimful with continuity errors. In the first story, 'De Grote Wedstrijd' ('The Great Race') Pinkie meets Floris Fiedel, yet a few panels later the character is suddenly named "Flores" (with an "e" instead of an "i"). Koeleman keeps misspelling the name up until the fourth story, 'De Geheimzinnige Verdwijning in Atoomstad', after which he seems to have realized his mistake and Flores is named Floris again. A more glaring continuity error is Pinkie's dog who suddenly disappears halfway 'De Grote Wedstrijd' without a proper explanation, never to return again in the series. Not even Pinkie notices his pet is gone! On the cover of 'Mannen van Mars Landen op Aarde' the leader of the Martians, Plastico, walks around as a giant creature. Yet in the story itself no such scene takes place! In fact, quite the opposite happens: Floris is shrunk by Plastico to become as small as him. Other notable inconsistencies can be found in Pinkie himself. On every album cover he has normal round eyes. Yet in the stories themselves he has dotted eyes. The background colours in the series also have a tendency to change in between panels...


De avonturen van Pinkie Pienter - '20.000 Mijlen onder Zee'.

Plagiarism
In many 'Pinkie Pienter' stories poses were directly traced from 'Tintin' stories, the most noticeable examples lifted from 'The Crab With The Golden Claws', 'The Secret of the Unicorn', 'Tintin in the Land of Black Gold' and especially 'The Calculus Affair' (though, to be fair, more often in stories made by his successors). In 'De Tijdmachine' a few scenes involving pirates were directly copied from 'The Secret of the Unicorn', while in another story Pinkie travels to Mars in a red-and-white checkered moon rocket, similar to 'Explorers on the Moon'. Koeleman must have read Jules Verne a lot too. The albums 'De Strijd om Raket PX 15', 'Spionnen in de Ruimte', '20.000 Mijlen Onder Zee' and 'De Andere Wereld' obviously borrow a lot from 'Voyage to the Moon', '20.000 Leagues Under the Sea' and 'Voyage to the Center of the Earth'.


De avonturen van Pinkie Pienter - 'De reis naar Atlantis'.

Appeal
Despite all criticism 'Pinkie Pienter' is still an intrigueing comic strip. As an amateur, Koeleman had little experience in creating comic stories. He basically imitates the look of a typical children's comic from the 1950s, without understanding the language of the medium. 'Pinkie Pienter' reads like a comics series created by a child, if it were capable to draw like an adult. The thin narratives seem to be made up as the artist went along. Characters fall from one thrill into the other. Plot holes or believability are of no concern. Everything is drawn in function of the story: just recognizable enough so readers can understand what is going on. There are no preachy morals, no parental bonuses, not even a hint of irony. This gives his work a pure and authentic feel. All Koeleman wanted to do was create an entertaining children's comic for his nephews. In this regard he actually succeeded in his goal.

Publication history and translations
Koeleman originally tried to publish the albums on his own account, but without proper promotion they hardly sold. In 1953 a professional publishing company, Mulder & Zoon, signed a contract with him and distributed all titles. In the Netherlands editions circulated between 190.600 and 505.800 copies. Between 1953 and 1960 about 18 titles were released in hard cover. They were translated in French ('Martin Malin'), German ('Fritz Pfiffig') and English ('Ronny Roberts'), with Mulder taking care of the international editions themselves. In France and the French-language regions of Canada the first series of 'Pinkie Pienter' appeared in editions of 378.000 copies and the second series reached even 1.743.000 copies. The English editions weren't distributed in the United Kingdom or the United States, as one might expect, but in Australia.

Marketing scam
Despite better marketing, Koeleman and Mulder fell out in 1958. Mulder wanted to boost up sales by reprinting older stories, but chop them up as smaller and cheaper books of only 16 pages in length each. To read a complete story kids would have to collect three albums at least. The stories were trimmed down without concern how abruptly the plots were interrupted. On the excellent website martinlemalin.com the site owner, Guy Provost, noticed that one album, 'De Verdwenen Schat', had 22 pages (!) removed of the original full-length 54-page story, leaving a nigh incomprehensible comic book behind! Mulder even deliberately gave these comics new titles and covers to trick people into believing they were buying "new" books! Koeleman had nothing to do with this scam and even refused to draw new albums. Unfortunately he hadn't considered the publisher's shrewdness. Two new artists, Lex Overeijnder (under the pseudonym Alexo) and Berend Dam (Bedam or B. Dam), were hired to whip out new stories. They had to produce at such tight deadlines that their output was actually worse! The artwork looked sloppy and rushed-out. Overeijnder even saved time by blatantly plagiarizing whole panels, poses and plotlines from 'Tintin'.

Legal problems
Koeleman was outraged and instantly sued Mulder. Around the same time Hergé also brought Mulder to court over copyright infringement. Both won their cases and Mulder was forced to discontinue 'Pinkie Pienter' immediately. One final story was still completed - presumably in the hope of bringing in some quickly needed cash - but never published. In fact, the final stories by Dam were not even published in the Netherlands, only in France.


Pinkie Pienter - 'Mannen van Mars landen op Aarde'.

Legacy and influence
Although 'Pinkie Pienter' was definitely a product of its time, it has enjoyed a revival in the Internet age, especially among fans of old-fashioned comic books and oddities. Dutch fans cherish it as a typical, if somewhat peculiar escapist children's comic from the Golden Age of the medium. Elsewhere in the world people have discovered translations or copies, which they paged through in intriguement. In the Dutch TV documentary 'Nostalgia and Paranoia' (VPRO, 2001) Daniel Clowes showed the camera crew a copy of the 'Pinkie Pienter' story 'Mannen van Mars Landen op Aarde' from his private comics collection. He told them that he liked the comic for its "astoundingly weird and psychedelic printing" and odd colour juxtaposition. Clowes wished that his own comics could achieve this look, but admitted that he couldn't even imagine how it had been achieved? Clowes: "There's something crude about it, but at the same time it's also very sophisticated. This is the kind of comic I'm always looking for." Dutch underground artist Peter Pontiac mentioned 'Pinkie Pienter' as one of his childhood favorites.

Since 1969 not much is known about J.H. Koeleman. He has never given any interviews about his work, and his possible death has never been mentioned in any comics information magazine. In the personal announcement section of Amsterdam newspaper Het Parool of 29 January 1991, the death of a Johan Hendrik Koeleman on 24 January was reported. He was 64 years old, the same age as the retired comics author at that time. For those interested in 'Pinkie Pienter' the French website www.martinlemalin.com by Guy Provost is highly recommended, detailing all aspects of the series.


Picture of J.H. Koeleman, published in Stripschrift #80.

J. H. Koeleman in De Nederlandse Stripgeschiedenis
www.martinlemalin.com

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